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Philippine Art Across the Islands: Luzon

  • July 18, 2007

By Marilyn R. Canta

In 2002 and 2003, I essayed “preliminary assessments” of writing on art from different Philippine regions. The first survey ambitiously decided to include the entire Philippines, while the second (admittedly a take-off from the larger initial survey) was focused on the Mindanao-Sulu region. The conclusions were quite similar. In an effort to review “what had been done so far” (which covered roughly a century), it was evident that the bulk of writings on art revolved around ethnographies, “industry” reports, and “heritage” studies. Approaches to these writings also subscribed to a range of tendencies — from the anthropological to the art historical, or from the formalist to the postmodern. It was also observed that people in research and academe tended to monopolize authorship, although popular writings were also produced. Apart from books and articles, some multimedia productions were also generated.

With the exception of the National Capital Region (NCR), contemporary writing on art in Luzon appears to pursue many of these trends. In fact, we may single out two general types of writing in the area: the academic and the popular. The first refers to art writing for scholarship and research. More often than not, these are based in universities and research centers in the region. The second type has a more popular readership and is concentrated in local and community newspapers and magazines in the region. Recently though, there has also been a trend towards on-line publications, which are geared towards potentially wider audiences.

Luzon, of course, is a relatively large geographical zone. It is composed of seven administrative regions: the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Cagayan Valley, Ilocos, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Mimaropa, and Bicol. The distribution of sources of writing on art in these different areas is rather uneven, some regions tending to be more “active” than others. In addition, this sort of writing tends to be concentrated in “centers” within the region, where universities and resource centers encourage and fund researches and where publishing houses have enough readership to be able to thrive. Moreover, while writing on art has been produced, there are no publications which are devoted solely to it.

Following is a brief discussion of some of the more visible examples of this writing. As I have not had the chance to scour all the material of the regions, there may actually be a lot more in the field.

Academic writing

An initial survey of publications in the region touching on art was rather revealing. Apparently, there is a strong interest in the culture of the Cordillera and Northern Luzon. Some centers devoted to research in these areas include the Cordillera Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) of St. Louis University (Baguio City), the Cordillera Studies Center (CSC) of the University of the Philippines (UP) — Baguio and the Cordillera Women’s Education and Resource Center (CWERC). The CRDF has published several books on the culture of various ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordillera. All of these were written by its researcher Dr. Carlos Medina. The CSC, on the other hand, has various papers dealing with various cultural, social and development aspects of the Cordillera region. These are made more “readable” in the form of “Research Briefs.” The papers are downloadable in PDF format from the web. CWERC’s publication Chaneg is distributed in magazine format and contains reports on its advocacy efforts on indigenous women’s issues.

Also in the Cordillera, we might also note the contributions of Delfin Tolentino, Jr. One of his latest writings is “Cordillera Anthropomorphic Carvings: Form and Function.”

In other parts of Luzon, notable are the Journal of Northern Luzon (published by St. Mary’s University Research Center, Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya) and Alaya: Kapampangan Research Journal and Singsing, published by the Juan D. Nepomuceno Center for Kapampangan Studies, Holy Angel University in Angeles, Pampanga.

The Journal of Northern Luzon has a Diamond Jubilee issue (vol. 31, June-December 2003) which should be extremely significant to the arts for its interdisciplinary approach to the study of architectural forms in the region-the Ifugao bale, the Ilocano balay, the Ivatan house and the Iwak abong. The articles deal with cultural beliefs and practices associated with house construction and relate these to the “soul,” “aesthetics,” or “ethos” of the cultural groups that created them.

Alaya has several articles related to Kapampangan culture by noted scholars and is the more academic of the serial publications of the Center for Kapampangan Studies. Singsing has a more popular format and is referred to as a “newsletter.” It touches on a variety of topics related to the Kapampangan heritage — from food to folklore, or from fashion to cosmology. Its “academic” aspect nevertheless remains in the research, which is put into the writing of the features. A great number of the articles are written by Robby Tantingco, editor and Joel Pabustan Mallari, archaeologist/researcher. For a relatively new Center however, it is rather amazing how the Center has been able to come up with an on-line version of this quarterly. The Center also publishes books and audio CDs on the music of Pampanga.

The contributions of UP — Baguio (through the Cordillera Studies Center) are echoed by similar researches, both published and unpublished, from UP San Fernando and UP Los Banos. In Los Baños , the College of Development Communication has researches on the interrelationship between diverse cultural groups and media.

Other universities in the region are also known to have general academic journals and may include studies on art and culture.

While these writings touch on art, they do so within the broader perspective of culture and ethnographic studies. This makes the discussions decidedly interdisciplinary, and because there is a strong focus on ethnicities, they take much from the perspectives of anthropology and history. In general, the disciplinal biases of art with its concentration on art history, criticism, and aesthetics and art theory are perhaps only incidental to the discussions.


Popular writings on art, as earlier stated, appear in local and community newspapers and popular magazines. Of those that I have managed to see, the items are rather perfunctory, dealing with people, places, and events associated with art, if at all. Lengthier discussions would be descriptions of” heritage landmarks,” which form part and parcel of the local tourism effort. As in my earlier findings, writing on art in the popular print media fall under lifestyle, entertainment, leisure, home, and travel categories. Certainly, there are efforts by some writers in local publications to write more rigorously about art, but these have not yet become normative.

I have been unable to view publications in the vernacular, although I suspect that their formats are not dissimilar from their English counterparts. I also came across some web sites that try to keep people in the loop about the Philippine art scene (e.g., MaArte!, Filipinoart.Net, newfilipino.org, Tribung Pinoy). Some of these are made for Filipinos of varying ethnicities but who might be residing overseas. The sites do not always indicate where they are based. Some though are based in the NCR; others, abroad.

However, it should be made clear that writing on art forms a separate endeavor from actual art production. Places like Baguio, Dagupan (Pangasinan), Angeles and San Fernando (Pampanga), Bulacan, Cavite, Camarines Sur, Albay, and Palawan have experienced some rather vibrant art scene episodes. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), for example, gives support to many local artist groups through exhibition grants. While these events may have been documented, many continue to be published in the NCR. Perhaps, it is time that encouragement for the arts in the region comes not only by way of supporting artists, but should also be shored up with education and training for art writers.


  1. Marilyn Canta, “Writing on Art of/for/from the Regions: A Preliminary Assessment’. Paper read at the 1st Philippine Art Studies Conference, 23-25 October 2002, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay City.
  2. Canta, “Writing on Art of/for/from the Mindanao-Sulu Region: A Preliminary Assessment’, The Journal of History, 50.1/4(Jan/Dec 2004): 1-21.
  3. Marilyn Canta, “Writing on Art of/for/from the Regions: A Preliminary Assessment’. Paper read at the 1st Philippine Art Studies Conference, 23-25 October 2002, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay City.
  4. Canta, “Writing on Art of/for/from the Mindanao-Sulu Region: A Preliminary Assessment’, The Journal of History, 50.1/4(Jan/Dec 2004): 1-21.
  5. Journal of History, 50.1/4 (Jan-Dec 2004): 175-87.


Marilyn Canta is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art Studies, College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines, Diliman. She is also currently pursuing her PhD in Philippine Studies, where she hopes to complete something on Indo-Philippine cultural relations. When not engaged in academic activities, she tries to pursue some of her other interests – languages, badminton, and volunteer work.

First Published: 18.07.2007 on Kakiseni