Toym’s Labyrinth

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By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Art Review
Super Robot — Suffer Reboot
May 11 to July 11
Bulwagan ng Dangal-Main Library,
UP Diliman, Quezon City

FOR 10-year-old Toym Imao, then in the third grade, the appearance on local TV of the first Japanese “Super Robot” cartoons or anime 40 years ago was a seminal, even religious experience. Their starkly graphic narratives were 180 degrees removed from Hanna Barbera and Disney. He was blown away.

Each day after school, the little boy paid homage at a different shrine: Mondays, Mekanda Robot; Tuesdays, Daimos; Wednesdays, Mazinger Z; Thursdays, Grendizer; and on Fridays, the mightiest of all, i.e., Voltes V. In the foyer of the UP Bulwagan ng Dangal hang their naif style portraits like the centuries-old folk church retablos, flanked by nubile nymphs as scantily clad angels in attendance. But far larger is the panoramic photograph covering the entire opposite wall, of president Ferdinand Marcos with his first lady Imelda. It was he who had the power to banish Voltes V and his cohorts from Philippine TV screens — just before the last four episodes could be broadcast. Those would show how the various robots would unite or “volt in” to form a robot large and strong enough to depose an evil tyrant. Sounds familiar or even similar to real life? That cartoon concept was deemed subversive. A certain Polly Cayetano, the self-appointed guardian of public morals then, led a public outcry that the shows were too violent for the kiddies thus justifying the Apo’s ban.

The boy was shaken by this run-in with censorship and totalitarian rule. As the growing opposition to Marcos tried to “volt in,” he came of age, tagging along to political meetings with his mother Grace de Leon and family friend Alejandro Roces, later a National Artist for Literature. An uncle associated with the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) was shot in the back and killed. It was the only time Toym Imao saw his father, Abdulmari Asia Imao, weep. The elder Imao (National Artist for Sculpture), being a friend of Nur Misuari, was on Marcos’s “watch list.” Now middle-aged, Toym Imao agonizes at the realization that our history is repeating itself, hence the “Suffer Reboot” in this show’s title. His public art is a form of creative protest. The pen is mightier than the sword and for Mr. Imao, his art is his sword.

Several of the pieces have been exhibited at other venues — in the University of the Philippines, at Ayala Museum, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines — before. Having them all together in one space is overwhelming in the density and scale of the narratives and the crash course in our recent history for Filipinos too quick to forget. It is a major exhibition that deserves to be shown in a much larger physical space with higher ceilings, and better lighting. But for now, let us cherish our fragile democratic space which still allows us to experience this compendium of works conceptualized and executed over the last decade, in response to urgent realities. A response is called for from the viewer too.

“Even vandalism is a valid response,” Mr. Imao half-jokes, as there are no barriers between the art and the audience — except for a sturdy plexiglass showcase containing his fanboy-geek collection of Super Robot toys and anime reliquaries. There is a low-slung, scaled-down black tomb with running lights around the mock presidential seal, representing a midget Marcos’s controversial resting place. Gallery visitors are welcome to plunk their asses down on its impermeable surface, to loll about and lounge as they please.

Mr. Imao’s own idiosyncratic iconography is excruciatingly subject to interpretation. The American writer Toni Morisson famously said that “All good art is political.” For Mr. Imao, the political is very personal as well. The first installation recalls the Metro-Aide (the yellow-and-red uniformed street sweepers) salakot-topped lampposts of his boyhood, now skeletal structures mounted on pedestals: a supporting panel of painted corrugated steel echoes the fences Imelda ordered built to hide slums from visiting foreign dignitaries, or a bartolina (solitary confinement cell). A peephole on top reminds us that Big Brother is watching. The other side is made of flimsy, makeshift doors which evoke tokhang (the “knock and plead” visits by police) which are the current scourge of the Filipino poor.

The street lights are historical guideposts with strings of three dimensional peso to dollar indicators at key points. In 1966, as Marcos completed his first year as president, it was P4 to $1. The year 1968 marks a personal milestone with Toym Imao’s birth. A cradle in the shape of the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) trophy dangles from this street light. At the 1968 TOYM awards, President Marcos told the very pregnant Grace De Leon-Imao that she should name her first born Toym so her husband, as the first Filipino Muslim TOYM awardee, would have a second trophy.

Two years later — 1970 — marks the First Quarter Storm. The exchange rate is now P5:$1, and continues to fall. Cages and tiny figures with red flags are permanent fixtures on the street lights. After Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino’s assassination in 1983, the peso:dollar rates fluctuated and floundered from P8 to P20.

Beyond the lampposts are other disturbing but recognizable, grotesque depictions of the Conjugal Dictatorship as literal nightmare, with zombies, vampires, tikbalang, ghouls and other creatures of our real-life lower mythology. Behind them is a sprawling work-in-progress, a joint mural with UP College of Fine Arts alumnus Luigi Almuena of Ugat Lahi, an artists’ collective whose works give off youthful sparks of ingenuity, irony, and humor against the hoary rage of street protest art. Many First Quarter Stormers are now pushing 70. Across the exhibition hall is another work in progress by UP College of Fine Arts students. They are the generations whom we would look “to make masterpieces more powerful than monuments,” in Mr. Imao’s hopeful words.

The second half of the gallery is dominated by three massive carrozas (processional carriages), all crafted from 2014 to 2016 in a frenzy of activity that hints at the artist’s despair over, or desperation at, current events. Collectively, these were the original Super Robot-Suffer Reboot. Each one is so heavily laden with symbols, one must carefully circle them to make sure one has not missed anything noteworthy. Coping with a Couple’s Copious Cupboard of Curios, Cops, Cuffs and Corpses depicts the conjugal dictatorship with Mazinger Z and a giant disco mirrored glass slipper. On top is a Filipino pieta, while below, four versions of the sympathetic anime character Aphrodite A hold the dismembered parts of Marcos martial law murder victims: a leg to symbolize the loss of mobility or freedom; a wing for the destruction of dreams; a broken sword for a shattered peace; and bloody hands for talents made inutile by death. Last, Lost, Lust for Four Forgotten Episodes eulogizes Voltes V with a fierce Marcos, surrounded by predatory American eagles. The Fright to Fight or Flight with Freights of Plights has Daimos and various aircraft which have played significant roles in key events of our history.

The show is so crowded it may take more than one visit to give the myriad objects the attention and understanding these deserve. It’s like a living history of the last 40 years compressed in a very limited exhibition space. One must cram to learn its lessons, or be doomed to forever keep repeating a nightmare from which we cannot awake.