For Carlos ‘Botong’ V. Francisco, there were two forces that dominated his work : The first was an overwhelming, almost obsessive love for the Philippines and the second, his impetus to make it larger, greater, and more dynamic than it had heretofore been portrayed.
To embody his country, Botong would create a pantheon of the mythic Filipino from the characters from our ancient history to our most beloved heroes such as Rajah Sulayman, Rizal and Bonifacio. He would also study the cultures of the unconquered tribes of the north and the south in search of the Filipino identity.
As a student in the UP School of Fine Arts, Botong would probably have come under the sway of Henry Otley Beyer, head of the anthropology department of the university, which he had single-handedly organized. The museum, which Beyer likewise built, occupied the entire second floor of the UP College of Liberal Arts and was full of anthropological finds from across the country, spears, shields, and tribal clothing. (Incidentally, Botong would never complete his course at the University of the Philippines and would be among the first art superstars who were completely homegrown, adding to his reputation for Filipinism.)
For Botong, it was all about ‘the big picture’ and the importance of massive scale to convince, move, and influence. He would start on this journey by creating towering murals in Manila’s film palaces — what better location than movie theaters to evangelize Juan de la Cruz? It was a brilliant strategy and Botong’s works soon became synonymous for the bold, proud Filipino.
He would become the country’s pre-eminent muralist, creating commissions for the Manila International Fair of 1953, and theProgress of Medicine for the Philippine General Hospital in the same year; culminating in the Manila City Hall historical pantheon Filipino Struggles through History in 1969. Along the way, he would be tasked to embellish the homes of the rich and powerful, beginning with President Manuel L. Quezon to the Malacañan Palace of the Marcoses. He would also attract a devoted following among Manila’s upper crust and prosperous professionals, including the renowned Dr. Remedios G. Suntay.
Dr. Suntay’s grandfather, Jose B. Suntay, was from Hagonoy, Bulacan and had the prescience to invest in vast fish ponds; her mother was a Guevara who lived in San Miguel district and was related to the architect who was involved in the design of some of the buildings of the University of Sto. Tomas. Dr. Suntay, however, would strike out on her own as a pioneering, New York- trained medical practitioner in anesthesiology, eventually becoming one of the biggest private stockholders of one of the country’s top hospitals.
Carlos V. Francisco began as her patient and wound up becoming a close friend. “He loved basketball and would complain of all kinds of aches and pains. That’s how we met. I was his doctor. We struck up a friendship and would visit him in his ‘kubo’ (hut) in Angono. He painted in that ‘kubo’,” Dr. Suntay reminisced. When asked what he was like, she replied, ‘May istorya —he had something to say. He was also moody. By that I mean, he wouldn’t paint all the time. It took him a while to finish his works. In fact, he would always tell me that he liked playing basketball far more than he liked to paint.”
One afternoon, he turned up with the four magnificent relleves. “It was entirely his idea, but I was very happy to have them,” said Dr. Suntay. I displayed them in my dining room and my friends simply loved them. (There is a photo of one reunionof her classmates from Holy Spirit that captures one of these enthusiastic moments.)
In 1969, Carlos V. Francisco was at the height of his powers and at the zenith of his career. Botong would have a long tradition of depicting Filipino fiestas and celebrations, beginning with his magnificent Pista sa Nayon and Muslim Feast, both dated 1947 and in the Malacañan Museum Collection. In Pista, a couple agilely dances the tinikling. It is so graceful and eloquent that you can almost hear the clatter of the bamboo poles amid the music of the town band and a kundiman singer. In the companion Feast, a southern princess sways to the rhythm of the kulintang; to her right is a tableau from the mountain provinces of northerners, palms upturned, captured in a ritual harvest dance.
The exuberant theme of Katutubong Sayaw (or Philippine Folk Dances) is thus a most familiar one for Francisco. There are two recorded works — almost identical to these pieces — that are featured in the book, The Life and Art of Botong Francisco, edited by Patrick Flores. These pen and ink drawings are most probably studies for the finished product. Botong’s wife, Nena, was from Paete and she had instigated Botong’s wood-carving projects.
The work at hand is bookended by the Singkil of the Maguindanao. A princess unfurls the giant fans meant to symbolize the flutter of butterflies, under a royal umbrella. Botong has covered the piece with the symbolic okir and gong. On the other end of the reliefs are three Ifugaos dancing in the shadow of a cloud-covered mountain. They wear ceremonial belts and blades. There is a drum and the silhouette of a carabao, the animal offered in the blood rituals. Their hands are turned heavenward in a symbol of supplication. It is also the only panel featuring an all-male performance in keeping with tribal codes.
The two panels in the center feature the comely dalagang Filipina. One is in the country dress of kimona (the short-sleeved, abbreviated blouse) and the other, be-hatted and brandishing clackers, in a more shapely bell-sleeved frock. One muse dances in front of gracefully curved banana leaves, carefully balancing lit candles on her head and hands; the other, with curly- edged bamboo as a backdrop. These depict the pandanggo sa ilaw (fandango of lights) and the subli of Batangas, a fiesta for the Holy Cross, respectively.
This is the fun-loving but unstoppably patriotic Botong, who found the beauty of the Philippine in the life and culture that surrounds us — and captured its splendor to remind us of that immutable fact.