Finding an artwork to write a paper about is easy, but finding one to connect with is a rare thing. Before taking up Humanities II, I used to look at artworks and force myself to see deeper, to appreciate, even if it was only just pretend. Before this course, I was determined to understand art, believing it would turn me into a “classy” and more refined individual. However, after taking up Hum II, I realized that art is not about class and exclusivity; art is about the emphasis and subtlety of every detail – the passion and raw emotions reflected in a certain piece.
Visiting the National Museum with a new set of eyes was a whole new experience, but different from the one I expected. Initially, I thought that after taking up Hum II, I would understand every artwork I passed by; however, this was not the case when I visited the National Museum. Although I began to notice the small details and understand implications based purely on what I see, I wasn’t able to connect with every painting. As I was looking for a painting I liked, I was very conscious about the titles and how I could work the titles in my paper. When I saw the painting I liked, I didn’t even understand it much. What took my attention first was the subject – that despite the feeling of tiredness I get from the piece, it seemed to suggest peace. When I saw the title, I knew this would be the piece I would write about.
The title of this piece is Bondage by Papo de Asis. It was painted in 1993, after the martial law, at a time which is relatively uneventful for the Philippines. This paper is a critique of the mentioned artwork and will be based on formal knowledge as discussed in Hum II class and interpretation based on personal experience.
The first thing noticeable about the painting is the subject placed right at the center. The main subject is a man buried in concrete. Scattered around it are smaller subjects such as the grim reaper, the woman, and the skull. The medium used for this painting is oil on canvas. The choice of medium does not speak a lot about the piece since it is known that oil is most commonly used for paintings due to the fact that it stays moist for a long time.
The elements of art are also observable in the artwork. Most or almost all of the lines used are organic lines which helps in depicting more realistic subjects. Also, a soft curved line was used for the shoreline which tends to express fluid movement. The choice of colors for the piece was also interesting. The artist used colors with double complementary harmony, playing with red, oranges, blues, and greens. The splashes of red on the heavy concrete seemed to connote needs for survival, as what red sometimes stands for. The concrete itself had hints of dark orange which can deliver a sense of deceit and lack of confidence. The blues used on the sky and seas, on the other hand, seemed to insinuate calm healing, which contradicts with the subject at the center. The contradiction was even strengthened by the use of greens – sea green, which was used for the seas, also imply healing. Interestingly, dark green was used to add the tiny detail of moss on the concrete, and what makes it interesting is that dark green usually stands for ambition. Based on the colors alone, a lot can be said about the painting.
Based on texture, the painting can be considered a success since it achieved visual texture and did not fall flat amidst all the paintings in the museum. The brush strokes used by the artist left impressions of roughness and jaggedness, which matched the material suggested by the painting – concrete. Somehow, it sends the feeling that the application of the concrete was rough and rushed, not smooth and careful.
The play of light was also noticeable in the piece as it helped highlight certain areas of the painting. Since the setting of the painting was outdoors, it suggested the play of natural light on its subjects. The main subject and the seas seem to receive most of the light from the source, while the deserted area at the bottom of the painting where the skull can be seen seem to fall under a shadow. Interestingly, the boundary between light and shadow is clearly defined and can be traced along the shoreline, using light to separate the deserted land from the healing seawaters.
In terms of space and volume, the painting succeeded in portraying volume, particularly in the main subject at the center which seem to appear 3-dimensional. In fact, the artist managed to make the whole painting 3-dimensional. The addition of weight and density to the concrete also helped emphasize the burden carried by the person trapped in it.
The use of the different elements of art is very important in delivering the artist’s message and amazingly, they all coincide to achieve balance in the painting. As a whole, the artwork is symmetrical, with an imaginary vertical axis located at the center of the piece. Despite the variety of colors, light, and the subjects themselves, there appears to be unity to the whole artwork. Not one subject seemed to fall flat or fall off the painting. One evidence of unity in the artwork is the repetition of the same curved lines on the rocks at the bottom right of the painting and on the mountainous landscapes at the back.
The proportion of the subjects also emphasized the main subject at the center. The man trapped in concrete is a relative giant compared to the other subjects such as the lady at the back and the grim reaper. The use of different proportions also helped in achieving the 3-dimensional effect – the smaller subjects appearing to be much farther behind than the larger subjects.
Just by looking at the formal elements of the painting, one can get a certain level of understanding of what it is all about. However, having the right context changes the experience to a whole new level. The first thing that catches the eye is the man trapped in concrete. At the top of the concrete is an eagle, which most of the time is used to symbolize America. When taken together, this symbolizes a person who is trapped by America. The concrete appears to be aged, as it already contains moss which is green in color, symbolizing ambition. Hence, it appears to portray the message that the man’s ambition for American products or lifestyle, which may have been going on for a long time, is a trap that binds him. Intriguingly, there is a woman at the back wearing robes of blue, red, yellow, and white – the colors of the Philippine flag. When taken all together, the content of the painting mainly revolves around the Filipinos’ ambition for things American – their previous colonizers. The texture, rough and jagged, portrays that the concrete was applied at a haste or without much care. This coincides with Philippine history wherein we know that the Philippines was only colonized by America for a short period of time. The artist seems to be warning us audience that by patronizing products or lifestyles from America, we are putting ourselves in a trap. The dark oranges used in the concrete reinforces this thought, implying that the love for other lifestyles is deceptive. From this, it can be assumed that the source of the artwork is current events and history. The presence of symbols of death such as the grim reaper and the skull clearly portrays one message – that this trap can lead to death or downfall. The skull in itself symbolizes the past downfalls; while the grim reaper, which is associated with upcoming death, symbolizes our downfall in the future.
However, there are elements in the painting that contradict, or somehow lighten, this sad truth about ambition being a trap which may lead to our downfall. The background painted in blue and green seem to portray peace and healing. The shoreline separates the deserted land from the healing water, depicting the stark differences between our present situation while in bondage and what our situation will be once healing is complete. Incredibly, the concrete seems to be weathered at the base, due to the healing waters lapping at it every time it brushes off the shore. Combining these elements sends the message that we can be released from this trap in time. The tiny detail of the hand also adds a remarkable weight to the painting. Although the face of the man portrays exhaustion, his hands appear to be tensed, as if he is still fighting his way out of bondage and this was also reinforced by the red splashes on the concrete symbolizing needs for survival. With these tiny detail, the artist is trying to tell the audience that we, despite the knowledge that we are in bondage, should keep fighting for freedom, knowing that healing is coming.
After portraying our past and present situation, the artist added a glimpse of the future. He illustrated this by painting the grim reaper and the lady as if they were walking away from each other. This symbolizes the Philippines moving farther away from downfall, hopefully towards development.
Overall, despite the variety in the symbols and implications, there is unity in the artwork Bondage. The mood which initially was heavy and sad turned into one which is light and hopeful. The main message of the work is that we Filipinos are under bondage from our patronizing American lifestyle. However, this does not necessarily mean that we are forever in bondage. We can fight and hope, knowing that in time, we will heal as a nation. Sometimes healing is an abstract concept. Perhaps, one form of healing is the strengthening of our love and admiration for our own country. This vision portrayed in the painting reflects the artists view in life.
Papo de Asis is a social realist who created socially conscious artwork since the 1970s. After martial law, his artwork transitioned into political events and he became an artist/activist. In one of his statements, released on November 1992, he said,
“It would be very difficult for an artist to probe into the depths of his soul and psyche, when the machination of half of his brain was forced into subjugation by the western colonial masters…the other half laid to a pitiful state of lethargy by “cultural amnesia.”
Yet the need to express what to us is a constant source of torment and suffering remains a very painful necessity.
For me, to express is to be free. For freedom is a fundamental element of life, art an expression, a tool to realize freedom.
My art is my way of exposing the kind of suppression that had been employed by not only the historical imperialistic conquerors, but also the ever-emerging oligarchs and the corrupt social classes they spawned. They presently dominate the state-political-economic power.
Hence, my paintings yearn to be the anguished expression of a people long denied of justice and equality.”
The fact that Papo de Asis was able to convey his stand, on a single artwork alone, makes him one great artist. For art is not just about aesthetics, but it is about the content associated in symbols and combined to form one clear message. Art is the genius of putting together elements to create one coherent masterpiece.