Sansinukob: Unveiling a universe as told by Philippine folklore

By Bronte Lacsamana

Gracing the spaces between the tall trees and leaf-strewn paths of University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman are six otherworldly beings, sharing folk tales about the birth of the universe.

The exhibit is aptly named for the Tagalog word for “universe,” because each installation depicts a Philippine folk story about the cosmos’ origins.

In celebration of the UP Diliman Month, these art installations are altogether part of the Sansinukob exhibit, organized by the UP Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts (OICA).

OICA explained that this year’s Diliman month gives us “an opportunity to revisit Filipino folk narratives,” which are traditionally told from one generation to another.

Through Sansinukob, these tales are given new life through installation art, an interactive art form by nature.

Unfortunately, ethnic astrology and cosmology of the many Philippine cultures are not widely known, and this exhibit gives a glimpse into this underappreciated wonder by a simple casual stroll around the campus.

Just across the Vargas Museum, one can see the magnificent peacemaking god Agtayabon, a giant bird with a human’s body, floating a few meters off the ground. Mindanaon folklore tells that this bird-god was one of three beings which first roamed the earth and had always served as the mediator between the other two gods who would fight.

To form Agtayabon’s enormous wings, artist Leeroy New used rattan interwoven with bamboo, crafting an air of grandeur appropriate for a god.

Amongst the trees across the Carillon, Reg Yuson’s “Langit-Non” welcomes one to stand just below a high circular structure of mirrors and look up to see the sky in a circle surrounded by fragmented images of the ground.

Doing so provides a reflection of the surroundings from up above, paying homage to the Visayan god Tungkung Langit, who was said to have created the world, as it hopes to depict what his creation looks like from his point of view.

The contrast between the bright sky overhead the center of the piece and the encircling mirrors revealing the earth below incites a humbling feeling that reminds spectators they can only hope to imitate what a god’s perspective looks.

Meanwhile, Junyee and Gerry Leonardo’s interactive installation art, “Emptiness” sits across the old College of Arts and Letters (CAL) building.

The large black box, meant to represent a Balikbayan box, sits atop the shoulders of four fiberglass figures.

Through inserting one’s head into a hole at the bottom, one can peek at the wealth, hope, and connections associated with the life of an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). The hollow interior, however, gives emptiness instead.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the number of OFWs abroad in a five-month span (tested from April to September 2015) amounts to 2.4 million.

Through their work of art, Junyee and Leonardo shed light on the darker side of OFW life, instead of depicting it through usual images of good fortune and aspirations.

Showcasing rich pre-colonial cultures through art

OICA said the exhibit’s popularity among selfie, photography, and art enthusiasts is very fulfilling.

Ina Valencia, a third-year student from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) visited the campus on a Sunday afternoon with her friends. They had heard of the exhibit from a friend studying in UP and decided to come over, not wanting to waste a unique photoshoot opportunity.

“Maganda puntahan yung mga artworks dito kahit malayo,” she said.  

“Masarap pumasyal sa campus, and through the art you learn something about pre-colonial folklore pa.”

In fact, a photo album of the exhibit which the official Diliman Month page posted online has been shared by hundreds and has caused more and more people outside the Diliman community to want to come to the campus and see and interact with the artworks in person.

One such example resides behind Quezon Hall. Anton del Castillo’s “Ang Pagbabalik Lupa” gives life to Lupa-on a character of a Kalinga tale about the separation of gods from men.

The installation portrays a woman shamefully descending a set of stainless steel stairs. From afar, the fiberglass sculptures of the despairing woman are quite haunting, but even more so when close up.

“Actually, I interpreted the folklore through my own style and concept,” says Del Castillo about his work. The mastermind behind the Kalinga tale is known for his obras which are charged with themes of religion and beliefs.

“I reflected on how people can feel shame, and that’s why I depicted a clothed woman hiding her face while descending the stairs to accept humility until she returns formless to the ground.”

On the other hand, ascension can be tasted where amihan winds blow with Leo Abaya’s “Ang Kahanginan,” situated atop the College of Mass Communication Hill.

Based on the Bagobo god Lumabat, a man who flies to the heavens and becomes a god, Abaya highlights the movement of the many cylindrical windsocks he installed on the field.

Apparently, Abaya’s fascination with wind power predated this exhibit.

During the previous year, Abaya had installed a large, red fabric canopy in front of UP Diliman’s quintessential Oblation. His work heaved and undulated in the wind, relying on the breeze to convey its message.

“After that project, I was curious what else I could do that harnessed wind power,” he shares, saying that the tale of Lumabat became his natural first choice when OICA asked him to participate in the Sansinukob installation.

“(I) had seen koinobori (Japanese carp banner) before. Using that and the windsock as inspirations, I proceeded to craft my own depicting a male torso,” he added.

Each windsock has a screen-printed, stylized depiction of a Bagobo on the fabric, and altogether, they give the eye-catching illusion of several flying Lumabats, showing the strength and direction of the wind.

Another Bagobo god featured in the exhibit is Ma. Rita Gudino’s “Mebuyan sa Idalmunon” at the UP Lagoon, which stars Mebuyan, mother of the underworld.

Legend says Mebuyan refused to go up to the sky with her brother Lumabat and instead built her own world under the earth where her many breasts feed the souls of unborn or dead babies.

Gudino’s rendition depicting a clay fountain atop a white-colored pool of water can be attributed to this tale as Mebuyan is the cadence of both life and death.

OICA leaves a positive message about the exhibit, “We hope the installations welcome people to appreciate art and serve as bridges for them to take interest in Philippine folklore and pre-colonial cultures.”

In order to continue showcasing these cultures, the Sansinukob exhibit, which would initially conclude not only UP Diliman Month, but also National Art Month, has been extended until March 31.

These six otherworldly beings are here to stay for a bit longer, and their arms (or wings, or breasts) are wide open for us to admire and appreciate them and hopefully even learn from them.

Author: TNP

The Official Student Publication of the UP College of Mass Communication.