Reflecting ‘Decolonization’ in Kidlat Tahimik’s Crystal Palace Exhibit

Philippine Embassy in Madrid

This article is available in Spanish.

On Oct. 28, the Madrid-based Reina Sofía museum inaugurated an exhibit by National Artist for Film Kidlat Tahimik titled “Magellan, Marilyn, Mickey, and Fr. Damaso: 500 years of Conquistador RockStars” at the Palacio de Cristal. From its title alone, Manong Tahimik, as he is fondly known, gathered the scraps of colonization and modernization, and turned it into a multifaceted narrative of the colonial history of the Philippines.

Born in Baguio City, Eric Oteyza de Guia, aka Kidlat Tahimik, is an actor, performer, writer and film director known for his works criticizing the effect of neo-colonialism in the Philippines. He calls himself a “warrior in the cultural front,” which gives him the inspiration of the three-part story in the said exhibit. In an exclusive tour with the artist, I had the opportunity to learn about his works, the underlying message of “decolonization” and the effects of cultural imperialism.

Decolonization For the “Other Victors”

Tahimik’s life-long campaign against neo-colonialism gave him the inspiration of instigating the first step for decolonization by using this opportunity to detail the side of history from the perspective of the Filipinos. In this way, decolonization is not always about debunking historical facts and spotting which side was wrong or right. Decolonization in Tahimik’s art expression is about reintroducing and taking advantage of the space he has, and using this to showcase that the Filipinos are “geniuses” that the colonizers met 500 years ago.

“So I want to ride on to this [Crystal Palace]. This building, [was originally] built to showcase Filipino flora and fauna. I think I’m proud of being the second exposición Generación [in this building]. But that’s what I call it. I think you’ll get a chance to see our point of view of history … Isn’t history written usually by the victors? Those who won [are] the colonizers,” Tahimik said in both English and Filipino.

The process of decolonization in the Philippines has slowed down when neo-colonialism came into the picture. After the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, the United States continued its ties to the country. The inauguration of the Bell Trade Act by then-President Sergio Osmeña and then President-elect Manuel Roxas gave way to a neo-colonialist policy in which the Americans were allowed to operate businesses in the country as equally as the Filipinos. This opened the Philippine economic zone to American and Western corporations. But neo-colonialist intervention, according to Alejandro Lichauco from his article “The Roots of Crisis: A Neo-Colonial State” in the publication Bulatlat, is not limited politically. “You see and feel it not only in government and politics but in the business community, in our schools, civil society, media and even the churches,” he wrote.

Tahimik’s representation of Marilyn Monroe being blown away by the goddess of wind of the Igorot tribe Inhabian in the exhibit is just one of his representations of the struggle of the Philippines to break out from its Western influences. But similarly to how the artist wanted to reintroduce Filipinos as geniuses from when the Spaniards came, decolonization in this day and age is focused on the Filipino film industry.

“As an artist I like to bring up this issue, but I like to say I’m not really a ‘clenched-fist’ activist. I’m more gentle. I like to send a message in a more gentle way. I think, like my films … my treatment to colonization is a little bit humorous … We can still change the general feeling about it,” the artist said.

Our own version and identity, whether it’s related to art or history, is important to whatever lenses we are viewing it. In countries like the Philippines, where specks of the colonizers’ influences are still evident, recognition of its own identity is one thing decolonization may offer. It’s not about seeking approval from the ones we put on pedestal, but it’s about getting the chance to be on that same pedestal.

Modern Problems, Old Solutions

Manong Tahimik is known for his unique way of putting bits and bobs together to create a brand-new work. I can’t help but notice the different items he collected like old silverware, broken glasses and rusting tin cans. His manner of creating new things out of old objects seems to be a glimpse on how he views modernization.

Tahimik also explained how the installation is a collaboration from different craftsmen in his hometown. He can’t help but be proud of his team of sculptors and mosaic artists that helped him put his ideas into being.

“And if the world listens to the Ifugao culture … [There will be a] very strong harmony with nature, right? They treated nature as their fellow — fellow being. If they [the world] listened, I think we won’t have this world out of balance, that climate change will happen … So the voice of the future belongs to Cordillerans, to the American Indians, to the Amazonians, to the Talandiks, T’bolis, and the world will listen one day,” he said.

As a “warrior in the cultural front,” Tahimik’s view on Indigenous resistance is evident in the part of the exhibit wherein the “Hollywood Trojan Horse” is shown. A part of modernization always comes with change and building on something new, but in Tahimik’s perspective, looking back to our roots may be the way to discover something new about ourselves in what may be the raw and unstained self. In the Philippine context, we’ve been exposed to Western ideas and deemed them as the best and most acceptable. There are, however, also ways of life undiscovered and unexposed, especially ones by the Indigenous community.

Fighting a Battle Wherever We Are

The exhibit in Madrid sparks interest in the big Filipino community in the city. When asked about the Filipinos in Madrid, Tahimik is optimistic about the future of his fellow men, and he used this opportunity to spread awareness on what we can be proud of as a country with a cultural diversity.

“I think it’s important that there are other battles anyone can [be an] expert in, and for me, it’s in culture. If I can convince one young child [that a mixed marriage between a Filipino and a European is okay] … Why not? So they can say [that] ‘hey we have a lot of things to be proud of,’” he said.

Tahimik summed up his whole exhibit with this phrase: the Indio genius of “halo-halo” (mixture) culture. The installation of one of Magellan’s ships, the exhibit in the Crystal Palace in 1887, and the cultural clash between Hollywood figures and Filipino historical figures are some of the main ingredients of this halo-halo culture we outgrew.

Filipino culture continues to progress and live in the influence of foreign ideals, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. Tahimik’s exhibit is a great reminder on how historically and culturally rich our country is. Decolonization and modernization are the keys to dismantling cultural imperialism, and as a Filipino living outside their country, this is a good battle to fight for.

Editor’s note: Some of Tahimik’s quotations, originally in Filipino, were translated into English to conform to our style guide, which is the Associated Press.

Some of the quotes were also lightly edited for clarity.

Marianne Lorraine Samiling
Marianne Lorraine Samiling is currently a language assistant in Madrid, Spain. She graduated in 2018 with the degree in English Language Studies at the University of Santo Tomas. She loves learning about the correlation of languages and culture. She also enjoys taking photos and walking around the city in her free time.

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