The Paete Phenomenon:
Two Weeks Before Curtain Call

By Bertrand Melendez Quesada
The Business Star, May 1, 1991


When the Cultural Center of the Philippines pondered the towns worth showcasing for their heritage of visual arts, Paete in Laguna province was not just on the short-list. It turned out to be the first choice.

The town, whose name is derived from paet, or chisel, which its people so skillfully use, has long been associated with exquisite woodcarvings. "Little do Paete (pie-TEH) folk artists realize it," the CCP notes, "but they have since historical times contributed to a people's culture and can only be encouraged to create towards evolving a true national culture."

The "Paete Phenomenon," which opened Jan. 25 and ends May 15 at the Bulwagang Juan Luna, is one big bayanihan effort which saw a town 115 kilometers south of Manila transport to the CCP both its arts and way of life. Two huge pen-and-ink drawings by renowned artist Manuel Baldemor, one of which won the grand prize in the Art Association of the Philippines annual competition in 1973, hail one upon entering the exhibit, which is divided into three sections: religious statuary, secular woodcarvings, and papier mache. Baldemor's early masterpieces give an impression of a small Laguna town also famous for its sweet lanzones, featuring townscapes like the Sierra Madre mountains, the church, a portrait of the Nazarene, the houses, the industry and some folk ritual beliefs, notably images of hell with a mythological river of fire and some diabolic figures from a centuries-old mural by Jose Dans.

Baldemor, the project coordinator who talked his townmates into joining the exhibition, says it was not a breeze persuading the old folks to ferry the family heirloom — antique puon and santos (religious statues and images) — to Manila. "It was really quite an experience ... some families were easy to talk to, while the superstitious ones just wouldn't say yes. There was one which said all family members had to be consulted, but because some had migrated abroad, it just didn't materialize," he recalls.

"But overall," Baldemor says, "it was an exhilarating project."

It is unfortunate that some of the religious statues had to head for home just after two months on exhibit. Mariano Madrinan's celebrated Mater Dolorosa, a replica of the Sorrowful Mother which Spain's King Alfonso XII awarded a medal at the Amsterdam International Exposition in 1882, was pulled out shortly before the traditional Holy Week procession. So too was the Huling Hapunan (Last Supper, 1840) by Kadyo Valencia.

Baldemor says that a group from Iloilo recently asked him to recommend someone who could do a replica of Valencia's work for their local church. Commissioned works are not new to Paete, which along with Manila (specifically Quiapo and Sta. Cruz) became a center for sculptors and carvers in the nineteenth century. Thus it is not surprising to find Aurelio Buhay's Sto. Entierro enshrined in the church of Mabalacat, Pampanga, or that Bartolome Palatino carved the Baroque-influenced stone facade of the church in Morong, Rizal province, which was rebuilt in 1850-53. One historian mentions a life-size Crucified Christ marked "Paete" among the statues kept in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Art critic Eric Torres, disappointed that the Dolorosa had been taken back to Paete, noted that these blessed santos "were never meant as 'fine' art for purely aesthetic contemplation in the first place; their principal reason for being is to serve as objects of living faith and worship." Indeed, these images are lavished with material wealth, and it is typical for one to have several changes of costume according to the liturgical calendar, writes Esperanza Gatbonton in A Heritage of Saints: Colonial Santos in the Philippines  (1979).

Among the remaining antique wood items on exhibit are the Sacred Heart of Jesus Tabernacle, a 17th century piece that adorns the altar of the Paete Roman Catholic Church, and the Santo Sepulchro (probably made in the 17th century), whose artists are unknown. Most of the contemporary works are still on display, like the late Isaac Cagandahan's Orasyon (an AAP awardee in 1952), Fred Baldemor's Dakilang Albularyo (1974), Bert Edlagan's Palo Sebo (1989) and Bernardo Carpio by Dan Cads (1991) — all of them ukit (carvings) consummated with religious fidelity to detail.

TAKA BUSINESS. Although Paeteņos have likewise found artistic expression in the taka, or papier mache, the figurines and products which proliferate today are mostly commercial in theme — reindeers, mallard ducks, Easter bunnies — for export to the United States and Europe, mainly in Germany.

Today's taka-makers have technologically upgraded their products. The sturdy stock of papier mache, with varying finishes of stucco, gold, finely painted enamel or lacquer, are adroitly crafted but only for the export kind," according to painter Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, who curated the show. "The indigenous type (or lokal) still popular at fiestas, have sadly deteriorated."

How the taka reached Paete is not clear, but art scholars think it is Mexican in origin. It is said that in the 1920s a certain Maria Bague made the first known taka, which means to wrap around a mold carved from wood. Painted with decorative patterns, they turned out to be delightful toys and ornaments. Taka-making spread during the American period when newspapers, unlike in Spanish times, began to be circulated in large numbers. It peaked in the late 1960s, after which the influx of plastic dolls and toys displaced the taka, Baldemor says. Paeteņos began creating papier mache products again in the mid-seventies until the boom years of the early '80s, he recalls, but all this was purely business.

There are efforts to bring back the designs of yesteryear, those which inculcate positive values (subjects like respect for elders, children watering plants, breast-feeding mothers), but commercialism in the papier mache business remains predominant.

"It is already a matter of economics, of the people's need to earn a living," says Baldemor, who nonetheless is gladdened by the exhibition's wholesome effect on the town's craftsmen and even its musicians who played indigenous music on the show's opening night.

"Our carvers have been inspired," he adds, saying that plans are afoot to build a local museum. "They're looking forward to another day when their best works would be exhibited."


Bertrand Quesada is the second son of Juan Quesada Jr. of Paete and the late Minda Luz Melendez of Cagayan de Oro.  He moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1996 after spending four years in Taipei as a business copyeditor and columnist at the English-language The China News and associate editor at Peregrine Securities. Previously he was with the Manila-based PTV-4 network and The Business Star.

This article was written by Bertrand for The Business Star's Leisure Section on May 1, 1991.

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