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A kingdom of colors

BY Danton Remoto
Remote Control
Views and analysis
Dec 23, 2008

One bright spot in the bleak national landscape is the writing and production of children’s books. Recent harvest shows that the bumper crop continues, and will likely to do so in the next years. The best of these books introduce values without the leaden moral lessons and pieties that deaden one’s sensitivity. And the illustrations not only blaze but also sing!

The Cat Painter by Becky Bravo, with illustrations buy Mark Ramsel Salvatus III (Adarna Books) is a witty story that teaches the importance of diversity. Miral, the chief cat painter, has decreed that cats can come only in three colors: black, white, and yellow. But one day, a playful and young angel, a painter named Rahal, comes along. He asks: “Has a cat ever been colored partly black and partly white? Or partly white and partly yellow? . . . [or] in all three colors? In brown? In grey? In stripes and patches? In spots.”

With words seemingly graven in stone, Miral says no. “They have always been only black, white, or yellow.” Undaunted, the young angel begins to paint a rainbow of colors for the cats. “He borrowed a jar of red paint from the angel in charge of birds and a jar of green paint from the angel in charge of frogs. When they asked him why, he said he needed red to add to green to make some brown, and that he needed red to add to yellow to make some orange. . . ”

This book is a painless introduction to the mixes, tones, and textures of colors. The shocked old angel turns to God for arbitration. He was sure that God would punish the young subversive. And pity the young angel, his wings begin to quiver in fear.

The angel “Rahal adjusted his halo and nervously waited for the storm to break. God looked at the mewling three-colored cat in the palm of His hand, which he thought looked as if it had been pelted by a torrent of paintballs . . . and He laughed. In a deep, hearty sound that rang through the chamber like church bells at Christmas.”

God was so pleased with the cat that He asked the young painter for more cats with in various colors. “I know a good, little child who would be very happy to have him. And I know many other people who would love to have cats as pretty as this. . . . A single color is a beautiful thing, but two or more can be beautiful as well.”

Colors in Mindanao

The beauty of colors is also found in Tony Perez’s interactive children’s book, Inang Bayan’s New Clothes (Mga Bag-ong Sinina ni Inahang Nasod) illustrated by Frances C. Alcaraz (Anvil Publishing). The book is funded by a grant from Ambassador Kristie Kenney of the U.S. Embassy, which help was acknowledged by the Manila Critics Circle’s National Book Awards in its awarding ceremony at the book fair last year. I am one of the members of the Manila Critics Circle.

The setting is Mindanao and the characters are the young girls Feliza (Christian) and Nurhana (Muslim). If you think this is one of your mindless we-are-sisters-we-are-one tra-la-la, think again. Perez is one of our best writers, and this book shows us why.

Feliza and Nurhana meet Inang Bayan on the road, the implication being that Inang Bayan’s journey is never done. Inang Bayan is wearing rags for clothes, and all her accessories come from foreign places. They bring her to a dress show and make new clothes for her.

“Feliza created a flower-printed skirt from Quezon with a matching tapis from Iloilo, to go with wooden clogs from Quezon and a salakot from Cavite. . . .” They also give her the three other dresses she has request. A black dress, “to remember those who experienced violence, those who faced danger, and those who suffered for their country. . . a second white dress for my children who are noble of heart, who believe in peace, who encourage religious tolerance, and who are blessed by their Creator.”

The last dress is the one I like best: “blue, red, and gold, for my brave children who believe they can live united in peace under one great Philippine nation. And so Feliza and Nurhana created for Inang Bayan a dress in blue, red, and gold. Nurhana’s blue was like the sky and sea. Feliza’s red was like roses, and rubies, and ripe apples. Their gold was like the fiery power of the sun, of dignity, of royalty.”

In war-torn Mindanao, such stories deserve to be told, and re-told.

Fernando Zobel

The rainbow of colors curve and shimmer too in the book Fernando Zobel: The Man Who Painted Ideas by Maria Elena Paterno, illustrated by Marcus Nada (Ayala Foundation). The story’s frame is that of Marco, a young student writing a report about the great painter Fernando Zobel. The book traces the growth and development of the artist, from his sketches, to Harvard studies, and his early works on watercolor and oil. Then we reach the high point of his works.

“Fernando’s next series of paintings was the Saetas, lines on a colored background. Some people say they were inspired by the bamboo scaffolding on buildings. Other people say that they look like lines made by a rake in a Japanese garden. Saeta is a Spanish word for dart, or arrow. Whichever meaning you choose, they make you think of something moving fast.”

I like this book because, like the works of Zobel, it wrestles with ideas, but told subtly, simply, and well. That paragraph points out the multiple meanings that art can generate, and highlights the importance of the reader and the viewer’s response. For after all, a work is a dead until it has been read, or seen, and has created ripples of meanings in the viewer’s mind and heart.

In 1961, after working as a businessman with the Zobel empire and painting in his spare time, Fernando Zobel left Manila. He donated his whole collection of modern Philippine art to the Ateneo Art Gallery, whose former curator was my excellent Literature professor, Emmanuel Torres. Imagine reading poems and discussing creative writing in an art gallery whose walls are aflame with colors!

In Spain, the good painter established the Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol – now a landmark in Spain – and created luminous paintings until 1984, when he died at the age of 60.

Fernando Amorsolo

We end with The Boy Who Lost a Father and Found the Sun: The Life of Maestro Fernando Amorsolo. Written with sensitivity and grace by Rene Villanueva, the original art work for this book was done by Beth Parrocha-Doctolero (Ayala Foundation).

Narding’s father died when he was young. His mother brought them all to Manila, where he apprenticed under his uncle, the noted painter Fabian de la Rosa. “The young lad imagined his father watching over him. He felt his father’s presence as the sun that shone brightly above him. His father was like the brightness from behind the lush caballero trees or the light that filtered through clumps of bamboo.”

Amorsolo is famous for capturing the shimmering brilliance of the Philippine sun – and rightly so. He painted rural scenes to remind him of his boyhood. The poet Dr. Gemino H. Abad said that “Memory is the mother of all writing,” and rightly so. The clearest, vividest work I’ve read or seen are those drawn from the wells of the artist’s memory.

Later, Amorsolo painted portraits and historical figures, but it was his landscapes that will always grip the viewer – brilliant evocations of a time now past. “Like the father he lost early but as a presence throughout his life, the sun continued to be a presence in the artworks of Fernando Amorsolo, National Artist of the Philippines.”

If you’re thinking of gifts for your kids this Christmas, grab a cool book for children written by the Philippines’ finest!



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