Like most countries which suffered from colonial domination, once the Philippines achieved a nominal independence, it was very weak and lacking in infrastructure and economic production capacity. The resources and economy of the Philippines had been pillaged so badly over several hundred years that approximately 10 percent of Filipinos currently work overseas and attempt to send remittances back to family members. This often leads to horrific abuse and exploitation, as was evidenced by the story of a Filipina maid recently murdered in Kuwait along with numerous other stories of how Filipina women are horribly mistreated in attempts to sustain their families through overseas work.
One can think, perhaps, of the yearly flooding of the heavily polluted Marikina River, which runs through the city of Marikina in Metro Manila, as a type of symbol of the harm caused to the people of the Philippines. Indeed, one might even think of the Marikina River as a type of open wound which periodically flares causing pain throughout its region. Most of Metro Manila floods when it rains heavily, and destruction often occurs during the typhoon season. The flooding of the Marikina River each year, however, goes above and beyond. Poor planning, lack of funds, insufficient drainage systems, the clogging of floodways and the effects of industrial pollution, all legacies of the Philippines’ past, contribute to the immense damage caused to the city of Marikina each year. What was once a major transport route has become a yearly type of pestilence which must be endured by the people of Marikina. Once the flooding is over the people are faced with utter devastation. This has become part of their lives, year in and year out.
Honasan, a resident of Marikina, uses the annual devastation of his city as a starting point for his deeply humane work. The chaos of annual flooding is approximated by a frenzied process. He starts with a large sheet of canvas which he soaks in a basin with water and acrylic-based paint over many days until the paint becomes a dull muck and ashen color, approximating the polluted mud which covers and clings to large swaths of the city after the flooding. The force of the river on the city is approximated through the puncturing and shredding and crushing of the canvas bearing this manic and uncontrolled muddle of paint. Pieces of previous canvases along with fragments of the newly weathered canvas are made into a large collage on a new, unstretched canvas. Emerging, as it were, from this impasto of paint, as residents of Marikina literally emerge from their homes into the aftermath of a yearly environmental disaster, one then sees faces that are of relatives and close friends of the artist.
So on one level, Honasan represents an absurd and terrifying environmental ritual, exacerbated through the neglect borne of a history of economic misuse, that innocent people are subjected to continually. On a still deeper level, to me, Honasan’s works are about the discovery and acceptance of the type of grace written about and imagined by the most profound theological thinkers – from Augustine through Bonhoeffer. To a great extent his two-part process of feverish destructive activity followed by compassionate creation mirrors that of the discovery of grace where the frenzied and flawed activity of the human will is ultimately and painfully abandoned for a humble receptivity of what the divine wishes us to have.
All effort becomes impasto. The frenzied activity in which Honasan creates chaos ultimately leads to an intuitive and constructive process. The slowly developing faces which show defiantly and fantastically through the damaged canvas/collage represent what might be called grace – the slow and deliberate revelation of the truly sublime within us. Note: I saw Honasan’s work at the Volta art fair this year in New York City – great thanks to the folks at YOD Gallery in Osaka, Japan for participating and for helping me to better appreciate the work of this highly significant artist, who takes a traumatic local experience and turns it into a universal statement of the possibility and need for grace in our lives.