Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco was known as the ‘poet of Angono.’ He was also the architect of the Filipino soul.
Botong was in constant search of the heroic Filipino iconography. The warriors of the northern and southern tribes; the mythical kings and mythic heroes: Lapu-Lapu and Jose Rizal; Rajah Sulayman and Princess Urduja. In the Philippines’ mid-century, he would create mural after mural that celebrated these characters.
And yet, Botong would also paint the dark underbelly of Philippine society — a challenge to the bucolic bliss of Fernando Amorsolo. One of Botong’s first paintings was “Kaingin”,which in 1945, told the heartbreaking story of the grindingly poor homesteaders who had barely survived World War II, but not by much. A next one, created a year later was called “Camote Eaters” after Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters”.
Van Gogh’s painting captured the desolate difficulty of country life, so he gave the peasants bony faces and hands. He wanted to reflect in this way that they ‘have tilled the earth themselves with the hands they are putting in the dish... that they have thus honestly earned their food’.
Strikingly, Botong’s last painting was the “Camote Diggers”, unfinished before his untimely death. It remains one of Botong’s most famous works having been published in various books and featured in exhibitions, the most recent being the Yuchengco Museum’s show on Philippine National Artists.
It shows a white-haired grandmother with her grandchild — demonstrating how poverty can span several generations. They are bowed by hardship, their hands and feet gnarled by hunger, their backs broken by life.
The old woman grasps the staff (sardonically, a staff of the poor man’s life) with grey, misshapen hands. A second look could suggest a sickle; a third, a flagpole for a tattered Filipino flag. The red, white and blue can be picked out as a statement of the tri-color.
The man is dressed in rags and holds a single ‘camote’ in his hand, as if it were a diamond in the rough, so precious are these morsels for the poor who are never not hungry.
The work gives insight to Botong’s unique artistic process, that created the major figures first on a clean slate, so to speak. (Photographs of other works confirm this practice.)
Botong comes full circle in his odyssey to capture the Filipino everyman, no less heroic in the face of immense hardship but always honest and authentic.
Carlos ‘Botong’ V. Francisco was declared Philippine National Artist, the country’s second, in 1973.
-Lisa Guerrero Nakpil