ART MAY BE CONCERNED with the creative manipulation of images, but words are always part of the picture. When we encounter a work of art, a load of labels and captions, categories and explanations always works to help or hinder our better understanding. Some are printed on the wall beside the work; others we carry inside our own heads. In a consumer culture, we swim through a deluge of images that reflect back to us who we are and who we might become. The ability to tag, consolidate, and archive images becomes part of our ability to negotiate life: What does the tag say? Is this good for us? What’s the fine print? Where does this image lead our imagination? Tags are a necessary shortcut to dealing with the image fatigue of a visual culture.
Tags help us pin down images and stabilize their sometimes fluid nature. And after all, images are slippery. They can work like sponges, soaking up their environment, and can be a place for misunderstanding, offense, or at times a soggy, comfortable familiarity. Images can perplex us and confound our definitions, especially when they reflect issues of religious and philosophical commitment. In Filipino artist Emmanuel Garibay, we find an artist who works both outside and inside the usual codes of western art making. His work requires us to confront our expectations and reconsider our neat categories for faith and culture. For those of us possessed of a western cultural vocabulary, he does a good service in confronting us with the limitations of our seeing.
Garibay, who works in Manila, has had wide exposure in Europe, Asia, and North America through solo exhibitions and publications. His work is not easily categorized as either Asian or Christian—whatever those labels might mean. The paintings are prickly and tend to defy convention. Largely through narrative, he achieves what we love to celebrate in current western postmodern practice: irony. Instead of applying irony to western self-identity, however, Garibay uses it to probe global concerns about human justice and blindness. He reminds viewers that we can see, and uses shock to open up our neat lives. Garibay is an artist for our time, when art, politics, religion, and power collide. His simple yet compelling images draw us into complex narratives of cultural clash and innovation.
Garibay is an Asian artist, a description that brings its own bundle of tags. For most westerners, Asia evokes exotic, spicy environments that tantalize by their otherness. In seeing and tasting, we are confronted initially with difference. At first glance, we don’t see Asia at all; we simply see our own unfamiliarity reflected back at us. It is easy to turn the unfamiliar into an exotic object, or to visit it only with our fears and desires, and Garibay is conscious of this tendency. His awareness arises out of the complex history of the Philippines, a story of colonization and dominance by the West. He wants us as western viewers to be aware of how we are looking, conscious of our power and privilege. His images are therefore at times quite tough, as they wrestle with our expectations.
Garibay lives and works on the edge of the vast swathe of Metro Manila in a rambling set of buildings in the semirural province of Cavite. Dogs and chickens raise a constant background noise as he offers hospitality to family, local artists, and visitors like me seeking to understand where this often confrontational image-maker gets his inspiration. Garibay is quiet spoken, with a deep confidence in the power of images to speak for themselves. Table conversation is not a discourse of ideas but of anecdote, narrative, and real-life political analysis. Stories are the traffic of household hospitality that offers me, a first-world visitor, an entry point into the charm and complexity of Filipino life. Already I am an uncomfortable outsider at this table, as I have believed the publicity at the airport and in all the tourist guidebooks, that the Filipino people are some of the happiest on the planet. Warm smiles everywhere and a zany, sparkling sense of humor seem to confirm this view at every turn.
From its earliest beginnings, Garibay’s work was narrative in style, telling stories of hope and powerlessness, restlessness for freedom from oppression both economic and political. He paints a world rich with the ironies of the promise of progress in a country rife with corruption and inequality. The Philippines have long experienced Spanish and North American colonialism, and feudal values still order many features of the country’s political and social life. Garibay has an eye for isolating in a single episode the ironies and tensions that shape a whole culture. He is a compassionate and deeply committed insider who defamiliarizes ordinary life.
Take one of his more widely known series, a depiction of the passionate Filipino interest in sports, especially basketball. The game is part of daily life for young men in particular, who enjoy its physicality and community appeal. In a dynamic, well observed work, Garibay illustrates a group of youths jostling on a court set in a closed if not confined urban environment. The title, Hangarin, could be translated as “aspiration” or “goal” [see Plate 6].
But, as Garibay explains, basketball is one of the imported expressions of North American culture that now obsesses the popular imagination. He himself is an avid player and communicates well the zeal and physical energy of the game. But he points out to me the thing I have not observed: “This work dramatizes how misplaced our focus is on a sport that we are not physically suited for given our shorter physique. It also shows how thoroughly we have been colonized by North America.” He explains how the star system works in Filipino pro basketball (the PBA has ten company-sponsored teams), how the only real money is made by players imported from North America. His story encapsulates the issues of power and marginality that mark Filipino culture. As a way of life, Filipinos jostle for an impossible hope, an illusion of success, an unreachable goal.
Poverty, Garibay says provocatively, is the great savior of many rural Filipinos. Having no resources saves them from trying to compete as consumers—a role in which western investors looking for new markets in Asia are eager to cast them. Garibay’s deeply held concern for the poor was nurtured by his father, a leading Methodist preacher who gave his time to his flock with an openheartedness that also marks his son’s sense of hospitality. Emmanuel Garibay often draws on Bible stories, but his biblical images are never benign. They tend to explode in the mind like parables, turning things upside down exposing conditions of power and powerlessness. This is the Bible of the poor and marginalized rather than the Bible of comfortable privilege. It’s not a book I am familiar with, but I begin to see it in Garibay’s studio.
Art, in Garibay’s vocabulary, is a form of political and social speech that shapes our conscience. This idea has been out of vogue in western criticism until recently, in fact until just after 9/11 when religion reentered the mainstream. Garibay believes in the power of art, in particular the capacity of images to bring insight and change behavior. His is a thoroughly incarnational model of image-making, rooted in both his art and theological training. (After completing a BA in fine arts and a degree in sociology from the University of the Philippines, he went on to earn an MA from Union Theological Seminary in Manila.) His combined studies have given him a language for cultural imagination. Shying away from the pulpit, Garibay turned with assurance to the task of making prickly, difficult, and parable-like images that investigate the nature of the human person.
Unlike many artists shaped by Christianity, who simply dress the Bible in their own ethnic clothing, Garibay has probed deeper into the collisions between the ministry of Jesus and the nature of power. He is aware of the here-and-now social analysis brought to bear by liberation theology, and he sees in images the capacity to provide an antidote to blindness and rally the imagination to new acts of justice. His worldly form of faith has much to teach first-world consumers. Garibay is a gracious and warm personality, but his images are dangerous to comfortable illusions and complacent religiosity.
Having exhibited his works in Australia, I have observed firsthand the discomfort they cause the faithful. Audiences chuckle at his visual observations with a growing sense of unease—especially at his criticisms of the organized church. For example, a cheerful group of clergy jostling to have their picture taken turns out to be none other than the twelve apostles at their reunion gathering [see Plate 5]. What appears to be the usual group snapshot causes something of a double take when we recognize the still crucified Christ at the center. In mood and posture, his ironic figure is distanced from the happy, smiling classmates, who seem to congratulate themselves on their achievements since graduation. These good old days are somewhat lost on the crucified one.
Photos are always big moments in Filipino life; they create history, capture moments in time, and celebrate life. Looking more carefully, we see that several clergy are preoccupied with their own images. One frames his face with a forefinger and thumb, a local gesture that indicates how good looking he is. The displacement of the crucified Christ among these cheerful apostles is not lost on the viewer. Garibay comments: “At times, the church has preoccupied itself with the institutional issues. Here, theology is all about the ‘other world.’ It does not engage in any confrontations with authorities or forces of power in the real world. It just serves the interests of those who are leaders.”
One of Garibay’s central concerns over many years has been where to locate the figure of Christ in Filipino culture. While western artists might shy away from the direct depiction of a contemporary Christ as fraught with difficult cultural collisions, Garibay has attempted it many times. More than simply finding Christ’s place, his task has been the more difficult one of identifying the very problem of Christ in Filipino culture, where Christ has long been closely associated with the Spanish colonial period and more recently with North American consumerism. Where does the authentic Christ image occur, who expresses a freedom, hope, and faith that are genuinely Filipino?
When the figure of Christ does appear in Garibay’s work, it offers an elusive and challenging opportunity rather than a fixed destination of comfortable faith. Christ appears variously as rich and decorated, poor and marginal, mostly indigenous and dark in complexion, and at one point in the guise of a woman. One of his most widely reproduced works is his exploration of the episode of Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. Here the early church encounters the risen Lord as the unfamiliar one who has walked alongside us and is finally made recognizable in the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine. Many artists have attempted this story because it turns on a moment of visual perception. The dramatic and starkly lit interior scene by Caravaggio, for example, notably expresses this shock of recognition, when we see the one for whom we have longed.
In Garibay’s version [see Plate 7], Christ appears in the form of a woman in a red café dress, with appropriate stigmata in her hands, lest we miss that she is indeed the risen one. By the standards of Filipino culture, the dress is edgy; it marks her as an outsider, perhaps a woman of ill repute. Rather irreverently, however, the disciples are laughing uproariously. They have just made the recognition—and what a joke! Expecting Jesus to appear in familiar form, they had missed the point. Now they see. It’s a funny story of missing true identity, but more profoundly, it plays with another, more difficult truth: the human capacity for blindness. Some western audiences have found this image simply too much, yet the visual strategy is consistent with Martin Luther’s idea of the resurrection as a divine joke played on the devil, a surprise ending in the face of death. Likewise, Garibay makes a theological point through play and surprise, overturning the image we had in our mind’s eye. An appropriate theological response to resurrection is amazement, which should be accompanied by an equal amazement that we could have missed the point. Like Jesus at Emmaus, Garibay confronts us with our inherent blindness. We say we have faith and yet we cannot see.
Garibay is on a search for Jesus among the false prophets and priests of power. He wants us to understand how images work and how they can keep us from a way of seeing that would set us free. He says: “I am concerned to find a Jesus who is contextualized into our own life and national situation. A Filipino Jesus continues to be part of the colonial past that is still present. This is a Jesus with a four-hundred-year history who looks white. The church continues to support this colonial view and allows it be embellished with gold, and therefore more importantly with power and authority.” Garibay reminds believers that faith can also be a form of not seeing, as when it is turned into an ideology that is used to inoculate us against complexity and, even worse, injustice. In his work, Christ is the one who brings surprise, at times as a trickster or troublemaker. He turns over tables and will not stay still long enough to be made into an idol to be manipulated, a banner to wage war under, or even an ideal to proclaim a kingdom on earth.
Many writers on the words of Jesus have observed this same quality in the parables: they operate on the level of the imagination and work to turn things upside down. Seeing and experiencing the truth requires disruption, confusion, and moments of chaos. Ordinarily, we tend to see things the way we would like them to be. Our desire shapes our seeing. If these are our habits, where do we see the Christ? Where do we celebrate presence and fullness of life?
In the crowded complexity of a street festival, so much a part of the rhythm of Filipino community life, we see the signs and symbols of faith and begin to look for the figure of Christ [see Plate 8]. This search turns up a surfeit of choices, and our confusion is echoed by the central perplexed figure of a centurion, the biblical voice who makes a confession of faith at the foot of the cross. So where is Jesus? Which face among all the options is the true representation? Among the crowd we see various religious figures, priests, popular media preachers, a hippie Jesus, a small child, a youth, a woman’s face crowned with barbed wire, and even a passerby with stigmata. Perhaps the crowd is asking the real Jesus to please come forward. Among the preachers, pious clowns, bright placards, and loud voices on public address systems, the entry into Jerusalem is reenacted. Instead of clarity and focus, there is a surplus of interpretations, a confusion of tongues, a modern-day Babel. This image echoes global religious communication. In the Philippines, Christianity is the religion of the vast majority, and yet it is complicated by history and changing conditions. In a larger framework, we all enter religious experience now as a media event, through mass communications like television and the internet. At this smorgasbord, we can ironically observe that there is a Jesus for every demographic.
In contrast to this humorous and chaotic image comes a more complex work entitled Corpus Christi, a meditation on the meaning of Christ in culture [see Plate 9]. The painting offers multiple perspectives and invites the viewer to circumnavigate it like a mapmaker or explorer. It keeps offering new readings and revels in ambiguity rather than offering a stable hierarchy of interpretation. This manner of ordering the visual invites a more integrated sense of Christ being present in culture in many ways, and the work is Garibay’s most distilled attempt to date to explore this vast subject and to locate his own sense of belief and hope. Among the images are hints for interpreters about the role of signs, letters, gestures, and the preserving of history. From the Pinocchio nose of a lying theologian sitting on the toilet to the seeing-eye chest of the central crucified figure, we encounter images that draw on dreamlike or surreal states of mind. This enigmatic and intriguing work opens up a new way of working for an artist who is a keen interpreter of the signs of the times.
The final work I have included challenges me most [see Plate 10]. It is based on the apocryphal story of Judith, who saved the Jewish nation by killing the military commander Holofernes. While the details of the story are sketchy for many of us, its representation is familiar, as it was a popular image during the late Renaissance given its theatrical violence. In Garibay’s version Judith is a dark and beautiful indigenous Filipino woman who holds the knife against the large bulbous head of a self-confident white Holofernes. Interestingly, both sets of eyes address the viewer, and we are left to go back and forth between them at the very moment the deed is being contemplated—during an otherwise innocent ritual of shaving.
In the background Garibay has included references to Filipino history. To the left are old ruins and a famous volcano, a natural site linked to the inner beauty and power of Judith. To the right is the monument to the national hero of the Philippines, Dr. José Rizal, who was executed by the Spanish in 1896. Rizal was a medical doctor, artist, and novelist who rallied Filipinos to the possibility of independence in the late nineteenth century. These references activate the viewer’s memory, prompting echoes of stories of the struggle for independence. Garibay is not simply illustrating a story from Jewish history but is locating it within his own culture and reexamining its relevance and power. When history repeats itself, it can be re-appropriated towards new futures.
This violent image stands poised at a moment of anticipation of a decisive action that will lead to freedom. Garibay explains: “It’s probably a way of suggesting what we should do. The act of cutting off the head of Holofernes would be cutting that colonial bind that is still holding us. While they are not visible, the forces of neocolonialism are still around.” Garibay points to what he understands as the heart of the conflict within the Filipino people: their tragic imagination, their sense of oppression, and their disbelief in change, which plague and stultify the country’s social and political processes. As an artistic strategy, his willingness to criticize the order of things and question the manner in which tradition is used risks offending viewers both at home and abroad. His critique of colonialism stings as sharply within his own culture as it does for westerners.
Garibay’s images are potent, unsettling, and dynamic. As a young art student during the Marcos regime he worked with artist-activists who wanted to help people see their future and to make better choices. Motivated both by his political awareness and his reading of the Bible, in his work he has continued to find ways to express a deep sense of humanity and to keep alive a vision of an ethical and just future. Sometimes this involves dismantling old ways of seeing and exposing blindness and a tendency to hide the truth. Still, Garibay continues to be a respected artist in the Philippines, as well as a frequent collaborator with artists’ movements and group exhibitions. He has been involved for many years in conferences and events that draw creative people together for social change. There seems to be no other alternative for creative people within such a culture: as an artist you live with your neighbor as your subject matter. Most recently Garibay has been involved with the artists’ collective Tutok, whose members seek to address a recent swathe of political killings, and has been a mentor to many emerging artists in the Philippines.
The art of the region shares characteristics with work being made in Africa, India, and South America, where artists are also situated within communities that face poverty, violence, and political powerlessness. By necessity artists are concerned with survival, hope, and human invention in the face of overwhelming odds. This context is radically different from the art centers of the first world, where concerns about identity reign supreme. In the West, consumerism is the language of currency, while art in the global South is far more about a revitalization of the social imagination. This is sometimes about human justice, sometimes about hope, and sometimes just raising questions that prick the conscience.
For all his ironic playfulness and urgent, sometimes confrontational sense of social justice, there remains a buoyant hope in Garibay’s work, a belief in the role of art as a resource for the health of a nation’s imagination. Now in his mid career, Garibay is recognized in the wider currents of contemporary art well outside Christian circles. There is something simply prophetic about this quiet man’s capacity to make parables that dismantle injustice and offer hope for the future. In the West, where overtly political art is not in vogue, we still feel somewhat nostalgic about the possibilities of such a prophetic voice.
As I journey home to Australia after spending time with Garibay and his work, I am aware of a disruption in my seeing. The deluge of images on billboards and video screens begins before I leave the airport, and I find myself very aware of my color, nationality, wealth, and gender, all tags I usually enjoy blindly. More profoundly, I notice that the usual justifications of my life’s familiar privileges now seem a bit hollow. Having gone to the Philippines to see art, I return with a new way of looking at how I describe and categorize my lived experience. I seem to have crossed a border. I am aware that I am a stranger, dislodged from the secure comfort of my culture. This experience invites me to face the limits of my way of life, while also seeking a way to name faith. I have gotten enough of this sense of strange freedom to know that artists can be dangerous. They invite us to think anew and to transcend our context. Perhaps this is one of the gifts western viewers can find in the work of Emmanuel Garibay: in becoming strangers, we learn to see with fresh eyes.