Roberto Feleo on Appropriation

At the Philippine High School for the Arts where he used to teach and the College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines Diliman where he has taught for almost twenty years Roberto Feleo is both a legend and an individualist. Feleo techniques as his students would call it. Amidst the prevalent western orientation in our approach to art practice, he painstakingly continues to merge the mundane and the sacred in folk history, mythology, politics and spirituality. His artworks use non-traditional materials from cut out figurines, furniture parts, egg shells, and saw dust.
As one of our pioneer judges during the early years of ArtPetron National Student Art Competition we requested his opinion on appropriation in Philippine art, which was featured in the ArtPetron Folio magazine in 2008. Here is what he wrote:
Appropriation cannot simply be dismissed as reproducing or copying a work or its parts without considering content and context. Content refers to the intention, idea, and interpretation of a piece. Context refers to meaning derived from a work, within its historical, cultural and personal parameters. Context lends credibility to interpretation of a work.

Alfredo Esquillo Jr., MaMackinley, 2001, Oil on Canvas.
(image from

Appropriated works or pastiches as they were popularly called in Modernism and earlier periods, were used in the academe to study the works of great artists, particularly their contour and the modeling of color, technical concerns which reflected the progression of art. These appropriated works were signed as copies. Appropriation would later evolve into an objective process in questioning originality.

Another form of appropriation exists – that which is taken from a culture that was induced to a peripheral position and is considered another form of appropriation exists – that which is taken from a cultural extortion. Informed sources refer to this as colonization or colonialization. This issue is related to multiculturalism, which involves the indigenous, minority culture that have been displaced by the dominance of Euro-American hegemony and which encourages diversity and heterogeneity.

Lee Aguinaldo, Homage to Vermeer, 1983,
Photo collage with acrylic mounted on plywood
(image from manilaartblogger)

Consequential to the Philippine experience is more than four hundred years is more than four hundred years of Spanish American domination effecting a thinking that belittles everything native.            The indigenous traditions of weaving, pottery, metalsmithing, and woodwork were relegated to craft. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the Malay word “sining” was used exclusively for the arts such as painting, sculpture, design, and engraving.

Curiously, the tradition of painting in the Philippines started with copying Christian icons (stampitas) and their attributions as prescribed by the church. (Colorings rendered by Maranao women on their men’s carvings is, of course, an exception.) The propagation of faith necessitated the reproduction of the images. As such, appropriated works had built monuments to the nation’s christianization.
In the 1920s, Victorio Edades came home from the Unites States bringing with him modernism a new art movement that would spark the great debate between the conservatives and the moderns in the local art community. The influence of Euro-American painters in Philippine painting would further be entrenched during World War II. Branded as degenerates, an entire generation of European artists migrated to the United States. After the war, America mustered its publishing prowess to promote New York City as the art capital of the world. American influence in painting spread worldwide through books filled with photographic reproduction of Euro-American painters.
The issues mentioned earlier should provide greater clarity in tackling appropriation within the national experience. Philippine events provide a continuum to the present.

Santiago Bose, Native Song, 1999, Oil on canvas with mixed media
and color process prints on paper (Gift of Malou Babilonia in 2007,
image from education 
Beholden to the development of painting in the West, Filipino painters, with a few exceptions, fail to appreciate their very own visual traditions. It is about time they recognize their society as defined by geography as multicultural and therefore a rich source of images and ideas just waiting to be tapped. Otherwise they will always be regarded as colonialized.