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Indigenizing Arts and Activism

It was like drinking from a cosmic cup that eased the deep thirst of long ago.  It was the seemingly unquenchable thirst for identification and belonging in this American place we call our second home which was not quite home.

Arts re-expressed

As a doctoral student in expressive arts therapies, the subject of arts activism seemed like a mythic serpent that undulated and excited, as much as it hissed and challenged.  I was enraptured with its tempting offer: new seeds for artistic expression to grow, new delights that promised untold levels of fulfillment.  The question was: How does one do the mythical serpent dance?  How does one transform artistic expression so that from the personal, it can be raised to impact the public realm?   

As a part time expressive arts therapist in Los Angeles and doing my work of intergenerational exchange through mythmaking and narrative recomposing between elders and college students in the community, I thought that I was performing an adequate amount of arts activism in my area.  It was not as I thought, as I found out later, when summoned on an urgent Bay Area trip to visit a troubled son.

I did not know then that the said trip would eventually lead me to a meeting, and then to a retreat, in Leny’s Sta.Rosa home, with a group of Babaylan-inspired Pinay artists and healers. It turned out to be a homecoming to our common indigenous roots.  It was like drinking from a cosmic cup that eased the deep thirst of long ago.  It was the seemingly unquenchable thirst for identification and belonging in this American place we call our second home which was not quite home.  I felt that I was no longer in the company of strangers but in the warm embrace of a long sought for and awaited family.

A rediscovered self, a reunited family

There we were, nine females, with different callings, but bound by ties that went deeper than the kaleidoscopic hues of our Pinay skin or the same palate for arroz caldo, kare kare, isda and bibingka. We looked at one another and while mirroring the amazing images of our ethnic and cultural selves, felt the unanimous conviction that it was time to bring these images out to the public.  It was time to unfurl our colors and show the deep essence of our being Filipino.  It was time to emerge from being shadows in the background; time to clearly proclaim our voices and our faces.

At first however, it was essential for us to proclaim ourselves as home to our indigenous identities, especially to celebrate being home to one another.  We were, as the indigenous researcher Smith (2008) stated: “celebrating survival.”  We were proclaiming our arts as both the sword and shield in our mission of indigenization.  It was a silent but strongly felt collective proclamation.  It was also the launch of our new role as brown artivists, the combination of arts and activism by persons of color in a white dominated landscape.

The Bay Area group oriented me about the artivist role not through talk but through a request to recite poetry at the September 2009 first fundraiser in Oakland entitled: A ritual gathering of sacred music, dance and poetry.  This was to benefit the First International Babaylan Conference in April 2010 at the Sonoma State University in Northern California.  Babaylan is the Filipino term for shaman, intermediary between the spirit and physical worlds, community server, peacemaker, healer, priestess.

Most of all, I heard her gentle chanting, how she implored my wandering selves to come back as we prepared to go home from visited strange places.

The event was akin to Smith’s (2008) description of an indigenous project, “where artists and storytellers come together to celebrate collectively a sense of life…and connectedness… Events and accounts which focus on the positive and important not just because they speak to our survival, but because they celebrate our resistances at an ordinary human level and they affirm our identities as indigenous women…”

How was I to know that the event and the following performance poem which I composed was going to provide a “cultural moment,” which according to See (2009) “evidenced the creativity and anomaly of a minority, post colonial entity…”  How was I to know that this particular cultural moment was to open new realms of expression and amazing challenges for me? 

YA PALLABBET | ANG PAGBABALIK LOOB
| THE JOURNEY HOME

(Chanted)
Intan intan… labbet tan intan
Intan intan… labbet tan intan
Halika na uwi na… halika na uwi na…
(Spoken)
Kaam ta kunukunnay ya kwammu?
Bakit nyo po ginagawa ito?
Why do you do this, Lola? As a child I’d wonder
Why grandmother chanted to call me, even while beside her
After visiting strange places and it was time to go home

Why do you do this, I would repeat
And slowly, she’d look at me, and say gently
Whispering a secret known only to both of us
So that you won’t get lost, my child
So that you won’t go wandering too far
Too far that you’d never return again.

And then she’d chant and do it all over
Intan intan… labbet tan intan… Intan intan…. labbet tan intan
Imploring with her voice, singing softly with the wind, distinctly
Calling… for my fragmented selves in fragmented places
Come home… come home… time to come home…
Come to this body again… come to this mind…
Come to this heart… come back into this inner space
Come… all you wandering selves together
Come home… and be whole again.

And she’d take hold of my hand
Wrapping my tiny hand, enclosing it in hers
In her strong hand, her nurturing hand and
All at once I’d feel like it was the safest place to be
Despite the creeping darkness, despite the chilling night.

Other nights have come: nights of doom, nights of sorrow.
Many other places: places of torment, places of pain
Many lands traversed, many more to be traveled
Lands that are jagged, cruel, leering, eerie
Oceans that are frothing, seething, smearing
Places where our many selves go
Wandering into…peering into… swallowed into.

Lola, like other ancestors, was babaylan
She whose voice kept calling with the wind, dispelling despair
She whose pungent herbs curling in burning coals

would flow into dreams
And deep sleep where soft smoke soothed the unseen pain
Healed the open wounds, brought together flesh

and soul torn apart
So that healed, daughters, granddaughters

and great grand-daughters,
sons and grandsons, sondaughters and daughtersons
Heir to her power of peace, silence, resilience,

song, story, dance, touch
Animate once more the babaylan legacy of dispelling darkness
Healing pain, praying peace, chanting to all our little selves

Intan intan… labbet tan intan… intan intan… labbet tan intan
Come home… come home… time to come back home…
Come to this body again… come to this mind…
Come to this heart… come back into this inner space
Come… all you wandering selves together
Come home… and be whole again.

In the art and politics of indigenization and decolonization, we, the Babaylan inspired artists, healers and community workers hope to strengthen the foundation for the building of a global collective...

New expressions, new insights

The poem and the event led me to wonderful new spaces of perceptions and realities, contained in an email of summed insights which I sent to my fellow artists a week after the first fundraiser in Oakland.  

My dear friends, sisters and family,

Please allow me to try putting in words what the experience of the ritual night meant to me.

The gongs from that night have not stopped playing.  From some mysterious place, they continue beating, rhythmic and distinct. They bring me back to Saturday evening and everything that flowed from it. 

The poem that I was asked to create for the Night of Ritual Gathering in Oakland had been like clouds gathering in my imagination. I did not anticipate what they would bring.  Not even when the words drizzled their patterns.  Then, the drizzle became stronger, and the images and meanings started to pour like rain. I felt my Lola touching me once more as a child, in my hometown; smelled her roasted cacao beans and inhaled the smoke from her slow burning herbs. Most of all, I heard her gentle chanting, how she implored my wandering selves to come back as we prepared to go home from visited strange places.

After writing the poem, I practiced reading it to my sister in Los Angeles.  I did it again in Berkeley, to my son, Kriya.  I thought they were simple readings at first but I began to wonder why my sister cried and why my son could not speak after listening to it.  Kriya remarked later that the chanted words resonated with a haunting yet familiar power.  And when he said this I realized that the only way a song could be heard was for someone to sing it; and that by my chanting, I have finally opened the gift that Lola had long ago bequeathed when she sang it for me, exactly the same way her grandmother chanted this to her as a child, and all the other elders before them who did the same act to the next generation.

By invoking the chant for coming home, I have once more opened the entrance to the sanctuary that our ancestors knew; the sacred and safe space where I could settle myself with them, after wandering to so many places.  By the act of listening, my sister and son similarly invoked the chant, lifting the veils from a distant past where the three of us reconnected with our roots in that same safe and mystical place.  I felt as if I was floating in collapsed time;  that I was, I am, a strand tying the past to the present; in a continuum of  melodic notes and rhythmic words that could only emanate from a life source, the one creative source.

I cried as insight after insight rippled within me.  I was chanting to the nudgings of my grandmother, to that of my mother, their mothers and all the other ancestors before them; to once again play the music of the spheres, so that I may serve as a humble medium and be able to pass it on to others; so that the sound may continue in its healing as it calls to our wandering selves to come together as one; as it implores us to listen, as it reassures us that to come home is to face who we are; and to know that the real self is infinite and thus, indestructible.  It was the most reassuring truth once more revealed, the truth about how fleeting and yet how eternal life is, like we are. 

And the most beautiful thing about life is the chance to rediscover it with you, dear kindred souls, as we continue drawing congruent mandalas within the babaylan consciousness and community, as we continue calling to ourselves and to others to come home. 

My heart is a spring and you provide the waters which nurture it. 

Thank you to all of you.   

Mila

Epilogue

The Oakland Babaylan inspired fundraiser in September led to a series of other events in the Bay Area, with two in Los Angeles: one on November 22, 2009 and another in February 2010.  It took conscious and persistent efforts to organize various details, with the assistance of fellow artists: choosing a venue, creating flyers and brochures, inviting artists and guests, making the gathering public and continuing with our statement of indigenization, of decolonization, not only for Filipino Americans but for other cultures as well.  All events were successful at mobilizing people and kinship ties, at raising funds, and at further planting seeds for the indigenous consciousness to take deeper roots and grow.

It was as Smith (2008) called, “indigenizing.”  The concept of indigenist, according to Churchill (1993), meant “that I am one who…draws upon the traditions evolved over thousands of years by native peoples the world over. . .  The term centers a politics of indigenous identity and indigenous cultural action.”

In the art and politics of indigenization and decolonization, we, the Babaylan inspired artists, healers and community workers hope to strengthen the foundation for the building of a global collective, an indigenous family who can understand and stand up for each other through the sharing and active fostering of indigenous creative expressions, practices, knowledge and systems.

The dance for indigenous arts and activism continues.  The mythic serpent smiles as it undulates.

REFERENCES

Churchill, W. ((1993). Struggle for the land. Maine: Common Courage Press.

See, S. (2009). The decolonized eye. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, L. (2008).  Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples.  Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

© Mila Anguluan-Coger

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