DO YOU often feel that Philippine politics is simply taking you for a ride? A series of paintings by a political cartoonist is set up like a carousel to show that we’ve been going around in circles, on the same darn ride, for the past 50 years or so.
The paintings were executed as part of Jose Santos P. Ardivilla’s MFA degree exhibition, titled Kahayupan. It consists of seven paintings formed in a circle, each depicting a political cartoon measuring six feet by six feet. Each giant cartoon is a summary of the administrations of the seven most recent presidents of the Philippines: Ferdinand Marcos, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III, and Rodrigo Duterte.
During the exhibit’s opening on May 2 in UP’s Bulwagan ng Dangal, Mr. Ardivilla discussed his work. Commenting on their size, he says that he wants the works to serve as an immersive experience: “I wanted it elevated, bigger than us, because I have this notion: what if you can step inside a political cartoon?”
Adding to the experience is a recording in the background, played as if it were a safety reminder in a theme park, inviting guests to come to “Impunity Land.”
As for the arrangement of the paintings in a circle, designed to be viewed counterclockwise beginning with the political cartoon depicting the Duterte administration and ending with the Marcos years, Mr. Ardivilla said: “There’s something counterintuitive about it… something regressive.”
“My point here is that nothing really change[s], except for the people in power.”
Each painting displays a common theme, that of a horse on a carousel. A spoke pokes through the horse, and is built on a base of people in restraints and certain agony. This certainly isn’t Disney. The background, meanwhile, displays the color of flesh, with blushes of purple — the effect is supposed to call to mind aging newspaper, or else bruised flesh, according to the artist. The presidents, as objects of our derision, are actually quite tiny figures in the grand scheme of things, while the issues that plagued their administrations are spread like webs, rashes, filth, or traces of decay on the horses. “My point is, all of us are part of this system in which we produce a Marcos, a Cory…,” he said, then lists off the presidents who came after them. “Not just through elections, but because of systemic abuse, organizational chaos… we just keep on repeating the same thing.”
“I don’t subscribe to the school that powerful people make history.”
The exhibit was titled Kahayupan, according to Mr. Ardivilla, due to the use of animal imagery in political cartoons. For example, he cites the use of the word and image of the buwaya (crocodile) to describe corrupt politicians in the Philippines, or else the use of the Democratic Donkey or the Republican Elephant. As well, there’s also the use of animal imagery to ascribe a certain trait of an animal to a person: for example, ascribing serpents to the treacherous, or the lamb to the innocent. As well, Mr. Ardivilla runs to the Filipino word, “kahayupan,” which we sometimes use to describe indescribable brutality. “It’s like we’re reduced to animals because of how people are like animals, in terms of political greed, etc.”
More than cynicism, which implies some acceptance of the situation of going around in circles, what one may see in Mr. Ardivilla’s work is raw anger. Mr. Ardivilla, who also teaches at the College of Fine Arts in UP Diliman, has been a political cartoonist since 1999, which means he has been on this ride before, and over and over, too. Mr. Ardivilla says he is “Angry, as opposed to just apathetic. I always tell my students that love and hatred are not opposites, really. They’re just the same emotions going in different directions. What is opposite of these feelings… is apathy. If you’re apathetic, that means you will let these things happen.”
On another note, the paintings also add to the question of political cartooning as a serious art form. In A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel by Amor Towles, Mishka, a Communist, a writer, and the titular gentleman’s friend, says: “Every country has its grand canvas… the so-called masterpiece that hangs in a hallowed hall and sums up the national identity for generations to come.” To this, he cites Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and for the Americans, it’s supposedly Washington Crossing the Delaware. This might be true, but these images are reverent of their subject of the state. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo and the satirical stylings of The Simpsons, both of which poke fun at figures in power, their irreverence empowering the common man, as well as making sure that their images are seared in the minds of the collective consciousness. In the race of which gets the word out more, and which messages stay, which one wins?
“If you ask the art market, there is a huge disparity between the cartoonist and the artist. The fact that I always insist on being called a cartoonist is my way of defying the art market. The art market would like it [to be an] elevated discourse. They still rely on this very ancient… notion of high art versus low art,” said Mr. Ardivilla. “What I like about cartoons, they’re very transgressive, in terms of message and format. It’s not ‘high art’: oil paintings and gorgeous paintings. These (cartoons) are implements of mockery.
“This allows you to make fun of people who deserve to be made fun of.”
Kahayupan is on show in UP Diliman’s Bulwagan ng Dangal until June 28. — Joseph L. Garcia