Legaspi: Coming to terms

Legaspi bust by Ron Hay at the foreground

Coming to terms
By Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez


A certain leverage comes with the centennial of a National Artist.  While the most obvious trigger was the need to get millennials to find room in their already crowded think spaces for the work of an artist who lived way before their time, the other daunting possibility was to take on the “unspeakable” during the time National Artist Cesar Legaspi (April 2, 1917-April 7, 1994) was still up and coming in the Philippine art world.

And so we began the Legaspi centennial in earnest with the exhibition “Lying in State” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Main Gallery (April 2–June 4, 2017).  This showing of pieces primarily from the collections of state institutions and quasi government agencies was meant to evoke difficult questions about art and patronage that often get tucked away from the celebratory literature on our vaunted cultural heroes.  In attempting to take the narrative further, the centennial also deliberately sought out the intervention of younger, contemporary artists:  1x working with the CCP Production Design Services division and Pampanga lantern-makers Arnel and Mark Flores, Clara Legaspi Gallardo, Mario Guzman, Flash Tangalin, and Team JuanTen Animation.

The opening program of “Lying in State” also hosted the premiere of Ryan Cayabyab’s tribute to Legaspi, Prelude in C minor, before the ceremonial opening sparked by the performance artist Vim Nadera and site-specific players Sipat Lawin Ensemble who variably embodied the martial law tropes relating to the politics of memory, repression, and long suffering.

An unexpected and tough learning point surfacing from putting together “Lying in State” was negotiating broader public access for work even of a National Artist (or more so perhaps because the objects were part of the oeuvre of a canonical figure).  Navigating through provenance channels became critical in this respect.  In the end, like most curatorial projects, we settled for a much more modest object list but made up for the gaps through more aggressive education rhetoric.

Shifting from comparatively macro to significantly micro lenses, the following exhibitions took more idiosyncratic and biographical tracks: “A Man and His Relations” at the University of the Philippines Bulwagan ng Dangal Museum (June 13–August 10, 2017), “Raw,” alongside the Celeste Legaspi concert (August 5, 2017), at Solaire Theater, and finally, “Miligtas” at the San Fernando Railway Station Museum, Pampanga (December 4, 2017–February 4, 2018).  These made up the core of the centennial activities for the rest of the year.

Much more fairly under the radar were parallel ventures like the launching of Friends of Legaspi at the National Museum Senate Hall (February 22, 2017), the months-long flashing of images of Legaspi paintings on LED boards from Cavite to EDSA and NLEx, Freeway’s Legaspi special collection launch (May 31, 2017), and the call for nano media authentication of Legaspi pieces.

Apart from drumming up critical and casual chatter on the life and work of Legaspi through social media platforms, other key components of the centennial were talks and roundtables making up the educational program.  Among the esteemed guests who lent their expertise on a range of themes (“Art and Martial Law,” “A Question of Heroes,” “Arts in Education and Society”) were University of the Philippines professors Flaudette May Datuin, Maris Diokno, and Ricardo Jose, and National Artists F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera.

The Legaspi centennial also became the occasion for the launching of a modest but hardy art education initiative called “Teaching Exhibitions” (Rica Estrada, Lara Rosario, Iris de Ocampo, Lyra Garcellano, with the later addition of Lara Acuin) who have since ended up also doing work on the Nick Joaquin and Jose Maceda centennials.

By launching a zine to accompany the Legaspi CCP leg and doing an intimate workshop with select teachers, “Teaching Exhibitions” raised questions as well as prospects for taking on art education from a far less production-oriented slant to one that infuses art into a more interdisciplinary conversation, encompassing teaching fields like socio-political-economic history, literature, cultural studies, ethnomusicology, etc.

Two significant motifs running through the centennial activities were the notions of looking and giving back and returning to roots.  The exhibition sites and programming were specifically decided in this light: the CCP has historically been a node of the National Artist Award program; Legaspi is a UP School of Fine Arts alumnus; and he was commissioned by the state to design figures for the Bataan Death March kilometer markers which, in San Fernando, Pampanga, specifically mark the transit point for the World War II prisoners being sent off to Capas, or to their death.

While the Legaspi family still hopes to get a consolidated printed documentation of the artist’s centennial celebration, the plan is to sustain what it has started by creating a strong online presence through an official website to be launched at the end of the centennial year.


Eileen L. Ramirez is co-curator to Claro Ramirez, artistic director for the 2017 Cesar Legaspi Centennial exhibitions. She is assistant professor at the Department of Art Studies, College of Arts and Letters, UP Diliman; associate/co-area editor, Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (Visual Arts volume), and editor of NCCA’s Pananaw, Philippine Journal for Visual Arts in 2010 and 2014. (mlramirez@up.edu.ph)

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