Thursday, August 23, 2007

resuming blogs

Haven't blog for a while but with more free time this year, I hope to be more present/

Monday, December 04, 2006

keeping in touch

Haven't entered a new blog for almost a month. Semestral break intervened and I have been in and out of Manila. Haven't returned to blog because I've been reworking the garden in my sister's house. In time for Christmas and the expected avalance of guests.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Flora exhibit update

The opening of Flora: Beauty, Desire and Death had two installation works made specifically for it. Jason Dy and Rene Javellana's Contradicting Margaret: Homage to Bro. Kamel, was painted directly on the gallery's wall.

Jay Ticar's work consisting of flowers and fruits embedded in three large blocks of ice lasted for the duration of the opening. As the evening wore off, the block melted leaving a large puddle of water at the center of the Ateneo Art Gallery's main exhibit space. The work was photographed by both still and video camera. A short clip of Ticar's ephemera will be edited for the opening of class on 13 November.

A week later, a potted Camellia thea sinensis arrived from Baguio, courtesy of the Good Shepherd Sisters. The camellia focused attention on the title wall of the exhibit. The red-flowering camellia is no longer in the gallery as it has been sent abroad to become part of a garden of camellias from all over the world, being planted to honor Bro. Kamel in the Checz Republic.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Flora opens Wednesday, 11 Oct 2006.

Scheduled for six in the evening, the opening reception for Flora: Beauty, Desire and Death at the Ateneo Art Gallery was delayed because torrential rains hindered the representatives of the museums involved in Zero-in from arriving on time. Metro Manila's main north-south arteries was clogged with traffic. This was aggravated by the dismantling of billboards damaged by Milenyo, the typhoon that breezed through Manila with lightning speed almost two weeks ago. The MMDA said that almot 2000 billboards some as tall as five stories had been knocked down by the typhoon.

After more than a year evolving from a germ of an idea and a hectic two months of borrowing paintings, planning catalogues and wall texts, the opening reception began with a word of welcome by Ramon Lerma, the Director of the Ateneo Art Gallery and a short talk and walkthrough that I gave.

The entrance to the art gallery has been painted a deep green, to evoke a tropical forest Last Thursday, 5 October, Jason Dy a Jesuit scholastic, helped me paint the leaf imprints on one wall of the entrance. The wall frames a brief biography of Georg Josef Kamel. After experimenting on paper how to come up with pleasing shapes, Jason evolved a formula using acrylics as they came out of a tube. I drew some images from Kamel's illustration but as the work was progressing, Jason came up with the idea of showing the life cycle of plants from a seedling to its maturation and to the growth of seeds. I had asked him to paint an arch of leaves. Jason's leaf print work.

The exhibit came up with a total of 62 botanically themed works. The latest was Jay Ticar's installation, where fruits and fruits are deep frozen in ice. Naturally, the four-feet blocks of ice melted as the evening progressed, drenching the red velvet that wrapped the base of the upright blocks. Ticar's work elicited the greatest interest from a group of Fine Arts students who brought out their digital cameras and cellphones to capture this evanescent piece. The gallery has the work on video and will edit a looping piece to show what happened to the ice.

All told the opening was well attended and points to more days of appreciating flora.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

11 October 2006: Opening of Flora: Beauty, Desire and Death

We just experienced a nerve-wracking typhoon that passed through Manila in the record time of 4 hours, between 10 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon of Thursday, 28 September. The typhoon devastated so many trees in the Ateneo de Manila Campus. Fallen are some shade trees and showy flowering trees, including the Talisay (Termenalia cattapa) and the Santol, which appears in George Josef Kamel's illustrations.

But Flora will go on as scheduled. It opens in two weeks time on 11 October 2006. This is Ateneo Art Gallery's participation in Zero-in, whose theme is the convergence of art and science. The typhoon delayed returning the works of artists short-listed in the Ateneo Art Awards as the pick-up needed to transport the works were needed for cleaning up after the typhoon. And there is the concern that rain might damage the works during transport. The high humidity also slows down paint-drying time of the exhibition wall of the Ateneo Art Gallery. But if all goes as scheduled, next week begins the set-up of Flora.

The gallery walls near the entrance will be painted in hunter green, and leaf impresions in various shades of greens, yellows and whites will add texture to the wall. The gallery entrance will give a strong impression of entering a wooded space but not too dense that it feels like a jungle.

Some works that will be on display are facsimiles of pages from Kamel's illustrations, placed side-by-side with other botanical illustrations from the late-18th and the 19th centuries. More modern renditions of plants will also grace the green walls of the first gallery.

In the main and third gallery, a range of works depicting the floral theme will be displayed. An early work of Arturo Luz, Flower Vendor and a made for opening night installation piece by Jay Ticar will interact with works that are clearly botanical. The works in the galleries will challenge all to reflect on flora and its ineluctable involvement in human life.

The show will unexpectedly be a counterpoint to the decimation of so much plant life in the Ateneo after fierce storm that passed through Manila

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Flora coming soon

Flora: Beauty, desire and death is less than a month away. The Ateneo Art Gallery is making preparations for the exhibition. We visited Yasmin Almonte at the University of the Philippines' College of Fine Arts and chose about six of her works from 2004-06 that shows her engagement with the floral theme and women's issue. Joel de Leon and Lisa both agree that her works are powerful and that she should be better known.

Tuesday we make a quick dash to Yasmin's house/studio to make arragements for the paintings we are borrowing. We should also be visiting Chelay Dans, if I can make the appointment with her for Tuesday. We'll also be discussing the catalogue that goes with the exhibition.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Flora and Zero-in

Zero-in— an annual cooperative project among five museums, namely, the Ateneo Art Gallery, Bahay Tsinoy, the Ayala Museum, the Lopez Museum, Museong Pambata—has decided to focus this year's exhibitions on the theme: the convergence of arts and the sciences.

This is the write-up for the Ateneo Art Gallery's Flora: Beauty, Desire and Death.

Flora: Beauty, Desire & Death

Flora: Beauty, Desire and Death, an exhibition commemorating the tercentenary of Bro.Georg Jose Kamel, S.J.’s death, brings in dialogue the arts and sciences by meditating on the role images and illustrations play in the development of these diverse disciplines. While science uses images as a support for texts and equations, art employs images less for their denotative value but for their connotative repercussions. Images in science point to precise facts, images in art open possibilities for exploration.

Plants, what botanist label generically as FLORA, hardly figure as a major subject in Western Art. If they do they are often relegated as secondary decorative or allusive elements in a work whose subject matter is almost always the human.

Still life or what the Italians call natura morta is the closest there is to making flora the subject matter; but still life paintings are often regarded as secondary, no more than exercises done by a schoolboy or by an artist in between more serious works. When flora becomes the subject matter of vanitas or memento mori paintings, plant life is subsumed under the more important pole of the metaphor, life’s transitoriness and the vanity of all things—“Vanitas vanitatis.”

When the modern American artist Georgia O’Keefe painted flowers, blown to gargantuan size, they stunned the art world. O’Keefe illustrated how flora could speak loudly. Flora appears to be more than what it is; no longer mere decoration they are the major premise in the syllogism of metaphors. Likewise, when Judy Chicago did her installation, The Supper, to commemorate women who steered human history, she took to flowers as the central motif for her ceramic plates—flowers alluring for their beauty, flowers clearly erotic.

In the East, flora fares much much better; Chinese schools of painting specialize in depicting plant life. In fact, the first exercises in learning how to handle the Chinese brush are mastering the strokes for the bamboo and the ground orchid.

While the East emphasizes harmony with nature, the West has, especially since the colonial period, had a conquistador mentality toward nature. Lands—foreign lands—had to be occupied, claimed in the name of this or that monarch. And the curious yield of the land—plants and animals—were captured and collected, carefully recorded and reported back to the mother country. When possible specimens of these exotica and curiositias found their way to the European courts and then to the rest of Europe. Thus, did travel the pineapple and the tomato, the corn and the turkey. And the spices, which spurred colonial expansion in the first place.

Colonialism was spurred by desire, an eros to expand, to conquer and own. Whether the motive was noble—to spread civilization and the true faith—or mundane and crass—to fill the coffers of the monarchy or civil state, there was something alluring in the colonized spaces that kindled desire. That desire was fueled by the beauty of the object to be conquered. There was much novel beauty in the lands conquered, impenetrable rain forest, harboring orchids and epiphytes, rain-drenched lands where it was perpetual summer and where cycles of birth and death were abridged as mushrooms and fungi sprouted overnight to wither by night fall.

Beauty was often subsumed under utility. The durability and exoticism of tropical woods with colors ranging from blonde to midnight black, and patinas that gleamed like polish onyx were a sure lure to merchants. Herbs known for their healing properties, for lowering fever, stilling the innards and relieving melancholia. And there were the spices, the oils, the fiber—all fodder for trade. Beauty fanned the embers of acquisitive desire.

Yet the very lands, which the conquistadors set out to conquer and rule, proved to be their own enemy as strange illnesses struck them. As the land proved to be more unyielding and reticent than they expected. The very tropics, which was the hothouse for a variety of species, was also incubator of many unknown diseases, and an unyielding leech that sucked their energies.

So the conquistadors set out to find cures for their aches and pains, to find balm for the tropic heat, and slow down the progress of inevitable death.

Thus, interest in matters botanical, even with Bro. George Josef Kamel, was fueled not only by intellectual curiosity but also, and mainly so, by very practical considerations. How to find remedies and cures in nature’s pharmacopæia of plants, roots, flowers, barks and fruits. It is the desire to stem death, to find a way out that marks the botanical works of early missionary researchers. So many of the specimens drawn by Kamel are marked with Nux. ungt. (nux ungenta), nuts used as unguents, or vom/ vomitrix, purgatives. The medical theory and practice then current prescribed the purgative as a cure-all for many illnesses. If they are not medicinal, the plants drawn by Kamel have practical uses, like hardwoods—molave, narra, balayong and the like—used for building houses more permanent than the bahay kubo.

So desire, beauty and death dance a round in the conquistador’s world. It is this round that the Ateneo de Manila Art Gallery’s exhibition Flora traces in an exhibition to honor a pioneer botanist, Bro. Kamel.

The Exhibition

Flora the Ateneo de Manila’s Art Gallery’s offering for Zero-in dances to the triple theme of beauty, desire and death as this is expressed in the art works in the Ateneo and other collections. Select works in the Ateneo’s collection, augmented by works loaned by two important women artist and a botanical illustrator, dance in a quadrille consisting of four sets: the properly botanical, where the overall theme of the exhibition is sounded and three smaller exhibits where the triple themes are displayed separately.

Interacting with the works of Wilwayco, Soler, Ana Fer, Sancho and others will be reproductions of Kamel’s botanical illustrations, facsimiles of botanical illustrations done in or about the Philippines by the 1795 Juan del Cuellar Expedition and by Fray Manuel Blanco in the 19th century.

Featured will be works by women artists Araceli Dans and Yasmin Almonte. Dans, who recently had a retrospective of her works, is best known for her flower and calado series. Painted with meticulous care, akin to the miniaturismo of the 19th century, Dans captures the evanescent allure of common plants, like the variegated croton or San Francisco. Contrasting the textures and forms of plants with their expression in the fine craft of embroidery, Dans has subtly interwoven a subtext about women and their lives, a subtext not immediately obvious in the complex of metaphors about nature and the human, the natural and the hand-made.

Almonte’s raw image of plants, their flowers and fruits, burst forth as objects of desire and as symbols of human desiring. In contrast to Dans’ carefully executed brush strokes, and minute renderings are Almonte’s gestural lines vibrant with emotion. If Dans appeals visually through fine craftsmanship, Almonte’s appeal is visceral. Almonte's featured pieces are drawn from a body of work done between 2004 and 2006. Beginning with more figurative and colorful figures Almonte's works are metamorphosing toward one which is more abstract and monochromatic as she engages with flora as the prime metaphor of her works. The 2006 pieces have not been publicly shown, this exhibition will be their inaugural

Underneath the alluring veneer of flora lies themes more dark and foreboding; Dans' newer calado hides images of women oppressed and marginalized, the alluring flower is beginning to show signs of decay or is juxtaposed with the detritus of urban life. Flora, then, is a more power-filled metaphor than expected.

The Exhibition’s Honoree
Bro. Josef Georg Kamel was a Jesuit brother who arrived in the Philippines in the 17th century and continued to be active as a pharmacist and naturalist until his death on 2 May 1706. In Europe, Bro. Kamel was known for his botanical research because his catalogue of Philippine plants was published as a supplement (“Herbarium aliarumque stirpitum in insula Luzone Phippiniarum prima noscentium”) to the magnum opus of the British botanist John Ray, Historia Plantarum.

The leading scientific and scholarly circle in Britain, the British Royal Society, sponsored the publication of Ray’s History. At this time, the science of botany was being established on a more solid empirical footing by the careful collection and classification of plants in the discipline that was to evolve as botanical taxonomy. While the taxonomy did not come to full fruition until the binomial system of Karl Linne (Linneaus), who lived a generation after Ray and Kamel, it was the work of these pioneers who amassed information about the biota of the world that was the backbone of Linneaus’ work.

Bro. Kamel was born in Bruno, Moravia on 21 April 1661 in a house near the Židovská (Jew’s) Gate. His father Andreas was a master shearer. At 17, he may have entered the Jesuit mission school in Vienna whence he entered the Jesuit novitiate. On 12 November 1682, he joined the Jesuit province of Bohemia and in 1687, while still in late 20s, he arrived in the Philippines, where in 15 August 1696 he pronounced his final vows. He spent his entire active ministry in Manila at the Colegio de San Ignacio in Intramuros where he was assigned as pharmacist and where he conducted his botanical research and at the hospital of La Misericordia. Eighteenth-century plans of the Colegio indicate that the school had a number of enclosed gardens, even a small orchard. Perhaps, these gardens were planted by Kamel with botanical specimens gathered from all over the Philippines. The Misericordia was a lay organization established to assist the sick and dying and perform other works of mercy. The organization maintained a hospital in Intramuros.

Kamel was in correspondence, it seems, with other Jesuits in the field as his botanical illustrations cite others as the source for the information he had amassed, just as he was in correspondence with still another European botanist and naturalist, James Petiver. Kamel is credited with introducing the igasud (Strychnos ignatii), the source of strychnine, to Europe. Igasud was known as a purgative among the Visayans, and its active ingredient strychnine was poisonous.

Kamel’s sensitive line drawings (or copies of his drawings), preserved in the Jesuit Archives at Louvain, suggest that he illustrated from live specimens rather than from mounted and dried specimens as was common in Europe. Luc Dhaeze, who describes himself as an amateur botanist who has been growing camellias for years, says that the “The manuscript came into the possession of French botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836), and was bought by the Belgian count Alfred de Limminghe (Gentinnes) on February 6, 1858 at the sale of the possessions of the former. De Limminghe presented the manuscript as a gift to the Jesuit college in Leuven.”

To honor Bro. Kamel, Linnaeus named the flowering plant Camellia thea sinensis of the tea family, after him. Popularly know as Camellia, the flower reach iconic heights when it became the title of a popular novel, The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas Fils. The flower is a popular garden plant and has countless hybrids and cultivars.

Kamel is one in a line of botanists who studied the biota of the Philippines. Important as he was, he was no pioneer; other missionaries had already made copious notes about the “natural history” of the Philippines. The Jesuit Francisco Alzina had already written a multivolume work on the natural history of the Visayas, devoting a considerable portion of the first book to plants. Many missionaries were interested in the medicinal characteristic of plants, that could augment the pharmacopæia of potions, ointments, simples and cures that they brought with them from Europe. These missionaries produced books on plantas medicinales.

Almost a century after Kamel’s death the Spanish crown commissioned Juan del Cuellar to conduct a botanical survey of the Philippines in 1795. Del Cuellar employed Filipino artists to illustrate for him. Unfortunately we know nothing about these artists, except that they seem to have illustrated from pressed specimens gathered by the del Cuellar expedition as the artificial arrangement of branches and leaves indicate.

In the 19th century, the Augustinian prior and botanist, Manuel Blanco published Flora de Filipinas, illustrated through a collaborative effort of many Filipino artists. This is the best-known of the locally done botanical books from the colonial period. The published text had full color lithographs and came as a series. Blanco’s Flora enjoyed great popularity and even went into a second printing, although less opulent than the first because the illustrations were no longer in full color. The popularity of Flora de Filipinas may have eclipsed Kamel’s fame because Fray Blanco’s work became the touchstone of botanical knowledge beginning the 19th century.

The Ateneo de Manila Art Gallery’s Zero-in offering Flora: Beauty, Desire and Death joins an international celebration of Kamel’s life and achievement.

As a supplement to Flora, a blogsite ( featuring selected illustrations from Kamel has been created. This site links to the Ateneo de Manila Art Gallery site ( where other articles related to Flora are posted.