From the mountains of Cordillera to the coastal villages of Mindanao, Filipino artisans carve, weave or shape clay and metal the same way their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Using folk imagination, skillful hands and indigenous materials and methods, they are creating exquisite artifacts that are part of the national heritage.
Since native crafts are among the best buys in the Philippines, this section will help you appreciate these products.
"The Filipino is a carver, before he is a painter," observes a Filipino visual artist. Indeed, every ethnic community in the country has a carver to demonstrate the length and breadth of folk creativity.
The Ifugao are known not only for their rice terraces but also for their sculptured rice god, the bulul. This stylized wooden form is used in rituals associated with rice cultivation, healing and the settlement of disputes. It can also decorate spoons, walking sticks and household implements.
Since Islam forbids representation of human and animal forms, sculpture among the Muslim groups in Mindanao is characterized by exuberant linear patterns called okir. The most flamboyant example of okir is the torongan, the house of the Maranao noble. Okir completely covers the massive endbeams which protrude beyond the eaves in the shape of winged dragons or serpents.
In Palawan, the Tagbanua use softwood to carve whimsical sculptures of birds, lizards, turtles and other animals for rituals, house décor and as toys for children.
Bamboo, which grows in abundance throughout the country, is a favorite medium for carving. The Maranao lakub, or tobacco leaf container, is a fine example of bamboo carving imprinted with colored okir motifs. Other ethnic groups also burn in designs on bamboo to decorate musical instruments and blowguns.
Spain's influence on the 17th century Filipino carver is exemplified by santos, wooden or ivory images of Catholic saints, which have become a collector's item. The folk's santos are the most arresting. Freed from hierarchical specifications, the carvers gave play to their own imagination, rendering, for example, the Virgin Mary's face with Malay features instead of European ones.
In antique shops, you can see hand-carved furniture, which was popular among the Filipino elite who followed the Spaniards' lifestyle. Some Philippine towns, like Betis in Pampanga, still make Spanish-style furniture in limited quantities. Although basically adaptations of European models, many pieces are unmistakably Filipino in function. The lamario, originally used to hold weapons in Spain, refers here to a tall, slender, four-poster cabinet for storing pillows, mosquito nets and rolled-up mats. The gallinera, a type of bench used to seat visitors, is also a Filipino innovation. It is so called because it slatted bottom-half is a pen for keeping the guests' roosters.
Our abundance of fibers and natural dyes has resulted in an extensive weaving tradition.
Fabrics. Special cloths often accompany rites of passage. The Maranao must enter a canopy draped with gauze-like fabric to claim his bride. The Ifugao man is joined to his woman by a marriage blanket and has another blanket for a shroud. The Itneg child is delivered by a midwife who wears a special cloth that is said to be "possessed by a benevolent spirit."
Fabrics also declare social status. The Maranao dons a bright yellow malong to signify his high lineage, and the Bagobo wears the rare plangi headcloth to let others know that he has claimed a human head. The Jolo Muslim lies in state in simple white cloth, but his house is festooned with fabrics bearing the Tree of Life design and his deathbed is piled with layers of his best garments. Beyond social rank, fabric designs are also used to identify a tribe - much like the westerner's coat-of-arms - and to serve as tribal "records." The AmericaOtley Beyer, after decoding the figures on an Ifugao blanket, pieced together a detailed account of a great feast attended by two villages. The cloth even indicated the specific quantity of food that was exchanged.
Piña and jusi, fabrics woven from pineapple and banana fibers developed during the Spanish era, are sought after not as social totems but for their sheer elegance. Finely embroidered, these translucent cloths rival French and Belgian lace.
Mat-making and basketry. These other forms of weaving are age-old crafts which developed in conjunction with the country's agricultural economy. Between planting seasons, the farmers would gather a variety of local plants, vines and reeds to weave mats and baskets.
Philippine mats come in various designs and hues. Those from Samar and Leyte are done in primary colors and woven with designs of flowers, birds and rural scenes. Their commissioned mats carry the name and 'portrait' of the owner, and the picture is almost photographic, with subtle color tones and accurate details.
The most artful mats are woven by the Samal and Badjao of Tawi-Tawi. These are boldly colored geometric compositions akin to abstract art.
The Philippines is basket country. Isn't the nipa hut itself just an outsized basket' Here, there's a basket for every need: for storing everything from grains to betel nuts; for catching things from fish to locusts; for carrying stuff from copra to a wedding dowry. Recently, a rekindled interest in native baskets has given them new functions as lamp stands, jewelry boxes, planters, vases, magazine trays, wall hangings and so on.
The variety of Philippine baskets is awesome: Bagobo baskets trimmed with bells, horsehair and multi-colored beads, Tiruray baskets with geometric motifs achieved by interweaving natural and dyed fiber, Hanunoo baskets with overplating on the basic woven surface, and T'boli lidded square baskets bearing alternating geometric bands are just a few examples.
The most sophisticated baskets, however, are woven by the Ifugao. The precise use of the basket determines its size, shape and weave. Ifugao baskets possess a sculptural quality that is heightened by their characteristic dark patina and musty, smokey aroma, the result of exposure to cooking smoke in the Ifuago's windowless homes.
Brassware. Casting brass through the old 'lost wax' technique is popular cottage craft in Tugaya, Lanao, whose smithies produce small figures with intricate okir motif. The T'boli also use the same process to create fanciful figurines depicting tribal occupations. Brassware from Tugaya include urns up to eight feet in height which are used as ceremonial containers for rice and tobacco. In other parts of Mindanao, brass is cast into buttons, musical instruments and personal ornaments.
Goldwork. The most detailed goldwork is reserved for jewelry like the tamborin, a filigreed necklace whose lacelike pattern incorporates Rococo motifs. The accompanying pendant was originally meant to hold a religious relic. The tamborin's elaborate design is also used in earrings, bracelets, combs and other jewelry pieces.
Silverwork. Filipinos learned the techniques of silverwork and gilding from the Chinese. The skill was devoted earlier to standard ecclesiastical accessories. The most unusual of these are exvotos, offerings in the shape of eyes, noses, lips, limbs and other body parts from people who have been cured of their afflictions through divine intercession.
Today's silversmiths continue to turn out liturgical objects, though their interest is focused on jewelry and objects d'art. But folk creations are still plentiful. The Mandaya woman's prized possession is an enormous silver disc neckpiece, about ten inches in diameter, which has been etched with geometric motifs arranged in concentric circles. The betel nut container exemplifies the art of silver inlaying in Mindanao. Most are rectangular but some are shaped like butterflies, crescents and frogs.
Excavated pottery attests to the ancient Filipino's skill in this medium. Unfortunately, his talent for shaping clay into ritual and domestic implements was stunted by the arrival of trade porcelain from China, Thailand and Indochina. Porcelain was considered more decorative as ritual vessels and proved better than the porous clay for storing food and liquids.
However, some of the ethnic pottery traditions exist to this day. The kilns of Vigan in Ilocos Sur continue to fire the burnay, a high tempered pot introduced by Fookienese settlers in the early 1900s. The burnay is popular because of its many uses - for cooking, for storing drinking water and salt, and for fermenting basi, the local wine, and bagoong,a fish sauce.
Modern Filipino potters who use traditional as well as modern methods produce a variety of ceramics, from house wares to costume jewelry, which can be bought in craft shops all over the country.
TRADITIONAL CRAFTS TODAY
Many tribal craftsmen continue to produce articles for everyday use as well as for commercial purposes. In addition, modern handicraft manufacturers have revived traditional processes and applied these to new design concepts. New products made from local materials and traditional skills such as fancy tableware in wood and shell, tables, trays, picture frames and boxes of laminated stone and coconut shell, extravagantly embroidered table and bedroom linens, baskets decorated with beads, shells and ceramics, Christmas décor, and home-grown South Sea pearls set in gorgeous jewelry pieces are sold worldwide.
Where can these items be purchased here? Most big department stores at the malls carry a well-stocked Filipiniana section. There are also reputable handicraft stores. The shops in Intramuros sell novelties and antiques.