Kalye Kolektib: Retelling Brown Homilies


The recent move of the President to make December 30 a working day for the first time in history did not only draw criticism from the general Filipino working class but also from a multitude of faithful who not only salute the martyrdom of Dr. Jose P. Rizal but revere him more than just our national hero in his a messianic destiny in Mt. Banahaw.

When Pope John Paul II first came to Manila in 1981, he even declared in one of his speeches that “we should all rejoice that the Philippines is being compared as the new Jerusalem where the new world peace of the world would emanate. It is also here where the mystical kingdom of God would eventually arise.”

Such is the mysticism of Mt. Banahaw and ongoing at the Nineveh Artspace in Sta. Cruz, Laguna is Jeru-Jerusalem, the second group exhibit by the Las Pinas-based art group Kalye Kolektib, appropriately tackling this theme. Nineveh could have been a more perfect venue considering the holy mountain was nearby.
I am Rex-al by Robert Besana

Tierra Santa or Vulcan de Agua

Emanating from the Kalye’s regular discussions, the show’s title Jeru meaning new, the exhibition is more than a Mt. Banahaw 101 as it alluded to what many prophesized that our country, with Mt. Banahaw at its center, as the new Jerusalem. Now a 2,188-meter national park, it will be the sacred place where the final judgment of man will come after the so-called Armageddon eventually happens.

Already an extinct volcano whose last eruption was in 1721, many devotees consider Mt Banahaw more than a storehouse of psychic energy but home to at least 17 religious churches that even has Christian names such as Ciudad Mystica de Dios and even celebrate an elaborate Catholic mass and own up a version of our national anthem as a prayer. But it is the mountain’s more than a hundred stations that center on a pilgrimage from the base of the mountain to the crater of the peak. Each pwesto may be any natural rock formation: boulders, waterfalls, pools of water, caves. It is believed that after death, the soul journeys up the mountain following the pilgrimage path. All pwestos are Biblical allusions, Kinabuhayan, Dolores, Santo Kalbaryo, Kweba ng Dyos Ama, and Balon ni Jakob.

It is Kalye’s view that our natives were not hard to convert to this folk Catholicism as they were already parallelisms in our early religion. “When the colonizers came, in fact, the Santo Nino that was shown by Magellan during the first mass in Limasawa may have similar features to that of the likha that was already being worshipped and prayed for by the natives. Understanding the ways of the ancestors will help our self definition as a people,” Kalye member Besana points out.

Early Catholic priests and nuns warned that going to Mt. Banahaw does not have the blessing of the Catholic Church. Even to this day, Filipinos are prohibited to visit faith healers because they said to be of the devil. Despite this word of caution, Filipino folk followed their faith than what was instructed in the pulpit.

In the book Soul Book, by Fernando Zialcita and Gilda Cordero Fernando, mentions “even non-Christians, priding themselves on their scientific and empirical backgrounds, may have criticized colonialism for destroying our indigenous belief systems, yet they look down on the way of the folk/ordinary, “not-so-educated” Filipinos as superstitious.” Devotees in Mt. Banahaw believed “it better to make the pilgrimage now, as a rehearsal than after death when the soul might lose its way. Significantly enough, the crater is the final destination. For our ancestors, craters and caves are entrances to the spiritual underworld.”

Suplinahan by Alfredo Esquillo Jr.

Brushstrokes of Faith

In Suplinahan, Alfred Esquillo essays that that one primarily communes with Mt. Banahaw to be cleansed by its waters. Also called Vulcan de Agua, Mt. Banahaw boasts of its many springs and waterfalls, the highest of which is in a 52-meter waterfall at the crater itself. For Esquillo, the splash of water both whips as it purify you. As one repents for his past sins, the body is relieved from the water’s current making you at peace with God. An allusion of a dove emanating from the splash doubles from this image to a higher meaning of equanimity. Notice how Esquillo’s work blends to that of Kalye’s overall aesthetic scheme of works.

The purifying dove again reappears in Espirtu Parakleto by Dennis Atienza. Story goes that when Jesus died, most of His apostles gathered for the last time. Looking at each other, they were as confused as to the redemption of their faith as well as the future of their direction as a group. Jesus took this opportunity to validate His claim as Lord to them that He sent the Holy Spirit in a form of a dove to cheer them up and unified them. For Atienza, this work was also his other way to show that our God is not boastful, not far, nor huge. He assumes a form that we all could identify with.

Espiritu Parakleto by Dennis Atienza

Contrary to what and how a person predominantly believes in, Talatandaan by Kirby Roxas literally outlines the human brain amidst the looming talisman eyes. As what one sees with his eyes you immediately is drawn liken to a computer that programs it for you for consumption and safekeeping. We may not be conscious but Roxas attests in this sort-of “creatively instructed manual” that any belief passes through one’s mind through our eyes more so if it is a big idea as religion. The credence is even Biblical — as it is said believe and you will see. In Filipino folk symbolism, God is represented by an eye, inside the trinity shape of a triangle with one absolute message — all things emanate as a rational, omnipresent thing.

For Archie Ruga, one should at first become vulnerable in emptying yourself as one enters the pwestos or altars in Mt. Banahaw. In his emphatic work Presentasyon shows his profile carved as the opening of a cave. Being the youngest in the group this work is a self portrait. Although already proven himself as a fine arts graduate, Ruga should be the most blessed having learned the most in the presence of established visual artists in Kalye as his mentors. This is the altar of his art, as it could be his own pwesto. He is wont to reap the most in this exercise as he has taken everything in stride. Ruga shows promise in his adaptive visual style.

Santong Boses (above) and Santong Byahe (last photo) by Kalye Kolektib

In his essay “Retablo of Credences” cultural anthropologist, Dr. Prospero Covar testifies, “millenarianism is a basic feature of Christianity. This has everything to do with Second Coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Man’s sinfulness delays His return. Thus another influence of our indigenous faith shows the choice of cultic figures such as our revolutionary heroes like Rizal having been deified and being worshipped; in the same manner as warriors eventually became gods in Greek mythology.”

Robert Besana’s I am Rex-al is a case in point as he focuses on this the central theme in Mt. Banahaw in upholding Rizal as the Christ, as some faithful even compare his life to Jesus, as our national hero as the new messiah. The name Jose Rizal literally means Jove Rex Al, God the King of All. For Besana, all religion, as in all culture, everything is assumed; all have their own place under the sun. Every people have the value acquired or validate their expression and for the 60 cults at the base of Mt. Banahaw, Rizal is their katuparan, or redemption of their fate.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Although this may only be their second formal exposure but for Kalye Kolektib members Alfredo Esquillo Jr, Robert Besana, Dennis Atienza, Alvin Cristobal, Kirby Roxas and Archie Ruga, the creative energy is just a continuation of their endless discussions in their constant pursuit in peeling off the many layers of our post colonial being. Especially for Esquillo, Besana, Atienza and Cristobal who have been close friends in their early teens in Las Pinas. It was primarily the influence of Esquillo that guided them in this endless search (even passion) in finding what comprises our pre-Christian and pre-Islamic composition that has been buried amidst this age of fast-paced globalization of our already smaller digitally interconnected world. The three all look up to “Esqui” as he was already winning art contests after another using the themes Kalye is well-versed with at present. Unlike other art groups that concerns themselves with personal stuff like love and the plurality of found objects, Kalye focuses itself with identity, faith, destiny, inquiry to myth-making.

“More than an art group, I see Kalye as a reunion. Having started out as friends” Esquillo contextualizes. He envisions “eventually we see the group as being community-based. Kalye because we all have diverse experiences in the streets however one direction or nagsasanga-sanga sa ibang endeavors.”

More than as a graphic device, Kalye incorporates contemporary prayers as texts. Adapting and even translating what were the belief forms used by the Spanish friars to subjugate our three hundred year-old blind conversion to religion. Kalye attempts to reclaim our main folk territories by turning around this influence of these religions to our own terms and even spiritual redemption. Kalye’s thesis is that our folk have retained much of our ancestor way of life. Their themes revolve around identity and spirituality, the response is visual which the group is strong.

Another powerful and unique artistic focus of Kalye is the shapes of their frames. For this show they have incorporated the glorieta where the heaven assumes the dome-like curve as the earth is represented by the solid base below. Integrating this into their artistic cause is Kalye’s use of the estampitas that viewers can bring home with them. Instead of the usual exhibit catalogues, they freely distribute these “art pieces” for everyone to take home. This eliminates the divide between the artist-audience as viewers are given estampitas to own . Kalye is testimony that as we do not have a word for art because our indigenous expressions are reflective and every thing we do is interconnected and there is no distinction between art and life, the way folks do.

Sta. Lucia by Alvin Cristobal

“Kaya nga Kalye to differentiate from being lofty and high brow. Mas malapit kami sa tao,” adds Roxas who may not be from neighborhood but was invited to join in.

Compared to other art groups everything is collaborative, however theirs is more inward, what they call kalooban, as oppose to outwards which is common to young contemporary artists these days. On their own they have already carved a niche in the current art scene having won major art competitions most specially Esquillo who is more like a big brother to the group. He opens his studio (informally called Esquinita) and serves as their home base. Within the group, all is democratic and open to criticism and to the functions of new media of expression. Their process is simple but as Cristobal mentions, they are all excited because you wouldn’t know what will come out until all pieces come together.

Esquillo puts it best when he says that they may use the formal spaces in a gallery but they see themselves more public in perspective as individually they have their own artistic preferences but collectively they want viewers to be visually aware that this is our culture and beliefs and it is something we can learn from or even lived for.

For Kalye Kolektib, what is Pilipino is his personhood or his pagkatao. As Mt. Banahaw keeps away those who are not yet ready for its secrets, unless you know who you are or what your faith has become of you. Through their art, Kalye is paving the road to those who want to see the light.

Jeru-Jerusalem is part of Nineveh Art Space 7th anniversary exhibition.