Throwback: Coloring inside the lines*

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

THE proposal that the exhibit Drawing The Lines (Lopez Museum) makes is as expected: that a look at the editorial political cartoons and illustrations of Francisco Coching, Danilo Dalena, Neil Doloricon, E.Z. Izon, Dengcoy Miel, Dante Perez, Jose Tence Ruiz, and Pinggot Zulueta will allow us a different view of more recent history, one that happens not in words, but through art.

The argument this exhibit makes is that history does not so much repeat itself, as it is redundant. The narratives of these different cartoons, from different minds, and different periods, and how these have been curated, point to a resonance. Here are cartoons from decades ago, talking about issues that echo the socio-political-economic landscape of the present.

As with the social realist art that Drawing The Lines employs to stand alongside these political cartoons, what this exhibit in the end proves is what we already know about nation: we’re in a vicious cycle. Our politics, the crisis of poverty and wealth, development and diversity, the travesty of elections: we’ve gone through this before.

And so the proposal is its own conclusion, and that conclusion is not so much conclusive as it is but starting point for more questions.

The thematic tide There is value in this kind of practice, where exhibitions cradle more questions than answers, and in the process insist on spectatorship that will continue the discussion, and engage in the process of finding answers.

Given the proposal that it makes, and the conclusion it ended up making, it is no surprise that the decision for Drawing the Lines was to work with thematic tides, the ones that recur, that repeat through the years, and across various publications, from the varying gazes of these eight artists.

That this is a thematic thread that can be woven into the present is of course what makes the process of going through the museum enjoyable. From freedom to identity, elections to foreign relations, the brain drain to the OFW crisis, traffic to the rising cost of goods, politics and our political immaturity – one could go on and on about the issues that are here, from the past, but also within the present.

Any teacher of Philippine society and politics would do well to take advantage of what is a fantastic teaching opportunity. After all, what better way to teach the issues of nation than to show proof that we’ve been working on these same issues for decades now? What better way to talk about history repeating itself, historical moments recurring, than to prove that editorial cartoons from the past in fact can stand for the present?

What better way to talk about nation than to reveal its history according to the intellectual persistence of artists at any given time?

The importance of time Yet for all the good things that are in this exhibit, one realizes there was also a lost opportunity here.

One wonders what it would’ve been like had Drawing the Lines gone on to work into this thematic narrative a more careful assessment of these works as political documents: ones that are deeply embedded within the periods that these come from, ones that are also deeply contextualized in the history of newspaper and magazine publishing in the country at any given time.

It seemed here was a lost opportunity to actually do history better, and do justice to this veritable and enviable collection of political cartoons. After all, it might be argued that this is already a history of the politico-intellectual becoming of nation. But only a more conscious effort at treating these as historical documents inextricably bound to the issues du jour of any period, given one leader over another, given freedom or dictatorship, given violence and fear, would allow for this valuation of these works and the artists that made them.

Because while there is value in pointing out that these issues remain the same, and while it is valid to leave spectators with questions versus answers, it also seems important to acknowledge that at this point in time, what nation needs is a discursive shift that actually lays down some answers.

It means crossing that line between assuming that spectators can find their own answers, and actually giving them those answers. It means crossing that line between allowing the art to speak for itself, and actually framing the art in the political context that cradled it. It means crossing that line from multi-colored, multi-faceted possibilities, to actually asserting that it stands for one thing—two things at most.

Because these editorial cartoons are opinion pieces, and they were powerful precisely because they were visual representations of opinion. That each of these stand on very specific political ideologies is its power. It is what allows for the opportunity to peg these down, draw the line between editorial political cartoons as a form and the rest of the visual arts.

It could’ve been an opportunity to peg us down as nation too, though that would’ve required Drawing the Lines to ground itself in a more concrete political stand as well. But aren’t all exhibits grounded in exactly that, regardless? An even better question: when we decide to limn over history, where then do our politics lie?

Published in The Sunday Times, February 27 2016.