The image of victims whose individual lives have been crushed by political or social forces is a common part of our media consumption in this period of increased international conflict and tension. While local circumstances contribute to such deaths occurring, there are clearly larger social interests at play when one death becomes a cry that their death will result in change and justice may prevail. This is the anger and hope that is reflected around the name of an African American victim of police violence, George Floyd, that has resulted in a movement towards justice that has been echoed around the world. This is heard, most especially, where social inequality prefers certain people based on their colour, race, religion, or gender to enjoy the luxury of privilege and power.
Robert Besana is a skilled painter, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. In an important solo exhibition in 2018, he explored the subject of martyrdom and the lens that it provides in looking at the meaning of death at the hand of political and social forces. The title of the major work in this exhibition is a quote from a sermon by St Augustine about the meaning of the death of a martyr: ‘It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr’. Besana uses this phrase as a means to advance concerns about the meaning of death in contemporary society, in particular of those who die violent deaths as a result of government or political intent. Since 2016, the Philippines has endured a government-led ‘war on drugs’ that has seen many unlawful killings, including a bounty on murdered criminals and drug addicts. The subject of martyrdom also reflects on the longer history of political repression, especially by the Marcos regime during the 1970s and early 1980s, that forms part of the public consciousness of Filipino identity.
Besana has taken a historical work, The Martyrdom of St Matthew by Caravaggio (1599–1600), as the basis for his own interpretation. The original work, which is part of the cultural-religious imagination, has been enlarged to panoramic scale and then divided by angular gold bands. In some ways, the viewer has to reassemble the work and its subject in their own imagination. These gold bands – or as he calls them, slashes – are stained with black liquid, reminiscent of dried blood. At several points, a large red rose intersects the composition. The act of visual repair required by the viewer becomes a metaphor for considering an unjust death and the pursuit of freedom in the face of oppression and corrupt structures. It offers a visual link between these historical markers of martyrdom and the meaning of contemporary deaths caused by unjust actions. The red roses reference the daily practice of the rosary so familiar to Filipinos, a prayer that focuses on the suffering and redemption of Christ.
Contemporary art in the Philippines is engaged with questions of representation and their social and political implications. Artists are alive to the power of images for uncovering the effects of colonisation in the past and the nature of freedom in the present. Filipino culture has undergone over four centuries of European colonisation. It has been formed within a vocabulary that reflects Spanish Catholicism and inherent hierarchies of power. Set within an Asian context, these unique cultural forms of visual awareness deserve wider international attention. These perceptions also resonate for those in first world situations who struggle to uncover the ingrained habits of visual ordering that are based on the apparent colour of skin. In this work, Robert Besana offers a meditation on violent death that affirms the meaning of life itself, reflected in the sacrifice and redemption found in the Christian story of faith. Death is not an end, for like a seed it holds the possibility that it may break open the future with hope.
Reposted (with some editorial changes) from Artway