SiningSaysay: History, art and public discourse

Recently launched SiningSaysay blazed a trail in history painting by presenting the journey of the Filipino people from pre-history to present-day society in a series of “murals” on canvas.

A joint undertaking of the University of the Philippines (UP), the UP Alumni Association (UPAA) and the Araneta Group Inc., the exhibit features 30 grand paintings, each measuring 12 feet wide by 6 feet high.

They were created by 28 alumni of the UP College of Fine Arts, namely National Artists Ben Cabrera and the late Abdul Asia Mari Imao, Adonai Artificio, Armand Bacaltos, Adi Baen-Santos, Grandier Bella, Benji Cabangis, Angel Cacnio, Romeo Carlos, Cris Cruz, Denes Dasco, Gig De Pio, Simkin De Pio, Vincent de Pio, Neil Doloricon, Norman Dreo, Amado Hidalgo, Ben Infante, Gigi Javier-Alfonso, Aileen Lanuza, Romeo Mananquil, Norlie Meimban, Julius Samson, Jonahmar Salvosa, Randy Solon, Michael Velasco, Jun Yee, and Janice Young.

The paintings are based on the Grand Manner or Great Style – considered the highest form of genre – where visual metaphors are employed to elevate the qualities of the subjects. The College of Fine Arts has a long tradition of using this European style of painting.

The three organizations behind the exhibit are represented by (L-R) UPAA Executive Director Romeo Carlos, UPAA President Ponciano Rivera Jr., Mrs. Judy Araneta Roxas, Prof. Ruben Defeo, Atty. Gladys Tiongco, Araneta Group President and CEO Jorge Araneta, Mrs. Stella Marquez Araneta, UP President Alfredo Pascual, Mrs. Menchu Pascual, Prof. Luisa Camagay and Prof. Gigi Javier Alfonso.

Experiencing history through art

Twenty-three paintings portray different periods in Philippine history: Pre-Hispanic Philippines, Early Filipino Life, Austronesian Roots, A Tapestry of Filipino Communities, A Glimpse of Barangay Life, Spain Discovers the Philippines, Filipinos Face Foreign Invaders, Spain Establishes Foothold in the Philippines, Filipino Responses to Spanish Colonization, Breaking Colonial Ties, The End of Bondage to Spain, Filipinos face American invaders, Re-Asserting Filipino Independence, Tutelage under the Americans, The Commonwealth Government, Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, Post-war Philippines, Rebuilding the Country, Filipino First, Martial Law in the Philippines, Filipinos unite to end Martial Law, Millennium Presidency, and Restoration of Democracy Continues.

Meanwhile, seven strategically located thematic paintings break the strong linearity of the sequential ones and engage the viewers in a discourse with the artists: Muslims in the Philippines, Galleon Trade, Chinese in the Philippines, Women Empowerment in the Philippines, History of Labor in the Philippines, Philippine Icons and Symbols, and Philippine Festivals.

Muslims in the Philippines is the last masterpiece of National Artist Imao.

The University of the Philippines is once more breaking new ground with SiningSaysay’s innovative approach to historical storytelling. In the photo are artist Janice Young, UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan and UP Vice President for Academic Affairs Gisela Concepcion.

UP President Alfredo Pascual described the exhibit as “an offering of the university in praise of the Filipino” and “an innovative way of teaching and learning history, promoting art, fostering national identity, and nurturing cultural pride – all essential tasks that UP must pursue as the national university.”  

He declared that “a better understanding of our culture and history can boost our sense of unity and of accountability to one another.”

For SiningSaysay’s project manager Prof. Grace Javier Alfonso, bringing the art closer to the people would allow them to participate in enriching the meaning of our nation’s history. She called this public discourse.

It is an experiential exhibition, she explained, which excites and opens the minds of the visitors and makes them feel that they are involved in shaping Philippine history.

The pieces are remarkable not only in their artistic value but also in their faithfulness to the spirit of the narrative. The creators worked closely with Prof. Serafin Quiazon and history consultant Prof. Ma. Luisa Camagay, and made sure that even small details were correctly represented. 

Thus, the artists themselves became historians as they sorted through the massive data amassed from libraries and other sources. Many of them felt like they were transported back in time, attending history classes and conducting research at the library.

Said artist Simkin de Pio: “Historical painting entails considerable amount of research, planning and collaboration with other sources… coherence is important aesthetically and historically speaking.”

Prof. Ruben Defeo is the project’s art consultant and exhibition curator.

Half-decade in the making

It was in 2009 when retired UP fine arts professor Carlos Castro proposed to former UPAA president Gari Tiongco the idea of doing a collection of large format paintings on heroic battles in Philippine history. With Tiongco’s help, the idea obtained the interest and support of Jorge Araneta, president and chair of the Araneta Group.

Five years, two UP presidents and three UPAA presidents later, SiningSaysay was formally opened to the public on 18 February 2015.

SiningSaysay opened its doors to the public five years after it was conceptualized. It is the first exhibit to be held at the new Gateway Gallery.

UPAA executive director and SiningSaysay project coordinator Romeo Carlos said that the exhibit is also a venue for the alumni artists to give back to the University and the country.

In the accompanying coffee table book, artist Jun Yee expressed his enthusiasm over the outreach component of the project. 

“I can envision right now truck-loads of elementary, high school and college students going to the gallery for an educational field trip, with their teachers explaining the whole thing… madadaling matuto ang mga bata kasi visual ito.”

SiningSaysay will run at the Gateway Gallery for two years, after which it will be permanently housed in UP Diliman where a gallery suitable to the exhibit’s scale will be built.

There are also plans to hold satellite exhibitions in other UP campuses, possibly in the summer months, so that everyone will have a chance to experience this one-of-a-kind project. Miniature versions of the pieces, sized 4 feet wide by 2 feet high, will be mounted then.

SiningSaysay is open every day from 11 am to 7 pm. Admission is free. 

(Photos courtesy of the UP System Information Office and the UP Alumni Association)