(SPOT.ph) Professor Abraham Sakili spent the past four decades creating art, researching, writing, and teaching Muslim art and culture to the Filipino people. His latest exhibition, Sala’am... Magsukul... at Mabuhay!—which ran from May 5 to 18 at the UP Fine Arts Gallery (a,k.a. Parola)—gave an insight into what the past decades were like from his lenses: a perspective that he tried to teach his students at the University of the Philippines and something that he hoped would take root in the approach to the nation’s history and narrative. Sakili, who is an advocate for Muslim art and culture, often invites people to try and examine the approaches through local lenses rather than the preconceived notions formed through an outsider’s perspective.
Etic and Emic in Muslim Art and Identity
Sakili is a retired professor of the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has a Ph.D. and MA in Philippine Studies from the same university, while his bachelor’s degree was in International Studies from Mindanao State University in Marawi. The professor often uses theoretical perspectives in his approach and introduction to Moro art and culture, particularly on Muslim art.
This includes the concepts of "etic" and "emic," where etic looks into a culture through an outsider’s perspective while emic engages the culture from within. He feels that Muslim art and culture are often framed through etic, or through an external point of view, thus contributing to a misunderstanding of culture. Whereas, emic reveals a more nuanced perspective, something that is much missing in the country’s ideas and concepts of Muslim identity.
Understandably, such a framework of practice takes time to embody. During the exhibition at Parola, he mostly stayed within the space, waiting for students, visitors, and even whole classes to come so he may explain further. When not engaging his audience, he waited at the registration table of his self-curated exhibition, where a display of his previous works was placed, including two key publications: Space and Identity: Expressions in Culture, Arts, and Society of the Muslims in the Philippines (2003) and its Filipino translation, Espasyo at Identidad: Mga Ekspresyon sa Kultura, mga Sining, at Lipunan ng mga Muslim sa Filipinas (2017). The comprehensive books, often used by university students and researchers, look into the framing of Muslim art and culture, which for Sakili is often misunderstood in the Philippines.
Islamic vis-a-vis Muslim Art
One important framing that Sakili presented was the concept of "tawhid" or oneness that is found in Islam and often applied to Islamic art. This principle is key to understanding the balance, symmetry, rhythm, and unity of non-figurative Islamic art. Yet, for the professor, Filipino Muslim art may go beyond this ideal, such as when artistic expression becomes representational, much like most of his paintings from the 1980s that he included in the exhibition.
"Bangsamoro" (1986) is one of the important pieces, with the central figure a self-portrait, highlighting the position of the Muslim amidst the shifting political landscape of the country. The painting may fall in the realm of Muslim art but doesn’t necessarily express the principle of tawhid that is necessary for Islamic art.
His paintings also draw from his early life, growing up in Jolo as a son of fisherfolks. His paintings "Mangingisda sa Dapit Hapon" (1982) and "Sailing by Moonlight" (1980) feature fishing boats he used with his father. While he attempts symmetry and balance, closer inspection reveal the imperfections of his works. But such imperfections are part of the narrative of the work, which expresses okkir—the curvilinear lines and flowing patterns observed in Muslim art in the Philippines. The natural flow and rhythm of the forms are deeply felt, enriched with the personal stories of discovery while in the waters.
Music and Rhythm in Muslim Art
Sakili's personality and critical expression of Muslim art are also visible in the performing arts. Central to his curation of the exhibition space was the gabbang, a Sulu-Tausug bamboo xylophone. In discussing his artworks, research, and practice, he took center stage and played the gabbang while telling the stories of the songs he was performing. The rhythmic beats of the gabbang transported the listeners to a world and perspective that still seeks understanding from the audience. But to demonstrate the versatility of the gabbang, Sakili also played music from other cultures, even ABBA’s hit song "Chiquitita."
Memorabilia of Scholarship
Four decades of scholarly and artistic practice also resulted in endless memorabilia, and chosen pieces were included in the exhibition. Across his stage were banigs for his audience and listeners to sit on. Arranged across the generous space were clothing, hats, accessories, textile, and various objects Sakili collected over the years. The colorful ensemble invited the audience to reconsider what they thought to be Muslim, highlighting the complexity and details of art and culture that is not immediately available to everyone. Moreover, he argued against the differentiation of arts and crafts, oftentimes marginalizing craft, thus minimizing the practice of weaving and building, where much of early Muslim artistic expressions are based on.
One curious part of his memorabilia was his studies, designs, and explanation for the UP Sablay. The academic costume recently became viral due to an argument on the appropriateness of using the Sablay outside of academic events. But Sakili—considered the "Father of Sablay"—was more concerned with pointing out the okkir elements in the Sablay and his role in designing the garment. The professor proudly narrated his role and the process of designing and creating the garment.
Reframing Philippine History through Muslim Lenses
Interspersed through the memorabilia were reproductions of Sakili’s publications, one of which is Two Nation History of the Philippines: The Moro and the Filipino, where he highlights the often ignored and marginalized history of Muslim Philippines. He shared how he presented his paper at a national conference with other historians and was met with silence after his presentation. But he persisted, often introducing Muslim art and culture, asking for reconsideration and rethinking, and even advocating for the inclusion of Muslim art and culture in syllabus writing and curriculum reviews.
Also included in the exhibition are the photographs that Sakili took during the peace talks in Mindanao. Though he claims he doesn’t want to be a propagandist, such rare documents hint at the complexity of the problems that persist until the present. His photographs include sites of massacres, Muslim children, and even weapon-wielding Muslim people fighting for peace and their right to their land. Though the problem is arguably complex, the professor presents the factors causing the Mindanao problem:
- Lack of cultural awareness by the majority on Muslims’ way of life;
- Exteriorization of Muslim history, especially those related to Muslim power and sovereignty, in texts of Philippine history;
- The unitary set-up of the Philippine system that has proven to be inadequate in administering different cultures with different historical experiences;
- The unleveled playing field in Philippine political affairs and the inadequate representations of Muslims in the running of the government;
- The economic problems that have reduced the Muslims into the sad state of life in their "poorest of the poor" ARMM provinces;
- Land problem and the issue of Muslims’ ancestral domain; and
- The negative "Moro Image" in the national psyche of the majority, if not most, of Christian Filipino citizens.
Moving Forward with Muslim Art and Identity
While Sakili spent the past 40 years creating art and engaging in scholarship to address what seems to be an inescapable socio-political issue of Muslim reality in the Philippines, there is always a new perspective that's unveiled in each publication, each painting, and each show. Even as a retired professor, he is still dedicating his time, effort, and finances to pushing forward a more critical view of Muslim art and culture, including Muslim society, politics, and economics.
There’s a lot left to unpack when it comes to Muslim art and culture, and perhaps the complexity of writing, argumentation, and framing is best left to Sakili himself, and thorough reading and rereading of his works. Yet, one of his initial arguments is on the lack of understanding of Muslim society, culture, and art that leads to the murky waters we have today. Exhibitions, such as his are critical in presenting perspectives not dependent on external framing, strict curation, and romanticized notions of Muslim identity. For us, his audience, at the very least the exhibition asks for reconsideration, exploration, and an invitation for a rethinking of preconceived notions of what we understand as Muslim.