In November, I arrived in Manila for a long vacation after five years of living abroad. I worked in a newspaper in California as entertainment editor, I sang in a rock band in Orange County. I was an arts and entertainment writer in Wisconsin. I had a similar life to the one I led in Manila before I left, as an editor at Seventeen Magazine. And when I get back, I do all the things all balikbayans are wont to do: over tip waiters, drink green mango shake daily, freak out over Manila driving, get really tan at the beach, turn my nose up at the pollution and cry when I see kids begging on the streets.
But at one of the first events I go to in Manila, Writer’s Night in UP Diliman, an old professor introduces me as Santiago Bose’s daughter.
It’s been more than six years since I’ve been introduced that way; I was shocked by the familiar feeling of smugness-plus-sadness it brought me. Throughout my life I felt that Santiago Bose — artist, conceptualizer, theorist, arts organizer, magician, critic and my father — pre-defined who I was in other people’s eyes.
With good reason; my father was a brilliant artist, a ‘cultural provocatuer,” as Jessica Hagedorn said, hilarious and unforgettable. He was constantly incorporating innovations in his art; in the 1970s, he worked with Krip Yuson and Boy Yuchengco on Ermita magazine. That was also when he began mining indigenous materials and portraying local events in his mixed media work. In Sagada, a mural he made became politically controversial, and he realized how powerful his images could be.
In the ’80s, he co-founded the Baguio Arts Guild with BenCab, Kidlat de Guia and Robert Villanueva, among others. They promoted Baguio art and hosted international festivals, exposing young artists — and the city — to international work and vice versa. In his own work, he kept finding new ways to paint. He pioneered solar painting in Baguio, and incorporated unusual materials, like found objects, cement and debris into his art. In the ’90s, he was the first to use Mt. Pinatubo ashes in his paintings.Â
Before his stroke, my dad’s paintings had amazingly tiny details — pointilism, tiny drawings. After his left eye became partially blind, he blew up the images in his brain and started using huge canvases.He began making photo transfers of old images, and incorporating folk consciousness and religious images in his work. Unlike his contemporaries, who painted two-dimensional paintings, dad’s work could be dirty and messy, but they were strikingly different.
Many said his aesthetics and politics were just hitting its peak when he died.Â
In his column, he said, “The artist cannot but be affected by his society. It is hard to ignore the pressing needs of the nation while making art that serves the nationâ€™s eliteâ€¦ We struggled to change society, which is difficult and dangerous, and we also sought to preserve communal aspects of life. I too am haunted by visions of hardship, poverty, disenfranchisement of the â€œprimitiveâ€ tribes, but between outbursts of violence and exploitation are also tenderness, selflessness and a sense of community. These will always remain unspoken and unrecognized unless we make art or music that will help to transform society. The artist takes a stand through the practice of creating art. The artist articulates the Filipino subconscious so that we may be able to show a true picture of ourselves and our world.
In any case, my father was always a larger than life presence, even though he wasn’t necessarily always physically around.
My father died on Dec. 3, 2002. Many art critics and artistic peers were quick to laud his role in Philippine art — not just as a creator, but also as an arts organizer and theorist, a man who was said to be “one of the most prolific, ingenious and innovative artists the Philippine art scene has ever produced,” as Asian Art Now said.
Being introduced as his daughter was something I couldn’t avoid while in the Philippines. I never really admitted it to anyone, but when I left the Philippines to live in the United States six months after his death, it was because I wanted to get away from him.Â Partly, it was a reaction to what seemed like the explosion of grief in the art world (we were having tributes for him for months after he died); I couldn’t deal with my own pain with the constant reminder of his death. Oddly, once I was in a different country, all I could do was talk about Santiago Bose, and introduce him to every new person I met.
His death proved to me that I didn’t know my father enough. We didn’t spend enough time together. My parents had been separated since I was three, and although he was always part of our lives, his daily presence was something I knew nothing about. I saw him maybe 10-15 times a year, but I didn’t know what he did the first thing in the morning (drink coffee?), I didn’t know if he had dentures (he did, we had to remove them at the morgue), whether he farted in public. I didn’t know what kind of medicine he took for what ailment (and there were a lot). My grandparents, lolo and lola Baguio, died when I was nine. I barely remembered them and didn’t get to ask about them often enough. His housekeeper often teased that I was my father’s favorite because I looked most like his mother. He told me once: “pag nagagalit ka din, para kang lola mo. Sobrang galit tapos makakalimutan agad.”
I padded our personal interactions by following Santiago Bose articles in the newspaper, exhibit catalogs, travel itineraries and through conversations at dinner when he visited my family. The older I got, the better (more mature) our conversations were, peppered as they were with kakulitan (his), sentimental stories about our family (his), corny jokes (his) and whinyness (mine). My friends — burgeouning artists and writers — adored him, and loved staying at our house in Baguio to talk to him. But, like I said, it wasn’t enough. Then again, no one ever thinks they spent enough time with their departed loved ones.
Instead of memories, though, I had more than 5,000 visual images to investigate. I began filtering my memories through his paintings; seeing them as personal clues to each relationship he had, every emotion that he felt, every idea he wanted to bring forth. I couldn’t remember a lot of our conversations, or, after he died, ever find out out how he felt about Philippine politics, my mother, his dog, the weather – but I could investigate his paintings and look at the symbols and study what his work meant. Luckily, he was nothing if not prolific — and consistent. Other than visual work, he was also a conceptual performance artist, wrote a column on art and also kept journals.
He always said his work was mostly autobiographical, and they were clues to his psyche. But no matter how vivid or three-dimensional they are, his paintings can never take the place of who my father was. Only in death was I able to separate my father from the artist — he was not going to come back to life through his paintings.
However, I could keep part of him alive by keeping his memory alive. Abroad, I thought, maybe if I turned on enough people to his work, he would approve from the afterlife.
As it turned out, many other creative of his creative children — artists whom he inspired both in the Philippines and abroad, felt the same way. He may not have been the highest-selling artist while he was alive, but he was always the “artist’s artist,” Mark Justiniani said. The man that other artists always looked up to and hoped to emulate. He also influenced artists beyond the visual world — writers, finding much thought fodder in his aesthetics and politics, dedicate poems and books after him.
Most of the requests we get for reprinting his images come from book publishers who want to use his works as cover art. Bino Realuyo’s “The Gods We Worship Live Next Door” has Bose’s work on the cover. Various filmmakers such as Khavn de la Cruz have also been inspired by Bose’s visual palette.
Bose’s scope was pretty wide-ranging: he was one of the Thirteen Artists chosen by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1976. He exhibited in major international events such as the Third Asian Art Show in Fukuoka, Japan and the Havana Biennial held in Cuba, both in 1989. In 1993, he was invited to the First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art held at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia. In 1998, Bose’s work was included in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’s exhibition “At Home & Abroad, 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists.” Although he was very well-traveled, his work really struck a very resonant chord in many Filipino-Americans.
Mel Vera Cruz, a San Francisco-based artist and member of Kwatro Kantos, wrote this in a speech he gave before the Filipino Consulate four years ago.
I participated in Carlos Villa and Santi Bose’s “manong” workshop at the Pacific Bridge in Oakland and from then on, another story on me as an artist unfolded. I experienced some kind of renewal. I was initially worried because I was thinking it would be hard to escape Santi’s bigger than-life shadow. And then he died. His passing blew my mind because I felt he was passing the torch on to me and the other artists his life and art touched.
I am sure of this; it is true. I am saying this now as a dog-eater. Excuse me, but I won’t deny that I am. Santiago was one of the very few artists that I felt I could relate to. Many of them influenced me technically, but Bose came from the esoteric. He barged into my personal reality and I, almost without any resistance, just let him in. And that’s where he will stay for a long time.
My poisoned mind’s old doubts have disappeared and I am simply trying to enjoy the fire that Santi left with me. He unlocked secret doors for me. My instincts have been right all along. My uncertainties were instilled in me by people who weren’t even sure but were themselves programmed to feel they were. Mind conditioning. Now, being certain about the truth, my own truth that I believe in, means that there’s no need to be scared anymore. I now just follow my instincts and enjoy the ride. I don’t think much of consequences. Keeping the fire burning takes precedence.
Writer Michelle Bautista said this about Bose:
And there was Santi, the man, who loved to joke and laugh and play. Was this the same man that created those pieces? The intensity of the canvass seemed to be part of his intensity for living in general.”
Bose’s work and persona was a strong influence on writer Eileen Tabios’s collection of essays and poems. She said: “We met while he served as visiting artist-in-residence at the Pacific Bridge Gallery in Oakland, CA, spending two days in intense conversation. I never saw him again, but those two days sufficed to provide the inspiration for an entire book on art and poetry,Â My Romance (Giraffe Books, 2002)…I desired for the book to be published in the Philippines to reflect what Santi told me during those two days. Specifically, Santi passionatelyÂ believed that the Filipino artist needs to be as aware and open as possible to the diverse influences in the universe, including but not only Filipino. And that such engagement would only enhance the nature of that Filipino artist’s work. As he put it and as I quoted him in my Preface toÂ My Romance : â€œWhen I bring in art magazines from around the world to the artists in Baguio, it’s because I wish them to have a bigger concept of the world — to look at the Philippines and their art from many angles. I believe art empowers people, gives them a stronger vision of looking at their environment.â€ ”
Kawayan de Guia cites Santiago Bose as a major influence; in his 2007 exhibit, â€œIncubator,” he dedicated a room to Bose. Critic Ambeth Ocampo said de Guiaâ€™s mixed-media work (which sold at Christies for $19,442) was “reminiscent of the paintings of the late Santiago Bose… only cleaner, better executed and composed.”
When you’re young, and your parents are young, it’s easy to take them for granted. I never thought about losing my father; I’d never lost anyone close to me before we lost him. So while I barely remember the mundane things, I’m grateful for the legacy I have. I have a whole lifetime to explore this, my visual and emotional map to my father’s soul.
Published in Contemporary Art Philippines, February 2009