MADRID — Upon entering Kidlat Tahimik’s exhibition in the Reina Sofía’s Palacio de Cristal, I was first struck by the way it smelled. Sawdust covers the ground around Tahimik’s large-scale installations, the majority crafted from organic materials: wood, wicker, shells, and dried palm leaves. It’s raining in Madrid and the precipitation elevates woody undertones, enabling viewers to close their eyes and almost forget they are in an exhibition space.
For Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey & Fr. Dámaso: 500 Years of Conquistador RockStars, and other work, Tahimik has collaborated with Filipinx artisans, creating intentional distance from the mainstream Occidental art world, just as he chooses to use non-professional actors and reject Hollywood conventions in his films. The exhibition catalogue cites the Tagalog term kapwa, meaning community, teamwork, and compassion for others, as a fundamental value in Tahimik’s art and the foundation of Philippine culture.
Next, I was hit by the overwhelming magnitude of Tahimik’s large-scale pieces. At first, the organization of the exhibition appears unstructured and chaotic. Wooden Mickey Mouse and Captain America figures hurdle atop air bombs toward shabby yet colorful Philippine fishing boats suspended in the air, and beached sea creatures protrude behind ships wielding ghastly, bull-shaped mastheads. This reflects a principal central to Tahimik’s practice: his kapa kapa style, meaning that the artist works in a way that is nonlinear and spontaneous.
Viewers can, however, orient themselves through some structural placeholders. In the center, a celestial ring of Indigenous gods made of wicker hangs from the ceiling, serving as a lynchpin of the exhibition. Wicker is reminiscent of the dap-ay of Philippine villages, a space in which elders pass on traditional stories to the new generation of their tribe. The installation contains three sections that outline critical moments in the Philippines’ colonial history.
The first section is a subversive telling of Ferdinand Magellan’s 1521 conquest of the Philippines that focuses on the role of Magellan’s slave and translator, Ikeng, or Enrique de Malaca, whom the artist plays in his film Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment Redux IV (1979-2017). This section contains a sculpture representing the encounter between Magellan, Lapulapu, chief of the island of Mactán, and Lapulapu’s wife, which concluded in a battle and Magellan’s subsequent death. Lapulapu and his wife gather their strength and resistance from nature, their wicker bodies rising gracefully out of dried palm leaves, in contrast to the figure of Magellan, whose human-made iron body is in the process of corroding. Thus, at the level of materials, Tahimik reshapes the story as a victory of the native islanders over the colonizer.
Further into the exhibition, Tahimik invokes the Philippines Exposition of 1887, in which the Palacio de Cristal showcased Indigenous people and vegetation from the Philippines. Illuminated fluorescent letters pronounce “MadExpo 1887”; below, on a wooden arm brandishing a crucifix, more neon lights spell out “NUESTROS FILIPINOS CIVILIZADOS” (“our civilized Filipinos”). José Rizal, an advocate of Philippine independence and leader of the Filipino Propaganda Movement, who composed a response to the 1887 exposition, calling out its blatant racism and function as a “human zoo,” appears in a photograph and as a sculpture in this section. To the right of the main display, an animal figure wearing a chasuble menacingly grasps the waist of a nude female figure made of driftwood, representing the characters Father Dámaso and María Clara of Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tángere (1887). María Clara is the mestiza heroine of the novel who is revealed to be the illegitimate daughter of Father Dámaso, a Spanish friar. The section symbolizes both the racist and imperialist past of the Philippines Exposition and the corruption of the Spanish Catholic church, as well as the Indigenous resistance surrounding it.
The final section represents contemporary Philippine society, in conflict with the neocolonial influence of omnipresent American culture. Beneath the airborne clashes between Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Bangkas (native water crafts of the Philippines) lie two wooden ships. One carries a sculpture of Inhabian, the Igorot goddess of wind, and the other a sculpture of Marilyn Monroe. The masthead of Marilyn’s boat resembles the horse from Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), linking internationally recognized images from Spanish and American culture, the Philippines’ two colonizers. That of Inhabian’s ship, on the other hand, is a wild horse’s head towering over a bull’s head, perhaps suggesting the Indigenous Philippine triumph over Spanish influence in the face-off between the ships.
To showcase this work exactly 500 years after Magellan’s conquest of the Philippines in a space that, 134 years ago, was a “human zoo” of Indigenous people from the Philippines, is certainly poignant. Tahimik reclaims the postcolonial narrative presented in the same exhibition space that the Spanish formerly used to justify colonialism, adding nuanced counter-narratives to this history. As in his audiovisual work, this exhibition presents complex and unfinished narratives under constant revision, to be contemplated in the context of the Palacio de Cristal’s and Spain’s fraught histories.
Kidlat Tahimik: Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey & Fr. Dámaso: 500 Years of Conquistador RockStars continues at the Palacio de Cristal (Paseo República de Cuba, 4, Madrid, Spain) through March 6, 2022.
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