Memoirs, history, and heritage: The Art of Fidel Sarmiento

FIDEL SARMIENTO
Fidel Sarmiento and His Pamana ng Kahapon (Photo from Sarmiento’s Facebook page. Used with permission)

There was a Tagalog dictum which says,

Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan.

And the art of Fidel Sarmiento is all about that–going back to your roots, remembering who you are as a person, a human being who is a part of a living society, which is continuously evolving. And as it evolves, it also continues to create histories–memories or thoughts of the past, which directly affect the current states of affairs and still have direct impact to the future.

History is important. In centuries past this statement would have seemed self-evident. Ancient cultures devoted much time and effort to teaching their children family history. It was thought that the past helps a child understand who he is,” says David Crabtree, Ph.D., one of the founders of Gutenberg College in Oregon.

In his works, Sarmiento, the president of the oldest artists’ organization in the Philippines, the Art Association of the Philippines, brings to the fore his country’s glorious, and yet colonial, past as evidenced by the old houses and buildings (which, sadly, most of them were demolished to give way to modern edifices, known as malls and condos); the cobbled streets of the cities of Vigan and Manila; the the common furnishings that adore the typical bahay na bato, among many other things, neatly and beautifully painted on canvases or any other material that Sarmiento chooses.

The Bitter Truth About Colonialism and Being a Colony of a Foreign Power

Some say, that being a colony or being under a colonial rule is advantageous for the colonizer could inject something useful, wonderful, and magnificent into the country being colonized.

“The defense of colonialism is likely to adopt some variant of the criterion laid down by John Stuart Mill, who, in the case of peoples not yet ready for representative government, defended alien rule on the ground that the colonial mode of government was as legitimate as any other if it was the one which in the existing state of civilization of the subject people most facilitated their transition to a higher stage of improvement. Lord Lugard (1922) introduced another element in proposing that the colonial powers were under a dual mandate obligating them to secure the advancement of their dependent territories and to develop them in the interest of the world at large,” wrote the late Rupert Emerson (20 August 1899 – 09 February 1979), for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, republished by the website, Encyclopedia.com.

In other words, the defenders of colonization and imperialism see this kind of rule as a tool for further development. Just like what U.S. President William McKinley said about the American occupation and control of the Philippines, it nothing but a benevolent assimilation, an altruistic move by the U.S., ensuring that the rights and welfare, the properties and freedom of the natives, are protected under the “free flag” of the United States of America. This is also what the Spanish colonizers said when they first landed to the Philippines to conquer it: they have good intentions for the Indios, the inhabitants of the archipelago which later on will become the Philippines.

And true to their words, the Spanish conquistadores have given the Filipinos radical changes–Catholicism, as a replacement to their old religion; a more centralized form of community and government, however with an intention for the authorities, especially the religious, to keep a close eye to their new acquired “property”; and economic changes such as imposition of taxes, establishment of monopolies with regards to agricultural goods and its export to other colonies, such as Mexico; excessive taxation and forced labor, just to name a few. (See Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Renato Constantino’s A Past Revisited, Volume 1, and Part 2, of Teodoro A. Agoncillo’s History of the Filipino People, 8th Edition).

On the other hand, the United States have introduced a new form of governance based on a “democracy,” as well as new form of education, economy, and lifestyle. While the intentions of the United States were deemed good, unfortunately, it was just a façade. Firstly, it must remembered that the Philippines was bought from the Spanish colonizers for US$20,000,000 as part of the controversial Treaty of Paris. Secondly, the US Government also admitted that the annexation of the Philippines to the United States is highly questionable. As one article published by the Office of the Historian of the US State Department, it says:

The decision by U.S. policymakers to annex the Philippines was not without domestic controversy. Americans who advocated annexation evinced a variety of motivations: desire for commercial opportunities in Asia, concern that the Filipinos were incapable of self-rule, and fear that if the United States did not take control of the islands, another power (such as Germany or Japan) might do so. Meanwhile, American opposition to U.S. colonial rule of the Philippines came in many forms, ranging from those who thought it morally wrong for the United States to be engaged in colonialism, to those who feared that annexation might eventually permit the non-white Filipinos to have a role in American national government. Others were wholly unconcerned about the moral or racial implications of imperialism and sought only to oppose the policies of President William McKinley’s administration.

Of course, it would be found out later what’s the real score in the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. As a 2013 article published by Public Radio International:

US interest in the Philippines goes back to the late 19th century, the classic age of great power politics. US naval strategists were keen to project US naval power into the Atlantic and Pacific to protect the US mainland from invasion and protect US commerce, and also just to plant the flag when empires were planting flags all over the world. This is the era in which Hawaii was occupied, along with several smaller island chains, to provide bases across the Pacific, known as coaling stations.

But it is not the Philippines’ fault that she has become a colony to the Spanish for 333 years; to the Americans for more than 48 years (but still continuously being its “closest ally in the East, which is equivalent to a neocolony, though indirectly); and why she was briefly occupied by the Japanese Empire, from 1941 to 1945.

As what the poet laureate, Jose Corazon De Jesus has said in his famous poemBayan Ko, a translation from the original lyrics written by a propagandista, Jose Alejandrino

Ang bayan kong Pilipinas
Lupain ng ginto’t bulaklak
Pag-ibig na sa kanyang palad
Nag-alay ng ganda’t dilag.

At sa kanyang yumi at ganda
Dayuhan ay nahalina
Bayan ko, binihag ka
Nasadlak sa dusa.

“Forgetting the Past”

However, it is saddening that most of people nowadays seem to show interest the facts of their society’s past, which in fact, is a form of collective memory of individuals who experienced same social milieu. As if since these things have happened in the past, it won’t affect their present and that these will never, ever affect their future. But as English writer Aldous Huxley said,

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

In fact, there are things in the past that go back and haunt the present, and just like poltergeists, they even haunt the near future… Unless the message of the past is heard and understood, it would be a cycle–a vicious cycle that will continue to trap us all.

A Beautiful Reminder

And for me, this is what some of the works of this wonderful artist from the Sta. Cruz, one of the oldest districts in the “imperial Manila” (though he hails from Betis, Pampanga) are all about: for us to be reminded of our past, so that we cannot commit the same mistake, therefore, we can be assured of a relatively brighter and greater future. His works are but gentle reminders of our bittersweet relationship of our past to our present, and to our future.

In this regard, an artist like Sarmiento serves like a preserver or a visual chronicler of a portion, if not, the whole history of the society where is a member. In other words, whenever he paints something like an old house, or a thing of antiquity, even without stating its background–Sarmiento transforms himself to, in one way or another, a historian.

But Sarmiento’s works are not limited to things that can remind you of a part of past (history) and the lessons attached to it. He also paints about Nature, which is the fount of all beauty. He paints about abstract concepts, optical illusions, the beauty and the mystery of the human body (particularly a woman’s body), and the images of his people, their activities, and their lives.

On a final note, whenever I see the paintings of Sarmiento, it gives me a deep sense of awe and that deep feeling of gratitude. A deep sense of awe, for (1) Sarmiento has the capability of recapturing in canvas bits and pieces of history and beauty of his motherland; (2) that he has been able to connect his audience, in fact, hook them up to the emotions, thoughts, and even wisdom that his subjects convey; and (3) he, as an artist, has completely possessed and had had that complete control of the power to capture moments or feelings or scenes, and immortalize them in painting. And I am grateful for having meet such a wonderful soul, who can make me think and rethink about my country’s history, about people, and about things in Nature.

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