Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kuya Ponching and the Spoliarium

Now you return that pencil at once and apologise to him!” Mother upset after showing her funny pencil that won’t roll over. It was flat, even the graphite lead. I was so amused I took it nonchalantly from among dozen of sharpened Mongol pencils crammed in Darigold milk can of Kuya Ponching while he napped.

It was 1958 and Estero de Gallina in Pasay City deteriorated into a cesspool of human and industrial waste. Lola Pina used to catch tulla (clams), talangka (crabs) and suso (snails) in what used to be fresh water creek leading to Pasig River. During the Spanish Era, according to Lola, waterway was like gentle Venice canal plied by bancas (dug-out canoes) leading to city markets. During monsoon floods men caught bayawak (goanna-like lizards) and some other crocodilian critters. They rode rafts of bamboo-impaled banana tree trunks.

Our house was few minutes walk from where Kuya Ponching lived. My 9-y.o. pair of legs cautiously trudged wooden-bridge planks that led to rivulet. My sense of equilibrium was often put to test as planks were stolen by some wretched souls for firewood. 

Across river bank was city of Makati. Kuya Ponching’s castle of a nipa (thatch roofing leaves) hut stood couple of metres away from shore of soggy black and green carpet (thanks to toxic and blooming algae!). I learned to climb his slippery bamboo staircase with masterful agility as I frequented the place like second home during childhood. It also toughened my Achilles’ tendons. But there’s real reason why I rapidly learned ascending and descending it. I was scared of pigs underneath the staircase! They were black, huge and fattened with loving care by my Tia Aying (distant cousin of Mother) who lived with Kuya Ponching . A strong lady she did rounds of gathering kaning-baboy (leftover food, mostly soggy but organic) from house-to-house. Despite abhorrence of stink I persisted to visit the place often.

Kuya Ponching was famous as the village artist. He painted all those awesome mural cobras and jets on walls of our local basketball and handball courts in Pasay. He also painted huge Esso logos all over the city billboards and painted tiger tails hanging out of gas tank lorries (commissioned by oil company promoting “put a tiger in your tank” campaign).

I finally landed on top step, nervously clasped tight on flat, carpenter’s pencil and on bamboo-slatted floor with built-in analogue movement squeaky alarm.

Who’s there?’s only me, Kuya, I’m returning..err..pencil..err..I..borrowed. What are you painting this time?

Spoliarium by Juan Luna!” then silence.

So you took my pencil. Why?” 

I don’t know. Pencil looked funny and I wanted to try it at home and draw like you.

 “Why do you paint sad things?” as he painted gore on the Spoliarium’s floor.

Bata ka pa kasi, hindi lahat ng masaya ay nagpipinta ng bulaklak”. (You’re still young to understand that not all happy people paint flowers) was all he said and continued painting behind his thick Woody Allen glasses.

Kuya Ponching handled brushes well and preferred oil. It dried quickly under hot and humid Philippine weather. (In cold Europe oil paintings usually have to dry for 6 months before final varnish). However smell of turpentine and linseed oil assaulted my olfactory nerves but my eyes were fixed at his Spoliarium as he instinctively mixed colours. It was as if he felt colours and knew when to stop when he got correct hue desired. He hated new brushes. If he had a new, squarish-ended one, he’d scumble paint with it until it’s rounded off. 

Few weeks later I’ve snuggled enough warmth with Kuya Ponching (he could be a hothead, too!) He explained later that it was his entry to get a scholarship at De La Salle College (a few blocks away from our place). He was copying it from a tattered picture of a magazine page. His version just seemed to be crispier and brighter as I noticed he enhanced the highlights and shadows.

 “Sorry Kuya Ponching, I didn’t mean to steal your pencil. Mom was really upset when I showed her.

Kuya Ponching had big canvasses all over his pawid (palmleaf) –roofed home studio. Most of his paintings were guaranteed to shock anyone, especially a child like me then. There was a tall painting of an American soldier throwing up blood profusely. Another was of Japanese soldiers with Filipino babies impaled by their fixed bayonets and a few other gory images. I often went home disturbed and sleepless.

Took some time to impress on me that those were images of last war and most adults didn’t want to talk about it. However Kuya Ponching painted them! He survived the war that left horrifying images in his mind. He lived to paint and exorcise demons. Oh, the trauma of war. I was a post-war baby and didn’t understand much then the terrible impact the war had done to our happy and rustic Amorsolo-painted village. Families were broken, property razed to the ground, artists, writers, poets massacred, some missing, maimed while zombiesque amputees ambled on streets where they used to play patintero (tag game).

That was our village, now our Philippine village...straight from the scene of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium. Good gladiators used to kill and be killed in a game of war by village chieftains indulging in the legacy of Nero.

 “Tell your Nanay Epang it’s all right; and you can have the pencil. Next time learn to ask, okay? Also you have to first learn to sharpen it with a knife before you can use it. No pencil sharpener can handle a flat one..and so if you can handle a knife, well then you can focus.

I breathed a sigh of relief, thought I’d be like that dead Roman gladiator being dragged in the Spoliarium, punished for stealing a pencil while Mother wept in the background.

Kuya Ponching impressed the La Salle Brothers so much he got the scholarship. (De La Salle Uninversity's undergraduate school of Arts & Sciences was established in 1953 as part of its post-war recovery plan)

In the late 70’s I was for 2 years art director for Project Compassion and Green Revolution, both community projects of Mrs. Imelda Marcos. Whenever there was a 3-D carpentry and painting job I needed for my design presentations I always fielded the services of Kuya Ponching which overjoyed him. Painters and lack of money seem to be partners by default he’d say.

In 1998 my father died and went back to Manila briefly where I saw the rest of family who came from Canada for the burial ritual. Before we left Mother and I went to visit Kuya Ponching who we learned was in coma for weeks due to brain tumour. Tia Aying could no longer afford the expensive drugs. We knelt on his bedside.

 “Ponching, Ponching, si Nanay Epang mo ito!” Mother called his name while she went into intense prayer and trance, holding Kuya Ponching’s limp hand (I’ve known Mother as a spiritual medium, back then people came to our house to be given healing prayers, and she never asked to be paid).

Kuya Ponching, si Edd po ito, ano ba’ng nangyari sa iyo?”I whispered as I identified myself with tears. Then to everyone’s amazement Kuya spoke!

Kumusta na kayo, Nanay Epang, Eddie?” he greeted us miraculously! But he was in coma and spoke for the first time! And sadly the last. Hair stood up my neck. Kuya Ponching died during the morning of our flight. 

I don’t know what happened to all his paintings. I never saw one in his room. Where was his version of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium? Did La Salle keep it? Now everytime I see the Spoliarium and its dead Roman gladiator I think of Kuya Ponching, killed by brain tumour, perhaps caused by toxicity dumped in our river village which up until now are affecting health and lives of people.

What prodded me writing about Kuya Ponching was an email from John Silva via photographer friend Ben Razon. John invites all Filipinos to see Juan Luna’s Spoliarium at the National Gallery of Art, National Museum Complex in Manila until November. Click on poster (above) to enlarge for details.

Also visit John Silva’s blog:

additional info:

The Spoliarium is a painting by Filipino artist Juan Luna. The painting was submitted by Luna to the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884, where it garnered a gold medal. In 1886, it was sold to the Diputación Provincial de Barcelona for 20,000 pesetas. It currently hangs in the main gallery at the ground floor of the National Museum of the Philippines, and is the first work of art that greets visitors upon entry into the museum.

The Spoliarium measures four meters in height and seven meters in width. The canvas depicts a chamber beneath a Roman arena, where bodies of dead gladiators are being dragged into a shadowy area, presumaon the far right side of the painting is a grieving woman in torn and shabby clothing. Horizontal lines are seen in the walls and the people watching the scene. But diagonal lines that denote movement are very obvious and can be seen in the gladiators’ slain bodies, in the men dragging them and in the floor tiles. There is dominant use of contour lines as shown in the muscles of the arms, legs and backs of the gladiators. In the use of color, there is a governing use of red, mostly seen in the center, that is one of the first things to attract the attention of the viewer. The use of green on the weeping lady's dress creates contrast against the gladiators’ red dresses. The intensity of the color red is very overwhelming. Almost all of the colors used are warm colors, which is thought to be intentional on the part of the artist. Luna has been known to use colors not simply for reasons of aesthetics but also for their symbolic value. (from Wikipedia)