The demise of the jeepney that we grew up with is one that’s often lamented, where the vintage Sarao jeeps with horses on its hood have pretty much disappeared, and many-a-contemporary-artist have taken old jeepney parts and exhibited these as found objects turned into “works of art.”
And yet the jeep continues to exist, and it’s entirely possible that it is our romance with its past versions that have kept us from taking stock of what it has become in the present. What has become of the jeep in the age of globalization and uneven development? How does it continue to be bound still to the landscape of mass culture as we know it to evolve and exist? How has it continued to function as canvas for creativity, no matter that we might not notice?
Well, thank heavens Electrolychee has taken notice, and has found a publisher who supports this book on contemporary jeep as folk art. Because too many artistic practices are left undocumented, deemed unimportant or irrelevant or unacceptable as “art,” and one realizes that this is also why losing the jeep of old is a sad thing. None of us knew to value it enough while it existed.
The authors with no name
Biyaheng Langit (5 Ports Publishing, 2014) is a lovely book about the contemporary jeep as canvas for religious images, and how it is imbued with a specifically Pinoy folk Catholicism. Electrolychee chose 184 photos from their collection, one that they started in 2010, when they saw an image of “a haughty-looking Christ on a speeding jeepney.”
Looking at the photographs they have chosen for this book, it seems clear that Electrolychee’s collection of images is a gift that will keep on giving. Because there is the fact of transience: what might have existed in 2010 might already be erased by the elements or by accident. There is also the truth of movement: a jeep that exists in one space now, might exist in another space tomorrow. Electrolychee’s engagement with the process of capture responds to these moments across space and time.
It is also why one expects an amount of self-importance in the way Biyaheng Langit is written, where writers might point to the difficult task of putting together the book, or direct the information so that it might make the writers-researchers the stars of the show. Instead there is authorial-effacement here, and the intent seemed bent on making a book both enjoyable and informative, maintaining a wit and playfulness that goes perfectly well with the curated images of religious jeepney vinyl.
While it is in English and obviously speaks to a specific audience, Biyaheng Langit also refuses to fall into the trap of becoming—or being pegged as—some pretty pop culture coffee table book that’s just out to promote a commercial brand (aka that pop culture book by Bench some years ago). Neither is it some inaccessible scholarly treatise on the jeepney, the kind the local academe would churn out.
Yet one finishes reading Biyaheng Langit with a sense of the psychology behind the popular cultural production of jeep décor, as well as a sense of how academicians and artists have spoken about this before. This is because Electrolychee also knew to work into the book quotes from artists and scholars who have spoken about the subjects that they tackle in the book. Which is of course to say that while the focus is clearly the variety of captured religious vinyl décor on jeeps, the bigger narrative of the book tells the story of religion and faith, iconography and belief systems. Firmly grounded in history, Biyaheng Langit reveals these images to be part of the every-Pinoy’s continuous belief in and ongoing bout with Pinoy Catholicism.
The Pinoy artists’ constant albeit limited interest in jeepney art is interwoven with what what’s been said about colors and forms; the belief in certain images over others, the variety in the images of the Virgin Mary, are explained further by a priest or other they’ve interviewed. But probably my most favorite are quotes from the jeepney drivers themselves, about what it is they believe about these images, that render these (un)important at any given time.
The worker as artisan
After a stretch of very short chapters, with even shorter but meaty introductions with such titles as “Jusko Lord!” and “Matinik, Idol” (for the Suffering Christ with a Crown Of Thorns), “Puso Mo, Nay” (for the Immaculate Heart of Mary) and “Mother, Patulong Ulit” (for the Mother Of Perpetual Help), this spit of a book takes the unexpected turn and ends the journey with a conversation about the artists of these works, who go unnamed even as their works are ubiquitous. The search was not an easy one for Electrolychee but they found two artists: Sherwin Opiana in Pureza, Manila, and Joemer Perwelo in Pagbilao, Quezon.
In this final piece “The Humble Artisans” they lose the wit that exists throughout the book. Like an ironic twist in one’s fate, the tone turns serious, if not sad, and one knows that no matter beliefs and faith, the questions of poverty and hunger, need and want, are not ones that art—or religiosity—can answer.
Especially not for Opiana and Perwelo who are the stars of this show, but whose works have yet to be valued as contributions to the ever changing landscape of public art and mass culture. It is here that one realizes how Electrolychee has in fact outdone all others who have spoken before about pop, public, folk culture: they took these ephemeral images, doomed to disappearance as they are made, and took the discussion as far as it needed to go in order to do justice to its making.
In Biyaheng Langit, one realizes that there is no other way to talk about art really. Electrolychee shows us that any other way would be a failure.