THE history of the Philippines is marked with trade-offs with colonizers and big imperial powers like the United States. The Pact of Biak na Bato, for instance, was an agreement between colonial Spanish Governor-General Primo de Rivera and Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, who represented the Filipino revolutionaries, for a negotiated surrender of the revolutionaries in exchange for amnesty and a monetary indemnity of P400,000 in December 1897.
In 1898, after Aguinaldo was hoodwinked by American officials into thinking that they were not interested in the Philippine Islands, there came the Treaty of Paris under which the US bought the country from Spain for $20 million. It officially ended the Spanish-American War, but then lead to the Philippine-American War.
During “the bloody blundering business”—as one documentary film described the Philippine-American War—Filipinos suffered from the killing spree of American soldiers trying to keep their hold on their newfound colony.
In contemporary times, artist Pete Jimenez made a remarkable artistic statement by describing his installation works as Islands for Sale. These are 1960s boats made from decommissioned rescue boats of the Philippine Navy—outworn dysfunctional vessels from the military point view that are supposed to be disposed of in a junkyard. And, mind you, these were donations from the US, which in many cases the American military already considered as junk. But they gave them away to allies like the Philippines, as part of the Mutual Defense Pact.
Jimenez describes these boats with metaphorical passion as islands, their usefulness expired mainly due to obsolescence.
Jimenez, who is a very resourceful artist, cut the eight boats into halves, placing some of them right side up and some, upside down. They look like submerged boats, giving you the feeling of seeing the aftermath of a war, where things are scattered all over. At the same time, you can think of them as representing the contested Spratly Islands floating in the sea.
China, the emerging power, has been friendly to some Philippine presidents, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Duterte.
Arroyo has been accused selling out to Chinese officials through the ZTE deal, which became a big scandal during her presidency, Among others, she was also accused of conspiring with Chinese officials to go on a joint exploration of contested islands in the West Philippine Sea, despite these being in our exclusive economic zone. But public opinion against this fell on the Arroyo’s deaf ears.
Despite winning the case against Chinese intrusion into our exclusive economic zone during the time of President Noynoy Aquino, the Philippines now faces a China that has been working secretly into putting up their military installations on our islands. This has caused public alarm as the intrusion has come closer to home.
President Duterte compounded the problem by being too cautious about not provoking the Chinese government into taking an adversarial stance, fearing that it might trigger punitive action. People suspect that our sovereignty will be sold out to the Chinese due to our government’s passiveness in the issue.
Jimenez has been a garbage hunter, if you will, for decades now. As the cliché goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
This installation was a huge operation. While randomly selecting used material from junkyard, he had to have a gut feel on which items to choose—although a creative mind like his no doubt already had an idea on how to tackle a plethora of things that could used to interplay with each other to depict a huge creative concept. The discovery of materials came before the formulation of the concept. I would think this was the case in the Jimenez installation at the Ateneo Art Gallery.
He gives new life to scrap material by reconfiguring their creative potential into a platform of expressing a political opinion. Incidentally, the donated rescue boats were supposed to be used for military defense operations, but whatever their usefulness may have been was diminished by their obsolescence. We can only hope there were no accidents like drowning during their use as rescue boats, just like what happened to the Huey helicopters donated by US Army to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which were like flying coffins due to the many accidents these had figured in.
Islands for Sale as a thematic expression is very timely. Just recently, some 200 Chinese ships bearing militia visited the West Philippine Sea. The question is: Were there trade-offs? Were these islands already sold by the government to China? By allowing the ships on our exclusive economic zones, we have practically allowed China to invade the Philippines without it firing a single shot.
Pete Jimenez—who’s known for his satirical approach to many of his assemblage and sculptural oeuvres from found materials in junkyards—has come up with a very timely installation in these troubled times amid the Covid-19 pandemic. This should stir up discussion and draw support in protesting the virtual sellout of our sovereignty by our leaders, who have made a mockery of its patriotic duty to defend the country from invaders.
By the way, it’s not only the West Philippine Sea that has been grabbed by the Chinese; foreign investors are now allowed to own land and water properties in the country, courtesy of the Congress of the Philippines. The whole Philippine Islands are now for sale. Pete Jimenez has done his share in fulfilling his duties not only as citizen but as an artist to make a difference.