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#Revisit | Norberto Roldan's Notes on Incantations in the land of virgins, monsters, sorcerers and angry gods

Every week, we’ll be sharing a video, notes, or images from our past exhibitions in a series we’re calling #revisit.

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Norberto Roldan’s Incantations in the land of virgins, monsters, sorcerers and angry gods (1999-2018) is a series of textile works honoring the Panay Suludnon, who are the indigenous people of his home province in the Visayas island of Panay. The artist embroiders words and imagery from their culture and history onto twelve patadyongs (traditional wrap-around skirts worn in Visayas) in an effort to remind us of their narratives. He tells us more about the Panay Suludnon and the threats indigenous people face in the Philippines.

Notes on Incantations in the land of virgins, monsters, sorcerers and angry gods
by Norberto Roldan

This new series of textile work was commissioned by CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Art and Textile) as part of its inaugural exhibition Unfolding: Fabric of Our Life which opened on March 17, 2019 in Hong Kong. The series entitled Incantations in the land of virgins, monsters, sorcerers and angry gods is meant to honor the Panay Suludnon, the indigenous people of my home province in the Visayas island of Panay.

The Philippines consists of a large number of upland and lowland ethnolinguistic groups. Our indigenous peoples were not assimilated with the rest of the population even during the more than 300 years of Spanish rule and have retained much of their customs and traditions up to today. The indigenous peoples of the Cordillera region in Luzon are popularly called Igorots. The non-Muslim indigenous groups of Mindanao are collectively called Lumads. The indigenous peoples in the Visayas are generally called Atis, and in Central Panay island, they are variably called Panay Bukidnon or Suludnon.

The Panay Suludnon have for centuries resisted various forms of foreign aggression by retreating to the interior and more remote areas of the island. Due mainly to the rugged terrains and inaccessibility of the Central Panay mountain range, Spanish and American colonizers were discouraged from coming into contact with the highlanders.

Chanting their epic narratives is an important feature of the Panay Suludon’s social life. The adventures of mythical characters such as brothers Humadapnon, Labaw Donggon and Dumalapdap and other warriors constitute ten major epics. One particular epic, the Hinilawod, tells the story of the adventures of the three brothers as they would cross plains, mountains, rivers and valleys to seek the hand of virgins, fight monsters in duels, be enchanted by sorceresses and test the anger of the gods before settling down in the heart of Panay. These fantastic stories remain a significant part of the history told and retold from generation to generation by the Panay Suludnon. Unfortunately, only one or two of these epic chants are known to and practiced by today’s chanters.

Excerpts from these chants are embroidered on the Patadyong as a reminder of the importance of these narratives. Texts that describe their rituals are also embroidered on the Patadyong to describe the richness of their tradition. Examples of these texts are Duta kag bukid (land and farm), Dagat kag danyag (sea and horizon), Sagiben sa palayan (ritual on the richfield), Sagiben sa maraisan (ritual on the cornfield), and Dagyaw sa suba (ritual on the river).

Today, “economic development” in the form big commercial mining, dam construction, eco-tourism, and expansion of big plantations, continues to threaten the indigenous villages and communities in the Philippines. In Panay island alone, large-scale mining by a private corporation endangers 5 municipalities in the province of Capiz. The government’s mega dam project when completed will submerge 4 villages in the province of Iloilo and will dislocate an estimated 15,000 Panay Suludonon in the affected villages. Tourism, when misdirected and not culture-sensitive, ends up commercialising, and at worst, trivialising indigenous culture by converting them into plain commodities. Land grabbing of ancestral lands by big corporations and local political warlords which resulted in centuries old of injustice, inequality and poverty is the very root cause of the socio-political crisis in Mindanao.

In view of these realities, Roy Giganto, a Panay Suludnon elder has this to say: “We are not against development. We are against the stealing of our land for projects that we cannot even benefit from. We fear losing our land, our livelihood, and our culture. Driven away by land-grabbing, hunger and poverty, we are forced to journey, like the great heroes of our epics, to the plains and cities to seek jobs as domestic helpers, pedicab drivers, or construction workers, but always with the memory of our land in our hearts.” 

A statement in Hiligaynon, the language of the people of Panay, made by Ka Mera Gedoria, a Panay Bukidnon community leader, is embroidered on two patadyongs. Her words sum up what most indigenous peoples anywhere in the world fear the most. It says: “Kon Madura diya nga duta, kami nga mga Tumandok Madura man.” In English it says, “If we lose our land, we the indigenous people will also vanish.”