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Jul 3 - 31, 2022

Pinto Art Museum

Antipolo City, Ph

Contagions of Repression and Frames of Resistance

(Notes on Iya Regalario’s Tag-Apoy)

Written by Ma. Diosa Labiste


At the height of COVID-19 pandemic, while caught in a lockdown in Baguio, and far away from her home-studio in Antipolo, Iya Regalario conveniently turned to pen and ink, to represent the contagion at its peak. The detailed drawings about the pandemic and Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, scaled to a suspended gaze, provide a wide field of reference for any viewer, whose instinct is to sweep the composite scene in first breath, and then focus on a particular impression in the next.

While associated with diseases affecting swaths of population, contagion is a word that has looser sense.  It can be used metaphorically to describe a range of events and ideas that can be transmitted because one has the power to do so. It can be a motif to represent a longer time scale and progression as well as the interrelatedness and intertextuality. It could also be the lens through which a reality can be seen, like peering at the violence and the sense of fear and helplessness that have been familiar to us living in a violent and heedless regime for six years.

Regalario has four works which convey the literal and the metaphorical sense of contagion: Bodies I (EJKs/Extra judicial killings), Bodies II (Lockdown), Bodies III (Covid Surge), and Bodies IV (Reign of Terror). They are part of Tag-Apoy’s Series, which is predominantly pyrographic paintings on wood with scenes that singed the mind, mainly due to the richness of their contentions as they boldly confront the myths and shared narratives that could either free or encage us. I want to focus first on the four drawings on paper because not only that they immediately establish practical, moral, and emotional connection with viewers and, also, they are the more political pieces in the exhibit. 

The scenes included in the four drawings came from headline news that Regalario assembled in a single frame. While the source is the media, the interpretation is not journalistic, if by journalism we mean the capacity to inform but withholding judgment. The manner how the events were depicted successfully distilled the eternal from the transitory because the news stories were re-encoded as immutable memory of a nation. One can spot Kian delos Santos, shot from the back by policemen as he crouched while begging for his life because he has exam the following day. Similarly identifiable is the iconic photograph of Raffy Lerma that readily evokes anger against the so-called drug war of Duterte which failed to eliminate drugs but killed thousands of users and suspected small-time dealers without even establishing their guilt. Aside from often saying, “I will kill you,” Duterte also credulously repeats false stories about drug crimes and assumes that the poor would become criminals simply because they are poor. Thus, the police focused on killings and jailing people, and treating those who defend them – lawyers, human rights workers, church people – as the enemy.

The same government’s disregard for life is portrayed in another drawing on the pandemic which we marked as a nation not only by a series of lockdowns but also of killings, arrests, and imprisonment of the poor when they caught looking for food or jobs. Others have simply no safe home to stay in. The miseries of poor people during the pandemic, starting with the inadequate food assistance, signify the neglect and unconcern of the government to take care of human needs and health of the majority. Due to corruption, its response has only enriched the few but burdened many. For example, while medical workers have difficulty securing a supply of masks, face shield and other protective gears, the government has allowed corruption to mar their procurement steps.

In both the drug campaign and the state policies dealing with the course of the pandemic, Duterte’s model of war provides the matrix to contain the two contagions. Regalario  rendered their politico-military-biological discourse as a split into camps, the raw power of the state against those regarded as the enemy because they deviate from quarantine rules in their struggle for survival.

The series of drawings is aptly named “Bodies” because it is apparent that Duterte’s goal throughout his presidency is to perfect the techniques of control, so that we could be steered into passivity and molded into what Michel Foucault termed docile bodies. The latter denotes the effect of how the policy of coercions act upon bodies that were conditioned to obey, but in a manner that is efficient and effective. Docile bodies are individuals willingly embracing the strictures that there is no more need for an overt disciplining force because the bodies bore the marks of tameness. Docile citizens are less likely to challenge authorities, or venture into the public realm where freedom of association and expression are fulfilled. By repressing independent media and targeting civil society and grassroots organizations, Duterte stamped out that public space by insinuating fear and distrust to ensure the constant subjection of the populace to his lies and disinformation. For example, at the end of his term, through manipulation of information over social media, the folly of the dolomite beach is celebrated as a crowning achievement and defended by his trolls as if it was the splitting of the atom.

Regalario’s drawings and her pyrographic works show the damage that unhinged leaders can do. The paintings also demonstrate how fragile our moorings that secure our historical sense and identity as Filipinos. The May 2022 elections consigned the majority to the claws of conspiracy theories, historical distortions, and incredulous narratives that deliberately forego the stories of our heroes and those who secured our freedoms for us a long time ago. The legacies of these great men and women were spurned and replaced by a made-up persona whose claim to greatness was hoarding non-existent gold bars.

The Sinilabang Kasaysayan series is art on wood, consisting of extensive drawings about nodes of historical narratives. The images, parables, and stories, etched by fire on wood, were the kind that could shock us by the hubris and violence that they portrayed. Shall we turn away from the apocalypse staring at us? Or should we confront the complexities of the narratives, along with the scary denizens and creatures dominating the wooden frames? Gulong ng Kapalaran, with its huge circles and arcs, represents the atrocity of power. The design and scale are magnificent, but they are politically daunting as representation of class politics.  One is easily drawn to the spectral painting on Leonard Co, an ethnobotanist from the University of the Philippines Diliman, who was killed by soldiers in Leyte in 2010 while he was collecting samples of endangered plant species. To this day, justice was not served. Regalario paid tribute to the slain scientist by portraying him in the habitat of rare animals and plants, with a hand outstretched to touch the blue orchids in delight.

Tag-apoy may be the antidote to the ambient despair we felt after the polls. It is about time that we confront our losses, maladies, and ghosts using one of the few critical resources available to us: art. Amid the false historical narratives and lies that abound, Regalario’s art would definitely unsettle us. However, she also highlighted hope because even during the pandemic, or the worse times, people took care of themselves, shared food and whatever they could spare, and helped others. The community pantries, depicted in her drawing, are among such robust solidarity initiatives that evolved during the pandemic. Moreover, when arrests happened, the public supported the call for solidarity fund for bail thus transforming generosity into a potentially political act. In all, Iya’s paintings could inspire us to consider alternatives to break up the contagions, by the way she provoked us to think about the gains we could have, should we decide to overhaul our mindset and society.

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