Loren’s Cultural Crusade

February 4, 2018

It will not be an overstatement to say that no legislator before or since has done as much for the state of Filipino arts and culture than Loren Legarda, three time senator, vice presidential aspirant, dogged environmentalist, relentless feminist, and broadcast journalist.

The veteran broadcaster, who first broke into the scene as a fresh-faced 15-year-old Pond’s girl, and later as a 20-year-old TV reporter, had huge shoes to fill—Jose Bautista, publisher of pre-Martial Law Manila Times and a pillar of the industry, was her maternal grandfather.

It was in that rarefied atmosphere, surrounded by intellectual greats, encouraged by her sophisticated mother and her brilliant grandfather, that Loren learned at the feet of the country’s cognoscenti.

“My mother sang operas, collected art, and as a child I was surrounded by artists like Ibarra Dela Rosa, HR Ocampo, and Vicente Manansala—people who, by their art, contributed to our national identity,” she says. “So deep was their influence that, for my college thesis, I did a content analysis of Manansala’s paintings done during the Martial Law years. Even at that time I realized that culture and the arts were the best communicators of history.”

The young Loren had the genes and the training to take on the daunting task of pushing culture for the benefit of the common Filipino.

Starting at the now-defunct RPN 9, she moved to ABS CBN, where she would earnestly earn her chops and her place in the cutthroat world of TV, hosting and producing primetime news shows and youth programs that earned her one distinction after another, sweeping in succession awards from TOYM, KBP Golden Dove, and Catholic Mass Media.

And yet, looking back, these cultural cameos seemed to only to prepare her for her life’s most important work.

Safeguarding Filipino Heritage

As a young journalist in pursuit of her stories, Loren felt the tug to go beyond just performing spiels on TV. On the job that took her to the furthest reaches of the Philippines, Loren found many issues that resonated with her.

Later, when she was established (but restless and purposeful), Loren decided she no longer wanted to just present and discuss the country’s problems on TV, but to help find solutions for them.

And thus Loren the advocate, and the politician, was born.

Her projects, guided by a lusty appetite for defending and reforming the sad state of Filipino culture, span an array of issues, sectors, and concerns—the preservation of ancient artifacts, the protection of indigenous tribes, the promotion of contemporary artists who didn’t get the support they needed.

All of her projects have one thing in common—Loren deeply felt their importance in helping define the most elusive “Filipino identity.”

And now, she is faced with the challenge of seeing through perhaps the singular, most important project she has taken on, one that may spell the beginning of a new era in the Philippines—the establishment of the country’s very first Department of Culture.

Culture and Diversity 

In 2011, three heavy hitters of the literati—National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, National Artist for Music Ramon Santos, and Dr. Jose Dalisay Jr. published a study called “Culture for Unity, A Proposal for the Establishment of a Department of Culture.”

Part of what is written on that proposal is this: “If Filipinos are to respect themselves and if they seek to gain respect and recognition of the world at large, they must first find their soul and cherish it. This is the mission of the Department of Culture…”

In July last year, Loren, during her sponsorship speech, committed her support to this long overdue proposal, eloquently outlining what would be known as Senate Bill 1528.

Under the proposed Department would be six bureaus that would be collaborative, coordinated, and “mainstreamed in institutional development.” The department’s goal, in so many words, is to conserve, preserve, and safeguard the Filipino heritage.

Agencies that are redundant to each other or conflicting will neatly be filed neatly under the Department of Culture, including the CCP, the National Museum of the Philippines, the National Historical Commission, Intramuros Administration, Film Development Council of the Philippines, and the National Book Development Board.

It is an ambitious bill, but a highly necessary one.

“A frequent misunderstanding is that the arts are only those things that line up the walls of the rich, beautify their gardens, and regale them with music, dances, and theatrical performances,” Loren says. “But Filipino food as a culinary art is now creating waves in the US and Europe. Our furniture is world class. Our weaving traditions are spectacular. Arnis and kuntao are now being recognized as superior to other martial art traditions. Our mats have been exhibited in many parts of the world. Our brassware masters among the Maguindanao and Maranaw continue to produce excellent work. The intricate giant lanterns of San Fernando, Pampanga never fail to dazzle people everywhere. Well-designed landscapes, open public spaces, and gardens and parks are very crucial in developing civic consciousness. The arts of film and theater can also be harnessed as important vehicles for the transmission of cultural values and relevant messages, just as Taklub, a government funded film which I supported, directed by Brillante Mendoza and starred by Nora Aunor, raised awareness on the havoc created by typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban.”

As a perfect example of the practical application of the arts, one of her projects is the School of Living Tradition, done in partnership with the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

Here, the “masters” of indigenous communities are tasked to teach the young people in their community a worthy tradition—anything from weaving to silversmithing to brassware making, teaching the Baybayin script, a dance tradition, a ritual for peace, or making a musical instrument.

The senator adds, “These arts not only give pride to the Filipino. They also provide much needed livelihood to many communities all over the country.”

Under the proposed Department of Culture, the most immediate concerns for our Filipino arts and culture would be revitalized and addressed. Loren says, “An urgent task is for every person to have an awareness of our cultural diversity, because most Filipinos do not even know that we have eight living cultures, aside from a shared core culture that cuts across this diversity.”

 Reawakening the Filipino Spirit

Legarda’s tireless work to help indigenous communities stand on their own feet—one of her watershed projects, apart from the School of Living Tradition, was the establishment of Hibla ng Lahing Filipino, the country’s first permanent textile gallery—has given her the rare privilege of being counted by clannish tribes as one of their own.

In Mindanao, she is Bae Matumpis, translated to “the one who takes care.” In the Visayas, she is Cuyong Adlaw Dulpa-an Labaw sa Kaduggan, which means “shining sun rising in power.” Among the Cordillera Women’s League, she is Tukwifi, “bright star.” In Bontoc, she is Cha-I, “sensible and graceful.”

Legarda, in her own quiet way, has galvanized a profound change in one of the most neglected sectors of our society—the indigenous tribes, whose traditions have started to die out as the younger generation fled from a hard life.

But by honoring their way of life, and by putting up a school that formalizes the sharing of their traditions, Loren has given the indigenous people freedom from quotidian concerns, and is effectively helping shape a generation of creators who are more daring, unapologetic, and willing to take over from their elders at a pace many say are unseen in the past decades.

The interesting exhibition featuring the handiwork of our country’s tribal artisans has since then been visited by personalities like Queen Sofia of Spain, former Timor Lester President Jose Ramos Horta, Japan first lady Akie Abie, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, and Paolo Zegna.

“This is why I’m advocating for the establishment of the Indigenous Peoples’ Resource Center in every region or province, to be housed in state colleges and universities. These resource centers will provide assistance to indigenous communities through capacity building programs to improve resilience and adaptive capacities,” Loren shares. “We have already established the first IP Center at the University of the Visayas Center for West Visayan Studies. We hope to replicate this in other parts of the country.”

Our Soul, Our Identity

Loren’s support of many arts and culture projects, once seen as frivolous in the context of our times, give these advocacies a stamp of legitimacy, and elevate them from merely being just a pipe dream.

The Venice Biennale is one shining example. After 51 years of absence from the exhibition organized by the one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, Loren decided it was time the country made its presence felt; first to the biennale of contemporary art in 2015; second to the biennale architecture in 2016, and most recently in the contemporary art biennale of 2017.

Although reviews and reception are mixed, art critics are sitting up and taking notice—if this is any good indication, the Philippine Pavilion was in the outskirts the first time it joined, at the Palazzo Mora in 2015, finally moving to the accessible main pavilion Arsenale in 2017, able to go head to head against the easy crowd favorites in prime space.

Loren is ruthless in her pursuit of her goal for arts and culture.

She just recently launched the Philippine Contemporary Art Network, a venue for research, exhibition, exchanges, a permanent institute for contemporary art that will be of help to the country’s artists and curators.

She has thrown her full support behind the improvement of the National Museum, especially the newly minted Museum of Natural History with its elegant Tree of Life motif; the Metropolitan Theater which is being restored to its former glory; and other noteworthy projects.

This month, she will debut a new show called Buhay na Buhay in GMA NEWS TV, an eight-part special documentary series that will talk all about the eight living cultures, presented in Filipino and showcasing the best of Filipino culture. And there is the ongoing Dayaw, the TV documentary series that highlights the Philippines’ indigenous peoples.

“In everything I do for art and culture, my goal is to change the mindset that culture is merely for entertainment, tourism, or leisure,” the senator says. “Our culture is our soul, our identity… and that identity should be at the core of our development if what we strive for is to be truly a sovereign nation.”

Source: Manila Bulletin