When a Woman is More Than a Woman

A review of Tala Isla-Contreras’ third solo exhibit, Babae: Buhay at Kalikasan, mounted last July 29 and running up to Aug. 30, 2008 at the Contreras Sculptures, The Artwork 4/F Bldg. A, SM Megamall, Mandaluyong City.

Being a female in a semi-feudal society like the Philippines is quite difficult. It is as though they do not own their bodies, their minds, their souls.

Even in art, femaleness is always categorized with the erotic: nudity, with the attempt to stir the wild imaginations of the male counterpart.

What is sad is that even some female artists themselves exalt the erotic over everything else. As if nudity is the only liberation that a woman can get and as if sexuality and sensuality are the only emotions that can make a woman whole.

But there are exceptions to the rule, of course. And Ms. Estrella “Tala” V. Isla-Contreras’ Babae: Buhay at Kalikasan (Woman: Life and Nature), her third solo exhibition, of is one of those few exceptions.

Babae: Buhay at Kalikasan is Isla-Contreras’ attempt to show the Filipina in her different roles: the mother, the economist, the guide, the guard, the preserver of nature, the observer, the cantadora or the singer-storyteller of the ancient history of her society where she is not separated but connected, and as the representation of Mother Nature herself.

Not stereotypical

Although Isla-Contreras had used the typical mother figure in her works, her Ilaw ng Tahanan (Light of the Home), what made it atypical is that the author had expanded the role of the mother, not only as the excellent homemaker (as depicted in Reyna ng Kusina or Queen of the Kitchen) but rather the guardian of the family structure.

The smaller house attached to the bigger structure with a small lamp hanging on the side, seems to be symbolizing—and can be attributed to the woman who seems looking for something from a far—the contribution of the woman in developing a stronger societal structure, since the family is the smallest unit of that wholeness.

On one hand, Inang Mapag-aruga or the Loving Mother (note: the mother without the child), depicts the Cordillera’s babbaket or the elderly women, whose wisdom is often sought by the young not only in rearing the children or taking care of their homes, but for their experiences in farms and as keepers of the traditions and the history/story of the tribe.

The artist’s objective of concretizing the “partnership” of men and women in making up a true home is what made the Kaagapay (Companion) come into being.

Maybe, it is the deep Christian faith that has moved the artist into making the Kaagapay, as Paul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) said in one of his writings, “Husbands, love your wives,” which is the elusive ideal in a feudal or macho society like the Philippines (Read: the misinterpretation of the “power” given to man by Yahweh and the order of St. Paul to the Corinthian women to be “submissive to their husbands.”)

The walking stick and her slender body can be viewed not only as the picture of aging, but can be interpreted as the symbol of current society—ill and wanting.

And the women are the ones who are more affected by society’s illness, as the work entitled Krisis ni Misis (Crisis of the Wife) suggests.

Expounding the mystical and the spiritual

The butterfly-like Lakambini, gives the more “mystical” touch in Isla-Contreras’ exhibit. However, the small statue of the woman (or the lakambini, the great woman) given the big, golden wings are said to be the subconscious message of the artist’s dream for the woman —her emancipation and life in a society where there is no oppression.

Meanwhile, the Dugtong-Buhay (Extended Life), one of the author’s favorite pieces, is a materialization of the life-and-death experiences of the artist when she was struck by the blow of diabetes mellitus .

The statue, with the cape of empty insulin sticks, is now the symbol of the celebration of life and hopes for healing, not only of the physical infirmities, but the spiritual ones as well.

The Binathaluman (The Goddess), another attractive piece of the entire exhibit, is the symbol of the power of womanhood: her power to procreate, to heal (like that attributed to the babaylans or the ancient medicine women) and to nourish (like that of Mother Nature).

On the other hand, the Tagapangalaga ng Cordillera (The Guardian of the Cordillera) is more than folkloric; it is the materialization and crystallization of the woman’s role in defending and nurturing nature, for she herself is the depiction of the cycles and modalities of nature. But this role is not solely for the woman but is to be shared by both male and female.

The Isdang Tatsulok (Fish Triangle) can be appreciated more by the symbolism it carries than by the looks. It symbolizes the nourishment of the body and the soul. In the Christian (Gnostic) tradition, the fish symbolizes the Christ himself (Ikhthous).

Other notes

All works are in mixed-media, utilizing the “everyday things” around the kitchen, the art shop, and workshop of the Contrerases, thus making them “environment friendly.” Isla-Contreras used “trash” in making her precious artworks: hardwood from discarded lumber scraps, welded steel, necklaces which are fashioned from costume jewelry, textiles and even the empty tubes of insulin in order to create those 16 pieces of sculptures, of various shapes and sizes.

Like what she had done in the Malaking Lampara (Big Lamp) which is literally a hanging lamp, chips of wood coming from the typhoon-devastated Banglos, in Quezon have been put together to make that wonderful centerpiece.

Unlike the works of her husband, Rey, and daughter Karlota Contreras-Koterbay who have hands and eyes on hard wood, stone, metal and even driftwoods, Isla-Contreras’ works are a little bit lighter.

As Rey told this author in an informal interview on the exhibit’s opening, “Tala can make heavy things (like the Krisis ni Misis) lighter.”

It is also refreshing that instead of simple tags, the artist used poetry in introducing each work.

But, for the author, what is more striking about the works, as a whole, is that they don’t only manifest the roles of a woman in all aspects of life, but teaches the man—like this writer—to appreciate womanhood and femininity more.

On that note, this writer invites you to experience Isla-Contreras’ life and nature. (Contributed to Bulatlat on July 2008)