Alas ng Bayan is a collaborative project organized by the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), the Constantino Foundation, and 350.org Pilipinas, to raise awareness about the intersections between women, history, memory, climate change, and citizenship.
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. The Alas ng Bayan exhibit intends to mobilize sectors not normally active in the climate debate by offering new notions of citizenship and nationalism responsive to the multiple emergencies we face today. Viewers of the paintings and those who listen to the lectures that accompany the exhibit will not fail to sense parallels between the lives of the women depicted and current topics under intense public debate, such as violence against women, LGBTQ+ rights, extrajudicial killings, global warming, and national sovereignty.
The Alas ng Bayan exhibit is composed of five paintings depicting individually the heroes Gregoria “Oriang” de Jesus, Apolonia Catra, Remedios “Kumander Liwayway” Gomez-Paraiso, Lorena Barros, and Gloria Capitan. The dimension of each painting is 17 x 24 inches.
The project will be launched on heroes month, November 2019, and will end the last day of March 2020, which marks the month when international women’s day is celebrated (every 08 March).
There will be a one-day opening launch in the Constantino Foundation’s Linangan gallery on November 23, after which the paintings move to participating universities and institutions. The Alas ng Bayan paintings go back on display at the Linangan in April to mark the centennial birth anniversary of the writer and historian Letizia Roxas Constantino on April 9, 2020.
Aesthetic Concept: Alas and Five Aces
Alas ng Bayan is about five remarkable Filipinas who resisted national oppression, social injustice, and false gender normatives at different junctures of Philippine history.
As the artworks deal with historical truths and the surreal, the Alas ng Bayan paintings were rendered in the style of Tarot cards or sakla, the card game used often in urban areas, many times in working class neighborhoods and during funeral wakes. Early in its history, the Tarot was used as playing cards by noble families in Italy. It was in the nineteenth-century that the Tarot card was linked to witchcraft and religion. Spiritual and esoteric groups have since considered the Tarot a body of knowledge compromising different archetypal images that cross linguistic, cultural, geographical, and temporal barriers.
Like the Tarot, the Alas ng Bayan paintings mirror similar mysticism while provoking its viewers to engage, if not decode, subtle symbolisms placed throughout the images. Alas is a local word for ace, a card that in most games is ranked as the highest, e.g. the ace of diamonds. It connotes a winning card or a secret advantage, for instance, “an ace up one’s sleeve.” As an adjective, its synonyms are excellent, outstanding, masterly, virtuoso, and first-rate. As a noun, an ace is equivalent to a champion, a doyen, an expert, and a master.
Can a normal card game have five aces? There are only four suits in typical poker games: diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades. Aces with all four suits in one hand are called cuadro de alas (a winning hand bested only by the rare Royal Flush). Yet the Alas ng Bayan paintings convey a fifth suit, suggesting women and heroism as notions that refuse to be contained by conventional definitions. A quinta de alas suit seems absurd even as a linguistic Creole contrivance. But the framing seems apt; we live in interesting times when more and more young people, especially young women weary of corrosive machismo, refuse to play by the rules, openly choosing to resist and defeat toxic masculinity.
In Latin numerals as well, quinta is the female equivalent of quintus, which translates to “fifth”. Quinta is an anomaly. It’s etymology is linked to quinta essentia which translates as the fifth element and is where the word quintessential comes from. Some discussions link quinta to pre-atomic theory where four “known” elements or essences are identified — Earth, Air, Fire and Water — in addition to a putative fifth element, quinta essentia. The fifth element was believed to be superior to the other elements, and so, “quintessential” has come to mean something that is superior. The fifth element was believed to be more subtle, permeating the fabric of things and was thought to be more difficult to find or to isolate. This is why the word quintessential is used often today to describe the essence of things nearing perfection. In this light, Oriang, Apolonia, Liwayway, Lorena, and Gloria are without any doubt quintessential to Philippine history.