Essays Issue 4

   Issue 4: January - June 2005

Marjorie Evasco - Pernia, Ph.D. Litt.



Restoration and Creation: The Work of the Ekphrastic Imagination


Prologue

In the wake of last December’s natural calamities in the Philippines and many parts of Asia and Africa, the first part of this professorial chair lecture changed course and shape even as it provided the space within which to do the important action of thinking about our human place in the universe. I had originally wanted to focus the discourse only on the aesthetic experience of poetry and the visual arts. But the images of death and human suffering in the face of devastation brought the act of seeing to the basic level where the energy with which we deal with our problematic relationship with Nature is reckoned by the energy to create and appreciate beauty. One cannot talk about beauty devoid of its context in the physical world where as physical beings, we are all subject to the natural laws of the universe. Once again, Nature has struck deep into our collective psyche and brought all of us to pause and reflect on our mortality. What we saw and heard moved us to go on our knees in prayer and propelled us to contribute to the work of healing and restoration.

            As I recall, on the day after Christmas my usual early morning brisk walk around my neighborhood allowed me to glimpse the sunrise from the promontory where I stood near the old tamarind tree. I saw the tall buildings of Ortigas Center backlit by a gold and orange haze. The shiver I felt was not only from the nip in the December air, but also from the beauty of a serene morning of a city still asleep. The image before me recalled lines from Ecclessiastes: “Indeed, Light is sweet/ and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes/ to see the sun.”

            However, in the afternoon of the same day while I was reading in my little bamboo garden John Berger’s essays on art, terrifying news began to stream in about the tsunami disaster in South and Southeast Asia. The hair on my arms and nape stood on ends when the meaning of the CNN correspondent’s words eerily synchronized with Berger’s:

…we live in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope. That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe. (8-9)

           

In the debris of the December disasters, the course of more than one hundred fifty thousand lives struck dead on their tracks, brought home the basic truth of the ephemeral quality of human life. What meaningful responses and actions can the living make of our common mortality?

For us in the universities, especially for those of us who are in the Humanities, the task is to help find a way of restoring the health of the very matrix of our humanity. While the darkness of reality can sometimes overwhelm us, we must nevertheless keep faith that our profession or belief in the arts has a crucial part in the work of human restoration; that the arts can offer us a touchstone to remind us of our courage in dealing with our problematic relationship with Nature and with each other. John Berger, in his essay “The White Bird” (The Sense of Sight, 1985) underscores the reality of the bleakness of the natural context where beauty occurs ever so briefly and only potentially recognizable by the human imagination:

Nature is energy and struggle. It is what exists without any promise…Its energy is fearsomely indifferent. The first necessity of life is shelter. Shelter against nature. The first prayer is for protection. If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens. (7)       

 

For those of us who held close vigil of the news of the December disasters, we also looked for signs from the rubble for little miracles. Even as we quietly grieved for the dead, we were also heartened to hear of small children being saved by strangers, of families reunited, of an island community kept intact because they remembered the lore on earthquakes handed down from generation to generation. These little miracles offered hope for the living. It was the same hope we saw in communities of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and elsewhere, when they lighted oil lamps and candles in silence to remember their dead as part of the impetus to go on living. In these human gestures of hope we recognized something beautiful in the tenacity of the spirit and the will to survive.

            “The energy by which we recognize beauty becomes inseparable from the energy of creation,” says Berger again of our human impulse “to see beauty in despite of chaos.” He continues: “However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception…this is why it moves us.” (7)

The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that only appeals in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. (9)

           

Confronted with the vulnerability of beauty and the briefness of hope, human beings create art, to make the act of recognizing beauty timeless.

Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer. (9)

 

It is my hope that in the course of presenting my paper which is in two parts, the first on Restoration and the second on Creation, we would take the needed time out of our daily, sometimes numbing schedules, to reflect on one of the ways to restore the human spirit that has been broken by death of any form. I want to propose that the paradigm of Art is a way of seeing Nature in the spirit of Restoration; that we can re-learn through the work of the ekphrastic imagination, to see the beauty of our humanity in spite of our vulnerability to pain and death.

Poet Terry Blackhawk, in the book “Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Arts” (2002) defines ekphrasis “…from the Greek, meaning poetry that takes its inspiration from visual art. In its earliest, most restricted sense, ekphrasis referred to the verbal description of a visual representation, often of an imagined object such as the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. With its principle of ut pictura poesis (poetry as a speaking picture and painting as mute poetry), Horace’s Ars Poetica expressed the ekphrastic ideal of giving voice to painting. From Ben Jonson to William Blake to the Romantics, many poets, most famously Keats with his urn and Shelley with his fallen statue, have allowed art to tease them ‘out of thought.’ Rainer Maria Rilke, the Surrealists, W.B. Yeats, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and William Carlos Williams continued the tradition into the twentieth century.”


I. On Restoration

Let me begin with the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a cautionary parable of human insensitivity to another’s failure or death, composed by the poet W.H. Auden meditating on the work of the painter Pieter Breughel the Elder.

 

W.H. Auden speaks through the persona about how the old masters of painting like Pieter Breughel were “never wrong about human suffering” : “how well they understood/ Its human position: how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Auden’s persona particularizes this observation further by describing in the body of the poem what he sees in other paintings by Breughel in the room at the Musées Royaux de Beaux-Arts in Brussels:

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 

The poem concludes with the painting called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” and brings sight into insight, into seeing the dark heart of humanity:  

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

W.H. Auden’s poem demonstrates the work of the ekphrastic imagination. The poem’s way of seeing shows the poetic procedure of “writing about the temporal status of visual art” which literary scholar Bonnie Costelo describes as the technique which “ascribes to the plastic and graphic media the virtues of permanence, presence, inexhaustible expressiveness, and above all the ability to evoke a moment of life and movement within static forms” (1991: 215).

            The drama of the poem’s movements articulate the movements represented in the painting: “a boy falling out of the sky” vis-à-vis “how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Doubly sensitized by both the poem and the painting, we experience the “shock of recognition” of a dark human truth. If we do not feel the shock or recognize what is disturbing in these two beautiful forms of human expression, there is truly no light of hope for us to ever turn the right way in the face of human disaster. Both the poem and the painting are premised on the existence of evil and the principle of hope.

            Another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, used the techniques of the ekphrastic imagination in meditating upon a sculpture of the torso of Apollo.

 

The poem called “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” traces the path of seeing from the outer form to the inner luminescence:

We cannot know his legendary head

With eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

Is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

Like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

 

Gleams in all its power. Otherwise

The curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

A smile run through the placid hips and thighs

To that dark center where procreation flared.

 

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

Beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

And would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

 

Would not, from all the borders of itself,

Burst like a star: for here there is no place

That does not see you. You must change your life.

 

Indeed, the only dramatic moment in life is the moment of change. It is always the moment of hope, of life restored, made new. And this poem affirms that an active relationship with works of beauty can see through us and nudge us to change.

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote a long poem entitled “Sailing to Byzantium,” (Mack 1995: 1464) which sings the human voice reminding us of the necessity of this relationship with beauty, given the transience of our lives in this world. One life, one journey:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

 

There have been moments we have experienced when, face to face with the powerful, beautiful and mysterious monuments of the human spirit’s own magnificence, we became aware that we had entered a sacred place in our lives. This place is holy, and this awareness a divine gift. It is only in this state of heightened awareness that the soul can clap its hands and sing.

The human wisdom of Yeats’s poem, of “studying/ monuments of its own magnificence” is at the heart of a very short poem called “Optimistic Man” by a person of great compassionate imagination, Nazim Hikmet. Hikmet was born in Turkey and spent 19 years of his life as a political prisoner, the last 13 of which he lived in exile. His works were banned in his homeland while he was alive because the authorities deemed them dangerous. He died in 1963 but his work still reaches out to us 41 years after, healing some of humanity’s deep wounds:

As a child he never plucked the wings off flies

He didn’t tie tin cans to cats’ tails

Or lock beetles in matchboxes                                                                         

Or stomp anthills

He grew up

And all those things were done to him

I was at his bedside when he died

He said read me a poem

About the sun and the sea

About nuclear reactors and satellites

About the greatness of humanity.

                                       (in Nye 1998:8)

 

To imagine the “greatness of humanity” is an act of a strong and free mind. And to be strong and free is not an easy thing to be. We have to keep working at it. The creative paradigm, it seems to me, is individual thought and action. One person at a time convinced of and committed to the work of restoration, starting from one’s own life and radiating outwards to the members of the human community. This paradigm can be seen, for instance, in the work of two artists, siblings named Theresa and Rocio, who chose to restore paintings. I learned of their story in the book entitled “Leap,” written as a memoir by the natural scientist and poet Terry Tempest Williams. (2000)

Theresa and Rocio worked four years ago in the Prado Museum in Madrid, restoring the 15th century Flemish masterpiece by Heironymous Bosch called “El Jardin de las Delicias” or “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Those of us who are familiar with this masterpiece in our Humanities classes will remember that it is a triptych covered by two doors: the central panel is the Garden of Earthly Delights, and it is flanked by Paradise on the right and Hell on the left.

When Terry Tempest Williams asked the two women how long the careful and painstaking work of restoring the painting would take, they told her it should take about two years, but that it might require more because, “El Bosco is a very delicate painter. His brush is delicate…Un pintor paradojico (A paradoxical painter)…” (251) They laughed when Terry considered the burden of such work and they told her: “Tenemos una imaginación muy grande con que trabajar…We have a very big imagination to work with. Both an imagination and a facility.”

As trained specialists in their field, they were ready to live simply and quietly every single day for two years and more, if necessary, devoting their imagination and skills to the solitary work of restoration in the basement of the Prado, in the same spirit the previous art restorer named Jerónimo Seisdedos did in 1935. In spite of the deep despair Seisdedos personally felt from his experience of human atrocities in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, he grappled with the question of whether one should take care of things of beauty when there was an ugly war raging outside, and wrote: “Why shouldn’t I continue to work on behalf of the paintings that have helped me so much, these works of art that have healed my wounded soul?” (257)

This is the restorative act of hope I would like us to consider. It is hope propelled by the compassionate and brave imagination. Theresa and Rocio say that El Bosco’s El Jardin de las Delicias “tried to tell us about the fight between good and evil and he has tried to tell us through a delicacy of technique with a refined taste and a refined intelligence. Poner el dedo en la llaga.”  Through his art, “Heironymous Bosch put his finger on the wound.” (259)  

To see the abyss with an unwavering eye is to put one’s finger on the wound of being human. This same human hand can create the lines across which the soul can leap. Through this act of hope we can shape in our minds that which we imagine a meaningful life, a kinder humanity, or a truly life-preserving and life-enhancing world. The imagined is the mental form from which our hands take their intelligent instruction. Filipino poet Gemino H. Abad once said that the paradox of our work is that nothing humanly desirable: beauty, grace, goodness, truth, compassion, comes out of our hands unless we first do the mind-and-heart-work of the imagination. (2004:286)

 

 

II. On Creation

The problem that confronts every writer, or each person for that matter, is that, thrown into the daily world of fragmenting realities and the backbreaking business of earning a living in a country made poor by corruption, we eventually lose our awareness of and our faith in the beauty of the spirit. Out of touch with this source of hope, we become emaciated and vulnerable to the terrible diseases of life’s banal indulgences and the constant need for immediate material gratification. 

In the practice of the craft of poetry, poets contribute to the work of repairing the frayed matrices of daily life. In the vocation I have chosen I try to train myself how to see clearly, and I take my instruction from the example of poets who have used the techniques of the ekphrastic imagination.  I would like to think that sitting at the feet of masters of the visual arts, I am following in the footsteps of W.H. Auden in front of Breughel’s Icarus, or of Rilke learning from Rodin and Cezanne. Pablo Picasso in 1963 used the word “holy” in referring to a mysterious quality of the visual arts: “Something holy, that’s it…You ought to be able to say that a painting is as it is, with its capacity to move us, because it is as though it were touched by God…Everything can be explained scientifically today. Except that. You can go to the moon or walk under the sea, or anything else you like, but painting remains painting because it eludes such investigation. It remains there like a question. And it alone gives the answer.” (Ashton 5) 

My practice of the techniques of the ekphrastic imagination began in the early 90s when I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Manila one afternoon to see the retrospective art exhibit of Fernando Zobel. One of the paintings, called “Tensión Luminosa” brought me deep into Federico Garcia Lorca’s country inhabited by a red moon, the ash of death in the air, and the cantaor rasping the last note of a terrible love.

Wilderness of grey contained

in the canvas of November,

lured by the gypsy moon of Cuénca.

In the moving strokes, Lorca’s eye

discerns the lyric of a void dance:

two presences so still, they assume

no form but pure image,

incurable wound of music.

 

Only with the ear of a true cantaor

may we hear the howling firewinds

beyond this ash-filled frame.

Could a terrible love have been

marked by this one luminous

drop of blood?

 

Some years after this poem, during one celebration of the College of Liberal Arts week, I gave a poetry writing workshop applying the techniques ot the ekphrasitc imagination. The methodology I used is from the Smithsonian Institute in its Art and Poetry program. Michelle Smith, who wrote about it in “Collecting their thoughts,” proposes that to teach oneself how to see a painting sensitively and then write about it, it would be well to work towards the following: 1) closely observe a work of art, 2) list concrete details seen in the work without including the emotions the work causes, 3) select the most important details of the work to include in the writing, 4) distinguish between non-subjective and subjective language, 5) write descriptive text using only non-subjective language, and 6) write a story using both non-subjective and subjective language. (13)

What always proves exciting in this exercise of the ekphrastic imagination is when the creative imagination is allowed to play, interacting with the painting by seeing not just what is in the painting but also what is not in there, and thus extending the sight to an elsewhere. Once this state of creative play is set, the writing on the painting’s story can go into any or all of three directions by: 1) thinking of the painting as a frame of a movie and unfreezing the frame to set the painting into motion, 2) thinking of what is happening in the painting, what has just happened, or what is about to happen, and 3) mentally pushing the painting’s frame back and thinking about the enlarged story. (21)

These writing techniques can be illustrated by one of the poems in the book by John Frederick Nims and David Mason called “Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry.” This poem is “Short Story on a Painting by Gustav Klimt” is by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the Beat Poets of America.

 

            They are kneeling upright on a flowered bed

                 He

                        has just caught her there

                                                       and holds her still

                    Her gown

                                    has slipped down

                                                                off her shoulder

            He has an urgent hunger

                                        His dark head

                                                       bends to hers

                                                                      hungrily

            And the woman the woman

                   turns her tangerine lips from his

                        one hand like the head of a dead swan

                                draped down over

                                                              his heavy neck

                                          the fingers

                                                strangely crimped

                                                            tightly together

                        her other arm doubled up

                                               against her tight breast

                             her hand a languid claw

                                                            clutching his hand

                                 which would turn her mouth

                                                                               to his

                        her long dress made

                                               of multicolored blossoms

                                                         quilted on gold

                             her Titian hair

                                              with blue stars in it

                        And his gold

                                             harlequin robe

                                                       checkered with

                                                                   dark squares

                        Gold garlands

                                          stream down over

                                                           her bare calves &

                                                                 tensed feet

            Nearby there must be

                                 a jeweled tree

                                           with glass leaves aglitter

                                                    in the gold air

            It must be

                            morning

                                          in a faraway place somewhere

            They

                    are silent together

                                                as in a flowered field

                           upon the summer couch

                                                     which must be hers

            And he holds her still

                                               so passionately

                        holds her head to his

                                               so gently so insistently

                               to make her turn

                                                         her lips to his

            Her eyes are closed

                                            like folded petals

            She

                  will not open

                                       He

                                            is not the One.

                       

In 1997, I read an exhibition review by John Berger titled “Penelope as painter” (Tate Summer 84-85) about the 30-year retrospective exhibit of Latvian-born artist Vija Celmins. He says: “For thirty years she ignored trends, fashion and artistic hyperbole. Her commitment is to the faraway. Such fidelity was sustainable because of two things: a deep pictorial skepticism and a highly disciplined patience.” The photography of the painting and Berger’s review inspired the writing of an ars poetica entitled “Invitation from Latvia.” (Ochre Tones 30) It was a serendipitous visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2002 when I saw with my own two eyes Celmins’ art like the works entitled “To Fix the Image in Memory,” “Night Sky #1,” “Desert Surface #1,” and untitled works showing ocean, clouds, constellations and rocks. (Art Resources Transfer Inc. 1992)

 

“Invitation from Latvia” is a meditation on the “being-ness” of painting, which is analogous to the ontology of poetry.

I.

It is the sea, Vija, before my eyes—

Shimmered by the constant measure of your hand’s

Pressure on trough and crest, each wave

Crumpled by the shadows the wind makes

As it blows from the frozen steppes

Of your knowing heart. But you are

Nowhere in your painting.

You have stepped into anonymity,

Thirty years an explorer with your graphite

And oils, tracing the world’s visible lines,

Searching the mysterious vast,

The mast of your pencil or brush

Following the light in the eye,

In the disciplined patience

Of an old hand of the Baltic.

 

II.

Big Sea #1 reminds John Berger of Penelope

On her own odyssey of beauty and faith

Raveled strand upon bright-colored strand

Measuring each day’s exacting frame.

He calls your way of loving hand made,

Hand maiden to the daily art, moving inch

By slow inch with allegiance to matter,

To what truly matters in the long stretch:

Design the careful eye sees, waiting

For images to reach their own completion

That the artist’s hand may fix the vision

To memory: stones from the desert,

Nightskies of our wondering,

The threatening distances only patience

Or love can warm into wonder.

 

III.

In the Visayan Sea, Vija, lies an island

Shaped like a water buffalo cooling itself

After a day’s work under the sun

Pulling the plow furrow after furrow

Or possible plenitude. On this island

Called Apo, old women call the fishermen

“Weavers of the Sea,” criss-crossing

The waters furrow after furrow

For the meager meal. The sea which surrounds

Their island resounds to the sea of your memory

As you compose the tones, precise as music

Heard from the lips of a conch shell, bringing news

Of the world’s magnificent indifference

To which we give homage

With an old and deliberate tenderness.

 

 

In the more recent poem “Bodies of Gold,” which I wrote during a writing fellowship at the International Writing Program of Iowa, the image that started the poem was C.W. Kent’s photography called “Woodland Path in Iowa City,” which I saw everyday for a month because it was hanging in my room at the Iowa House Hotel. This image harmonized with the oil painting that Br. Hansel Mapayo did of the golden araguaney when he was serving as a missionary in Venezuela.

Turns copper-gold the araguaney now.

My brother painted its shimmer

The year he lost himself in Venezuela.

 

It was this burning tree of memory

Led him back to that first theft

When human eye beheld god’s fire,

 

Singeing the imagination to waking.

He found his way out of the forest when

Seed, flower and trunk were forged in flame.

 

Such is our morning hike this sunlit day—

A quest of waking the body up to the trees

Standing red, bronze and ochre in Iowa.

 

We live to forge our way with words,

Bring out the colors of an entire year’s sunsets

Kept warm in the running sap, each fingertip-leaf

 

Burning back always into inevitable night.

We foresee the time earth will fold unto itself,

Yet now in Squire Point Park, we suddenly step

 

Into a woodland trail ablaze, the sugar maples

Simmering: this yellow umbrella of air engulfs us,

Foundlings of the God who breathes fire.

 

                                    *for Hansel Mapayo and Katie Ives

 

 

Last year, I worked on a poem as an exercise for the ALON Poetry Collective monthly workshop. That month, the members of the collective agreed to visit the GSIS museum to see the controversial Juan Luna painting “Parisian Life.” From this pleasurable journey I arrived at the poem that uses for its title the painting’s title: “Parisian Life.” In it I tried to extend the image in the painting to a constellation of images outside of the painting but within the possibilities of the life of the woman in the painting.

 

            What would they make of me

            In his painting, alone at dusk,

            Waiting in a café in Paris?

 

            Perhaps one of them will peer close enough

            To catch the hint of absinthe in my breath,

            And I could whisper: there is a street

 

            Going south to an abandoned train station

            Where many stories have left their remorse

            On the wrought-iron benches. I could say

 

            There is a river on whose banks you could

            Walk ten miles to a village where the mime

            And the fool danced a story like a duel:

 

            There once was a woman and a man

            Struck dumb by roses, pursued by lightning.

            They were brought to their knees by bees.

 

            The woman sits here, alone in a café

            At dusk in Paris, not in hope nor in regret

            But in time. As if every moment now

 

            Could be the beginning of a different story.

 

 

Early in 2004, I wrote “La Condition Humaine” after a 12-year incubation of the images that simmered during a stay in the Bacong Tree House in Negros Oriental. That summer the flame trees lined the pathways leading to the tree house. The writing of the first line was sparked by two experiences: 1) going for two days to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to look at the painting, and 2) re-reading Simon Schama’s book “Landscape and Memory” (1995) for a book project I am writing on the art of Boholano painter Hermogena Borja Lungay.

 

Magritte’s painting argues that we see the world the way it shows us how: the view outside the window has been superimposed with a painting that depicts the landscape as though they are continuous and undistinguishable. Magritte says in a 1938 lecture: “We see it (the landscape) as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” Schama cites Magritte saying: “What lies beyond the windowpane of our apprehension…needs a design before we can properly discern its form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception.” (12)   It is this design that I have tried to craft in the poem.

                                                           

This is how we see the world.

                                    -René Magritte, 1938 lecture

           

There is a room where a man lies next

To a woman whose shoulders are lit

By morning. He wakes her to drift

Of clouds, wash of skies, drizzle

Of leaves in the air.  “Magritte,”

He says into her ear, tracing 

With a long slender finger,

A frame beyond the windowpane.

 

Another room in another time

Suddenly opens inside her.

She is standing by a window

Before the painting’s expanse of grass,

The cut of dirt road, and on the horizon

A stand of mountains measuring the reach

Of a single aspen. “La Condition Humaine,”

She turns to the man beside her,

 

As if to say she understood how inside

And outside the rooms of love

The landscape was not always seamless;

How, every time she turned her heart

Into words to invent the true form

Of being, dustmotes were already trapped

In the light of images, like this morning

Vanished fast into another day.

 

In no time they shall each be elsewhere.

 

Epilogue

Let me end my presentation with another story, this time of two playwrights. The first is Filipina playwright Malou Jacob, and the second is playwright Djana Milosevick of Serbia-Montenegro.

Some years back, Malou was honored for her work in drama and the theatre arts. Her plays like “Juan Tamban” show how deeply she cares about the poor children in our country, or how she had looked things in the eye with the play “Anatomiya ng Korupsiyon.” She was honored for her courage and accomplishments by Ateneo’s Library of Women’s Works (ALIWW) and in her acceptance of the recognition, Malou said with characteristic humility that as an artist her deepest wish is to “become irrelevant”, that she wished for a time when she would not have to write about children or women who suffer at the hands of the more powerful. In 2003, Malou convened the Women Playwrights International Conference in Manila. A year before the conference, Malou went about the important task of preparation. Aside from sourcing the funds and organizing the network of artists and agencies that worked with her, she went to Mindanao to personally conduct drama and writing workshops for the women of the T’boli, Maranao, and Tausug tribes. After a year, the tribal women involved in the workshops chose three among them whose plays they felt could be presented in the conference. They came to the conference led by the T’boli epic chanter Mendung Sabal. On the second night at the Little Theatre of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Mendung Sabal opened the dramatic performances, chanting the invocation to the spirits of the place, bringing us all back with her strong singing voice to that time and place where drama was sacred ritual and the imagination could walk and talk with gods.   

 One of the conference’s keynote speakers from Eastern Europe was Djana Milosevic (no relation to the infamous butcher of the same name in her country). Djana’s work struck a deep chord among the women because in the midst of the destruction brought about by religious and racial hatred in what was then known as Serbo-Croatia, members of her drama company called DA Theatre committed themselves to doing their art in the midst of the ruins. Djana told of theatre sets that were all improvised in the communities where they performed. In one of the war-ravaged villages her company performed the play about the burning of the books. This play hit close to the bone because in the course of the wars waged in the name of ethnic cleansing, not one family in the village had a book left in their possession.

Instead of falling into despair, which was an easy thing to do, Djana said that to keep her spirit and that of her company alive, they created their own sacred space—their sanctuary where the work could be done in peace and spiritual focus even as the bombs were falling outside and could very well have landed in their building. They had resolved up to this very day that every day, whether there is a war raging or not, they would all come to this space and proceed to stretch their arms and limbs for the physical and mental exercises and rehearsals that their art and work require. It is a place where they can begin to re-imagine a land, a people and a life that have already healed from the atrocities of genocide and racial hatred.

Only the imaginative and compassionate consciousness can have the courage to propose how he or she can do the specific and slow work of building character and spirit as individual persons and as human communities. We have to continue searching for those among us who have the courage to wield their imagination and skills to make a difference in our families, our neighborhoods, our places of work, our communities. Whenever or wherever we find them working quietly and living simply, we must rejoice because they restore our hope, and strengthen our faith in the magnificence of the human spirit.


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