These Times

Emmanuel Garibay, Selda (Prison Cell), 2020. Oil on canvas, 122 x 152.5 cm. Artist’s collection.

Emmanuel Garibay is a leading painter from the Philippines with an international reputation for work that reflects on issues of power and injustice. His works reflect the capacity for images to wake up the imagination to the experiences of marginalization, racism, and class difference, and to therefore affect change in social, political, and religious structures.

The work Selda, or prison cell in English, is a work that responds to current issues facing the Philippines, and, in turn, other regions around the world in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased military and political activity, and the resultant curtailment of individual freedoms. It is a large-format work made up of many smaller elements that are painted in an expressive and textured manner. The central figure of the composition is eating a golden apple, a symbol that should offer the promise to live forever, but instead has become infected with the coronavirus. To the left, a front-line health worker pales into death, sacrificed by a government that prefers to spend money on military budgets. Two authoritative figures carry a large book with the names of those who need to be sanctioned or disciplined, and then walk over a dead body. A figure in the sky is blinded by a face mask that has slipped over their eyes, a representation of delusion and false news. A woman flies a paper plane, representing the huge number of Filipino workers overseas who contribute more than ten percent of the nations’ income, while a sinister yellow cat lurks in the shadows.

Below the central figure is the kalabaw, the native water buffalo which is often used as a symbol of the hard-working prosperity of the nation; but here it has died. Underneath, a friar knocks over an indigenous woman representing the ongoing impact of political and religious colonialism. To the right, a figure with a telescope, the current president, is seen spying on the helpless, while a hand comes in with a red yo-yo, an action that names “red tagging” or accusing trouble makers of having anti-government sentiments. And then, finally, tucked in near a golden door, is the historic figure of José Rizal, the great hero of the independence movement who was executed in 1896. He was a writer, artist, and scientist, and Garibay gives him a position of understated prominence in this work, affirming the role of the artist, who might see more clearly what is going on in these fractured and overwhelming times. The entire work is imbued with a golden light, full of promise and prosperity, that turns, at times, into a sulphurous yellow, toxic and decaying. The artist does not offer a possible future, but rather a contemporary view of this historical moment, full of warnings of danger that call for urgent response.

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RP. This work stands in the tradition of large mural paintings that will often convey the triumph of history or the virtues of the nation. But this work is far more complex and fragmented. The viewer has to weave these disparate elements together.

EG. The fragmented nature of these works manifests the inability of most people to find a synthesized grasp of the general situation. Some aspects of what is going on tend to be intentionally highlighted, while others tend to be obscured. We have a media that is easily co-opted by those in power. You have to make an effort to dig deeper and scrutinize, to analyze, to have a more complete and bigger picture.

RP. What role do you think artists have at a time like this? Do artists help people see more clearly?

EG. Artists have an opportunity to be much more fluid and flexible, to have the greatest degree of exposure to many aspects of life. Their life situation means they are not confined to routines and patterns like a nine-to-five job. The innate qualities of an artist—such as being sensitive, observant, and analytical—enable an artist to grasp or wrestle more with seeking clarity in one’s life situation and to understand the dynamics at play. This striving enables artists to have a more-complete understanding of life situations. When I paint, I listen to podcasts and lectures on theology, history, and philosophy. In other words, it enables me to have a wider basis for understanding things, not just through one perspective but through multiple perspectives.

RP. As an artist, you’re not only looking, but you’re also thinking about looking, and questioning your looking.

EG. In my case, I prefer to paint. It’s something that’s been done for thousands of years. It’s a direct action of you as a person. So, it is a constant affirmation of my self as a human being. Instead of exploring new technologies, it’s about resisting the need to innovate. At this point, I don’t see technical innovation as providing direction towards human development. I think it also helps people to slow down and to see. It also connects us to the past. What we have lost is a conscious connection to the past, and this accounts for why there is a massive loss of belief in this generation. This loss of belief makes us very vulnerable to all sorts of incursions by those in power to manipulate and control our worldview.

RP. You mean we lack an awareness of history, which means we are too buoyant, without a place of stability to make decisions about the present or the future.

EG. In the Philippines, it’s the fault of the Church for having misrepresented Christianity, because it was obsessed with power and authority. It forgets Christianity is the exact opposite. So as a result, it has misrepresented belief.

RP. What would you say that faith or Christianity has to offer this moment in history?

EG. I think it is more about being truly in tune with our humanity. It is one of the problems with the theology of the church fathers in the past. It emphasized too much the divinity of Christ and very little on his humanity. The deification of Christ is really about the idea of God becoming human, so that humans can understand the mind of God. So, it is a model to be followed rather just a figure to worship. There’s too much emphasis on worshipping Christ—in affect, worshipping the Church that contains this Christ. That is the main reason people have lost faith in belief.

RP. So the figure of Christ is a picturing of God. These christological images then also offer us options about what it is to be a human person.

EG. This is most emphasized in the way he lived his life, through washing the feet of his disciplines, uplifting the lowly, healing the sick, his passion for social justice. All of these are glossed over in favour of emphasizing the divinity. That is what stories are all about, and what art can do best. It can perpetuate the hope of what humanity is truly all about.

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Emmanuel Garibay (b. 1962) is a leading artist from the Philippines who has a wide reputation having exhibited his work in Europe and the United States. His work explores the experience of those marginalised in his own country and is strongly informed by a theological critique of social power and politics. In 2011, the book Where God is: The Paintings of Emmanuel Garibay was published by OMSC (Overseas Ministries Study Center) in New Haven, USA, bringing his work to wider audiences.
Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian from Australia. He has written widely on the arts and creativity. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

This interview with Emmanuel Garibay is an excerpt from the new book, Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology (Pickwick, 2022), edited by Jason Goroncy and Rod Pattenden, with a foreword by Ben Quash. This book explores the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc. It asks: What contribution do the arts make in a world facing the impacts of globalism, climate change, pandemics, and losses of culture? What wisdom and insight, and orientation for birthing hope and action in the world, do the arts offer to religious faith and to theological reflection? Marked by beauty and wonder, as well as incisive critique, it is a unique collection that brings unexpected voices into a global conversation about imagining human futures.

A video introduction and review of the book, plus details on how to obtain a 40% discount, is available here.

One thought on “These Times

  1. Feeling proud to be a personal acquaintance of Weng…
    Very nice painting and meaning!
    God is always there..

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