Rizal is that you? in Zamboanga. Photo by NHCP
Over Rizal, Monuments to a Hero had all the makings of superficiality. After all, in light of Jose Rizal’s sesquicentennial his monuments seem like the most flimsy of subjects; in light of the more important question of his continued relevance, this exhibit risked the possibility of being absolutely irrelevant. But there was more here than just photos of Rizal statues, and while the curatorial note speaks of memory and remembering, the sheer number of these monuments across the country surprisingly reminds of a predisposition to forget, where archetypes end up meaning nothing, and portrayals of heroes are but one-dimensional representations. What Over Rizal reveals is that at some point archetypes can turn out to be real and one-dimensionality can become a foregone conclusion. These photos taken together might in fact give the more discerning spectator a sense of the kind of narrative we collectively build as a nation about Rizal, even and precisely on the level of the seemingly harmless monument.
Rizal's on top of the world, literally, in Calamba Laguna Watawat ng Lahi. Photo by NHCP
Which is to say that we are reminded that on the one hand, Rizal for us is mere statue, forgotten even as he exists in stone, half the time precisely because he becomes just a piece of stone that’s removed from the urban developmental landscape, third world as that is in this country. Provincial statues of Rizal are shown trying to survive sagging electrical lines, or living in the squalor of old unkempt buildings. Some Rizals only live up to about as high as the nearby fast food sign. And my favorite: Rizal vis a vis a tarpaulin for ... The Search for Lakambini ng Udyong! Yes, that is complete with photos of the damsels of Udyong in Bataan. Meanwhile, when Rizal is not a mere statue the narrative is rendered as an ostentatious display of local government funds. For while it seems we accord Rizal some respect by keeping much of his monuments within a range of poses and in pretty much the same clothing, too often this simplicity’s counterpoint is the extravagance of the pedestal. It’s here that local artisans prove there’s much one can do with cement, where pedestals can be made as high as possible, where it can be an inverted triangle here, plenty of hollowed centers there, high up on a top of short flight of steps.
Rizal dies in the arms of Inang Bayan in Lorena, Siquijor. Photo by Nilo Ocampo
Ah, but wait until you see what they can do with paint! Rizal appears atop an amount of maroon, some gold, and a good number of bright yellows, some mint green, all with no rhyme or reason other than these colors suddenly going on sale at the local paint store. Or maybe a local government official wanting Rizal to blend in with the city government’s color scheme? Then there are a number of Rizals on top of more beautiful classy marble pedestals – one fully tiled (yes, like a bathroom) – and you can only wonder how much of that came from local government coffers. Most fascinating for me though was the one pedestal that was the world – literally the planet Earth – on top of which was Rizal, oblivious to the fact that he was actually on top of the world. Then there is the truth that going through all these images of Rizal as statue has to be a measure of the local provincial and rural sculptors across the country, where there is obviously no one Rizal, and everything is a matter of their aesthetic, and possibly their skillfulness – maybe their freedoms. Don’t get me wrong, there are standard images of Rizal in monuments here: standing holding a book, or a feather quill pen, or a bag (yes!), with a scarf over one arm; or his pose at the point of being executed; or being held or standing beside inang bayan. Yet these standard images barely look anything alike, and it’s not just the decision to put Rizal in a white coat versus a black one, or giving him a hat.
Wide eyed and cartoon-like Rizal. Photo by Eloisa May Hernandez.
Instead it’s about the way he looks, where he can be stocky in one statue and skinny in another, tall in one and seemingly way too short in another. And then there’s the possibility of a mustache, a smile or a smirk, an upturned nose, an extremely straight body. Rizal can also be moreno or tsinito, and every beige and cream in between. Now this would be sad and funny in equal turns: for why can’t we imagine Rizal in the same way, why is he to begin with, in too many spaces at once? At the same time, the other side of this coin is a great amount of creative freedom: one that no one knows to stunt, one that provincial taste and aesthetic might actually agree with, if not dictate. And maybe that’s as liberal and liberated as we can be with Rizal without even knowing it. Because what Over Rizal proves in this monumental lack of control is the truth: Rizal’s image can only be dependent on the hands that made him, and our perception of him is only about as good as a collective memory that melds with notion(s) of creativity. In the end, monuments as with Rizal himself, remain premised on how he is imagined. And sometimes, maybe often, that childhood nursery rhyme gets it right: Konting bato, konting semento …monumento!
And that’s all Rizal is. Over Rizal, Monuments to a Hero is at the Vargas Museum in University of the Philippines Diliman, and runs until August 2011.