"The artists that comprise Hocus are an interesting pair."
Stern friars stand against a backdrop of blood-red, hands raised in blessing or accusation. A skeleton hunches over, peering without eyes or brain at a book. Men crowd around a Bible in flames, the pages spilling Hebrew, Roman, and Greek letters that they attempt to catch in vain.
The stuff of nightmares, perhaps, but also depictions of history as imagined by the fervid mind of Saul Hofileña Jr. and executed by artist Guy Custodio. Together they are HoCus, from the first syllables of their last names, and their partnership is an elaborate collaboration never before accomplished in Philippine art.
‘Hocus’ might bring to mind the incantation ‘hocus pocus’, but there is no trickery here, only magic, as these paintings pull the viewer in and back through time to the nearly 400 years of the Spanish colonial period.
Still basking in the unprecedented success of their first exhibition entitled “Hocus,” (2017), Hofileña and Custodio return with “Quadricula: Hocus II,” an exhibit of 41 vibrant historical-themed paintings that kicked off last Sunday (Sept. 15) at the National Museum of Fine Arts.
‘Quadricula’ refers to the grid used by the Spanish colonizers in their urban planning of Manila, and as “superimposed on the landscape of the conquered territories,” says Hofileña.
The subjects of the Quadricula/Hocus paintings are set in the time of the Patronato Real, a subject that is of special interest to Hofileña.
The term refers to the power of royal patronage granted by the papacy that controlled the appointments of Church officials, a key feature of the building of the Spanish colonial empire. Missionaries were willing to administer conquered territory for the Spanish Crown in return for extensive concessions. This led to the colonial system of governance decried by Jose Rizal in his novels.
Each near-surreal Quadricula/Hocus painting is crammed with complex references to historical events, people, and places. Custodio’s style is uncannily similar to antique Filipino religious art, lending verisimilitude to each piece. The colors are deep, dark, and rich; gold leaf is used liberally in many of the paintings, and a smoky effect suffuses the works and bestows an air of hoary age.
The large-scale paintings are best viewed with the exhibit’s accompanying book that explains in details the complicated imagery in each work and the references to the historical events, many of them harrowing and disturbing.
Here are two that I found particularly interesting:
“Lashes in the Name of God” (oil on wood), portrays the 17th century practice prevalent particularly in the provinces of lashing “natives in order to force them to go to Church and attend Holy Mass” (text from the book).
“[Some friars] lashed even women and girls with cat-o’-nine tails or latigo ruso, a whip with nine strands knotted at the end, with thorns and metal nails, a veritable instrument of torture.”
“Triduana” (oil on canvas) shows an Andalucian woman flipping the Cartas Philippinensis tarot cards (the first playable Philippine tarot cards designed by Hofileña). She represents the Spanish empire. Above her are ranged priests from the four friar orders flying kites from their pulpits, while in the center stands Saint Triduana, who plucked out her eyes after they were complimented by a nobleman.
The work is an “allegory how our souls were pacified through a symbiotic relationship of Church and State which consequently led to the loss of our lands and identity.”
The “Quadricula: Hocus II” exhibit is curated by former National Museum director Gemma Cruz Araneta, who arranged the paintings in chronological order according to their historical subject. As viewers enter the first of two galleries, they move through a timeline of history, from when the first Spanish friars stepped on our soil to the revolutionary wars that erupted as Filipinos wrested their budding nation from the Spanish grip.
Among those at the opening of the exhibit were Commission on Audit Chairperson Michael G. Aguinaldo, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, National Museum Director Jeremy Barns and Assistant Director Ana Maria Theresa Labrador, and multi-awarded poet Marne Kilates.
The artists that comprise Hocus are an interesting pair.
Hofileña is a lawyer, law professor, and prolific author of books on international law and Philippine history. He is also a collector of art and historical documents, books, and artifacts, from which he draws material and inspiration for his works.
His extensive reading has given him a wide and deep grasp of aspects of Philippine history that move him to create visual art.
“Sometimes… my brain is filled with images that tug at my pen,” he says. “I translate the images in my mind into words because I cannot paint, and Guy Custodio, who is unaware of history, had to read my thoughts in order to translate them as images on canvas or antique wood.”
Custodio studied fine arts at Los Angeles City College and the restoration of religious Spanish art at workshops in Barcelona, Zamora, and Salamanca. He perfected his art in Spain where he lived for 20 years. Today he works on the conservation and restoration of Philippine churches, most recently helping restore the Inmaculada Concepcion church in Guiuan, Samar.
Each Quadricula/Hocus painting tells a story, Hofileña says, and this narrative is translated into tangible images by Custodio’s brush. “My mental images tell the viewer/reader of events long hidden under the stacks of our collective forgetfulness,” he explains.
Custodio adds, “Each painting was meticulously researched by Saul, and I have painted, faithfully, the scenes that he had in his head, so that we can present our country’s history.”
The most compelling reason to view this exhibit comes from Hofileña:
“These are our stories. We are the stories that we tell.” *** “Quadricula: Hocus II” runs up to March 15, 2020 at Galleries 27 and 28, 4/F National Museum, Manila. /FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO