Art

An Artist Grapples With the Worst Documented Attack on Journalists

Installation view of Time and Place of Incident at the Vargas Museum, Manila.
Installation view of "Time and Place of Incident" at the Vargas Museum, Manila.

MANILA, Philippines — On November 23, 2009, just a little over two years ago, Esmael Magundadatu, the vice mayor of the southern Philippine city of Buluan, invited 37 journalists to accompany him as he filed for his certificate of candidacy. The group, along with a cadre of lawyers and family, never made it to their destination.

They were stopped by 100 armed men, who kidnapped and murdered almost all of them. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it was the worst attack on journalists since the Committee began keeping records in 1992.

The Maguindanao Massacre, named after the province in which it happened, serves as the foundation for “Requiem for M,” an artistic documentary shown at the University of the Philippines, Dilliman, Quezon City, this month.

Directed by artist Kiri Lluch Dalena, the video begins with the cries of an anonymous woman responding in anguish to the massacre. It then transitions into a funeral procession, which we realize is moving backward, slowly. Balloons fly back down into the hands of mourners, and cars and trucks drive backwards. They soon cross a sign for travelers: “You are now leaving Datu Unsay Municipality, Maguindanao Province.”

“I went to a lot of funerals, because there are so many of them”, said Dalena, who visited the site of the mass grave where the bodies were found. “This work is about two funerals, two family members.”

Erased Slogans, a series of photographs Dalena exhibited at the Lopez Museum in Manila.
Erased Slogans, a series of edited photographs Dalena exhibited at the Lopez Museum in Manila.

Also on view is Time and Place of Incident, which is part of a video series organized by the nonprofit art project Visual Pond. Curated by Clarissa Chikiamco, Dalena’s solo exhibition focuses on sites where journalists have been murdered.

“There is something very charged about her work, which comes from the intertwining of her political and social subject matter (which is certainly not a new topic) with her methods,” Chikiamco told me over email. “I think this is also due to her other practice as a documentary filmmaker which I can see as having crossovers to her artistic work.”

Incident opens with slides of grave stones, each one meticulously photographed by Dalena or volunteers. The slides move forward automatically, clicking with each turn, an aural register of each journalist who died.

As we descend into the darkened space beneath the University of the Philippines’ Vargas Museum, we find multiple projections. The first projection shows Dalena’s excursion to the now infamous grave site in Maguindanao. The others show the different locations where journalists have been murdered. The only element that feels out of place is the sound of a beating heart, which I feel distracts from the images’ quiet power.

Chikiamco writes the following about the installation in her catalogue essay:

The projections blink to such spots as in front of a school, at a bridge, in a bedroom, at a home, by a motorcycle shop and the now easily recognizable location of the Maguindanao massacre … Nominal persons sometimes captured in the footage take secondary positions to the installation’s focus on sites — showing that, in some places, life simply went on, though limned with its history of homicide.

Dalena transfered the erased slogans to gravestones, which she commissioned from an actual gravestone craftsman.
Dalena transferred the erased slogans to gravestones, which she commissioned from an actual gravestone craftsman.

Not able to personally visit each site — they’re scattered around the Philippines and are often difficult to find — Dalena relied on volunteers around the country, who felt moved by her work. One volunteer, Augustine Arevalo, blogged about the experience of visiting one journalist’s gravestone, which had been neglected for years.

This isn’t Dalena’s first artistic foray into political and social issues. In The Present Disorder is the Order of the Future, she exhibited a series of metallic gravestones at Mo Space in Ft. Bonifacio, Manila.

The gravestones, commissioned from an actual craftsman, contained protest slogans and language pulled from actual protests in the Philippines. At the same time, she projected video of her visit to the massacre site over the disembodied limbs and hands of a previous sculpture she had made.

Installation view of the gravestones installed at Mo Space, with her sculpted fragments of a human body.
Installation view of the gravestones installed at Mo Space, with her sculpted fragments of a human body.

“The fervor and urgency in her work is something which both local and foreign audiences can appreciate,” Chikiamco told me, noting Dalena’s broad range of work that extends beyond “straightforward narration and didactics.” Her videos speak to the human impact of these events with both a journalistic and artistic eye.

Dalena’s decision to ground the work in the deeply personal gives the work a quiet dignity. She described the editorial decision to reverse the footage in Requiem:

When you interview the family, when you talk to them, of course they say they want justice. But they always go back to that wish that it didn’t happen. There’s always that guilt and that feeling that they already had a paramdam — a foreboding. Before it happened, the wife was more sweet, said goodbye longer. It’s so difficult to understand how it happened. You try to get so much from something that could have been an ordinary gesture.

Time and Place of Incident runs until December 10 at the University of the Philippines’ Vargas Museum (Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Roxas Avenue, UP Campus,Diliman, Quezon City, Manila). Requiem for M can be viewed on YouTube, along with footage of Time and Place of Incident.

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