Harnessing the Quiet Power of Poons With Artist BD Villareal
In F.Sionil Jose’s Po-on, Istak, a former sacristan in Ilocos searches for a larger meaning of the Filipino in the final years of Spanish Colonial Philippines. His journey is a reexamination of faith, freedom, and nationalism in many ways, as well as of the rot that comes from a false sense of patrimony. Jose's first novel in the Rosales Saga offers us a tale of self-preservation and enlightenment in the aftermath of disillusionment.
Much of these ideas are explored in BD Villareal’s own Poon, too. His second solo exhibition, held at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Gallery, is a retelling and reshaping of one of our most enduring symbols. Most Filipinos, much like Istak, have a complicated relationship with these colonial relics, after all. Poons were part of Spain's crusade for Christianity, and that wasn't exactly the most peaceful of endeavors. And yet, the veneration for them persists to this day. Filipinos have now taken ownership of the poon. These things have become symbols of devotion and salvation.
“I was fascinated by the religious Catholic statues and effigies that were present, at that time, within my household and in Quiapo Church. The statues of the Nazareno were the most interesting pieces to me, and they always peaked my curiosity,” he expressed. “Probably because at one point in my childhood I was scared by their appearance.”
"My artistry, my religious background, and curiosity towards these antique poons produced this exhibit," Villareal explained.
While Villareal was born in San Pablo, Laguna, he is a son of Quiapo. His father had lived there before he was born, and had moved the family back to the district after the birth of his son, BD, in 1977. Growing up around the district of Quiapo showed Villareal the richness and fading glory of Manila. And that had informed his perspectives on art and his creative exploration, which translated into his passion for the poon as a subject. His first solo exhibition in 2018, Mga Haligi ng Quiapo depicted such imagery, too.
"(Poons) looked like they were discarded and burnt. The statues' eyes were weirdly staring at me whenever I looked at them. It looked very different compared to the other statues of saints that looked like a clean porcelain white. Without any damage, they looked foreign, in which they resembled white men," Villareal said, reflecting on how his curiosity of the idol developed through the years.
"Santo Tres" (2022) by BD Villareal, Oil on Canvas.
He eventually entered the world of religious antiques, as well, becoming a collector. The artist has more than 10 individual pieces in his home these days, which he had inherited from parents and grandparents. The other 20 are part of his personal collection of antique Poong Nazarenos coming from various places in the Philippines. "I was also interested in old books about poons in the Philippines, and that’s where I continued to research about them," he added.
There, he thought about the peculiarities between the poons of the past and of today. They have been depicted in different shapes, hues, and sizes in Filipino popular culture, and have been reckoned with in various ways because of the burden of Colonial Catholic convalescence. He had also questioned why poons still appealed to the Filipino, even if the supposed sacred imagery of such was, at times, distorted and unpleasant. Villareal, at the very least, has come to terms with it. In malaise is how we know we endure and where we harness something new from within.
"The poon, in modern times, would still and should still be the same," he told Esquire Philippines. The baroque style of these images and items perfectly suits the depiction of its surreal and dream-like appearances. It still exists until now because visual distortion happens when we remember, when we dream."
Curator Mark Louie Lugue poses this question in the exhibit's description, "how do we perceive the old, the decayed, the discarded?"
"Ang Kolektor at ang Deboto" (2022) by BD Villareal, Oil on Canvas.
Even though poon comes from the Tagalog word "panginoon," it is grasped in a distinct social expression. It is us who ascribe sacredness to these icons. The idea of a god is something that pronounces its holiness with its mere thought. God is to be venerated as such while religious objects are created without this mythos. We assign it god's essence at some point, and we become stewards in turn.
"They (poons) has been used by Catholic Filipinos to make a physical embodiment of what they believe in. The existence of the poon is caused by the Filipinos’ yearning for belief," the artist claimed. "This is made into these physical objects—something they can see, touch, and feel."
When we look at the portraits of Villareal's figures, we are confronted by the vulnerability and modern dread of the poon's place during these times. The subjects are twistedly dark yet vibrant in color and modality. They are bold in shapes yet apprehensive in their movements, reflecting fear and disarray.
Villareal's poons are beautifully baroque, but are not defined by opulence and ornamentation but rather by splinters, loses, and flakes, cracking under the pressure of postmodernism, strangely enough. In particular, the paintings "Santo Singko" and "Santo Dose" portray the poon with that same potency, as they break away from the grips of their lore.
"Santo Singko" (2022) and "Santo Dose" (2022) by BD Villareal, Oil on Canvas.
Pieces like "Santo Dos" and "Santo Tres," meanwhile, show us the duality of idolatry. Situated in front of animated backdrops, the poons here possess a buoyancy in the midst of their lost luster. They are poised and pragmatic, still, even if their hands are missing. They exhibit a collectedness under the weight of heritage and history, in both communal and personal spheres.
In works like "Higpit ng Pananampalayata" and "Ang Kolektor at ang Deboto," we can observe Villareal's journey of self-reflection on full display. The exhibit, of course, is deeply personal to the artist, as both a man of faith and a man with the desire to understand his roots. This is where Villareal's style crosses the surreal, immersing the viewer in a push-and-pull of reverence and obscurity. Who is the poon today without the Filipino? Who is the Filipino today without the poon? Villareal's pieces catch us in a state of sobriety when looking at the place of the poon in Filipino life, bathed in cultural saturation and drunk in introspection.
Poon by BD Villareal will be on display at the NCCA Gallery in Intramuros, Manila until June 30.