This Artist Invites The Ayta to Create Art About Themselves
When Cian Dayrit began his residency at Bellas Artes Projects in Bataan last May 2017, he went around the libraries and museums trying to find out if there were any other narratives to the place beyond the Japanese occupation and the Bataan Death March. What got his attention, but which were always in the periphery, were the indigenous communities that lived in the area.
There are 18 Ayta communities in Bataan, and Dayrit chose to delve into their local histories and mythologies. Meeting with them regularly led to a conversation about their struggles with land and IP laws, how they narrate their own history and identity as opposed to the way the “colonial gaze” has informed outsider observations for hundreds of years, and how they can eventually reappropriate the exhibit as a self-managed archive of their culture. Busis Ibat Ha Kanayunan (Voices from the Hinterlands), the exhibit that came out of his months-long research process, is a truly collaborative effort, with participation from the Aytas and local craftspeople in designing, producing, and creating the various artifacts of the show.
Dayrit, who is trained as a painter, took on what he calls a crash course in different research methodologies, and he chose a museological approach for the exhibit. A selection of ethnographic texts is accompanied by old photographs from the Lopez Museum that truly capture the colonial gaze—Aytas depicted as specimen, as exotic, and as Other. The Ayta communities don’t usually see these depictions of themselves, and don’t get to read all that has been written about them in the academe and the media. Dayrit counters these narratives by having the community members create a timeline of their own history (which is passed down orally) and, using disposable cameras, document themselves and each other.
Other artwork interpretations were less intentional. Dayrit had commissioned a small statue of an Ayta woman carrying two babies, based on a photo from 1901. The Paete woodcarver used batikuling wood, a soft wood typically used in crafting religious idols. The Ayta carving was finished like a santo, white skin and all, and the face of the infant she carried was less than endearing. The final slight was the addition of dangly heart earrings. Dayrit sees it as a fine example of the colonial gaze passed on to local hands.
Cartography being an important part of Dayrit’s practice, there is a section devoted to maps and counter-maps. Dayrit had embroidered a large tapestry map representing the 18 Ayta communities of Bataan, adorned with small illustrations representing a geopolitical or environmental issue, like how beehives are now four feet shorter than what they used to be, due to the shrinkage in their territory (honey gathering was one of the primary modes of income for the Aytas). The hand-drawn maps are products of the counter-mapping workshops Dayrit held, an ongoing project which he has conducted with other marginalized groups.
“Counter-mapping is mapping by the people who live in the space,” he explains. “You counter the cartography being authored by the state or those in a position of power. When you draw boundaries on the surface of a geological formation, that is already a political gesture that marks territory.” They Aytas were asked to draw the idea of their ancestral domain, their settlements, where they work and live, their daily routine. They also plotted out spaces of fear and safety, other events they wanted to talk about, as well as spaces of dispute.
There is quite a lot to delve into in this exhibit, which neither romanticizes the Aytas nor purports to uplift them like some social enterprise—the art is simply a vehicle for their stories to be told, with the hopes of fostering deeper understanding between highland and lowland communities.
Certainly more questions will be raised than can be answered by the artist alone, and so viewers are invited to attend one of the public roundtable discussions hosted by Bellas Artes Projects and moderated by exhibit curator and BAP artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt. The first will be held this Wednesday, December 13 at 7 PM on “Cultural Appropriation and Representing Indigenous Knowledge.” Cian Dayrit will convene a roundtable discussion that addresses the complexities surrounding authorship and authenticity in the act of representing others. Participating in the first discussion will be Marian Pastor-Roces, lead curator of TAO Inc., Victor Paz, professor of archeology at UP Diliman, and Aya Santos, public information officer of Sandugo.