The “Flying Arts” of the Bangsamoro and Other Things Awesome

I’m capping off this series on the Bangsamoro by presenting this side of their cultural/artistic heritage that’s not very well known, I should say. Except for the sarimanok (pictured above), which has become an icon, thanks to its constant appearance on TV during the 90’s (it being the inspiration for this major TV network’s logo, in fact), most of the photos you’d be seeing here are pretty rare. I myself was pleasantly surprised to have found out about these.

We live in a world full of stereotypes and this couldn’t be more true in the case of the Bangsamoro people. The situation was only further exacerbated by the events of 9/11. After almost two decades, we are still reeling from the fallout of that event. Look only at what Marawi has become just recently – total devastation.

This series hopes to shatter some of the misconceptions and help us get a better understanding of our brothers and sisters in the South.

You can check previous articles of this series below:

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Bangsamoro – Keeping the Faith

I saved these photos for last because I think these are the, sort of, “crown jewel” to their cultural and artistic heritage. If there’s anything worthy of shattering stereotypes, these would be it. I mean, who would have thought, for example, that the Bangsamoro peoples had something similar to a Pegasus they call burraq or borak – a hybrid animal of Islamic mythology that has a winged human head on a horse’s body.

According to the museum’s informational guide, the burraq/borak is “one of the common artistic elements that conveys a sense of flight. It is considered sacred in the Islamic world, as it was through flying the burraq that Prophet Muhammad journeyed and ascended to heaven, as told in the Isra’wal Mi’raj“.

It is interesting to note however, that while the concept of rising is part of the Islamic faith, focusing on spiritual lightness and the upward orientation towards unity with the Divine heavenly being, it is also a notion corresponding to the pre-Islamic indigenous concept of floating and flying as a means of connecting humans to the spiritual realm. Based on a study conducted by Abraham Sakili, this concept is widely-known throughout the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Islam in the Philippines has been described as remarkably syncretic – a fusion of different influences both foreign and local. As mentioned in the previous article, some indigenous practices persisted. You would see many elements of the same in the different parts of the region. You’d be surprised how the iconic sarimanok has counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries and how the concept of birds as spiritual messengers are a common belief in these places too – the iban of Borneo and the garuda of Indonesia, for example. Learning about this fact makes me realize how, despite the seeming “differences”, there are a lot we share in common. Also, it’s interesting how something we don’t usually put much focus on suddenly had this new meaning upon second look. I mean, I’ve heard about the garuda from Garuda Indonesia, which is the flag carrier of Indonesia, but I have never really given much thought as to its symbolism and its connection to everything else. It’s just amazing like that, isn’t it? 

The iconic sarimanok

This chicken-like figure with a fish on its beak, the sarimanok, is a significant artistic element that conveys flying. According to the museum’s informational guide: “The Maranao considers the sarimanok to have evolved from its totem bird called itotoro. It is invoked in many rituals and included in their myths and epics.They are depicted as messengers of legendary heroes and royalty in the Maranao epic Darangen. The sarimanok is also considered as a medium to the spirit realm through its unseen twin spirit bird called inikadowa. Like the naga, the sarimanok appears in highly stylized forms in artistic works to adhere to Islamic beliefs. Other stylized bird-like figures are also used as designs,such as the manukmanuk of Sulu“.

Another element of floating or flying is the naga. It is “a Sanskrit term referring to a mythical dragon or serpent noted for its wisdom, agility, power and bravery”. The informational guide adds: “While the representation of nature – plants and animals – in art is counter to Islamic beliefs, the naga persisted in highly stylized forms that include the S-shaped and rope-like designs”. This design could be found in the panolong.

Flags also convey the idea of flying. The Maranao display ceremonial flags during special events such as weddings, coronations, and fluvial parades, among others. The display of flags was traditionally associated only with the ruling class, now these are used during various communal celebrations and events”, per the museum’s informational guide. Below is an example of a flag called Panji or Pandi.

Panji or Pandi

Are you ready to get your mind blown?

Presenting, the kokora 🙂

At first glance, this would’ve looked like some gigantic bug or winged lizard from the Jurassic period. One would have thought ‘what could our forebears have use for this?’

Well, the answer is actually more mundane and utilitarian than one could have possibly thought.

So, here’s the kicker. Notice the elongated tongue that kind of looked like an antenna above his head? 

Yes. It’s used to grate coconut. It couldn’t be more tropical and Filipino than that! 😀

The Bangsamoro culture is also replete with legends, the most famous of which is the Maranao Legend of Indarapatra.

Spectacular performances, displays of resplendent art, and lavish feasts thrive as they give visual expressions to the Islamic notion of the sacred power of sultans.

Feasts are an integral part of the Bangsamoro culture. According to the museum’s informational guide: “Immersing in activities that sharpen senses and experiences, such as tasting special dishes and joining in performances with heightened theatrical and dramatic elements, lead to captivating the festival participants’ attention. It is through these that feasts provide spaces for encounters markedly distinct from their ordinary and daily lives. Singing, dancing, music and recitation of oral literature are among the most common types of performances, providing entertainment and infusing amplified auditory and visual engagements to participants”.

Nothing could be more striking in this musical ensemble than the kulintang “an ancient instrumental form of music composed on a row of small, horizontally laid gongs that function melodically, accompanied by larger, suspended gongs and drums” (wikipedia)

They even have a bad-a** kulintang on display at the museum. The design is so intricate and lavish it could pass for a throne fit for royalty.

I cannot stress enough how important a role museums play in educating people. Especially in this time and age where information can easily be accessed with the touch of a button (or a swipe of a finger), people easily get caught up with the use of technology. We use it for practically anything nowadays, even for social connections. However, despite technology’s myriads of practical uses, this should not take away the joy of learning things the traditional way.

It was a pleasant revelation to me, for example, to learn about the Bangsamoro culture and heritage – something I think I wouldn’t have realized or appreciated as much, had I not experienced from this perspective.

It’s funny because I’m sure this subject has been discussed in school in one form or another; in history books, wholly or partially – some maybe in passing, others probably having volumes dedicated to it. But having seen the actual pieces and the materials up close, and learning the story behind each and every piece, gave the learning experience a whole new dimension. I definitely walked away bringing with me a newfound appreciation for these things. And that’s something no amount of technology can ever really replace.

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A Day at the Museum | The National Museum of Anthropology – Part 2

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Having lived in Manila my whole life,  I never really experienced what life is like anywhere else in the country except those I had the chance visiting for a few days. But even that wouldn’t really suffice for one to really get to know or understand the local culture. I think one really has to immerse himself in it. That might require some time spending with the locals and experiencing things they usually do on a day-to-day basis. Now, being a busy person with lots of commitments, that prospect may not really work out for me. It’s almost next to impossible. Good thing there are museums, right?

Ok. You are probably thinking: “Here he goes again selling this museum thing to the hilt”. But really, this has proven indispensable for the city creature like me. It’s funny because both my (biological) parents were from the provinces. My surrogate dad was from the province, too. But I never really had the chance being on those places for a long time. The everyday man on the street may not realize it, but it’s staggering how culturally diverse our country is – more than 175 ethnolinguistic nations or groups. An average working person may not be able to meet, let alone visit each ethnic group in his lifetime, unless he spends most of his time traveling around the country, like some blogger I’ve read about. It is doable, yes, but may not always be practical. So, to each his own. And yes, this brings me back to the topic of museums and how it fills the void to satisfy that curiosity. You may not be able to meet or visit each of those ethnic groups, but you can learn about some of them through museums and visual arts. It doesn’t replace the actual experience, of course, but it’s the next best thing.

So, on with the topic. Now, what could be more interesting than the Bangsamoro, right? Bangsamoro, of course, is that hotly-contested autonomous region in the South populated by Muslims. There are other non-Muslim ethnic groups who are indigenous to Mindanao called the Lumads, but that’s for another article.

ARMM
photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Bangsamoro is the “largest non-Catholic group in the Philippines and, as of the year 2012, comprises 11% of the total population” – Wikipedia. Its defining and official religion, Islam, is the second largest and the fastest-growing in the world.

The spotlight is turned every time we hear news of war in this troubled region and when there are developments in the efforts made to achieve that seemingly elusive peace, as when peace talks and deals are made.

If you come to think of it, if we weren’t colonized by the Spaniards, we probably are Muslims today. Now, all the reason to be interested in the Bangsamoro’s history and culture.

Bangsamoro from the Filipino term bangsa, meaning nation and Moro, from the Moors (of Southern Spain) – a designation used by the Spanish to all Muslims.

Three indigenous tribal men from the Sulu Archipelago in the 1900s.
Three indigenous tribal men from the Sulu Archipelago in the 1900s. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

What’s interesting to note is that Bangsamoro (as one nation of Muslims) is actually composed of different ethnic groups who happened to share a similar faith, and maybe certain aspects of their cultures, history and traditions. But there are certain things that are unique to each group. The brand of Islam itself as how it is practiced here, or manifestations thereof, may differ widely from say, those in the Middle East or even other Southeast Asian neighbors. The basic tenets of the faith are adhered to but there are certain embellishments that are quite unique to this specific group. Think of it as Islam in Bangsamoro garb. Some indigenous practices and beliefs persisted and made its way to the new religion.

Feast for the eyes

What really struck me immediately upon entering the exhibit is the ornate artistry of the works. Apparently, the peoples of this region have developed a highly-stylized form of geometric patterns that are combined together to form these visually stunning imagery. This is in no less thanks to a Qu’ranic prohibition of creating artistic depictions of human, animal and plant forms in any medium.

This particular style is called okir which, aside from referring to carving or engraving, is also referring to a particular curvilinear design pattern predominantly and distinctly used by the Muslim groups in Southern Philippines. This type of design could be seen in their architecture and in the day-to-day implements and fashion.

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Tabo or Dabu-dabu, of the Maranao tribe, Lanao del Sur. A signalling instrument horizontally suspended in front of Mosques. A standard rhythm calls people to prayer on Friday, while a more intricate tempo is played during Ramadan.

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Boras, Tausug tribe, Jolo, Sulu. A window screen which doubles as a floor mat during ceremonies. Interesting to note that Tausug culture gives specific division of labor for the sexes in the creation of the boras – men for the rattan mat itself and women for the painting and design.

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Enjoying the visual treat, yet? This is just a prelude to more exciting things to come, so watch out for it 😉 Till next time! 🙂

A Day at the Museum | The Ayala Museum (Part 2)

Previously in this series:

A Day at the Museum | The Ayala Museum (Part 1)

As mentioned in the previous post, taking of photos are not allowed in all levels of the museum except second and first. Hence, the absence of pictures, save for some stolen shots of the short film at the Gold of Ancestors gallery.

The collection on the 4th floor are actually divided into three parts: The Art and Order of Nature in Indigenous Philippine Textiles, Gold of Ancestors and A Millennium of Contact.

The Art and Order of Nature in Indigenous Philippine Textiles

What struck me immediately about the indigenous textiles were the intricacies of the patterns. One could only imagine the hard work, the skill, the passion and the love that goes into the process of creating one. The collection consists of 111 textiles representing different indigenous communities in the Philippines – from the Cordilleras to the North, to the Muslim regions of Mindanao to the South, up to the Sulu archipelago. The patterns, interestingly, aren’t just for aesthetics. It reflects the universal order of nature. In one of the infographics I saw featuring a particular type of weave from a certain tribe, it shows the connection a human body has (particularly its symmetries) to the earth and to the cosmos. It’s in effect saying being one with nature and the divine. The weaves therefore, are as much a spiritual expression as they are utilitarian.

It is also amazing to think of the cultural diversity of our country. Every region has its unique cultural identity that were represented differently by these ethnic weaves. And just like the weaves themselves, interestingly, our country forms an intricate pattern that shows we are all interconnected, even as the notion of nationhood is foreign at the time. The semblance is undeniable. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt. Surely, we should be doing more to promote and appreciate this heritage. Also, this is telling us to shun divisiveness.

Gold of Ancestors

This collection boasts of more than a thousand archaeological gold objects unearthed from the country showcasing the sophisticated cultures that existed in the islands prior to the colonization of the West in the 16th century. It is interesting to note that even today, the Philippines has the 2nd largest gold deposit (per area) in the world[1], second only to South Africa[2].

The most extensive collection of archaeological gold in the country were those found in the Surigao/Butuan area. I would say the crowning jewel of the Surigao gold is the Kinnari, a winged-female divinity of the Hindu religion which originated from India. Aside from its excellent craftsmanship, this particular Kinnari is unique during its time in that it was made in three-dimensional form – maybe one of the firsts, if not the first, to be done in that manner. Experts say they have never seen anything like it in the region, not even in the Javanese or Indian art forms of the same period. The rendering of it can only be explained as uniquely Filipino.

This shows how, even in the seemingly challenging geography of our region (being archipelagic and all), nothing could stop the exchange of ideas, culture and trade from flourishing. Our country has always been a melting pot of cultures. Given our knack for creativity and ingenuity, we built on these new ideas, gave it our own unique spin and flair, and owned it.

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A short film about the “Gold of Ancestors” collection. Pictured here is part of the Sacred Thread piece.

My favorite among the collection however, is the Sacred Thread – a halter-like adornment weighing a heavy 4 kilos. Wearing it would give one some serious “royal” feels… and maybe some “royal” backache too because of its weight 😛

[1] http://asiasociety.org/new-york/exhibitions/philippine-gold-treasures-forgotten-kingdoms

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwNRf8Mlb1M

A Millennium of Contact

On display in this collection are 500 pieces of ceramics of all shapes and sizes, from China and other parts of Southeast Asia. Proof positive of a lively trade that occurred in the region in ancient times. This forging of social and commercial ties with China and surrounding neighbors, spans a thousand years, pre-dating the building of the Rice Terraces by about 150 years. This is just to emphasize how old our relations with China is. We seem to have always been in its sphere of influence.

Given our current political situation, this is giving a lot of room for retrospect as our country embarks on a renewed, albeit uneasy, alliance with our giant neighbor, what with the territorial spat still in the offing. A lot has changed since those early trading years. We have since become sophisticated societies and civilizations, with the idea of a sovereign state coming to form. Whenever tensions arise, we should refer back to this epoch and remember how a simple exchange in culture and trade could foster friendship and mutual respect. I hope that in these tension-filled days, everyone, especially our leaders – people who call the shots, be always reminded of this era so they could be more level-headed. This country does not need another war.


Visit the Ayala Museum at

Makati Avenue corner De La Rosa Street
Greenbelt Park, Makati City
1224 Philippines