Old photographs altered and integrated in the modern era confronts a cross relation of two different phases and identities. Phase/Out carries on a storyline rooting back from a decade-old artwork of Alfredo Esquillo entitled “MaMcKinley.”
Written by Karen Tesalona
The palimpsestic narrative of “MaMcKinley” serves to highlight a chronicle put together from snippets of different elements, whether it be in time, characters, or symbolisms – aiming to disrupt the archaic diegesis. “MaMcKinley” depicted McKinley as a maternal figure attempting to nurture a child who appears to be a Filipino. The beastly features of McKinley’s hands translate into an eagle, symbolic of the American identity and of its vicious motives masked by seemingly benevolent interests.
In perpetuation of the palimpsestic narrative, a 2008 piece of Esquillo called “Siyam Siyam” manifests an old photograph of two conjoined characters with a replaced head of the two contentious rivalries in Philippine Revolutionary History – Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. Bonifacio was a representation of lower class radicalism and Aguinaldo was of elite reformism causing an internal conflict to the revolution – a factionalism still reflective of the Philippines’ current state. As insinuated by the three feet of one of the characters in “Siyam Siyam,” one may have caused the demise of the other.
“The Thomasites Were Here,” a triptych of Esquillo in 2009, attempts to unveil the truths of the Philippine-American war. Based from an assimilation spearheaded by McKinley in 1901 aiming to educate, civilize, and Christianize the Filipinos, “The Thomasites Were Here” uses a palimpsestic narrative to reveal a certain tale of betrayal. At its center panel, the Filipino boy scouts were portrayed as willing yet stern subjects tampered with fake noses and star-shaped eyeglasses. With their feet being chained from one to the other, a bigger bully would seem to be a looming element to these subjects. The right panel seems to show the aftermath of the initial panels. The faceless students now seem to have lost their identities, and the others have military planes hovering above them.
This technique of injecting an archival photograph with a narrative based from the Philippine colonial history further reveals an obscure account on such events. Relevant to the Philippines’ highly contested political direction and memories of oppression, Phase/Out gestures towards unveiling a rather rich passage of inscriptions and interpretations of Philippine History reverberating with much gaiety as well as controversies.
“GI Jane,” a recent work of Esquillo in 2019, proposes a different yet riveting approach on telling a palimpsest. Here, Esquillo begins to execute an outwardly burnt effect on the sides of the canvas, forming a butterfly shaped landscape. In reality, a butterfly’s metamorphosis ought to happen naturally, but the burning way of forming it marks a flawed and artificial metamorphosis. In “GI Jane,” we see an American cigarette separating two scenarios marking the aftermath of the Americanization or a metamorphosizing history. In the first half, there is an American woman smoking a cigarette, and on the latter, there is an Igorot, or a native Filipino, smoking it instead. Phase/Out is a continuation of this particular technique and an exhibition of cultures and identity that were gradually eliminated and tampered through time.
“Phase/Out 1” separates one image from the other through a huge needle at the center. The two subjects appear to be Filipinos. Looking at it closely, one can see that the cane on the left is carved with a figure of an eagle, while the right cane is with a dragon. The thread reveals a daunting image for it resembles an umbilical cord which intends to bring forth life and nourishment from the source to its recipient. In the image portrayed, the cord seems to serve a paradoxical purpose by pulling a rather suffocating or even fatal cane. This is the artist’s commentary on the foundation of Philippine history – how the Filipino people have been variedly influenced and have been at the center of both the east’s and the west’s hegemonic powers, and their promises of a better life.
In “Phase/Out 2,” the artist exhibits two groups of native Filipinos separated by a pair of scissors used to employ certain objects and changes from the initial half through the latter. In the second image, the axe of the native has been replaced with a golf club. There are also evident tampering on the others – one native is now wearing a pair of sunglasses, a pair of shorts, and an artificial heart. Esquillo puts forward the concept of “Pusong Pinoy” or the heart of the Filipino to have been tampered with, and has been replaced with one that seems to be fake and insincere. These objects were also only placed on a superficial level like it was pasted during an arts and crafts session. This could be a depiction of the hasty metamorphosis imposed upon them. With Moro Warriors as the main participants of “Phase/Out 4,” Esquillo proposes another instance of tampering. The mirror image in “Phase/Out 4” is separated by a caliber 45 gun representing the differentiation of the natives’ weapons and the colonizers’ firearms.
“Phase/Out 3” shows an image of a woman with an eagle head, and a man or an illustrado looking far ahead. Both subjects are separated by a sword, which appears to have been grabbed by the woman, and pointed it towards the man. This very act symbolizes a threat or a dangerous nature masked stealthily by the timid disposition of a woman. When Americans declared war on Spain in 1898, the Filipinos were embroiled in it, and were later on sold to the Americans. Like the empty sword case in the middle, Spaniards and Americans bid flowery but empty promises for the Filipinos. This battle of narrative that they’re supposed to teach the Filipinos how to redeem and educate themselves turned out to be gravely beneficial only to the Americans.
Esquillo collaborated with artist Anthony Victoria in the pieces called “Phase/Out 7-11.” These aluminum works that have the same burnt and nostalgic effect, showcase the tumultuous background of war and conflicts. In three of the aluminum works, the central figure is a bomb facing downward and upward respectively. “Phase/Out 7” displays an archaic map still in ancient writing. This is the artists’ way of tracing history and its implication in the now. A heated conflict that has been going on with China and the Philippines is the dispute on the ownership of South China Sea. In the old map, however, it was distinctively called as “Philippine Oceanus.” Here one can see tampering of words and ownership of domain, and how it has metamorphosized through time. Filipinos let themselves be bullied by others because of threats and lack of regard for their own history in the first place. In “Phase/Out 8” and “Phase/Out 9”, one can witness the scenario where Americans’ bombed two cities in Manila, Binondo and Intramuros, when they were believed to be occupied by the Japanese. The battle of tampered narratives transpired in the works portray the obvious havoc brought about by explosives and destruction, yet the perpetrators mask it with necessary and warranted heroism.
In “Phase/Out 10” and “Phase/Out 11” the central figure is a gun. One of them exhibits a group of marching soldiers, and the other lays out a mountain of corpses. The effective use of the gun, much like a bomb, shows a metamorphosized modern era where warship has had certain advances to hasten these encounters. Even though the Filipinos lost, they exhibited their most viable weapons which lied in their numbers, organizations, and their demonstrations.
The palimpsestic narrative of Phase/Out engrossed on the reconstruction of the past and its relation to present fosters an avenue for its audiences to probe them for meaning. The incredibly rich historical aspect and inspiration of each works in this exhibit presents bewildering and compelling hubbub of vivid tales skillfully exhibited by the artist. Even though resistance and insurgencies were the initial response of the Filipinos to the colonizers, it is still evident that they got to adapt the influences imposed upon them that eventually phased out their ancestral traditions. This memory and common past created that national identity. But as affluently exhibited by Esquillo, identities are constantly changed, metamorphosized and renegotiated by repeated interactions with others. This collective nature of ones’ identity are constantly defined and redefined through the symbols tampered on each old photographs, discourses, and practices. But just as Filipinos are able to apply the culture imposed upon them, it should also be fitting to unlearn them. And ultimately, Phase/Out attempts to ignite that drive which shall enable one to alter one’s ambition to match one’s hopes.