Standing front and center at the outdoor amphitheater of Ateneo de Manila’s Arete building are a motley ensemble of pale figures that are just as enigmatic and beautiful as the artist who created them. In Inscapes, Ateneo Art Gallery showcases the works of renowned Filipino sculptor Agnes Arellano in a retrospective exhibit that spans the past few decades of her prolific career.
Over the years, Arellano has built her artistic identity on the feminine, the divine, and the macabre. Her typically life-size sculptures use imagery from religion and mythology to evoke themes of womanhood, sexuality, love, life, and death. Her works circle the edge of the amphitheater like an outdoor shrine recalling a primal narrative that seems both sacred and deeply emotional.
The artist adapted the term inscape from English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to refer to groups of her own works connected by similar themes. In her own words, “It is a spatial device that aims to change the way we are accustomed to viewing sculpture, which is a 360-degree circle around an object. In an inscape, one walks into the sculpture. Surrounded by several diverse pieces… one gleans the underlying meaning of the installation.”
The retrospective presents four inscapes, featuring different works in cold-cast marble that the artist collected from previous exhibits. The first inscape is the Temple to the Moon Goddess, which contemplates the role of the woman in local religion. For the artist, this is a “rebellion against the unbalanced patriarchal religion imposed on us by our colonizers.”
Haliya Bathing depicts the Bikolano moon goddess Haliya, who, according to myth, regularly descended down to Earth to bathe in its waters, which is said to have been the cause of menstruation cycles. Here, Arellano depicts the goddess in a pose that would normally be highly sexualized, and instead turns it into a peaceful, meditative scene, as she tenderly and perhaps solemnly reflects upon imminent motherhood.
The Three Buddha Mothers and Eshu inscape is an example of how Arellano attempts to question the generalized perception of a deity as male, by taking characteristics typically attributed to the masculine and reimagining them as the feminine. Seated like a Buddha in contemplative repose, Vesta, modeled after the artist’s friend, is a brazen symbol of female fertility. She is nude but not sexual; vulnerable, yet powerful and dignified.
Dea is a self-portrait of the artist. She casted her own body and depicted herself with four sets of breasts, seemingly trapped in a shell while a cobra looms threateningly from between her legs. For Arellano, this work symbolizes herself as a mother and wife, trapped by a life so many women are bound to. “Because you know what marriage and motherhood does to a woman. You forget you’ve left a self in there somewhere,” the artist claims. Behind Dea are her clipped wings, and while she can no longer fly, she will one day shed her outer cocoon and stand strong once again.
A common element of Agnes Arellano’s works is juxtaposition. Her works are womanly and divine, yet have an aura of the grotesque and macabre. Arellano traces this duality to a past family tragedy that became a very formative influence in her works.
When she was still in the early stages of her career, she lost her parents and sister in a tragic fire that had burned down her family home in San Juan. She recalls the moment she received the news while on holiday in Europe. While reeling from such an overwhelming loss, she still remembers seeing the beauty of the trees and greenery around her. Amidst the thoughts of death, she still recognized a baby crying in a room nearby, signifying life. Arellano has sought to realize this mentality in her works of showing light and dark not as two opposing forces, but as two halves of the same unified whole.
Carcass – Cornucopia is part of the Myths of Creation and Destruction I inscape. This work shows how from death and destruction, life can come forth. It depicts the rather morbid scene of a hooved female carcass hung up and split open, while from her torn body emerges an infant. Her body parts spewing forth take on a new life as part of the universe.
For the artist, every person has both the male and female within them, and she believed it was important for her to know the man within herself. She depicts this male aspect in her The Temple of the Sun God inscape. Part of this inscape is Angel of Death, depicting the destruction of the Hiroshima bomb while a winged male figure hovers above. Flanking this work on both sides is Bronze Bullets, featuring six life-size bullets, noticeably very phallic in shape.
She featured these two works in the 2018 Manila Biennale, where they served as haunting reminders of the war that ravaged Intramuros and at the same time highlighted the wars ravaging the current political climate.
Despite these associations of the male with destruction, Arellano does not consider herself an overtly feminist artist. She sees herself as someone who is enjoying her womanhood and manifests this in her work. And yet Agnes Arellano’s impact on what is still a largely male-dominated field is indisputable.
She emerged into the Filipino art scene relatively late in her life, exhibiting works that depicted the female body in such a bold and fearless way that nobody at the time had ever seen before and few other artists can match today.
The retrospective exhibit Inscapes is a testament to a profound artist with a unique vision for translating the disturbing and unknown into an intimate, spiritual experience. An unyielding scholar, artisan, writer, and artist, Arellano remains steadfast in her goal of creating art not to stifle the chaos of life, but to wholeheartedly embrace it.
Inscapes: A Retrospective by Agnes Arellano is on view until March 15, 2020 at the Ignacio Gimenez Amphitheater at Ateneo de Manila University.