Books & Art

Manila Biennale Starts Tomorrow, And It Will Show You Intramuros as You’ve Never Seen It Before

Watch art and history come alive at this month-long festival.
IMAGE Manila Biennale - Rache Go

Some days it’s hard to imagine why Manila was once called the Pearl of the Orient. But before World War II, Manila was famous for its beautiful architecture and sophisticated people. But for a few photos, films, and works of literature, our city’s former grandeur has been erased from our collective memory.

That’s why Carlos Celdran has organized Manila Biennale (pronounced "bye-a-nah-leh"), a month-long festival that will commemorate the Battle of Manila through art exhibitions. “The Battle of Manila is when Manila lost its way," Celdran says, explaining why the Biennale is built around that particular historic event. "Intramuros was really the repository and laboratory of Filipino art and culture. So, for 400 years, through the galleon trade and people coming to the Philippines from all parts of our country and the world, all the seven churches of Intramuros had countless priceless books, paintings, architecture.” 


The 1945 Battle of Manila, one might recall, is one of the major battles of World War II—one of the worst of the war, resulting in the devastation of the city. “And when World War II destroyed all of Intramuros except for San Agustin Church, Filipinos lost a reference to their culture,” Celdran continues. “We will never know what was written inside that book that was burned. We will never know the kind of pink the ceiling was of a particular church, or the curlicue of a staircase. That is all gone.”

Manila Biennale aims to help us remember Intramuros as it once was, and to restore it to its former glory as a center of art and culture. From February 3 to March 5, the many plazas, gardens, chambers, and museums of the historic city will be transformed into venues for exhibits, performances, film screenings, and talks

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There will also be an Artist Ball on February 21 and the Manila Transitio Memorial Concert on February 25. And as its name suggests, this festival will be held in Intramuros every two years. But why is it important to restore Intramuros as a cultural hub, when our art scene is already very vibrant on its own? Celdran believes Filipinos need a place to gather, a space that isn’t a mall for once. “Intramuros is organically the genesis of where our culture began in Manila. Manila has been divided into commercial spaces and private spaces like villages, malls,” Celdran explains. “Intramuros is the oldest part of our city and it was a walled part of our city, but now Filipinos have to come and open up that city. That’s why [our theme is] Open City. We have to open up Intramuros to other Filipinos.”

Celdran believes that by restoring Intramuros to what it once was, we won’t just be reviving a historical landmark but an important part of our national identity. “A lot of people who live in Manila have never been [to Intramuros],” he says. “Many Filipinos do not even know their own history and as Rizal said, if you do not know your own history, if you don’t go back to where you came from you can never look forward. So it’s important for Filipinos to look to the past in order to go to the future.”

He continues, “Did you watch the movie Coco? So remember if you stop remembering, it all disappears? If we don't remember our history and we don’t use our own history, it will disappear. So what’s really important, more than anything is for Filipinos to come down and use Intramuros,” he says. “Get in touch with it and make it a place that they go to regularly. And if we do that, we will help revive our city, we will help save our culture, and we will get more in touch with who we are.”


Apart from its location, another thing that sets the Biennale apart from other art festivals is that no art will be sold. This was done to shift our focus to the processes of creating art, rather than art as an object for sale. “That is part of our manifesto: it’s all about art interacting with the city, and it always has to be artist-run, artist-managed, and artist-centric. So we’re really more about teaching people the processes of art rather than selling art,” Celdran explains.

“The artist is really a cultural worker. A lot of people only see the product, the finished thing that they made on a gallery wall, in a museum, in someone’s home, and no one really understands what the artist goes through to get that art on the wall,” he adds. “So now we’re really trying to make it all about artists’ issues, things that affect them, the kind of processes that they have in order to get their work done. I would say it’s almost Communist because it’s all about addressing the artist as a cultural worker.”


This is why visitors will be able to see artists working in Intramuros throughout the month. Celdran wants us to view art not just as static objects on a wall, but as something that interacts with its space. The pieces exhibited at the Biennale will address Intramuros’ history. There will also be talks, such as a discussion on gender equality hosted by Nikki Luna and Ces Drilon. The Manila Biennale’s publication will not only have photos of the artists’ work, but mementoes of the processes through which the artists created their work. 

Ultimately, the Manila Biennale hopes to make Filipinos view the Walled City with fresh eyes. “All I know is that if I can’t change the way Manila looks, I hope I can change the way people look at Manila. I just hope that they would have had at least a perspective that was moved,” Celdran says. “If there’s anything I can offer, it’s going to be a new experience of Manila. It’s going to be Intramuros like you’ve never seen it—Manila like you’ve never seen it.”


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Angelica Gutierrez
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