Friday, April 24, 2009

Celebrating Heritage in Songs and Dances

Mankind’s intense expressions and aspirations are manifested through and immortalized in songs and dances, two of the oldest art forms. Every culture has its own trove of song and dance, which is integral in its traditions. They encapsulate the people’s desire and accompany them through their journeys. They capture the prevailing modes of a time and carry them almost to eternity. Although we are of different times and different backgrounds, we are one in the possession of songs and dances. Strangers become friends as we enjoin them to our songs and dances.
Awit at sayaw” (song and dance) is the theme of this year’s Filipino Heritage Festival, celebrated annually since 2003, when it was declared that May, a month replete with fiestas in the Philippines, is National Heritage Month.
For 31 days, performances, heritage tours, conventions, exhibits, food festivals and other interesting activities are lined up all over the country for the extolling and promotion of Filipino heritage. While music and dance have always been part of the celebration, they are given more emphasis and incorporated into more events this year.
“For this year’s festivities, we will reopen a treasure trove of Philippine music mirroring the daily lives of Filipinos. We will also the traditional beliefs and value systems upon which these forms of art are founded,” said Ana Maria Harper, festival director.
Harper, together with Armita Rufino and Araceli Salas, president and finance officer of the Filipino Heritage Foundation, organizes the Filipino Heritage Festival, in liaison with numerous cultural groups and local governments, “to bring the Filipino people to a new awareness of age-old traditions, cultural practices, song, dance and poetry, and centuries-old architectural wonders.”
Every year, the festival opens and closes in different parts of the archipelago. This year, it opens in Naga and Legazpi, the two most progressive cities of the Bicol Region in southern Luzon, with cultural nights full of traditional songs and dances, performed by Local Council of Women of Oas, Ligao Choral Group, Culture, Arts and Heritage Society of Oas Youth and other homegrown talents. Additionally, there will also be historico-cultural tours, a feast of local cuisine, a Santacruzan, a demonstration of native games and exhibits, from April 29 to May 2.
After that, the ball will roll.

Music proves to be the front-runner with several performances throughout the country, emphasizing the traditional kind. The first musical event is a concert of colonial church music at the Santa Ana Church in Manila called “Saludo a La Virgen Desamparado,” slated for May 4. Church music will also reverberate in Leyte as it celebrates a mini-version of the festival throughout the island, particularly in several “heritage masses.” The heritage mass in Palo on May 10 will feature songs of the late Agustin El O’Mora, performed by the Our Lord’s Transfiguration Parish Choir, opening the celebration in Leyte. Then the one in Tanauan, on May 17, will have the Balinsasayaw Singers. On the other hand, the heritage mass in Tolosa, on May 24, will feature the songs of the late Dr. Virginio Fuentes, performed by the Saint Michael Parish Choir.
The concert of the Philippine Youth Symphonic Band may contain church music as it performs at the Saints Peter and Paul Church in Makati City on May 16. The others will feature secular music like the “Parian: Nam Kuwan” concert in Binondo on May 16; a show by the Marikina Rondalla at the Marikina City Museum, accompanying a photographic exhibit on Philippine fiestas, on May 18; a performance of the Philippine Opera Company for the Filipiniana exhibit of Patis Tesoro at Robinson’s Place, Ermita, Manila, on May 18; a concert of the Banda Kawayan and the Las Piñas Pangkat Kawayan at the Starmall department store in Las Pinas City on May 28; and traditional Pampangan folk songs at the Panlilio ancestral house in San Fernando, Pampanga, on May 17.
Music is integral in several performances including a “19th century evening in Intramuros” at the Casa Blanca, Plaza San Luis, on May 12; and the Leyte-Samar Awit-Sayaw Showcase in Tacloban City on May 31.
Music serves as background as dance takes center stage in Darangen ni Bantugen, the Maranao epic turned into ballet by Gener Caringal and performed by the Philippine Ballet Theater. Last year, this served as the highlight of the National Heritage Month celebration, which took on epics as theme. This year, the baler will be toured to Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, on May 23; Victorias, Negros Occidental, on May 25; Iloilo City, Iloilo, on May 27; and Roxas City, Capiz, on May 31.
This year, the highlight will be the musical Mga Ginintuang Alaala ni Conching Sunico at ng Met, which tells about the story of the late doyenne of the Metropolitan Theater, a Manila landmark that is now undergoing renovation and will be opened on June. Fondly called Tita Conching, Sunico was the daughter of one of Manila’s richest men, Don Telesforo Chuidian, during the late 19th century. She had become a style icon and a source of inspiration until today. Mga Ginintuang Alaala will be staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on May 14 and 15.
On the other hand, the music of the spoken word will be experienced at the Timpalak Balagtasan in Hagonoy, Bulacan, on May 6; and at The Block in SM North Edsa, Quezon City, on May 23. Last year, the balagtasan, a debate in poetic form named after one of the Philippines’ greatest poets Francisco Balagtas, was a staple in Heritage Month shows.

The exhibits will be mostly dominated by photography, showing Philippine popular culture and architectural achievements. On May 1, a photographic exhibit of Philippine fiestas of Donald Tapan will open at the Robinsons Galleria in Ortigas, Mandaluyong City. Then it will move to Fil Spa Resort in Los Banos, Laguna.
An exhibit of lighthouses will open in Cagayan de Oro City on May 7, while
Another one on American colonial bridges will be mounted at the Gameng: Museo Ilocos Norte, Laoag City, on May 21.
Then an exhibit on Spanish colonial bridges will be mounted at the National Museum in Tagbilaran City, Bohol, opening on May 21; and at SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City opening on May 26, accompanied by a performance by the Bayanihan National Dance Company.
Art deco buildings in the country will be the subject of an exhibit at the Ayala Center, Makati City, opening on May 8, while the banig or mat will be the subject of another one at Rustan’s Makati City on May 20. The latter will be accompanied by a demonstration of mat-making and a performance of Visayan love songs.
An exhibit of Santo Nino icons will transpire in Tacloban City, Leyte, on May 30.
Photographer-brothers George and Donald Tapan will join together in an exhibit on Cordilleran scenes in Baguio City, from May 10 to 14. On the other hand, a Bangsa Moro exhibit will be at SM Mall of Asia, accompanied by a performance of “Vinta” by the Philippine Ballet Theater, during the opening on May 7. The latter will move to SM Cebu, Cebu City, on May 22, with a performance of Darangen ni Bantugen.
Other exhibits include “Sketches: Motifs and Patterns in Dress Design by Ben Farrales” at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, from May 13 to June 13; a Filipiniana exhibit by the Camera Club at the Malacanang Palace, on May 15, at the Glorietta Mall in Makati City on May 21; the “Dangal ng Lahi: National Artists” exhibit in Davao City on May 19; “Legacy: Portraits” by Federico Alcuaz at the White Cube Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Manila, on May 21; “Revisiting Romeo Tabuena” at the Ayala Museum, Makati City, on May 22; and “Heritage in Barcelona” at the Casa Asia, Barcelona, Spain, on May 22.
To advance knowledge and awareness, exchange ideas and further studies, there will be conventions, conferences and forum such as the Sixth Biennial National Convention of Church, Cultural Workers and Practitioners on May 4 in Laoag City; the Ika-37 Pambansang Gawaing-Kapulungan sa Filipino, from May 4 to 7, in Baguio City; a seminar-workshop on history and heritage in Dauis, Bohol, on May 14; and a forum on the centennial of the laying of the cornerstone of the Philippine Legislative Building at the National Museum, Manila, on May 20.
These foods for the soul are complemented by actual food in an Ilocos Sur food festival at the Café Jeepney of the InterContinental Manila in Makati City from May 5 to 31. Food is integral in many human activities as well as heritage.
There will also be tours emphasizing on heritage. On May 9, there will be one in Bataan, focusing on the restored ancestral house of the Acusar family. A tour of Malabon City tour will happen on May 16. Walk around Manila and spot its art deco buildings on May 17. Join the heritage tour in Leyte on May 23.
Since May is the month of Flores the Mayo and Santacruzan, there will be a Flores de Mayo in Manila on May 3, and a Santacruzan in Bacolod City on May 24.
Other interesting events for the National Heritage Month include an auction of hand-painted shells at the Goldenberg Mansion, Malacanang, Manila; the declaration of the Dauis Church complex as a National Historical Landmark and installation of historical marker on May 16; the installation of historical marker for the Punta Cruz Watchtower and Maribojoc Church on May 16; the recognition of heritage workers at Dauis Convent on May 16; the Second Leyte Heritage Awards in Tacloban City; the publication and launching of Textile Conservation and 75 select historic preservation legacies of the National Historical Institute; and a Flag Day celebration at the Marcela Agoncillo historical landmark in Taal, Batangas.

Traditionally celebratory, May has indeed become more exciting and enriching with focus on heritage. FHF’s partners and sponsors for the holding of the Filipino Heritage Festival are the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Air Philippines, the InterContinental Manila, the Mandarin Hotel Manila, Philippine Airlines, Ayala Museum, Robinsons malls, Rustan’s, Security Bank Corp., Tanduay Distillers, Department of Tourism and the local governments involved.

To learn more, visit FHF Web site at or call their office at 892-5865.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Carmen Westendorp Brias Comes Home

The Excelsior, along the coastal boulevard of Roxas in Parañaque City, was bathed in the afternoon sunlight, highlighting its age. Inside, it reeks of the 1970s, its walls having dulled through the times and the dark wood accents contributing to the somberness. The ride on the elevator felt like a slow travel through time. At the twelfth floor, the hallway was empty with a series of doors. I opened the one nearest, a latticed door that opened to another, one with the knob at the center. From the dim and narrow hallway, I emerged to bright light and sounds of conversations.
“My soul is Filpino,” I first heard 55-year-old, Filipino-Spanish painter Carmen Westendorp Brias telling a small group of journalists. They sat around a large round table like the legendary knights with the light streaming through the curtains of the large windows.
Slowly the seats around the table would be filled up. They were not talking about strategies in slaying a dragon but the discussion was not less magical.
Carmen returns, after so many years, to the Philippines where she was born to mount an exhibit of her paintings with her 81-year-old painter-mother Betsy Westendorp, a celebrated artist especially during 1970s Manila when the city’s high society was clamoring for their portraits to be painted by her.
Betsy, in all white like a high priestess and still regal, hovered around preparing food and taking photographs of the whole thing. She joined her daughter briefly. After answering a few questions and nibbling on a piece of prosciutto, she floated away, refilling the plates with prosciutto, salami and cheeses; serving soft drinks; and taking more photographs. She was letting her daughter shine. She had her moment when she mounted an exhibit here in the Philippines a few weeks ago called “Reflections” after five years of absence. Admirably, she still paints and mounts exhibits, many of which have won acclaim. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo awarded her the Presidential Medal of Merit for arts and culture in 2007.
Around the apartment were Carmen’s and Betsy’s paintings, mostly Carmen’s now, ready for the mid-April exhibit at the Ayala Museum. There were two large paintings behind Carmen — one showing a girl sitting on a chest and behind her the deep blue sea, and the other a bird in flight in a dense jungle. Nearby was another large painting, striking because of its hot pink color and an image of a jeepney.
Lately, she has been using lots of blues, greens and pinks. It is a phase, she thought.
The 2003 painting Girl Sitting on Muslim Chest, about 50-inch tall, interested many people. The girl, wearing a colorful hat and a shirt with the word Love, is sitting on a baul, the kind with mother-of-pearl inlays crafted by the Muslim Maranao, with seashells and a horse figurine with an American flag. The sea is calm behind her.
Carmen thought of it after the September 11 terror attacks in New York . The girl is Filipino, and the shells represent material wealth while the sea represents love, she explained.
“When you see the sea, don’t you feel loved? Something big is loving you,” she laughed.
The bird in the other painting, Flight, is a Philippine eagle, which she refers to with its old moniker, the monkey-eating eagle. Peace Jeepney, painted in 2003, depicts the Philippine icon, gaily decorated like a fiesta, with lyrics from the John Lennon song “Imagine” and words she picked up from real jeepneys.
It is evident that many of Carmen’s paintings are of Philippine inspiration, even the colors — the blue, green and even pink. She said that there are many old churches in Spain , where she lives and works, but she doesn’t like painting old churches. She likes painting tropical scenes, which can be found in the Philippines.
“The Philippines is an Aquarian country,” she said. “Spain is Sagittarius.”
“It’s hard to come from an all green island,” she commented. “In Madrid, everything is dry.”
Carmen maintains a lifelong love affair with the Philippines, springing from fond memories she has of her childhood here. Like her two sisters Isabel and Sylvia, she was born here. Her father was Spanish-Filipino businessman Antonio Brias.

The Briases traced their ancestry to Guadalajara, Spain. The family patriarch, Enrique de Coya Brias, came to the Philippines in the 1800s and eventually became the general manager of the San Miguel Corporation. His son Antonio also joined San Miguel and eventually became its general manager and vice presidents.
Antonio met Dutch-Spanish Betsy, whose father migrated from the Netherlands to Spain. Despite her family’s objections, Betsy married Antonio and resided in the Philippines, making a name for herself as a painter.
Eventually, the Briases came to live in Spain. They could have gone there for good. Betsy remembered during his last days, Antonio was listless — suddenly wanting to go to Spain and when in Spain having the urge to go back to Manila. The doctors found some kind of virus in his brain after he died, Betsy said. After some time shuttling back and forth, Betsy grew tired of the packing and unpacking, the impulsive decisions and the traveling; decided to sell their Manila property; and permanently settled in Madrid. After Antonio’s demise, Betsy did not sever ties with the Philippines and would occasionally return.
Carmen, who studied in Assumption College, was always eager and excited when her mother took her along to the Philippines.
Besty Westendorp bought an airy apartment along Roxas Boulevard, which she still keeps and stays in whenever she is in the Philippines. It has a high ceiling, enabling her to do her big paintings, and a beautiful view of the Manila Bay and its much acclaimed sunset.
The apartment affords one a view of the sprawling SM Mall of the Asia, the biggest in the country, and acres of reclaimed land. Betsy remembered the time when the shore was nearer. Now, one can see more of the browns of the reclamation than the blues of the sea.
Carmen wondered if the Philippines became a better or worse place. But she is optimistic, she admitted, and will always see the country, the home of her fond memories, as always beautiful. She remembered enjoying her foray to Baclaran Church, which is near the apartment, and getting amused at the colorful things being sold at the stalls around it.
While she is always sure of her feelings for the Philippines, it is not the case for painting. Her family is into painting. Her great-grandmother Betsy Westendorp-Osiek (1880-1968) was a prominent painter. Aside from her mother Betsy, her sister Sylvia became involved in painting as well. Carmen grew up seeing painting but she was not pushed into doing it.
“I wanted to do everything but paint,” she revealed. “I did not know what exactly I want to do but everything but paint.”
One of the things she did was being a fashion reporter, something thrust to her.
Eventually, she came home to painting although in an unconventional manner and with some reluctance. She studied painting restoration at the Artes Aplicadas a la Restauracion de Madrid because she did not have the patience to pass the test for a painting school.
“I couldn’t spend ten years drawing statues in order to get into a painting school,” she said. “I decided to go to painting restoration because they were made to draw statues after statues. On the tenth, I kind of exploded. Painting restoration had an easier exam.”
“Restoring is related to painting,” she continued. “That’s what I did, and it was interesting but it is not creative; it is very scientific. This is a way of finding something else [besides painting], but I enjoyed restoring.”
She worked as a painting restorer for some time and painted on the side. Eventually, painting became her main line. She joined a group show in Madrid in 1985 and had a solo exhibit in 1992 at the Sotogrande in Cadiz. She had several group and solo shows thereafter.
Carmen was also coordinator of her mother’s art school in their family home in Aravaca, just outside Madrid. Also into doing sculpture, mostly in terracotta and wood, she put up her own sculpture school in Madrid, where she lives with her 14-year-old daughter Karla. “I paint to express myself and in order to make a living,” Carmen simply put it. “It is like any other job. It requires a lot of work. It’s like 90 percent work and ten percent inspiration….If you’re lucky enough, you’ll find your way through.”
And Carmen has found her way through. She has been included in the Dictionary of 20th Century Spanish Painters and Sculptors, in which her work is described as “a fantastic ingenuism with a surrealistic inclination, an exuberance of color using firm drawing to recreate the reality surrounds us.”
Carmen found it hard to describe her style though. She admitted being an unschooled painter like her mother: “I am a ‘wild’ painter. I try to experiment. I try to mix… I don’t have any one style.”
But she has a consciousness to veer away from what her mother and sister are doing, but not to the point that it bothered her. “I don’t get compared,” she said. “It is very clear who I am.”
She commented that its very handy having a painter mother, especially when she needs brushes or canvases.
Carmen’s work is usually marked by mixing media and using unconventional materials like paraloid, a non-yellowing acrylic polymer used for consolidating wall paintings.
Many times, Carmen’s works are compared to Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugain, both of whom she loves along with the Flemish painters, Diego Velasquez and Edvard Munch. But unlike some of the works, Carmen’s paintings depict “happy” subjects.
“I must feel good. I can’t paint when I am depressed. I must be happy,” she shared. “That’s what I have in common with the Filipino people. They don’t like angst.”
The sunset outside the apartment glowed brightly, like blood-tinged dragon breath, almost dissolving the grit and decay of the city.

The joint exhibit of Betsy Westendorp and Carmen Westendorp Brias “Mother and Daughter” will open on April 14 at the ArtistSpace, second floor Glass Wing of the Ayala Museum, Paseo de Roxas, Makati City . The show runs until April 26. For more information, contact Galleria Duemilaat 831-9990, telefax 833-9815, e-mail Visit

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Revealing the Richness of Santa Ana Church

One of the best and popular ways to observe the Holy Week is by visiting churches, a practice referred to as Visita Iglesia. In plotting one's route, consider the churches rich in history and culture, which make visiting them doubly enriching even for the non-religious.

Despite being an urban sprawl, choked with malls and drab commercial buildings, Manila has quite a number of old churches. One of them is the church of Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados or Our Lady of the Abandoned, or simply Santa Ana Church.

Interest in the Santa Ana Church may have increased because its camarin, or the dressing room, of the image of Our Lady of the Abandoned was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum. The church received its certificate of declaration last Jan. 23.

Also, a guidebook, Santa Ana Church of Manila,Parish of Our Lady of the Abandoned: A Historical Guidebook, was published by the Cofradia de la Inmaculada Concepcion, written by one of its trustees, Dr. Jaime Laya, businessman and heritage advocate, who was once governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines and the chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

The colorful guidebook proves it is not only the camarin that is interesting, but the whole church as well. For first-timers and would-be visitors of the church, the slim volume is a helpful companion, describing the key locations and items of the church and relating their history.

The book tells about the church
fs historical background, its internal and external features, the retablo, the churchfs patroness Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados, the churchfs treasures (the imagefs accessories like trinkets and crowns), the ceiling paintings of the camarin de la Virgen, the convent and patio, the Lady of the Well or El Pozo de la Virgen, the plazas around the church, the town itself, and the connection and significance of Fr. Vicente Ingles, OFM, to the church, and its restoration and conservation.

The words are supplemented by photographs of the present church taken by prominent photographer Wig Tysmans and old prints and photographs from different collections including Layafs own. Many of the old prints and pictures enable readers to see what the Manila district of Santa Ana and life were like before the war.

The Franciscans established their first mission outside Intramuros in Santa Ana, building a small church by a brook in 1578. The place, in the area called Namayan, was called Santa Ana de Sapa, dedicated to the mother of Mary. Eventually, Santa Ana became a favored escape of the elite, who built country homes along the Pasig River. One can still see vestiges of the former grandeur if one were to look closely enough. The present structure of the Santa Ana Church was built beginning 1720, with substantial help from Fr. Vicente Ingles, one of its first parish priests.

"The church is remarkably well-preserved and retains much of its original appearance," Laya wrote.

It was Fr. Ingles who brought the much venerated image of Our Lady of the Abandoned, the patroness of Santa Ana, in 1717, from Spain, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, then Mexico and the Pacific. It is a replica, carved in 1713, of the original Our Lady of the Abandoned in Valencia, Spain, venerated for almost six centuries. Santa Ana was spared much of the ravages of war, unlike other parts of Manila, and this is attributed to the patronessfs grace.

The image occupies the central niche of the retablo, and its finery is a point of interest. Over the years, devotees and patrons have showered it with gifts including jewels and gowns.

If one wishes to touch the hem of the Virgin’s dress, one goes behind the retablo, to the camarin or antesala. The large room, according to Laya, is unique in the Philippines. Prominent among its features are the ceiling paintings depicting episodes from the lives of Mary and Jesus. Believed to be as old as the church, they are the oldest datable Philippine paintings.

Its location, aside from the church itself, is culturally important because it is an archaeological site. In 1966, graves dating back to the 11th to 14th century were excavated at the convent patio and churchyard, revealing pottery, porcelain and ceramic wares from China, Thailand and Vietnam. This reveals that there was a thriving community in the area. Before the church, this site was first declared a national culture treasure in 1973.

Santa Ana Church indeed deserves attention and celebration. The Cofradia de la Inmaculada Concepcion, formed to intensify devotion to Mary and whose 30th anniversary occasioned the publishing of the guidebook, is also assisting in the restoration and conservation of the church.

For group pilgrimages to the church, one may contact Philip Escudero at telephone number 582-0149.