Rodel Tapaya/ Three Paintings for Macao Biennale

Dogs have figured in Rodel Tapaya’s works since his first foray into visually translating the myths and legends of the Philippines. From Donsadat and the Magic Dog (2009) to Cane of Kabunian, numbered but cannot be counted (2011), man’s best friend is depicted as the vicar of divine representation and an intermediary between man and nature. In Dog Days, the giant white head of a dog restrained by a steel funnel collar appears misplaced on the hairy dark body of another beast. The vignette of the animal being placated by ghostly humanoid cogs, is the most vivid in the tableau which is an allegory of the exploitation of outsourced labor under globalization. The remittance economy that has kept the Philippines afloat has resulted in the exodus of laborers, intellectuals and the professional managerial class. This brain drain has left a political vacuum where a critical mass should be to direct the political conversation of a nation. The extraction of labor mirrors the extraction of natural resources as symbolized by the hooded figure in the center of the composition holding a tree branch and the foot of the beast rolling a log. To the right of these figures, splashes of white paint form the faint skeleton of a crocodile, known for its long life and importance in Filipino folklore as the reincarnation of ancestors. All these figures coalesce into a deathly visage that suggest a deep cyclical brutality lurking under the veneer of cosmopolitan culture embraced by most Filipinos in late capitalism.

Rodel Tapaya is an inheritor of strong social realist and surrealist traditions in Philippine art. In light of his position of being in the middle of two seemingly contrasting lineages, his paintings often resort to finding parallels between fable and politics to formulate a critique of recent history. The fish, which has figured prominently in his past paintings is a shapeshifting creature and seldom a human being cursed by the gods for some mischief or a bizarre accident caused by man’s avarice. The title, Turning the tide, refers on one level to the literal seachange which affects Philippine acquaculture, also called “red tide” that transforms famous Manila clams and mussels into poison. On another level, the phrase refers to the authoritarian turn in Philippine politics, as fish heads (wearing business suits in previous paintings) stand in for politicians and bureaucrats who swim with the tide rather than serve as fiscalizers of the powers that be. In this painting, the wheel of fortune is held by disembodied limbs (the hands of time?) and the background on the lower right features the outlines of the balustrades of a Filipino style mansion, which suggest that the scene is set in a house of authority. Turning the tide, is thus Tapaya channeling an old master treatment of a favorite subject; an oblique but damning portrait of strongmen that have animated Southeast Asian politics.

No other object has captured the imagination of Rodel Tapaya more than the typewriter, an industrial age machine dedicated solely to the crafting of words on print. The Rodel Tapaya and Marina Cruz painting studios in Bulacan (the province bordering Manila to the north) hold an impressive collection of vintage typewriters that serve as their model and artistic material (both have employed typewriting as a painting technique). Therefore, the painting Words are Weapons, can be seen as a double portrait of Rodel and Marina, who hold writing and writers in high esteem, and who constantly engage literature as a resource for the visualization of their ideas. The diaphanous silhouettes of two human figures in the middle of the canvas merge on a single hand that punches the keys of a clearly outlined typewriter on a pedestal. From their other arm grows the anahaw or palmyra palm leaf, which are commonly used as ground for etching mythical text (such as the Ramayana). The round and cursive design of the letters of many Southeast Asian scripts are an adaptation to the brittleness of dried palm manuscripts by their early users as angular letters could tear the panels apart. Palm leaves are also commonly used in weaving thatched roofs in Southeast Asia. Through this symbol, the painting invokes not only that words are the weapons of artists, but that words can also build a home.

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