The Sacred and the Secular in Norberto Roldan’s “Viva España/ Long Live America”


Just like an altar, there is too much to look at in Viva España. But there are three focal points in this exhibit.

First, is the Santo Entierro, the dead body of Christ enclosed in a glass case that the artist placed at the entrance. The statue is facing the entrance with its feet pointing at the door, much like how the departed is traditionally positioned this way. The sculpture is owned by the Iloilo Cultural Research Foundation Inc. that currently manages Museo Iloilo.

The second is a temple-like structure entitled ‘Between Salvation and Damnation‘. Shaped almost like a base of a ziggurat, a place where people in ancient times go to attempt to connect to the sublime. During the exhibit opening, lighted candles were placed by each side of the structure. Light, being the symbol of the sacred and the divine.

The third piece, ‘The Dark Box’ is situated at the far end of the gallery. Catholic audiences may well recognize the installation as they may have experienced entering one at one point or more in their lives. A replica of a confessional booth with a covering of black cloth made of soft-laced fabric confronts the audience. Black often represents sin, evil and death.

In art when the theme is centered on spirituality three is a significant number — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Surrounding these are assemblages, most of which contain ephemera, scents, cosmetics, toys, etc. Each item is arranged in an altar-like manner. These items evoke the emotive power of familiar stories. Some of the assemblages are encrusted with melted candle wax seemingly signaling the notion that life is fleeting. The exhibition explores the connection of humanity to a supreme being. Roldan used the museum’s collection of saints which he placed in different sections of the exhibition. These saints are poster images of humanity’s transcendence to the higher forces.

Invoking the notion that spirituality is a cure for the troubled soul, Roldan places bottles of indigenous medicinal herbs resembling the bottles usually made by the Ati. He placed the bottles in a pattern as if the bottles are being repeated again and again just like a prayer.

The title, ‘Viva España’ is a triumphant cry in praise of the country which brought Christianity to the Philippines. At the farthest end of the exhibition is an image of the young Norberto Roldan in a spiritual ritual complete with vestments. Aside from being about colonization, the artist also provided a view of the personal. Of a life being invaded by these religious symbols, the external factors that haunted the artist years after he left St. Pius X Seminary.

In a manner that calls to mind the processions of the Catholic Church, the exhibitions opened in two venues with the audience transferring to the next exhibition opening after another. The other exhibition “Long Live, America” is mounted at Kri8 Art Space.

Composed of huge diptychs of portraits of Elvis Presley, Kate Moss, Bembol Roco and Hilda Coronel, Marlon Brando, among others. He placed these portraits side by side with quotations.

Critic, Thierry de Duve argues that “entertainment has replaced religion…but religiousness is still there”. Having seen Viva España, the audience may ruminate on the resemblance of secular idolatry to religious worship. Our devotion to these stars is comparable to the devotion to gods and goddesses with their images hanging in houses, with massively-attended events in their honor, and with much of the contemporary culture being dictated by them.

While putting these pop culture idols in the center, the other artworks in this exhibition portray the images of war. Particularly, images of bombs. The way media bombs us with images shapes the narratives of history.

Spirituality has been explored by Ilonggo artists as seen in paintings inside churches such as Jaro Cathedral and the Sta. Ana Church in Molo, and the many other paintings that came after. But Norberto Roldan’s use of materials signals the shift of viewing art in Iloilo, a place where the pastoral scenes, the beautiful portraits, and the realistic still life are favored by both artists and the audience. Viva Espana/Long Live America transforms the two-dimensional images confined in frames, to experiences that challenge traditional materials while confronting the many effects of colonialism.

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Allyn Canja
Allyn Canja is a writer and community organizer working with art initiatives in Iloilo.


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