Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri: Inspirations from the Edge of the World

Asking about arts and culture in Puerto Princesa twenty years ago would have elicited puzzled looks. Now, people will more likely point you to Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri, which has become a tourist attraction in the capital of Palawan, an elongated province at the westernmost side of the Philippines.
Past the airport, in the barangay of Bancao-Bancao south of the city center, Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri sits in about a hectare of land planted with balayong (Palawan cherry), bamboo and other flora endemic to the place. Bird’s nest ferns and placards dispensing reminders and quotes about the environment hang from the branches of trees. Ground lanterns and driftwood stools and tables pop out between vegetation where the afternoon sunlight gets through and bathes the ground dappled with fallen leaves that conceal crude, small pebble paths. The place gets to feel like a botanical garden until Kamarikutan rises in the middle, a large hut with a gurgling pond lined with smooth rocks. Bright orange and yellow kois like slivers of sunlight swim languidly in the pond.
The porch, actually a trellis for rain vines, provides a shower of roots, preparing visitors for a vision of the interiors: posts of coconut trunks; chairs and divans made of bamboo, its natural sinuous forms remaining intact; ethnic musical instruments; artworks on the walls; a curious cavity on the floor with sand, rocks and pots; lanterns of handmade paper and bamboo with lovely and strange shapes; more coconut lumber as flooring and beams; and more bamboo as walls, racks and stairs.
Kamarikutan is actually made of two contiguous structures: one a circular hut and the other a large rectangular space. The former is a café where coffee, sandwiches and pastas are served; and the latter an art gallery where the consumption is for the soul.
Almost part of the structure and definitely one of the charms of the place is 66-year-old Angelita Macasaet, one of the owners, who is often present chatting up visitors, raconteur that she is, an attraction herself as much as Kamarikutan is. She is fondly called Nanay Dayang, and she tells that she escaped the snake pit that is the corporate world and found sanctuary here.
Nanay Dayang and largely her family are from here. The other owner, thirtysomething visual artist and Dayang’s daughter Maria Teodora Conde Prieto, popularly called Dinggot and a quieter but deeper presence, tells that her grandfather migrated here from Batangas in 1917. Most people in Puerto Princesa are migrants who came to what was considered the Philippines’ last frontier and tried to make their fortune. Dinggot’s grandfather was into many ventures, some with the native Tagbanuas as partners. Her mother was born in 1941. It was World War II, and little Angelita was entrusted to her father’s Tagbanua friends who hid her in the mountains. It was supposed to be a lean season but it turned out to be a time of bounty. The Tagbanuas regarded her as a lucky charm and christened her Dayang.
Dinggot wondered why her mother was named Angelita in the first place when she is a “demonyita.” She laughed loudly but fondly, her curls gently cascading down her temples and nape. I saw similarities between mother and daughter. Both are headstrong and engaging, very interesting characters. Both can speak their minds and talk persuasively and intelligently.
The story is almost mythical and romantic. It seems that stories from journeys to here, that transpired here, can become romantic and beautiful. At least for the two women.
Even as her forebears had cleared the path in the frontier, Dinggot has her own frontier journey and clearing of path, that of “planting the seeds of creativity” that blossomed into something like Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri.
During a rainy night of late March, Kamarikutan had an exhibit opening. I arrived late. A few visitors were left, and Dinggot was with a few friends. Nanay Dayang had retired for the night. She had not been feeling well lately. I drew Dinggot out for some drinks and stories. I got a warm and pleasant lemongrass-flavored tea, and she got her cigarettes. Her lanterns were all lit up, big, beautiful and strangely-shaped fireflies in the middle of a forest.
“I was born and raised in Baguio. My mother is from Palawan but I didn’t live here,” Dinggot related, still a tad giddy from all the activities earlier. She said her father was a geologist who got a job with a mining company in Baguio City and moved his small family to the country’s summer capital high in the Cordillera Mountains.
“I came here as a child for six months. I was about seven or eight years old. And I never came back until fourteen years later, when I was already in college doing my thesis,” Dinggot continued. “I did my thesis here then I left again, went back to Baguio. Then I moved back here only in 1989. When I got back here it was a little depressing because Puerto Princesa then was not the same as it is now. There was only one ship a week. The flights were not daily. Of course, I didn’t grow up here so I didn’t have any friends.”
Dinggot considers Baguio the home of her heart and art. “My mom is from Palawan. My dad is from Manila. I am from Baguio,” she frequently tells people who ask her where she is from.
Although her father, being a man of science, discouraged Dinggot from studying fine arts because he did not want to send her daughter to college only to starve later, popular and proverbial notion, driving her to take up comparative literature and philosophy, a more “lucrative” course, instead at the University of the Philippines, Dinggot still followed her passion, and Baguio seemed the perfect place to nurture that.
“In Baguio—at that time at least and I suppose up to today—there were more artists per square foot than anywhere else I had ever known,” she described. “And I grew up with that, you know, a lot of the senior artists. They were very good friends. Some of them have gone on to the Great Beyond.”
Moving to Puerto Princesa was disconcerting for the young artist. “When I moved here, although there were artists, [they were] kalat-kalat (scattered), you know. There was no unifying force,” she said. “And my mom comes from a very big clan here. So it was a formidable shadow. So people would go, ‘Oy, ikaw is Dinggot, anak ni Dayang. Oy, ikaw si Dinggot, asawa ni ganito.’ (So you’re Dinggot, daughter of Dayang. So you’re Dinggot, wife of this) Always I was an appendage. So it was a challenge to sort of make a statement na may pangalan din ako, may alam din akong gawin (that I also have a name, that I can also do other things).”
The desire to create an identity and a home in Puerto Princesa developed into an idea of putting up a gallery. “It started out as a quite selfish proposition,” she regarded the birth of Kamarikutan.
One day, Dinggot approached her mother about renting her property. “What will you do?” Nanay Dayang asked. “I want to build a gallery,” she replied. Nanay Dayang was receptive of the idea.
“Of all the people I mentioned that thing, siya lang ‘yung (she was the only who went) ‘Oh, okay,’” Dinggot related and took a puff from her cigarette. “Everybody was like ‘What? A gallery in Puerto Princesa?’ This was in 1993. Can you imagine? Talagang lahat sila ay (Everybody was really like) ‘Are you crazy?’ Si Nanay lang ang ‘Okey, sige. (It was only Nanay who said ‘Okay, go.’) But don’t lease na lang. Let’s be partners.’”
Then Dinggot provided a glimpse of their working relationship: “Sometime between then and now, ‘pag nag-aaway kami (when we are arguing), [she goes,] ‘Sige buhatin mo ‘yung building mo.’ (Go and get your building) Ako naman, ‘Sige maghanap ka ng developer.’ (And I would go, ‘Okay, find yourself a developer.’)”
She laughed and continued, “But there is a lot of democratic space between us naman. The garden is hers. The interiors are mine. That is her forte. This is my forte.”
I looked out to garden, now all dark. I could here insects singing and the rustling of the leaves. The rain became a light drizzle, and the air was muggy. Inside, we were bathed in the mellow glow of the lanterns. At the other end, lights were on for the newly mounted paintings.
Despite the indifference of the people around her, the gallery opened in 1994. “When it first opened, it was a pretty lonely struggle to introduce the concept of a gallery to a place like Palawan, which blossomed very late,” Dinggot said. “It was very hard. To begin with, there were only a few of us practicing artists. There were six or seven of us who were active.”
“You cannot naman…” she continued. “There was six of us. What? Every two months shuffle kami?. Hindi puwede. Isusuka kami ng mga tao rito. Mauubusan kami ng inspirasyon. (That could not be. People here would be sick of us. We will run out of inspiration.) Every once in a while, we invite other artists to come by, visual artists in and out of Palawan. In the first year, we only had two exhibits. The following year we had four or five. And then it came to a point na four years after, ayun, every month na.”
The café part just sprang up. “It was an afterthought,” she said.
People who dropped by the gallery asked for coffee, so they offered coffee. Then guests would ask for sandwich, so they add sandwiches to their meager menu. Before long, they asked for meals. Whenever they asked for food, Dinggot would make a dash to the market for ingredients and Nanay Dayang would entertain the guests, chatting them up so they would not notice that the food was taking long to be served.
Dinggot remembered the kitchen as a small shack with no walls and only a gas stove for cooking. They had no freezer, and only a coffeemaker. After a year or two, they came up with an ala carte menu. The menu now lists different coffees, breakfast meals from dried fish to toast, sandwiches, pastas, rice meals, shakes and beer. But then and until now, they would advise visiting groups to let them know in advance the number of people coming and their orders. But they now can handle sizeable events.
“The beauty of Kamarikutan is that we are like family,” Dinggot said. They have only a staff of five working on shifts, but when it gets too busy, everybody pitches in. “Like the gardener becomes a dishwasher or one who grates the coconut. Everybody helps. So even though our staff is lean, we can still handle bigger functions,” she explained.
“But this is more of a coffee place,” Dinggot emphasized. “If you look at the structure, the gallery is bigger. And this (the café) is an addition.”
It is a curious thing how the two structures fuse so well together as to be one. I surveyed the place again and saw the division: the hut-café and the building-gallery.
“It is a fusion of both my roots,” Dinggot revealed. “I was born and raised in Baguio, so this is patterned after the Ifugao house. And the gallery is patterned after the Palawan kalangbanwa, which means ‘big house.’ It is communal. The beauty of it is that the space is defined not by division or rooms but by levels of flooring.”
That explained the sandy rectangle pit in the middle of the gallery. The area is usually used during performances. As much as the design the materials used define the place, giving it character, almost dictating the aspects of the design itself. The practice of its construction was influenced by a movement that was burgeoning in and influencing Puerto Princesa.
“When we were building this, the seeds of environmental awareness were being planted in Puerto Princesa,” Dinggot said. “So all of the sudden, there was a total log ban. And I noticed it was changing the landscape of the city somehow in the sense that everyone was building in concrete and metal kasi bawal na nga ang kahoy (because the use of wood is illegal).”
Coconut lumber were used in the construction of Kamarikutan, and at that time Dinggot felt lucky that many had not yet discovered coconut lumber, a sturdy building material, and they could order as much as they want. They are now the beams, posts and flooring, still original. Some have holes in them where nails used to be. The acidic property of the material corroded the nails. The flaws interestingly come across as part of the design. They are avoiding nails as much as possible, and instead are using rattan strips in assembling things. Bamboo, different kinds, makes up for the rest, especially the furniture, its curves and waves offsetting the straight lines of the coconut components. The roof rustles with dried cogon grass.
“Part of the statement of Kamarikutan is you can still build aesthetically using organic, native materials, things that are here lang,” Dinggot explained. “Through the years we managed to fuse our convictions, our visions, into one like the garden. There is no foreign species here. It’s all endemic the same way all the materials being used are from Palawan, from nature.”
The only foreign things in the place are the colorful fishes, which were given as gifts by Dinggot’s brother-in-law eight years ago, and they were “too beautiful to refuse.” Now, they have grown fat and big, their colors resplendent against the moss-dark stones, and have become one of the attractions of Kamarikutan.
The materials used in the building of the Kamarikutan are not usual for a formal establishment like a gallery but it is Dinggot’s way of making another statement, this one on the concept of the gallery itself. “When you think of an art gallery parang it is so ‘sterile,’ so formal, so elitist,” she elaborated. “So the idea was to bring art closer to the community by way of deconstructing the idea of a gallery. We don’t subscribe to the formal white cube theory of galleries kasi nga (because) it is so sterile, so intimidating. So what we did is we just ‘indigenized’ the concept of a gallery. I mean, we’re just a big bahay kubo (hut) basically. The walls are very neutral so people don’t feel like masyadong elitista (it’s very elitist). We indigenized and popularized the concept of an art gallery so people can come in their shorts, tsinelas (slippers), and they will still be in a gallery. And at the same time, we like to think that we have given a home to local artists, visiting artists and to culture as well, culture and the environment.”
Defining one’s own art space and acquiring acceptance from the community are one matter, and then there is the matter of selling the exhibited artworks. Artists have to be compensated for their labor and have to market their works, Dinggot believes. Materials can cost a lot, and most of the times they have source them from Manila, she explains.
Despite the birth pangs and the veering away from common notions (or perhaps precisely because of it), the gallery garnered good reception from the community, and surprisingly for a place where art and art making is arguably still in its infancy, good patronage for the works.
“We’ve sold quite a number in our thirteen years,” Dinggot beamed. “'Di kami na-zezero (We haven’t experienced having zero sales).”
But there is a concession for this: they have to sell at low rates. “We don’t like to scare away people,” she said. “We have to sacrifice [by having] low prices in building up a patronage.” And besides, “the level of art is not mature [enough] to command [high] prices,” she explained.
She imposes a ceiling on the prices of works. The most costs about Php25,000 to Php30,000, and that is for a major work that can stand up to four feet. To compensate though, the gallery is friendly to artists by getting only a twenty percent cut, as opposed to the thirty to forty percent going rate in Manila, and by taking care of promotions, cocktails and receptions.
However, the patronage here proves to be insular, and this presents a problem in the future. “Although we have many patrons, they are the same people. Eventually, they will run out of wall space. We have to think about that,” Dinggot pondered, but she tried to look at the positive side of it.
“In a way, this limitation is good,” she said, “because it challenges us to experiment with different media. Hindi naman puro (not just all) painting.”
And so Kamarikutan began to be a catalyst for artists aside from providing home, and as home it fully realizes its existence by being a nest, a place for the birth and growth of artists and the arts in general.
For several years now, Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri has been known to hold the Pagdiwata Festival, a week of workshops and performances, a celebration of arts and culture in general. The workshops do not only include the familiar modules of painting, drawing and music, but also of dance, creative writing, and arts and crafts like batik making, pottery and textile weaving. Every April, senior artists and artisans and students learn from each other. At nights, they watch performances, which are mounted for free.
Dinggot appropriated the name Pagdiwata, a Tagbanua ritual of thanksgiving for bountiful harvests. “This was inspired by [the fact that] despite the challenges and the perceived difficulties of building an art center in Palawan we did pretty well,” she explained. “By way of giving back to the community and by way of promoting arts and culture, the festival was conceived.”
Dinggot looked back at how her gallery was warmly accepted. “We were well-received by the community partly because we didn’t shoved it down their throats,” she reasoned. “Imagine, first, two exhibits. It took us four years to fill up the calendar. Kasi unti-unti lang (Because we did it gradually). We have to explain to people when you come here you are not obliged to buy. You wanna come just to look, just appreciate, that’s part of the advocacy of Kamarikutan.”
Though the advocacy has always been here, the arts festival happened by accident.
“In 1998, there was a wave of artists from Bacolod City (in Negros Occidental),” Dinggot related. “They had to wait for the next boat. In the meantime, we did something. We did workshops. We started with four workshops. Students namin mga twenty lang ‘ata. In the evening we had nothing to do. So we played music and the artists were jamming. I thought gawin kaya nating festival ito (let’s make this into a festival). I mean, we were doing it already. Why not formalize it?”
From twenty students, the workshops attracted more until it reached its record number of enrollees in 2006 with 101, excluding the scholars. They did a wonderful show for their culminating activity, Dinggot reminisced. Students from different fields came together for a collaborative effort and contributed what they had learnt. These students, as well as the former ones, come from different backgrounds and in different ages. From all brackets, Dinggot said.
As with the students, Dinggot also has the good fortune in finding artists and teachers to facilitate the workshops and also to perform during nights.
“A lot of the facilitators are not from here. There has to be growth. It cannot be the same people teaching the same things to the same people all the time,” she said.
Dinggot was able to invite facilitators, some have made marks already like music artists Joey Ayala and Noel Cabangon. At first they thought the idea to be a bit foolish, especially about not charging for the performances, but as they saw what was happening, they even went out of their way to help out like finding ways to cover their airfares. While the workshop fees increased from Php800 in the first year to Php1,500 now, the fees for the facilitators remain the same, and they did not ask for more. They have considered Pagdiwata their own outreach.
“For us, it is a learning experience. For them, it is an inspiring experience. So it is a very good relationship,” Dinggot said.
On the other hand, her relationship with the Puetro Princesa community, from which she regularly solicit financial support, has also been good.
“By way of involving the community, every February, we pop our begging bowls and sort of invite businessmen, people from the government sector to pitch in a little bit for culture and the arts, and the environment,” Dinggot related.
Pitch in they did. Some are eager enough to volunteer. Sponsorship rate is minimal, and for a little amount sponsors or donors are entitled to adopt scholars. They can actually get their own kids in as scholars through their sponsorship.
Dinggot is leery on approaching big corporations though lest the festival would become a commercial event. “Para hindi mawala ang soul (So it will not lose its soul),” she said.
“It’s a very intimate festival. Because of its intimacy, we are able to maintain its quality and integrity,” she added.
There was one student, Dinggot reminisced, who approached her about exhibiting his works in Kamarikutan. The student started going to the Pagdiwata workshops since he was in grade four. When he was already a fourth-year high school student and ready for college, he went to her. He wanted his own exhibit because his grandmother was going home from the United States, and it would be great thing to show; because his girlfriend was going away for college in Iloilo and it would make a great going-away event; and because he himself was going to University of Santo Tomas in Manila, and the income from the exhibit would help fund his studies. When Dinggot checked on his works, she was amazed to see ninety-six paintings. The same boy sent her a laminated newspaper clipping in which his name appeared. He was one of the winners of a cartoon contest of a newspaper. Dinggot was moved. For her, it is enough that her efforts have inspired even one. “And to see how far he goes. That’s enough,” she sighed.
For the past thirteen years, Dinggot poured her energy into her gallery and in promulgating arts and culture in general. In those years, she has not produced much artwork. It got to the point when she began questioning why she is creating art. She reasoned that she paints because she has something to say. But then her message or statement may not get across to everyone, to those who may not understand her medium. When people buy her work and stashed it in their homes, what happens to her statement?
One day she realized that her art has changed medium. It has resurged in a different canvas, a bigger canvas that is Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri, and the advocacy for the arts and culture in Palawan.
Dinggot finished her cigarette, her mocha complexion glistening in the mellow light of the lamps she fashioned herself and her curls catching that light. The rain has completely stopped. It was near midnight, too late for her to go home. She lives sixteen kilometers out in the barangay of Irawan. She decided to stay in her halfway house behind the gallery, an open hut with a studio and a sleeping area on the upper floor.
I thanked her and said goodbye. I forgot to ask where she got her nickname. Maybe it was from ingot, I speculated, a mold in which metal is cast. Dinggot: Someone who has wrought something beautiful here in Puerto Princesa.

Getting There
Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri is along Rizal Avenue Extension in the barangay of Bancao-Bancao, Puerto Princesa City. It is near the airport. One can take any multicab (tricycle) plying the city to the gallery. Regular fare is Php7. Rate for hiring the multicab is from Php20 to Php50.

Contact Information
Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri can be reached through telephone numbers (048) 433-5182 and 433-9088, and email
kamarikutanart@gmail.com. One can contact co-owner Dinggot Conde Prieto through her mobile phone number 0918-9095571 or email hijadelaluna8@gmail.com.

No comments: