KAWAYAN DE GUIA standing by Axis Bus, part of “Halsema AXS Art Project,” a  collaborative project between de Guia and the artist collective AXS. Photo by Kidlat de Guia. Courtesy the artist. 

These are Troubled (Tribal) Times

Kawayan de Guia

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Kawayan means “bamboo” in Tagalog, and the tall, lanky, soft-spoken Kawayan de Guia bears the name well. Although Metro Manila is the bastion of the mainstream Filipino art scene, de Guia resides in his hometown of Baguio, in the Cordillera mountain region that has been the subject of many of his works.

For years, the only means of transit between Baguio and the rice-growing hinterlands of the Mountain Province was on rickety Dangwa buses that wove their way up treacherous, unpaved mountain passes. Air-conditioned coaches traveling on a new highway now make access easier, bringing unfamiliar visitors and changing the cultural fabric of the region. These concerns were at the heart of de Guia’s latest venture, the “Halsema AXS Art Project,” in November 2012.

For five days, approximately 30 artists—mostly from Baguio—traveled 120 kilometers along the Halsema highway on a retired Dangwa bus. De Guia’s idea was to persuade a range of art practitioners, from craftsmen to conceptual artists, to ride together and engage with local communities along the way by creating site-specific and ephemeral artworks. His own contributions were the bus-shaped tent that was set up at each site, and a “snowman” made out of chicken dung (a common fertilizer) erected at the highest spot on the highway, which is a scenic viewpoint for camera-happy tourists. “It’s about the tourist thing, but also about how the mountains are turning to shit. They are rapidly deteriorating because of over-farming,” he explains.

Before setting off, de Guia held an exhibition and fundraising event in late October at Mo Space gallery in Metro Manila. There, as he squatted on a large piece of carved wood in front of a life-size replica of a Dangwa bus made from tent materials, he explained his project. It would include objects gathered along the Halsema highway, an act reminiscent of Rene Aquitania’s 1986 project Lakaran, in which the artist pulled a vegetable cart painted with the words “Art for Peace” from Baguio to Manila shortly after the revolution that overthrew the Marcos regime, picking up objects along the way. Like Aquitania’s works, de Guia’s installations and paintings incorporate found objects, picked up in natural environs, lifted from tribal arts and crafts, stolen off streets, recovered from dump sites or even scavenged from his family home. “These objects have value, but they are broken or have been forgotten,” he said. They often have personal resonance but are also part of what de Guia sees as a collective memory that he is seeking to reactivate.

The idea of hosting a festival in the region builds on de Guia’s own childhood memories. The first Baguio International Arts Festival was held in 1989 by the Baguio Arts Guild, which included the nationally recognized artist Benedicto Cabrera (BenCab), as well as de Guia’s father, the renowned filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik (known as Eric de Guia). In the decade that followed, Baguio became an art hot spot, with curators traveling from Manila to discover the local scene. “It was really ahead of its time. It was maybe the first festival in the Philippines to be self-organized by artists,” de Guia says. This “next generation” AXS Art Project aspires to put Baguio’s art scene back on the map.

The original Baguio Arts Guild collaborated with indigenous peoples living in the mountainous region. The younger de Guia credits his father’s generation for helping to raise awareness around the highland cultures and instilling the tribes with a newfound sense of pride through art. “Filipinos used to generalize mountain people as Igorots, a pejorative term used by Spanish colonialists. Now Cordillerans say proudly ‘I’m Ifugao’ or ‘I’m Kalinga’ or ‘I’m Ibaloi.’” De Guia was exposed to these social milieus from an early age, along with the burgis Filipino circle into which he was born.

His first two solo shows set the tone for his career. The first was staged at the Philippine High School for the Arts in 1995, a compound on Mount Makiling in Luzon established in the Marcos era, when culture was considered a key part of nation-state building. For that show, he mutilated, caged and torched more than 100 Mickey Mouse facsimiles, a nod to his upbringing. De Guia explained, “My father had this quirky way of questioning, what is Filipino? He always used Mickey Mouse as the icon for our ‘benevolent assimilation’ by the Americans. The Trojan Mouse comes in as something so cute and ends up doing so much damage.”

After graduating, de Guia felt the need to escape social expectations by traveling and “finding his own way,” as he puts it. Initially following a Buddhist path, he trekked from Japan to Kathmandu, making and documenting ephemeral artworks, which Joselina Cruz, then curator at the Lopez Museum, Pasig, presented in 2001 as “Earth to Sky: Kawayan de Guia.” He acknowledged the influence of older artists on his practice in “Incubator,” held in 2007 at the Drawing Room gallery in Manila, showing portraits cobbled together from diverse materials of the Filipino artists who served as his mentors, including BenCab, Aquitania, Santiago Bose, Roberto Villanueva, Agnes Arellano, Tommy Hafalla and his father Kidlat. “Incubator” won him the 2008 Ateneo Art Awards, a prestigious prize for young artists.

For his 2009 show at the Drawing Room, “Katas Ng Pilipinas – God Knows Hudas Not Pay,” de Guia pimped up a series of discarded jukeboxes that had made it to Baguio in the 1960s and 1970s through American military bases. De Guia is sensitive to the prevalence of loud, usually sentimental, music in everyday Filipino life. “What is it with Filipinos and love songs?” he wonders. He was struck by how the jukeboxes resembled the jeepney, the public transportation based on US jeeps that has become uniquely pinoy in its use of kitschy pop, religious iconography and flashy chrome fittings—elements that de Guia employed in his hybrid jeepney-jukebox creations.

In another award-winning show, “Bomba,” curated by Patrick Flores at the University of the Philippines Vargas Museum in 2010, de Guia displayed an array of torpedo-shaped disco-like mirrors hung from the ceiling, with massive speakers blasting out love songs. He was playing on the dual meaning of bomba—the Spanish word for “bomb” and a term used for popular soft-porn movies of the 1980s. “What I really wanted to do was create a party madness. I don’t really see this world going in the right direction, so what can we do about it? Discourse happens when you bring people together at crazy social gatherings, especially if you get an odd mix of people.”

Although de Guia is working on many international events in 2013—he is one of several dozen co-curators of the Singapore Biennale and is having a solo show in Singapore at Gillman Barracks with the Drawing Room—he remains committed to Baguio and the local art scene. “These are troubled times,” he says, “where so many different tensions of life are blending together.” For de Guia, art is about bringing all these aspects to the forefront by drawing from the mixed sociocultural influences that comprise the Filipino sense of identity and, ultimately, gathering people from different “tribes” together—if not in communion, then at least for a rockin’ cross-cultural party.