Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University
‘Muntadas’ and the Enduring Legacies of our Colonial Past
AJ Raymundo | Jun 6, 2023
Our country’s history is defined by its hybridity and confluence with other histories. During Spain’s colonization of the Philippines, which spanned over three centuries, a global galleon connected Manila to new ideas, beliefs, and customs. Making sense of our collective memories and their relevance in the present times is an ardent task, one which Antoni Muntadas undertakes through “Muntadas: Exercises on Past and Present Memories,” in collaboration with Ateneo Art Gallery (AAG) and Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla. The exhibit was first presented during the height of the COVID-19 restrictions, from November 2021 to March 2022, and is once again open for viewing at AAG until July 29, 2023.
Muntadas, one of the pioneers of multimedia installations and urban intervention, presents a three-part project that attempts to understand local experiences that are informed by the past through the works of translation. The endeavor was triggered by the conceptual artist’s brief encounter with the metropolis of Metro Manila, which prompted meticulous and site-specific research and experimentation with the potential narratives items traded during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. This included plates, medallions, and embroidered mantels as vessels of historically significant memories.
Muntadas assumes the role of an ethnographer—an informed outsider but an outsider nonetheless. The artist, perhaps, knows this well: during the artist walkthrough in March, a curious attendee addressed a question about his artistic process. Muntadas intentionally refused to take the stage, but spoke and singled out everyone who worked on Exercises on Past and Present Memories. The long list of acknowledgment of institutions between the Philippines and Spain in the foyer is a testament to this.
With the galleon trade as its framework, the themes of globality and transnationality are apparent in the three sections of the exhibit: “Malas Hierbas,” “Portable Monuments to Emigrant Anonymous Workers,” and “Mantónes de Manila.” The featured items are critical and contemporary remakes of items from the galleon; Muntadas referred to these as presentes.
In the opening room of the exhibit, ceramic plates were placed on round tables to greet the visitors. On these plates are illustrations of invasive plants from the Americans that were brought to the Philippine shores during the galleon trade. The plates were manufactured by a factory producing traditional ceramic wares in Sevilla, Spain, the same kind that was distributed during the galleon trade. The illustrations, on the other hand, were based on historical botanical drawings.
Comprising nine plates with unique designs, Malas Hierbas alludes to the pervasiveness of colonization: more than socio-political contexts, colonization had detrimental effects on the flora and fauna ecology of the country.
Portable Monuments to Emigrant Anonymous Workers
Another often-overlooked effect of the galleon trade and colonization that the exhibit points to is the displacement of people vis-a-vis globalization, a practice further exacerbated by labor exportation policies the Philippines has today. In Portable Monuments to Emigrant Anonymous Workers, a set of ten medallions bear the faces of unrecognized Filipinos living overseas. The presentes are repositories of these emigrants’ memories, whose displacements and remittances inform and are informed by global politics and the economy. In these medallions, their names and stories are immortalized and brought to the fore by the very ascription to silver.
Some of the featured emigrants are Luis Aguirre, a Filipino teacher in Dubai, who first worked as a construction site engineer in 2008 but changed career trajectory due to physical ailments, and Emma Gautante, who has been working as a caregiver in Rome since 1985.
In the exhibit’s curator’s talk, Victoria Sacco explained that in pursuing the project, they were “not looking for heroes, [but] stories of people left unrecognized.” Accompanying these medallions are emigrants’ biographies, which were selected through an exhaustive process of interviews.
Mantones de Manila
The final section, Mantones de Manila, is a set of 15 remade embroidered silk fabrics with jutting fringes. Originally from China, the mantones gained prominence during the 18th century and were exported to Spain as part of the female festival wardrobe. In the exhibit, the mantones are embroidered by local artisans in Lumban, Laguna with images from Philippine history; the fringes, on the other hand, are from India. In harnessing influences from different borders, the mantónes signify the breadth of galleon trade at the time, as well as the importance of transnationalities.
From the original list of eighty images, the list was whittled down to fifteen. Mantones de Manila does not attempt to present a diachronic history of the Philippines but resorts to visual impact and historical significance. One featured mantón, for instance, has an embroidered design from the promotional sticker of Thrilla in Manila in 1975.
"At the time, the Philippines struggled with political unrest, insurgency, and poverty... Reportedly, Ferdinand Marcos hosted and sponsored the event to show the country in a positive light,” the exhibit catalog explained.
In more ways than one, Exercises on Past and Present Memories invites the viewer to reconsider how deeply embedded our history is in the enduring coloniality, which now takes the form of global communication. It also underscores that displacement and globalization could be an object of decolonization whether as aftermaths or tools of colonization. After all, the development of projects included in the exhibit, amidst their extensiveness and breadth, was only facilitated virtually over digital channels. Perhaps it could be said that Muntadas’ undertaking is a demonstration of the decolonizing potentials of the colonial tools as much as it is an exercise to reconcile history with the present.
The remount exhibition of Muntadas: Exercises on Past and Present Memories is on-view until 29 July 2023 at the Fredesvinda Consunji Gallery, Ambeth R Ocampo Gallery, Elizabeth Gokongwei Gallery, and Alica P. Lorenzo Gallery, 3F Ateneo Art Gallery, Soledad V Pangilinan Arts Wing, Areté, Ateneo de Manila University. AAG is open Mondays to Saturdays, 9 AM to 5 PM. Visitors must file their Campus Access Request at least one (1) hour before their visit at bit.ly/MyVisitAAG. The exhibition may also be accessed online through a virtual tour and walkthrough posted on AAG’s social media channels and website.
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