Sheer Realities: A Celebration of Philippine Culture

A Celebration of Philippine Culture

February 23 - April 22, 2000

Sheer Realities: A Celebration of Philippine Culture

The archipelago known as las islas filipinas, a Spanish colony for more than three centuries, became Asia’s first republic in 1898. Although the United States would replace Spain as the colonizer, and genuine independence would not become a reality until 1946, the nationalist activities that culminated in armed struggle against Spain remain a watershed in Philippine history. These activities were responses to myriad economic, social, and cultural factors, among them escalating tensions over access to land and the expanded global trade that linked the islands to the modernizing world beyond Spain.

Sheer Realities explores a critical dimension of Philippine nationalism as it developed over the nineteenth century: the rise of a mixed-race—mestizo—middle class who adapted Enlightenment ideals and European notions of modernity in their attempts to reform Spanish rule in the colony. In the process, middle-class mestizos consciously strove to distinguish themselves from both Spanish colonizer and Filipino peasant.

These class and racial divides were most vividly apparent in the clothing and other body decoration exhibited by each group. The spectrum’s poles were defined, on the one hand, by the almost naked body of the salvaje (savage) and, on the other, the layered clothing ensembles of the elites. To the latter, these poles signified the radical difference between the abject and the civilized. It was thus with a sense of local pride that elite and mestizo classes wore extraordinarily refined jewelry, silk clothing, cotton skirts and trousers, and delicately embroidered piña garments.

The beauty of this clothing was both an aesthetic and a political statement. Its extreme refinement displayed a desire to be acknowledged as a civilized society, which meant a distancing from the naked body of the savage. This divide continues to resonate in the Philippines today. The persistent idea that the civilized and well clothed are deserving of freedom explains, in part, why the contributions of Filipino peasants to the independence struggle have been devalued in the official history of nation-building in the Philippines.

Ilustrado : Illumination and Illusion

The mestizo middle class occupied the middle ground in a complex social hierarchy stratified by race and class. On one end were high-status peninsulares (Spanish people born in Spain) and insulares (Spanish people born in the Philippines). On the other end of the social spectrum were the naturales (brown-skinned Christianized “natives” of the lowland and coastal towns). Beyond these groups were the salvajes or infieles (savages or infidels), remontados (those who refused to live in towns and took to the hills), and tulisanes (bandits), all of whom were considered to live outside the social order.

Increasing wealth allowed middle-class parents to send their sons to universities both at home and abroad. Many of these students, who called themselves ilustrado (“the enlightened” or “illumined”), befriended European liberals, embraced Enlightenment ideals, and eventually formed the intellectual and political leadership of the reform movement. Prominent among the ilustrado were descendants of mestizo sangley (Chinese-Filipino) families, such as José Rizal. Although initially a reformist intelligentsia, with modest aims such as obtaining full legal status as Spanish citizens for all inhabitants of the Philippines, many of the ilustrado eventually participated in the armed struggle against Spain.

The elegant and luxurious clothing and accoutrements worn by the upper and middle classes reflect the prosperity they enjoyed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Adapting features of both European and indigenous clothing, elite fashion evolved into a metropolitan style intended to convey the education and civility of Philippine elites. Displaying their “enlightenment” literally on the body, they performed for the world a refinement which they believed made them worthy of equality.

indiaLa india elegante y el negrito amante

A popular nineteenth-century farce, La india elegante y el negrito amante features a small, dark Philippine “native” who dons various types of clothing—putting on, so to speak, different races and classes in an attempt to win the affections of a disdainful brown woman. The play articulates the social divide that opened up as the nation was formed. For as the ilustrado demanded equality by mastering European civilization, it became necessary to construct a contrast between those like themselves—beautifully attired in Euro-native garments—and all whose condition was thought to be abject, as signified by the loincloth.

Piña and Other Luxury Fabrications

During the nineteenth century, las islas filipinas were internationally renowned for the production of garments made of piña, that most transparent of fabrics—decorated with exquisite open-cutwork embroidery—woven only in the Philippines from the leaf fibers of the pineapple plant.

The ethereal dress ensembles of piña, silk, and accompanying jewelry worn by Philippine elites expressed secular power. These were luxuries of the highest order, created by artisans employing archaic skills, applied to the modern task of exhibiting the creation of new wealth and the consolidation of pre-nineteenth-century legacies. Their significance as rarified social capital eclipsed all other meanings, even though there persisted, for instance, other important jewelry categories—such as gold rosaries worn as necklaces, which reflected the wearer’s intense faith—and despite increasing awareness that these gorgeous materials also “spoke” strongly, indeed politically, of the Philippines as chosen homeland.

The clothing and jewelry of nineteenth-century Philippine elites hence formed a material culture that was radically distinct from indigenous Philippine traditions of dress and body decoration, the meanings of which resided in spiritual realms.

The Friarocracy (Frailocracy)

Commitment to secularism was a key component of ilustrado ideals, which were born of many grievances against the religious orders that dominated the Spanish colony. Dominicans, Augustinians, and Franciscans controlled huge tracts of land, and this aggravated aspiring middle-class landholders, of which the ilustrado were a part. Moreover, the friars’ near-complete control over education well into the nineteenth century hindered the advancement of Filipinos of all classes. Foreign languages as well as scientific and technical subjects were excluded from the curriculum until 1863, when a liberal Spanish government radically overhauled the system of public education, opening new opportunities for higher education.

For José Rizal and many of his compatriots, the true enemy of reform was not Spain but the friars, whose chief interest was in protecting their privileges. Consequently, the ilustrado attacked the social and economic abuses of “the friarocracy” in literary and journalistic exposés. The most famous indictment is Rizal’s novel, Noli me tangere (Touch Me Not), in which priests are represented as greedy, arrogant, and authoritarian. Noli me tangere was censored in the colony but nonetheless widely read.

The Filipino Other

The Spanish were never able to consolidate political control over the entire archipelago, and the colonial period is marked by countless conflicts—as well as illegal interchanges—between subjugated and independent Philippine peoples. On the other hand, urbanized naturales and mestizos had become a pan-Philippine society by the nineteenth century, homogenized by their common experience of colonization. Moreover, they viewed those who lived outside the administrative control of Spain as primitives needing salvation, pacification, and education. Metaphorically, and in some cases literally, these “others” were bodies in need of clothing.

This mental divide—reinforced by the dramatic difference in clothing and jewelry between the colonized and noncolonized—persists to the present day. It has obscured a shared archaic culture that is otherwise manifest in certain aesthetic conventions, for instance, in needlework executed at infinitesimal levels of perfection, and a taste for diaphanous, delicate materials.

The 7,100 islands of the Philippine archipelago are home to at least 120 language groups. Much as the ilustrado labored to establish a distance between themselves and these “others” through modes of dress, the items displayed in this section demonstrate the powerful influence of indigenous cultural forms on middle-class identity.

Maria Clara: Costume as Nation

Maria Clara is a principal character in the novel Noli me tangere, published in 1886 by José Rizal, polyglot, physician, artist, writer, humanist, and archetypal ilustrado . Rizal’s public execution in December 1896 by colonial authorities mobilized Filipinos to join the revolution against Spain, which had been launched by the Katipunan in August of that year. Ironically, Rizal was not a proponent of independence but, like many ilustrado, had advocated the integration of the Philippines into a Spanish commonwealth. Nevertheless, his memory endures as the compassionate genius who first imagined the Philippines as a nation.

Declared the national hero by the first president of the Republic in 1898, Rizal is conjured by the clothing ensemble called Maria Clara. Commemorative rites on the day of Rizal’s execution became annual events featuring pageants with elaborate floats. Women represented Maria Clara in these events by wearing “her,” hence the nation.

The pañuelo, or neckerchief, usually made of piña, is a distinctive feature of the Maria Clara costume, along with billowing lacework sleeves. The costume is simultaneously modest and sumptuous.

Authors of Nation

Las islas filipinas was home to a mere 1.6 million people in 1800. By the 1890s dramatic demographic change had produced a very different social picture. Some 20 million people comprised the citizenry on the eve of revolution. Unequally distributed prosperity had widened the gap between rich and poor, at the same time producing a middle class of mixed race (mestizos ). Unrest—generated by further marginalization of peasants and rising but frustrated expectations among the middle class—culminated in the nationalist Revolution of 1896.

Educated mestizos may have sought the end of oppressive Spanish law, but the peasants fought, and won, the armed struggle against Spain. This victory was short-lived. Las islas filipinas was ceded in December 1898 to the United States, which paid $20 million to a Spanish colonial government that had already been defeated in battle by Filipino nationalists in mid-1898. Rebels waged a guerrilla campaign against the United States but were crushed by 1906.

The ilustrado’s contribution to the revolution is formidable. This group conceived the intellectual framework for Filipino nationhood, challenging colonial and religious authority with impassioned appeals to Enlightenment ideals of equality. But in styling themselves as a civilized elite through their very bodies, educated mestizos deepened the class and race cleavages that continue to afflict Philippine society. Casting the unlettered naturales and infieles as masses in need of civilizing, the ilustrado denied them the possibility that they could be active agents of change.

This ideological disenfranchisement persists. Today’s construction of the nineteenth-century islas filipinas is an epic narrative of bourgeois emergence. Although increasingly contested, this narrative continues to preserve the moral claim of the Filipino elite to the authorship, then and now, of the nation.

Starts Wednesday, Feb 23, 2000
Ends Saturday, Apr 22, 2000
Curator Nancy Blume
Organized by The Asia Society with the New York University Grey Art Gallery.

The Sheer Realities: A Celebration of Philippine Culture project is supported in part by The Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company, Ernest E. Stempel, the National Endowment for the Arts, San Miguel Corporation, Doris Magsaysay Ho, Josie Cruz Natori, Ayala Foundation, Inc., Philippine Airlines, Garments and Textile Export Board, Metrobank Foundation, Inc., TLC Beatrice International Holdings, Inc., New York State Council on the Arts, Lisina Hoch, Washington SyCip, Edelwina Kimmel, the New York Council on the Humanities, Lily O’Boyle, Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Zuellig, and Philippine Star.

Support for the Asia Society exhibitions and education programs has been provided by the Friends of Asian Arts, The Starr Foundation, The Armand G. Erpf Fund, and John C. Weber. Support for Asian American programs at the Asia Society has been provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and the Booth Ferris Foundation.

At the Grey Art Gallery, support for the exhibition has been provided by the Mrs. Iris Barrel Apfel, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.


Exhibition Types: Philippine Art