Pookginhawa: The Filipino spirit at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale

June 7, 2018

In an effort to drive the theme home, 16th Venice Architecture Biennale curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara asked the different participants to translate FREESPACE into their own languages. “Translation allows us all to map and rename intellectual as well as actual territory. It is our hope that the word FREESPACE allows us to burrow into the aspirations, ambitions and generosity of architecture,” they wrote in their introduction. This task for the Philippine pavilion fell upon National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chairman Virgilio Almario, who coined Pookginhawa.

Almario—known as Rio Alma: poet, scholar, and National Artist for Literature—was swift with his translation when the PAVB secretariat requested for it. Pookginhawa, an amalgam of the two Filipino words pook (place) and ginhawa (relief), veers from the notion of freedom we are accustomed to hearing, that is, kalayaan or malaya.

Kalayaan is a battle-cry. Heard on our streets in the revolutions of 1896 and 1986, this freedom is liberty from an oppressor or shackles literal and figurative. It’s a total condition: you’re either liberated or not. There is no half-kalayaan. Ginhawa, on the other hand, is an internal condition—gradual, progressive, affected more by the values you imbibe than the tyrants you overthrow. You can have more relief (and comfort) today than you did yesterday. Note that one is not better than the other. What wouldn’t we give to have both kalayaan and ginhawa in the Philippines today?

“Ginhawa is not just being affluent or having the material wealth to sustain yourself. In a 17th century document I read, it said that ginhawa for the Filipinos means a feeling of lightness—not even lighter than a feather, it’s being lighter than light,” Almario shared with BluPrint during the Philippine pavilion vernissage. “And how do you attain that ‘lighter than light?’ The opposite of lightness is bigat (heaviness). You need to shed all the heaviness from yourself: your mind, heart, body, spirit.”

Kaya sabi ko hindi lang naman kalayaan ang freespace eh, it’s really a space where you can feel lightness in yourself. The size of the space does not matter. Kung lumiligaya ka doon, yon ang pookginhawa,” Almario added.

In its juxtaposition of post-colonialism and neoliberalism in our built environment—expressed and questioned in various forms by curator Edson Cabalfin and his collaborators, the Philippine pavilion’s The City Who Had Two Navels shows us the weights we lift on our road to pookginhawa—inclusive and equitable spaces. The architecture biennale runs until November. And in the seven-month staging of the exhibit, the Filipino community in Venice is responsible for presenting our pavilion’s message to all who visit.

The Philippines revived its participation in the Venice Biennale four years ago. This was a time when our lawmakers and travelers associated the Italian lagoon capital with gondolas rather than contemporary art. Our OFWs, being in a city where more than half the year is an art show, knew more about the exposition than we did back home.

So, when our country was finally on the list of national pavilions, Filipinos in Venice, Padova, and Treviso beamed with pride. Their children and grandchildren pointed out the Philippines’ name in posters and flyers. Members of the community, organized by Darwin Gutierrez, let the PAVB secretariat that they wanted to be more involved in the project.

During the preview days, our kababayans welcomed Philippine government and media delegates from airport to lodging. On top of that, they were busy being trained by Cabalfin as invigilators and docents for the pavilion. JJ, a Filipino student in Venice assigned to assist the BluPrint team, shared with us how she witnessed the pavilion being put together and is looking forward to her training workshop as an invigilator.

“This biennale gives the immediate Italian community and the rest of the world a different dimension of who the Filipinos are. Here we are well known for our service and hospitality. We are a big community here known to be mapagkakatiwalaan at mapag-alaga,” said Philippine ambassador to Italy Domingo Nolasco. “Participation in the biennale gives us the chance to present the more creative and scholarly side of Filipinos.”

In the slew of traffic, inadequate transit, private development, homelessness, skill-focused curricula, inferiority, and globalization, Philippine architecture still has a lot things to say, to learn from others, and to teach itself. Being in an international exposition (and conversation) such as the Venice Biennale has been a megaphone for our issues. Moreover, the PAVB secretariat, a project management group put together by the NCCA, DFA and Office of Senator Loren Legarda, has been diligent in staging the past biennale work in galleries and universities across the Philippines.

With just a year left in the term of Senator Loren Legarda, who has championed the Philippines’ participation since 2013, one would wonder about the project’s continuity. One of the things the senator is working on is creating a Department of Culture to consolidate all national efforts to produce, promote, and preserve our culture. The bill is currently in interpolation stage.

“Secretary Diokno of the Department of Budget and Management is supportive. The LBRMO (Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office) understands what the biennale is already. Before, it was not even in their radar. I’m bequeathing the project to current and upcoming senators who are interested,” said the senator.

“I’m working on a bill institutionalizing our participation in the Venice Biennale. But even if it is not a law, just like the establishment of Chinese New Year as a holiday and the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, the PAVB secretariat with its continuous work can establish a new culture of being present here.”

The Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is under the auspices of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, with the support of the Department of Tourism.

Source: Bluprint