IN 1968, Manila City Mayor Antonio J. Villegas commissioned a painting from National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco. The result was Filipino Struggles Through History, composed of a series of four paintings, for the Manila City Hall. The huge mural depicts significant events in the country’s history — from the great Rajahs who ruled Tondo to events in the American period. The artist finished what was to be among his greatest artworks shortly before he died on March 31, 1969. In 1996, the mural was declared a National Cultural Treasure by then National Museum director Gabriel S. Casal.

Earlier this month, former Manila mayor and Buhay partylist representative José Livioko “Lito” Atienza, Jr. called for a congressional inquiry on the “disappearance” of the Filipino Struggles Through History from the walls of the city hall’s Bulwagang Antonio J. Villegas. The former Manila city mayor demanded the return of the artwork after noticing that the original work had been replaced by a “poor tarpaulin replica” during the inauguration of Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso on June 30.

But the mural had not disappeared. It was right across the street.

Over the years, the mural had suffered extensive damage due to a plumbing problem in city hall. In 2013, former Manila Mayor Alfredo S. Lim requested that it undergo restoration under the supervision of the National Museum, with funding for the project coming from the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority.

After the restoration was completed in 2015, the masterpiece was put on public view at the Senate Session Hall of the National Museum of Fine Arts in February 2018. The museum is right across Taft Avenue from Manila City Hall.

According to a post dated Feb. 15, 2018 on the National Museum’s Facebook page, an approved landmark agreement was made in 2017 by former Mayor Joseph Erjercito Estrada and the Manila City Council which allowed “the original paintings to remain at the National Museum for enhanced public access and appreciation.”

National Museum Director Jeremy Barns doubts that Mr. Atienza is unaware of the mural’s current location.

“Definitely, he (Mr. Atienza) knows that the painting has been with the National Museum since 2013 because his son, Ali Atienza, came to check to make sure it was there,” Mr. Barns told BusinessWorld, at the sidelines of the general assembly of the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, Inc. on July 25 at the National Museum for Natural History.

A 2013 post on the National Museum’s Facebook page stated: “[Manila] Councilor Ali Atienza visited the National Museum yesterday to inspect the conservation work on the 10-panel painting of Carlos ‘Botong’ Francisco’s Struggles of Filipinos Through History (1968).” The post also stated that the younger Mr. Atienza “was also supplied with the documents that enabled the temporary transfer of the 65-meter National Cultural Treasure painting to the NM while it goes through the process of making them last beyond our lifetime.”

“The fundamentals have always been there. Number one: the city of Manila owns the painting. Number two: as long as it’s with the National Museum, we are acting as its trustee for the city of Manila. We are the custodian of the painting on their behalf. It takes a lot of work to make sure that the painting stays safe and secure,” Mr. Barns affirmed.

Mr. Barns added that the former mayor’s claims that the transfer of the mural was “illegal” is without basis. “We started [the restoration] with mayor [Alfredo] Lim. Then when mayor [Joseph] Estrada came in, we had to explain it to him. So now mayor Isko [Moreno] came in, we explained it to him.”

According to news reports last week, current Manila City Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso supports Mr. Atienza’s call to return the mural to the Manila City Hall.

“I am calling the NHCP, NCCA, isoli niyo ’yong Botong Francisco sa City of Manila. Maliwanag pa sa sikat ng araw ’yon. Amin ’yon. Taga-Maynila ’yon (I am calling on the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, return the Botong Francisco to the City of Manila. It is clearer than sunlight. It is ours. It is from Manila),” Mr. Domagoso said.

On July 22, Mr. Domagoso held a discussion with cultural agencies officials regarding the protection of the Manila’s cultural heritage.

“At the meeting I assured the [current] mayor (Mr. Domagoso) that we had an understanding with former mayor (Joseph) Estrada, and that [there is] no problem to come to a new understanding under [his] leadership,” said Mr. Barns.

According to the museum director, the landmark agreement on the mural’s public exhibition runs until 2022. “They (Manila City Hall) will be the first to install it there when the time and conditions are right because it really belongs to them,” he said.

“As I told the mayor, we can re-open everything, no problem. We respect his position and leadership. We are one with him in trying to bring back the pride and glory of Manila as our premiere cultural city,” Mr. Barns said, referring to the aim of focusing on the promotion of arts and cultural heritage in Manila. “We hope to do so many things with his administration. And I do not want this to dominate our agenda.”

“The last thing we want at the museum is to treat a National Cultural Treasure like some kind of football, rather than working together and have it transcend and become a national symbol that unites Filipinos.” he said. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman