Traversing against the tide

By Ted Aldwin Ong

Antique will now become part of the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) diary as the 17th edition of the longest-running and artist-led art biennale will be held in three locations of the province from November 8 to 10.

Artists from various islands of the Visayas region and from different parts of the archipelago and the world will have the opportunity to learn the art practices and understand the cultural roots of Antique art with programming that deals with the continuing legacy of international exchange, a panel discussion that explores the intersections of the indigenous and the contemporary, and engagement with members of rural and Indigenous communities.

Expectedly, VIVA ExCon will be a platform to show the captivating landscape that shapes the unique issues of Antique Province and how the political, social, and environmental elements have manifested in the art practice. One of the major ingredients for understanding is the theme in Kinaray-a language, “Suba sa Iraya, Sa-og sa Ilawod,” with emphasis on the former. The word suba means “river” and iraya mean “upstream,” and the phrase is used to describe movement or direction towards the source of the river. It is also an allegory that denotes counterflow or going against a strong current of a river.

The organizers offered two interpretations of the theme. First, swimming upstream or towards the source of the river, creating a crosscurrent or moving against the current, and second, it taps into the progressive views nurtured in the region by revisiting its rich literary history and narratives of dissent and organized political action.

The theme intends to communicate the aspirations of local artists. Certainly, VIVA ExCon elders, who came from a progressive tradition considering the revolutionary milieu when the Black Artists in Asia was formed and the political temperament when they founded VIVA ExCon in the late 80s, understood fully well the struggles and desires of the Antique artists. Without a doubt, the organizers have endeavored to strike a delicate balance between the various intentions and sensitivities of the local stakeholders, considering the political nature of the statement, and with local political leaders supporting the event through their respective local governments.

Swimming against the current reflects the sentiments of the internal state of engagement of local artists as “traversing against the tide”. It superimposes Antique’s political and social context, reflecting that of our nation—a society governed by the dominant elite class. Apparently, political events in recent years in Antique have shown how the landlords and local elite have used their power, influence, and money to negotiate their way with the powers that be to preserve their entitlements, maintain patronage, and sustain the status quo.

A quick visit to the wall of the Antique Provincial Capitol shows the portraits of local politicians who have governed the province since the dawn of time and who, among them, have occupied a place in the country’s political history. It is an enlightening depiction of the historical class struggle, abetting an understanding of who directs the tide and who is traversing against it.

The class dimension is reinforced by the selection of the main festival ground, the Aldea Compound, a former rice mill at the border of San Jose and Sibalom that also served as the headquarters of the Ugyon Kang mga Mangunguma Mangingisda kag Mamumugon sa Antique (Union of Farmers, Fisherfolk, and Workers of Antique), a site described as an intimate witness to the province’s rich history of dissent and opposition in connection to its working classes, many of whom are forced into seasonal and migratory labor.

The venue provides a backward and forward link to the class conflict, and it indicates the exploitative system that created and preserved the wealth of Antique’s elite, generating resistance and insurgency on its path. Undeniably, the system prevails until today, and this is exposed by the over-extraction of natural resources from the bowels of the mountains and the sea, causing irreparable damage to ecology, bringing wealth to extractors and tax revenues to local and national governments, while causing misery and chronic poverty in rural communities.

I believe that this is the reality with which the VIVA ExCon is exercising its facilitative role of harnessing the natural and cultural heritage of Antique in its aim for rural regeneration, an entry point for social and political engagement using arts and culture as a pathway. Unfortunately, rural regeneration as a sustainable development model continues to struggle for effectiveness in rural settings across the globe where guns, goons, and gold command the rules of the game.

The theme is a compelling narrative of the locals who continue to fight for emancipation. I share the aspirations of Antiqueños, hopeful that hosting the VIVA ExCon 2023 will deliver enduring dividends in the future amidst a global order that is increasingly destabilized by inequality, attracting authoritarianism; hence, prompting social movements to review strategies for effective engagement.

There is much to celebrate at VIVA ExCon, and I’m optimistic that the 17th edition will bring new understanding from the sharing of art, that discussions will create solidarity instead of divisiveness among artists and VIVA stakeholders, and that the experience will re-energize Antique artists to continue traversing against the tide beyond the biennale.


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