The 44

While events were swirling on Edsa over the three-day holiday, I went to Serendra at the Bonifacio Global City to sort of “chill”, and at the same time treat my senses to the visual delights of the art galleries on its second level.

What caught my attention was a huge painting at Artes Orientes Gallery, depicting in symbolism so meaningful and figures so poignant the Mamasapano tragedy where 44 of our finest Special Action forces died on 25 January 2015.

I immediately recognized the style, because the figures had a striking similarity to those of an acrylic painting gifted to me by my daughter last Christmas.  Although those were happy figures of street carolers, the style was unmistakably that of Adeste Deguilmo, a Cebu-based painter with Basilan roots.  In 2010, Adeste painted landscapes, mostly of rice fields, capturing the luminescent quality of the sun casting its imprint on blades of grass, somewhat reminiscent of an Amorsolo.  As with most artists, he has lately shifted to a different genre.  From sunshine to darker, almost surreal shades. Do we see a glimpse of his inner self, of his seeming despair at the state of things in the benighted land? 

Deguilmo’s magnum opus about the Fallen 44 was huge: 64” by 76”.  He gave it a title— “In the Shadows of Cain” and I had to call him up afterwards to truly understand the symbolisms in his painting, and why the title.

Historical events have always been immortalized in paintings or murals.  The victories of Napoleon as well as his enthronement as Emperor of the French are strewn in the museums of Paris and Fontainebleau.  Similarly, the grandiose Versailles is replete with tableaux of Louis XIV.  As likewise, tragedies both of biblical and historical memory.  One is for instance hard put to analyze the figures in Picasso’s Guernica, which is an ode to the bitter experiences of the Spanish Civil War.

The objective of the artists, we are told by curators, was not only to realistically depict major events, but where glory and victory are commemorated, to arouse a people’s love of country, or pride of history.  Or in the case of the tragic consequences of wars or massacres, to evoke a sense of revulsion over the senselessness of war.

One flinches at the grimness of Delacroix’s realistic depiction of the annihilation of Greeks by conquering Turks, or the old masters’ gory paintings about biblical events.  For his part, Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest painters of all time,  used symbols like the bull and the horse to depict the horrors of fascism in the destruction of the Basque town of Guernica.  It has become one of the most well-known paintings of all time, a striking contrast of modernism from Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa portrait that tourists line up to at the Louvre.

Adeste Deguilmo, like many other Filipinos, was so incensed and shocked at what happened to our fighting men in Mamasapano, gallant forces sent to capture an international terrorist only to be mercilessly slain at the hands of combatants who claim to sue for peace.   And for months on end, he worked day and night trying to capture the tragedy for posterity, using his prodigious artistic talents.

Adeste explains that “In the Shadows of Cain” draws from the Biblical narrative of the jealous Cain who murdered his sibling Abel to deliver his message of angst against the way Mamasapano unfolded, its true story yet untold. 

The painting is dominated by four human figures with contrasting features.  One figure has his mouth blown wide open, as if depicting a SAF officer crying in anguish at the brutality inflicted upon him.  Another turns his head away, as if filled with guilt.  Who that represents, whether person or institution, one could only surmise.  Surely justice must sooner or later come, and truth, in all its naked gore or glory, must out.

The four figures bear a red imprint on their palms, like the crucified Christ.  Yet the hands are sheathed with transparent gloves, as if to hide fingerprints.  Are Deguilmo’s figures the 44, or do they symbolize the culprits?

Deguilmo depicts bullets using the coordinates of the massacre site, and tattooed on the foreheads of the figures is the number “44.”  Above is a lifeless dove with its breast pierced in red, as if to symbolize a peace shattered by death.  And hidden in the background, sheathed in darkness, is the eye of an American eagle.  The meanings remind us of the speculations, not unfounded, about Uncle Sam’s role in the botched adventurism that resulted in the Mamasapano carnage, although of course, the Americans got their target.

On the left hand corner is a laughing “Joker” (as in Batman lore) in barong, who it is supposed to be, the artists leaves to one’s interpretation.  There is the haunting image of the bamboo and wooden bridge over the river that has become like the “bridge over the river Kwai.”

Deguilmo explained that Filipinos, whether Christians or Muslims, must always be reminded that death and violence can never bring about peace.  No more, he said, should we respond like Cain did to God, when asked what had happened to his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But who is Adeste’s Cain?  He leaves it to the viewer to conclude.  The fallen 44, quite clearly, is the symbolic Abel.

The painting, already sold to an anonymous buyer, but displayed for many to see for at least two weeks, is an anguished cri de coeur that shouts at every Filipino:  Non oblivisceris nostri. 

It comes from all those who perished at Mamasapano, their widows and orphans, their mothers and fathers:  Do not forget us.

It is a cry for justice in a polity where memories are short and tragedies soon forgotten, where “moving on” is both a curse of survival and an aberration brought about by a lack of nationalism.

Never forget the 44.

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