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by Jaime Laya

Long before Christ, caravans traveled the long and perilous Silk Road winding through deserts, precipitous mountain ranges, hostile peoples, and bandits, bringing exotic luxuries from the fabled East--porcelain, silks, spices--that only royalty and high aristocracy could afford.

Early Greek, Roman, and Persian geographers were the first to describe the faraway and mysterious lands. Writing about 150 AD in Alexandria, Graeco-Roman Claudius Ptolemy pinpointed the Golden Chersonese, a golden peninsula at the edge of the world he knew.

The place could be Indo-China where Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda and Thailand's temples and palaces blaze with gold. Our own ancestors sported precious metal wherever it could be pinned, clipped, or hung--hair, ears, nose, neck, arms, wrist, legs, ankles. Men had rings stuck through an appendage (aray!) that frailes were too bashful to identify and women sported a triangular object tantalizingly termed "chastity cover." Nobles wore heavy gold halters and belts. All wanted to be presentable before their maker and were buried fully adorned.

Disbelieving Europeans first learned of our world from Venetian trader Marco Polo (1254-1324), Moroccan Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), and Magellan's chronicler, the Italian Antonio Pigafetta (1491-1531).

His magic makes one wander dazzled through a bazaar, a souk, an emporium, Manila's Parian, saluting Tundun and Angkatan at shops packed with wondrous treasures.

The trio's experience is evoked in the Ayala Museum exhibit, "Gold in Our Veins." It features Mark Lewis Lim Higgins' paintings of imagined people in strange attire--the three's collective memories of the faces, clothes, sights, smells, and sounds of the mysterious East, presented with objects they brought back.

Higgins' ancestral figures are mounted on textiles and enriched with gold and silver leaf, their names evocative of geography, belief systems, values, objects, produce, rulers, and kingdoms.

Some names are vaguely familiar: Tundun, ancient name of Tondo (inscribed ilumina tenebras or figuratively, "dispel ignorance"); Wahi Arduja (per Ibn Battuta, daughter of Tawalisi's king), claimed by Pangasinenses as the warrior princess Urduja with a dress that look like rice terraces; Angkatan, daughter of Namwaran, the condonation of whose debt is evidenced by the Laguna Copperplate formally turned over by the chief of Tundun; and Devaraja, Hindu god-king (Butuan's Golden Tara embellishes his headdress).

The whole is an extraordinary installation created by Gino Gonzales, scenographer who designs sets, costumes, and lighting of theatrical presentations. His magic makes one wander dazzled through a bazaar, a souk, an emporium, Manila's Parian, saluting Tundun and Angkatan at shops packed with wondrous treasures: Precious porcelain from China, Japan, Annam; silks and brocades; gold embellishments; skirts perhaps snatched from startled maidens; basketfuls of spices; marvelous Cordillera bulul that to Torquemada and Savonarola must be flung onto blazing bonfires.

One realizes just before emerging on busy Makati Avenue, that one was in a time warp, somewhere in time in a mythical east. In an armoire is a map (Amsterdam: Jodocus Hondius, 1606), Insulae Indiae Orientalis Praecipuae, In quibus Moluccae celeberrime sunt encompassing Ptolemy's Golden Chersonese, Marco Polo's and Ibn Battuta's Cauchinchina and Insula Borneo, Pigafetta's Islas de las Velas and Archipelagus S. Lazari, and the coveted Moluccae.

It may be a long time before any art exhibit comes close to Ayala Museum's tour de force.

Notes: (a) Apart from Higgins' paintings, the objects in the installation are from the Ayala Museum collection, including ceramics on loan from the Roberto T. Villanueva Foundation; textiles, gifts of Mercedes Zobel; and the Hondius map on loan from the Bank of the Philippine Islands; (b) The Laguna Copperplate is the earliest known Philippine document, dated 822 AD. A National Treasure, it is in the National Museum; (c) The Golden Tara is a solid gold image of a Hindu goddess found in Butuan. It is now in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History; and (d) The exhibit is on until May 26.

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'Angkatan' by Mark Lewis Lim Higgins

'Chenla' by Higgins, imagined aristocrats of a ca. 500- 600 A.D., kingdom in IndoChina
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Title Annotation:Arts and Culture
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Mar 25, 2019
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