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Balut as Pinoy pride

Alwin Reamillo’s Ang Balut Viand exhibit is like balut: it looks like a standard generic egg from the outside, but is an unborn duck on the inside. Which is of course to say that you might not have the stomach for that sisiw literally and figuratively; or find that you actually quite have a taste for it, from sipping that hot balut liquid straight from the shell, to the process of slowly peeling the shell, and downing it whole: the eating of balut isn’t just about eating, as it is of knowing, of identity.
A raised fist in one of Reamillo's balut objects connotes a struggle to break free. Photo by Katrina Stuart Santiago
The balut is one claim to fame we’re uncertain about, seeing as it is equated with hissing cockroaches on Fear Factor. Talk about bringing us back to the dark ages of being the exotic and barbaric brown siblings of America. In Reamillo’s hands though the balut becomes reason for pride, as it is reclaimed in its process of being changed: there are no duck fetuses here, but there is plenty of balut made out of plaster and emulsion. Fetus art that has traveled from Manila to Hong Kong and back, and that has been part of Reamillo’s performance as a balut vendor in the middle of Hong Kong’s Statue Square, more famously known as the park where Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) gather on Sundays. Reamillo’s “Egg Objects from the Transcultural Balut Series" hang from the ceiling, are lined up against opposite walls, are on silver saucers in a center table filled with paraphernalia for its eating, from pots to condiments. Each balut is different from the next, some whole and some chipped, some plastered with familiar Filipino images: Ninoy Aquino on the old 500-peso bill, a map of some sort, a nun. The more curious ones though have objects sprouting from within them, and yes, they are as small as you imagine.
A silver crucifix is a blessing in this broken shell of life. Photo by Katrina Stuart Santiago
A man here, a woman there, a helicopter wing, a wooden handle, maps, appear in these tiny balut objects, and curiosity imperceptibly becomes disenchantment. A slap in the face really. This is about us as the one country that takes pride in having its citizens for export as OFWs. Nothing exotic about that. Not even the balut with a tiny silver crucifix, or the one with a closed fist, could save these bodies for export -- in this exhibit and in real life. And then Reamillo does the balut better by setting it up with a smattering of crab objects: one up as a helicopter, another painted with Mao Tse Tung’s face, both about flight and change, but like the balut is also about food, one that involves a process of cracking shell, and knowing where, and the satisfaction of finally found meat. What echoes of course with a crab is always mentality. There is no cliché in the change it refuses to connote here.
Reamillo's "Maodan Shrine (Let A Thousand Balut Hatch)" brings together the Chinese and Pinoy versions of the fascination with the duck fetus. Photo by Katrina Stuart Santiago
Because there are no standard images of history here. Not on the “Maodan Shrine (Let A Thousand Balut Hatch)" with Mao Tse Tung’s face, but also with the maodan -- the Chinese version of the balut -- on some salt, beside a bottle of gin bilog. You know what they say about humor: it only works when it is at its most critical. Which is what’s in “Posporo Rizal", a big plywood version of a matchbox with Rizal’s face on one side, a heart on the other. Which is what’s on a wooden piano part installed like wings on a wall, painted with a pointed finger and a winged creature meeting at the center, where a small bahay kubo is, on top of which is written “sirangan", a statement both on the uncanny meeting, but also on the piano as broken wings. Which is also what’s ultimately in a piece of plaster painted with the Sagisag ng Pangulo ng Pilipinas, broken into three pieces.
"Sirangan" is a tribute to the lost art of locally made pianos, as it is about the weight of the wings we've used for flight. Photo by Katrina Stuart Santiago
Ah but the thing with humor is that when it’s done well, it’s easy to not to keep the laughter in, no matter that in the process you laugh at yourself. Case in point, Reamillo plays around with a reflection of the classic patriot photo of Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar and Mariano Ponce, printing it on pine, and painting alongside it: a protractor on one’s feet, what looks like a mushroom growing from another’s head, a passport peeking out of someone’s body. Tiny balut objects are carved onto one person’s head, another’s hand.
Alwin Reamillo's "Tatlong Itlog (Los Indios Bravos)" pokes painful fun at our heroes. Photo by Katrina Stuart Santiago
The title of this work? “Tatlong Itlog (Los Indios Bravos)". And so what resonates about Reamillo’s work here is how Pinoy identity, exotic as it is, from eating duck fetuses to crab mentality to the death of local piano making, is about flight here, where wings are heavy, where we bury ourselves in what we do not know. Or do we trap ourselves into what we do not know? In the end we are without identities, not because of our leaving, but because we didn’t have one to begin with. Alwin Reamillo’s Ang Balut Viand was exhibited at the Tin-Aw Gallery, Upper G/F, Somerset Olympia, Makati Avenue, Makati City.