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Once Upon A Time

“Once upon a time …” – this familiar phrase brings back delightful childhood memories of bedtime stories, myths, fables and legends, tales of brave heroes, fair damsels, mystical animals, ferocious giants and wicked witches. Here in the Southeast Asian archipelago, we are fortunate to be inheritors of a rich treasure trove of indigenous folk tales – tales that pre-date our more recent colonial and post-colonial history and are almost as old as time itself. Transmitted orally, these folk tales were recited, sung or performed by travelling storytellers and village elders. The tales comprised origin stories, stories that explained natural phenomena or a specific local geological feature, as well as morality tales that reinforced social mores, values, rites and customs.

With the arrival of the Western colonial powers, indigenous folk tales were either Christianised or suppressed and were in danger of being forgotten and lost altogether in the hundreds of years of colonial rule. Fortunately for us, they did not vanish entirely and, in recent times, attempts have been made to record these fables and stories, both in the printed word as well as in works of art. Contemporary artist Rodel Tapaya is among the most well-known of Southeast Asian artists whose works draw from this rich store of indigenous mythology, in his case, that of his native country, the Philippines.

Filipino contemporary artist Rodel Tapaya. Image courtesy of the Singapore Art Museum.

Tapaya works in a wide variety of media, from large-scale acrylic canvases to drawing, under-glass painting, crafts and  diorama. Four of these, pictured below, are in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum (all images courtesy of the artist) . The Hunter of Pinamaloy (top left) depicts the legend of how Lake Pinamaloy was created. A great hunter is grievously wounded after killing a wild boar and sends his faithful dog for help. By relaying the message to the hunter’s wife, however, the dog breaches the language barrier that divides man and animals, causing a volcano to erupt and the ruins of the town to be submerged by Lake Pinamaloy.

The Origin of Grain (top right) depicts the Filipino myth of how humans began to cultivate rice (for an interesting parallel, see our story on Yee I-Lann’s work depicting the Kadazan-Dusun legend of Huminudon). At a time when the earth was barren, the man, Labangan pleaded to the sky god, Kabuniyan, for food. Kabuniyan threw a line for him to climb to the otherworld for a meal, on condition that he was not to bring any rice back to Earth. Labangan, however, defied the sky god and hid some rice grains on his person, smuggling them back to earth and cultivating the rice to assuage the hunger of his people.

The Wise Monkey and the Foolish Giant (bottom left) is a funny tale about the antics and tricks that a mischievous monkey plays on a foolish giant. Depicted in Tapaya’s diorama is a scene where the monkey convinces the giant to lash himself to a tree to survive an impending storm. In his diorama of the fable Pedro and the Witch (bottom right) Tapaya portrays the climax of the story, where Pedro, aided by an enchanted horse, drops a magical handkerchief that causes huge flames break out, burning the wings of Boroka, the witch who is after him.

The dioramas are contained in boxes that resemble stilt houses with peaked roofs, suggestive of retablos, which traditionally contain images or statues of saints and are found in households and churches. However, it has been suggested that they also resemble the spirit houses prevalent in neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, for example, in Thailand. Tapaya melds colonial religion and indigenous spirituality, reconfiguring the two into a kind of “folk Christianity” and using the dioramas as a platform on which to restage long-forgotten stories.

Tapaya’s aim, however, has not only been to counter the effects of colonialism’s erasure of history, memory and identity but also to consider how the recuperation of myths and stories can contribute to the elucidation of contemporary realities. In a new work May tainga ang lupa (The Land Has Ears) that responds to these four dioramas, past and present co-exist and fiction and reality collide. Commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum for its travelling SAM Mini Mobile Museum, the work consists of 62 lightboxes that depict individual stories or scenes from Filipino folk tales but also address contemporary issues like environmental damage, urban poverty and pollution. In Tapaya’s words,

“Stories of myths and folktales are our ancestors’ way of understanding the world. The work hopes to illuminate these stories of the past and find inspiration and understanding of the world in the present times.”

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