Originally published in Business Mirror

By JT Nisay

WHILE Japanese soldiers sharpened their blades and tightened their boots, a female commander of the guerrilla movement Hukbalahap, or Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon, faced the mirror.

Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, referred to as Kumander Liwayway, made sure not a single strand of hair was out of place. She polished her nails, wore perfume and applied her signature red lipstick.

She was ready for combat.

“Liwayway herself explained that this ritual gave her comrades greater confidence, seeing their commander fearless and calm,” said Ana Maria Nemenzo, national coordinator of WomanHealth Philippines, as she read her essay about the well-groomed heroine before a small crowd at the Asean Hall in the University of the Philippines Diliman.

“She wanted to look her best in case she died or was captured in battle,” Nemenzo continued. “[Hukbalahap leader] Luis Taruc said that Liwayway once told him, ‘I was also fighting for the right to be myself.’”

Nemenzo presented her writing, titled Kumander Liwayway: A Feminine Warrior, as part of the recent launch of Alas ng Bayan, an exhibition that

showcases paintings portraying five Filipina heroines who resisted national oppression and social injustice at different junctures of Philippine history.

“The project seeks to introduce and inject history and feminism as fundamental elements in the way young people respond to the worsening state of national forgetting, and the climate crisis,” said Renato Constantino Jr., chairman of the Constantino Foundation, one of the organizers of the show, along with 350.org Pilipinas and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC).

“We have been taught about the lives of Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, while women heroes are rarely featured in history lessons,” said 22-year-old ICSC Special Projects Coordinator Celine Tabinga. “Alas ng Bayan aims to correct this by promoting ‘herstory.’”

Aside from Liwayway, another featured heroine in the exhibition is Gregoria de Jesus, or Aling Oriang. She was the founder of the women’s chapter of the KKK, and was involved in the armed struggle that overthrew the yoke of Spanish colonialism. Also presented is Apolonia Catra, the only woman named as officer under the command of Macario Sakay during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century.

The two women rounding out the set are Maria Lorena Barros, a poet and anthropologist who fought against the Marcos dictatorship; and Gloria Capitan, an environment activist and human-rights defender who resisted a coal plant project in Limay, Bataan.

The five women are painted using oil on canvas, executed in the style of sakla, or a local version of tarot cards. As such, the depictions relied heavily on muted pastel and were laden with symbolisms.

At the foreground of Capitan’s portrayal, for example, is a black cat. The feline is staring directly at the viewer, while our hero sits on a throne, holding a mic. Capitan was killed on the first day of President Duterte’s administration, making her one of the first victims of extrajudicial killings. It happened at Capitan’s own videoke cantina, where cats are said to frequent. They stand as witnesses to the crime.

Meanwhile, the painting featuring Liwayway shows her in a dress as red as her lips. A guitar rests on her throne, symbolizing her many musical celebrations over Japanese soldiers, as a Japanese flag lays at her feet.

Behind the artworks is Johnny Guarin, a 26-year-old Filipino artist, poet and hip hop recording artist from Tondo, Manila. He started accepting commissions to create art in 2017, and joined 350.org Pilipinas as a volunteer in the same year.

Halos dalawang taon ko rin pinagaralan ang mga bayaning ito,” the artist said, adding the tarot card inspiration reflects how the women risked their lives for the country. “Pinaghugutan ko sila ng inspirasyon sa pakikipaglaban sa mga isyu ngayon.”

According to ICSC Executive Director Red Constantino, combining the humanities with visual arts, literature, science and policy-making has always been an integral mission of their institute, especially now when the problems that society face are as deep-rooted and are as complex.

“This is a time when poets and painters are needed,” Constantino said. “We’ve already seen the limits of discourse and language of science and policy-making. They are not moving the public to do what they need to do, unlike how the enemies of Oriang, Liwayway, Catra, Barros and Capitan moved them.”

“We need to visualize not only the crisis that we’re facing, but also the hope and opportunity,” he said.

The call of Alas ng Bayan to reexamine history through art hearkens back to a 2017 exhibition also spearheaded by the Constantino Foundation. Titled Hidden in Plain Sight, the show featured murals by art group TutoK, depicting Filipino heroes Macario Sakay and Lean Alejandro.

Sakay fought against the US colonial rule after the Spanish era and was hanged in 1907, while Alejandro was an activist who led rallies against the Marcos dictatorship. He was gunned down in 1987.

Alejandro, in the words of Constantino, was a youth leader who surpassed the confines of his generation to set an example of how a committed activist, advancing the cause of national democracy, can rise above its own limitations.

Alejandro was depicted in one work clutching onto a red book. Constantino said viewers of the piece at the Ospital ng Makati, where it was once displayed, supposed it was The Little Red Book by Mao Zedong. Upon closer inspection, the book bore the title in the same red font, Araling Panlipunan.

Another piece showed Alejandro with a white flower known in Filipino as rosal. Viewers argued, however, that a rosal had no thorns, but the one depicted in the mural did. Alejandro was killed in Cubao, along a street called Rosal.

“That’s the artist’s way of saying, ‘Move closer to history because you might see something else, apart from whatever you thought was there,’” Constantino said. “In history and memory and art, there is more than what you see. And that’s the message also with the Alas ng Bayan.”

Alas ng Bayan was first staged on November 23 at the Linangan Gallery of the Constantino Foundation with the families of Liwayway and Capitan. Last week, the exhibit ran for three days at the UP Asian Center.

Constantino said the project will be hosted by different academic institutions next year, including the University of the Philippines Manila at the Museum of a History of Ideas next March, in time for Women’s Month.

He added that the vision by 2021 is to hand out “Alas ng Bayan Awards” not only to those who have passed away, but also to young women who have contributed to the country.

“Also, by next year, we will introduce a new set of ‘Alas ng Bayan,’” Constantino said. “Maraming alas ang bayan natin.”