Neil Roberts

Javelosa, Jeannie E.,

"Australians bonding with Filipinos"

The Manila Chronicle, Review, 31 August – 6 September 1991.

Jeannie E. Javelosa

Australians bonding with Filipinos

The novel Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal has been the best literary vehicle for anyone to understand the decaying Philippine society in the Spanish era. One foreigner who was totally engrossed in the novel is Australian artist Neal (sic) Roberts. His understanding and interpretation of the novel, as well as his experiences in the country he has been guest of for the past two months, are presented in an ongoing exhibit at ArtLab.

Working through conceptual installations, he puts together disparate pieces, taking them away from their original environment and context to express his empathy with and understanding of his host country.

His installation find its starting point in the translated title of Rizal’s work “Touch Me Not”. In a way, this alludes to the country’s fervent desire to shed the foreign “touch” that has taken away its self-respect and national pride, if not its social tradition, in its mimickry of foreign culture and in the loss of its women to prostitution in foreign soil.

This phrase has also been used by Jesus Christ after his resurrection, as he told Magdalene not to touch him since he had not yet ascended to the Father. In this connection, the phrase may come to symbolize the Filipino’s state of growth–religiously “on track” but not yet attaining full spiritual liberation.

Going deeper with his insights, Roberts studies the idea of wounding. The greatest hurt evokes the deepest emotions. With this in mind, he titled his exhibit “Addressing the Wounds” as he points out problems and would-be solutions.

Roberts brings together Philippine and Australian cultures as he addresses the ironic situation of the Filipino mail-order bride. In our matriarchal country which reveres the woman, it is ironic that the Filipina becomes the prime sexual harvest some Australians (as well as other foreigners) reap. In the streets of Mabini, in the mail-order bride or cultural dancer-cum-prostitute phenomenon, the wound goes deeper.

Roberts has seen and experienced with us the emotional battles of our society against natural and man-made tragedies, and states his fascination for our resilient spirit–“a country surviving with such optimism.”

He uses three Latin phrases from Rizal’s novel as framework for his three-part mixed media conceptual installation. The panel of “Ex Ore” (from the mouth) includes texts and images. On the wall hangs treated mirrors, metal spoons, decorative tinplates engraved with the words Faith, Hope and Love–qualities the Filipinos rely on. Embossed tinplates were products of his interaction and learning moments with the calesa tinsmiths of Tondo.

The second panel is titled “Ab Irato” (in anger), which focuses on the images of violence emanating from both nature and man. The Mt Pinatubo eruption is symbolized by a metal sheet covered with dust-like particles and adorned with tiny black crosses. Below it, a blackened and soot-drawn image of the angry volcano is presented. By the side, sharp implements which could be used as tools for murder and destruction hang on the wall– by their handles, soft muslin gauze bandages fall to the floor and create shadows of meanings that bring to mind rampant cases of senseless murders, rapes and physical violence against innocent victims–all wounding our consciousness further. The soft gauze assumes an almost iconographic status as it falls gently beneath the tools–the bandaging and healing of pain that pushes our people towards spiritual growth.

Panel three revolves around the phrase “In Corde” (from the heart). Objects here are chosen and composed based on the artist’s poetic intuition of the object’s symbolism and syntactic transformation. Six humble walis tingting stand on tenuous glass legs to symbolize the optimistic stance of the Filipinos. “In Manila, I wake up in the morning to the whooshing sounds of someone sweeping the yard, or remember the vivid image of hundreds of people sweeping the Ninoy Aquino International Airport after Mt Pinatuba’s awakening,” the artist explains.

These brooms may also bring back Australian images of sheaves of mature grain stalks, raised from the dirty soil. On the wall, an old shovel with winged images takes its place as a symbolic relic of the “necessity to work” and perseverance of every person.

Roberts is a man completely immersed in the experience of our country. Traveling to Baguio, Cebu and around Metro Manila, bargaining in Quiapo for a number of black little crosses for his installations, hammering it out with his Tondo tinsmiths and doing his small share for the My Pinatubo victims, he has interacted not only with the artistic community but also with the country at large.

One funny incident happened when he tried to find an old shovel and ended up buying a new one, which he tried to exchange for an old one belonging to a construction site foreman. Only after half an hour of haggling and trying to prove his good intention by showing the receipt for the new shovel did Roberts get his old and used shovel from the foreman.

Roberts still has another month to learn more about our culture. His installations may be viewed until Sept. 7 at ARTLAb (466 Edsa, Makati).

Roberts visit is part of the artist-in-residence program in the Philippines funded by the Visual Arts and Craft Board of the Australian (sic) Council with the support of the Australian Embassy and Polaroid Australia.

The Australian government has been increasingly supportive of the arts through the Australian Council. Not only do they introduce Australian culture by sending artists to countries in the Asia Pacific, they also have visiting programs to enable other artists to learn more about Australia.

Just recently, two local curators were guests in Australia, touring all the cultural centres. Then there is the Australian Regional Exchange Program (ARX) focusing on artists working on conceptual, non-traditional and post-modern art. A local selection committee has recently been formed to choose Filipino artists join this program in Australia.

In view of our lack of government support to the arts, foreign help is warmly welcomed.