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Social Realism, Oversimplified

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

This is a fragmented introduction for a paper I wrote on Jose Tence Ruiz.

Jose Tence Ruiz, Without it, I am Invisible. 1993, Documentation print of a performance. Singapore: NUS Museum, 2016. Images are property of Jose Tence Ruiz and provided courtesy of Siddhartha Perez of NUS Museum.

Jose Tence Ruiz (more amicably known as Bogie) was born in 1956 and grew up in Manila. He studied architecture, advertising, and painting. This shifting of interests helped Ruiz accommodate a wider palette of art practices, expressing particular concerns more articulately through appropriate mediums. He is a painter, a sculptor, a performance artist, a multimedia artist, a set designer, a political cartoonist, an illustrator, a collector, a writer, a curator, and operates even more tropes of other practices. Just as his practice is diverse, so are his concerns, including religion, gender politics, nationalism, war, diaspora, folk myths, semiotics, and technology. He is one of the more prominent social realists in and out of the country. He is associated with hardened activists and founded revolutionary collectives such as Kaisahan, Artista ng Bayan (Abay), and is associated with the Concerned Artist of the Philippines (CAP).

Kaisahan (union) was a group of visual artists founded in 1976 who challenged Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law in 1972. The collective was founded by card-carrying activists who risked being tortured, labeled as criminals, and executed under a dictatorship. Other eminent members included Antipas Delotavo, Neil Doloricon, Robert Feleo, Emmanuel Garibay, Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, and more. The group’s manifestos were heavily influenced by communist and socialist writings.[1] Their main agenda was protest and revolution. They had a strong nationalistic approach and often cast the nation of the Philippines in a dichotomy with the martial law.

Visually, they strongly intended to disrobe themselves from the formal aesthetics of the Amorsolo school. The Amorsolo style painted sunny countrysides inhabited by genteel but hard-labouring Filipinas. They saw this visual as being opposite to the actual political and social climate of their time. The collective also purged themselves from the visuals of Mabini artists’ celebration of the aristocrat. Mabini paintings were meant to decorate the domestic mansions of the elites where domestic indulgence (and laundering) of wealth satiate the rich. These visuals were ideals that antonymous to the real societal crisis. Mabini paintings, arguably, only served to aid the elite’s economic carousal within their own salons. These paintings were advertising pieces used to invite foreigners to pillage the primitive beauty of the Philippines. What Kaisahan instigated was the representation of real social situations that rally the masses against colonial and statist oppressors.

Social realism functioned as an alternative or oppositional art.[2] More often than not, they mimicked communist propaganda art. They were cemented on a perpetual guerrilla war against spectral but pertinent entities: shape-shifting as the Spaniards, as the tacit US imperialism that extends until today, as the government, as the capitalist corporations, maybe even the conceptualists, and often antagonising society itself.[3] Other's critiqued that, problematically, social realism in this reflexive form exaggerated social realities, often oversimplifying social situations because of the inclination to “artistic insight rather than… intellectual clarity.”[4] Thus, deep sociopolitical problems surfaced as superficial visuals. Social realist art often concluded with pedagogy or catharsis.

To break this monotony, Abay was established to approach activism through different aesthetics such as pop art.[5] They comprised of a similar group of artist from Kaisahan, however, Abay was more inclined to doing political comics, illustrations, posters, and murals mainly armed with satire...

The Philippines had upheld and celebrated the Spanish culture that is embroidered deep in Philippine soil. Even after another century, the nation is still peeling itself from the residues of Western rule. Ruiz’s generation was the last batch required to study Spanish as a compulsory subject in universities. This could explain the discrepancy of the visual language between the conceptualism, preached by Roberto Chabet and social realism. Conceptual art in the Philippines was proclaimed as high art; it is progressive and contemporary. Hoping to keep up with the art market of the West, Philippine conceptualism skipped chronological process that Western conceptual art has gone through and absorbed its packaged aesthetics in hopes to be relevant to the global market demands, as sponsored by Imelda Marcos and the Cultural Centre of the Philippines.[6]

Outside of Chabet’s reign, contemporary artists like Dina Gadia, Alan Balisi, Dexter Fernandez, and Constantino Zicarelli still faintly reverberated the use of comics, illustration, and cartoon visuals that are nostalgic of the underground comic culture that bred as a recoil to the martial law’s media blackout. Appetite for alternative entertainment during the blackout cultivated a demand for underground comic periodicals. In addition, artworks by non-Chabet babies were still very much involved with raw emotions, compared to the dehumanised formalism of the conceptual movement…

  1. For a more detailed history of Kaisahan, See Alice Guilllermo, Protest/revolutionary Art in the Philippines, 1970-1990 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2001), 62-80.

  2. Ibid,65.

  3. Patrick D. Flores, "Social Realism: The Turns of a Term in the Philippines." Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 34 (September 2013), 62-75.

  4. Guillermo, 70.

  5. Ibid, 71.

  6. Flores, “Social Realism”

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