At long last! After a very long wait, Malacañang Palace has finally announced our country’s new set of National Artists:
Alice Reyes – Dance
Francisco Coching (Posthumous) – Visual Arts
Cirilo Bautista – Literature
Francisco Feliciano – Music
Ramón Santos – Music
José María Zaragoza (Posthumous) – Architecture, Design, and Allied Arts.
Of the six, I am only familiar with two: Cirilo Bautista, one of my favorite writers, and the late Francisco Coching, known among local graphic novelists as our country’s undisputed “King of Komiks” and as the “Dean of Philippine Comics”.
Aside from being a comic book illustrator, Coching was also a writer, a craft he acquired from his father Gregorio, a novelist for Liwayway magazine. Using his skills as an illustrator and weaver of stories, Coching created memorable characters that have been etched in the imaginations of Filipinos, even to those who are not fans of comic books. Some of his well-known characters were Don Cobarde, Hagibis, and Pedro Penduko, probably his most famous creation (it even spawned four films and two fantasy TV series in ABS-CBN).
Coching’s first nomination as a National Artist was in 1999, a year after his demise. Nothing came out of it. But since then, his name has always cropped up each time there were plans of elevating new culture icons among our pantheon of National Artists. Nevertheless, I’ve always referred to him as a National Artist especially since he was one of the pioneers of the (now dead?) local comic book industry. The prestigious award was long overdue.
One of his daughters, former model Maridel, is also inclined to painting. Maridel’s daughter Valerie, a friend of mine, has also imbibed the artistic skills of both her mom and illustrious grandfather. And like her mom, Valerie also enchants the stage through flamenco; she graduated under the tutelage of renaissance man Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera. So in a way, Valerie and I were “classmates” since both of us were trained by Señor Gómez: she under Flamenco and me under Philippine Studies.
The second awardee who I’m also most familiar with is, of course, Cirilo Bautista, the inimitable genius behind the epics Sunlight On Broken Stones and The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus. Inspite of the daily grind and toils of teaching creative writing and literature in various universities throughout the years, Bautista still made it a point to produce books showcasing his beautiful prose and poetry, without any trace of hurriedness of a clock puncher, while maintaining a weekly column as well as being the literary editor of the Philippine Panorama (Manila Bulletin‘s Sunday magazine).
I have learned so much from that column of his called Breaking Signs (been reading it on and off since high school). In it, Bautista discusses the ways and methods of how to read a work of fiction, particularly poetry, as well as other genres of creative writing. He engages his readers on how to decipher the hidden meanings in verses (hence the name of the column), and also tackles on various topics related to Philippine Literature in particular and World Literature in general. Some of his best essays from Breaking Signs were compiled in The House of True Desire, a book which I highly recommend to all those whose passion for both ink and pen never wavers. There is some strange quality in each essay of his that frees the mind from being hampered by some unseen mental blockade. Perhaps this queer feeling is best explained in his foreword to the said book:
In writing my column, I have no particular audience in mind. I do not want my creativeness to be limited by an unseen force with its own demands on my literary act. And so to those who ask, “For whom do you write?” I answer, “If you read my column, then I write for you.” That is the closest I can get to defining my readers—not by their quality but by their response.
Prior to his announcement as National Artist for Literature last Thursday, this Manileño wordsmith has already been receiving countless awards left and right. His name has long glorified various award-giving bodies such as the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, Philippines Free Press Awards, and the Gawad Balagtás.
I remember one special day when I gifted myself on my 22nd birthday (18 July 2001). Weeks before that, I read somewhere that Bautista was to give a lecture on Ricardo M. de Ungria’s poetry at the Philippine Normal University, if memory serves correct. With excitement, I scrimped and saved just to have something to pay for that lecture (not that it cost much, but my allowance as a student-dad wasn’t that much), and to see Bautista in person on how he deciphers the cryptic codes in a poem. It was a rainy afternoon when I got there, and the room where he was to give his lecture was crowded (Alfredo “Krip” Yuson was there, back then still sporting a rather thin pony tail). In fact, many were left without chairs. But the crowded room and the pelting rain didn’t stop us from being mesmerized by the magic of Bautista’s ideas transformed into an authoritatively poetic human voice. I’ve learned so much during that 60-minute or so lecture (and I still ended up as a blogger-slash-keyboard warrior, haha).
It is a pity that I don’t have anything to say about the other four National Artists (Reyes, Feliciano, Santos, and Zaragoza) because, admittedly, I really don’t know much about them. However, I am confident that they are all deserving, unlike the last time when the National Artist award was heavily tainted with controversy. I hear that there’s some noise going on about Nora Aunor being left out of the final list, but my only comment on that is a query: if National Artist Nick Joaquín didn’t go “baquiâ” on her, why did the Palace?