Heroic Drama: Carlo Tanseco Asks Through His Art, ‘If Rizal Were Alive Now, Would He Wonder What he Died For?’ - Lifestyle Asia

The artist’s second solo show, Alias Elias, explores how we view our Filipino identity through our National Hero.

After his show last May for Art Fair Philippines, Carlo  S. Tanseco opens his second one-man show Alias Elias on December 2 at J Studio in Makati.

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In his first show, Juxtaposed: Between Order and Complexity, Tanseco featured popular figures in art and Greek mythology. This time, the artist focuses solely on our National Hero, Jose Rizal. The exhibit runs until December 30, 2021, Rizal Day.

As intimated by the exhibit title, Alias Elias is Tanseco’s exploration of the various faces—and facets—of Rizal as a hero, son, doctor, lover, religious figure, and cultural icon. The title itself references Elias, one of Rizal’s most famous characters in his novel Noli Me Tangere; he was Crisostomo Ibarra’s mysterious friend and alter ego.

Composed of several works of acrylic on canvas, the exhibit is divided into three sub-series: the Stamps, the Matchboxes, and a Fencing Pair that ties in to the Eye Chart series in Tanseco’s previous exhibit.

“I was very much drawn to the Rizal Eye Chart series from my last exhibit in May and I had already planned my next exhibit on the concept of Rizal,” Tanseco shares. “And then this show was scheduled in December and we thought, why not relate it all to Rizal Day?”

At the same exhibit, the new edition of National Artist Nick Joaquin’s biography Rizal in Saga: A Life For Student Fans will be sold in limited numbers. The book features Tanseco’s painting of Rizal entitled “Solo Humano” from the Eyechart Series as its cover art.

Initially commissioned by the National Centennial Commision back in 1996 during Rizal’s death centenary, Joaquin’s book has now been reissued by Milflores Publishing. It contains an introduction and annotation by Ambeth R. Ocampo, along with additional photos from the historian’s own collection.

Tanseco’s fine art prints of “Solo Humano” will also be released at Alias Elias.

Stamp on history

The first sub-series within the Rizal show are the stamp paintings. Each shows a vibrantly hued portrait of Rizal juxtaposed with hyper-realistic renditions of the hero’s popular themes.

These recall the life stories, quotes, and historical situations we know best: the legendary moth from his childhood; a package of tuyo (“Mas mabaho pa sa malansang isda”); ophthalmic equipment; Leonor Rivera’s locket; Rizal’s pen.

The postmarks on each stamp—one of the many Easter eggs you could spot in this show—indicate the location and area where each Rizal incident occurred.

“I have an affinity toward stamps; it’s like a message from the past. It’s art, but it’s functional,” Tanseco shares. “I’m not a serious philatelist, but I am attracted to the graphic quality of it.”

His early stamps he says were either monochromatic or two-colored at best, but had the same cross-hatching from the engraving. “Because my style is very linear and detailed,” Tanseco explains, “I toyed with the idea where, instead of using intensity of line, I used different shades of the same color to add depth to it.”

Faith and culture

The other set of stamps features a more intriguing, mystical side of Rizal. “Mga stampita,” Tanseco playfully calls them, referring to the smaller canvas sizes and its religious subject. All six paintings allude to the Rizalistas, a folk-spiritual, Philippine religious group whose followers believe that Jose Rizal is a divine being, or that he is God Himself.

These six paintings are of the Rizal stamp paired with an anting-anting, which is a magical amulet or talisman. Regarding this, it is interesting to note that there were actual anting-anting amulets that were embossed with Rizal’s image as “Jesus.”

In Tanseco’s paintings, the stamp’s postmark encircles the hero’s head like a saint’s halo, and each halo bears a message: Kanino ka sumasampalataya? Idolohiya bilang idolotriya. Tres Persona Solo Diyos (which is one of the prayers of the Rizalistas, and also the name of a registered group of Rizalistas).

“I believe that ours is a different kind of faith because it’s a mix of Catholicism, animism, and folklore; like a cacophony of various religions that were localized; coexisting, side-by-side,” the artist adds.

These paintings, Tanseco says, could be about Rizal as the patron saint or God of the Rizalistas. “We put faith in God, but can we put our faith in people—or in our heroes? Even in our everyday lives, sino ba ang sinasanto mo?”

Flames of change

The third series of paintings uses the same medium of acrylic, only this time painted onto canvas that are wittily shaped like matchboxes. Tanseco’s realistically rendered safety matches peek out of the bottom, tricking the viewer into thinking that you could just pick one up and light it. That, subconsciously, is the intention.

“Our language, Tagalog, is one of the most romantic languages in the world,” Tanseco says. “There are countless ways to say ‘flame’ or ‘fire’ in Tagalog.” He writes all these down on the matchbox covers: Maging mitsa ng pagbabago. Magsilbing liwanag sa dilim. Sindihan ang pumanaw ng liyab. Kamtan ang nagbabagang pangarap.

“The matches symbolize igniting a desire for change,” he explains. Is it political? “Yes and no, because for yourself, you can also be part of change or spark change; but mostly, these symbolize patriotism, love of country.”

He continues: “Just think, if Rizal were alive now, what would he say about everything that is happening to us? ‘Is this what I died for?’”

Rizal still relevant

Tanseco says that the exhibit also touches on the fact that Rizal, even almost 125 years after his death, remains relevant to us.

“Going back to the matchboxes, his face was used on PHIMCO matchboxes decades ago,” he says. “Come to think of it, Rizal was the number one endorser, but he didn’t get any royalties—and, he could really sell the product!”

The artist also adds that this exhibit, with its layers of meanings, could be interactive. “It depends on the viewer, how you would interpret each one.”

Even the exhibit title suggests this. Many readers identify Noli me Tangere’s character Crisostomo Ibarra as Rizal, the ilustrado, but for others, Rizal may be Elias: The Filipino Everyman who sacrificed his life for others.

In its entirety, the exhibit makes you ask yourself: “Who is Rizal to me? What is it in Rizal that we could see in ourselves? If I were Rizal, what could I do?” Only you could answer that.

Alias Elias by Carlo S. Tanseco runs from December 2 to Rizal Day, December 30, 2021 at J Studio, La Fuerza, Gate 1 Compound, Makati. For more information, follow @artjstudio on IG.

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