In looking at Gaston Damag’s works we fall prey to exoticizing the symbols that occur regularly at the center of his works, dwelling on the context of his lineage of Ifugao. Coming from the material culture of his tribe, the bulul and the knives peculiar to Ifugao farmers and shamans are, after all, far removed from the everyday lived experience in cities outside the Cordillera region in the Northern Philippines. They exist to us non-participants of the Ifugao community as souvenirs and passive players in ethnographic studies. However, through Damag’s practice, their use is less of a flag-waving strategy than a practice in identifying a history of visual representation of cultures.
Damag derives from what he knows and what he has. As a constituent of the Ifugao community, he is privy to creation and function of these wooden anthromorphic figures – the bulul – as gods or guardians that protect rice cultivation and harvests; and they are objects of ritual and territorial indication. The boomerang-shaped knives, on the other hand, operate as tools for daily activities within the community but also for particular ones such as shamanic rites. These articles fulfill certain conditions in the motions of his community – a community surrounding a “culture of rice”. Rice is to the Ifugao as bread is to the Christians – traditions surround them and forms become attach to them. In this case, the bulul is employed by Damag not only to ground the culture he participates in but also as visual method of focus and deconstruction. He fuses these symbols with diverse modern industrial materials to address the ways a non-western ethnic culture can navigate a cultural perspective dominated by the West. The crucial experience that determined the direction of his works was the artist’s visit to the Museum of Man in New York in the 80’s where, to his dismay, paraphernalia of his extended family were framed in the context of human evolution of past and present. This presented a conundrum in the difference in the notion of time (and consequently of existential and artistic positions); at that moment he began to carry the thought: “If I am a man of the past, where is my place?”
Damag proposes something else in response to the empirical narrative of cultures by incorporating visual art devices in a proposition to new ways of looking at these objects and bringing them to our contemporary world. As a sculptor he pushes the limits of material – in both conditions as Ifugao and also a man of present time. The bululs are fused with architectonic structures – cut up, reassembled, dissolved – to perform new objects. Physical gestures emulate ritualistic ones and these guardians of the mountains are driven into serial derivations that permit us to recognize that even though we begin to read the bululs in their context, we are to depart from that interpretation and come to recognize that they are only forms in which he explores formalist devices through. In the same vein, thebalangya knives deviate from their representation of their actual function in the Cordilleras. It is their form, rather than function, that Damag is interested in re-presenting. And, as a painter, he investigates surfaces through photographic images of landscapes also close to his lived experience. He makes the mountains of Manila “rain” as he strips the images to discover what makes a photograph a painting through the colors of a digital print.
Damag provides to us the frame of looking from the visual arts sense where we would usually use the ethnographic lens to look at the material culture of communities removed from us. The authenticity of these objects comes from him as an active participant of the Ifugao while the legitimacy of their peculiar formats in Damag’s practice is proven in his lifework as a contemporary artist questioning the roles and histories of visual representation. We exoticise, then we realize the motions at play in these works. In the consciousness of those conditions can we then partake in how these objects proceed to construct meaning.