On its 8th year, the Mandalá Art Festival continues as a bulwark for artists around Central Luzon
Text by Paolo Vergara
Pulilan, Bulacan is a setting straight out of an early Hidalgo arcadia: sprawling with clean brooks, breeze-swept fields, and trees bearing ripe fruit and cool shade – scenes unfamiliar to generations born in the centers of a rapidly urbanizing country.
Annually for eight years now, during early summer when the mangoes ripen, the municipality has come together to celebrate the Mandalá Art Festival, eventually evolving to bring together young and veteran artists not only from town, but from across Luzon.
The Mandalá here, explains head organizer and art director Andrew Alto De Guzman, is not the intricate Hindu-Buddhist tapestry built around concentric circles, but a Tagalog-Kapampangan term that roughly translates to a haystack made of threshed rice straws or dayami, food for the hardworking carabao – arguably man’s best friend in the agricultural tropics.
Building on that image, De Guzman, also a practicing visual artist and National Commission for Culture and the Arts Central Luzon representative from 2012-2016, expounds that the festival brings together artists, “inipon-ipon like the mandalá,” to nourish the community: “Napakahalaga ang art sa
development ng isang bansa”.
Many might be familiar with Pulilan owing to its annual spectacle: the parade of painted carabaos, a staple item for television stations around the country. Beyond the sound bites, said festival highlights the municipality’s agricultural roots, which continue holding today despite the rest of Bulacan province’s increasing industrialization.
The question now stands: how long will this summer idyll of art, buffalo, and meadows last?
Above, below, and across
Many whose names are buzzwords in the insular art world participate in the festival. This year saw talks by Toym Imao, Manuel Ocampo, and Auggie Fontanilla, all showcasing works. This year’s theme was Bukid Ay Buhay, which can smartly mean either the meadow is alive or the meadow is life. Experts from other fields presented along these lines: cultural heritage’s importance, by architect Gerard Lico, and calls to action on climate change’s impact on agriculture, by organic farmer-technician Benneth Santos.
The festival also fosters street art and mural creation, graced by teams of Central Luzon art school apprentices led by more seasoned artists. The murals adorn shops and houses. As we drive through town, De Guzman points out the years each mural was made: 2017, 2018, and 2019. A collaborative mural, titled Biyaya by the Ang Gerilya and Kapok Collective groups for this year’s celebration greets travelers driving along the North Luzon Expressway.
De Guzman fondly recalls how during the festival’s early years, home and business owners were wary about the graffiti, but in recent years have approached artists, hoping their walls get chosen. “There are no vandals here,” he tells me as we drive by a 7 Eleven with a mural. Exposed to the elements, these often fade after several years, and the organizers, not content with documentation, are planning steps towards conserving the town’s street art.
Built heritage, building heritage
The Mandalá Art Festival’s origins were seeded in 1989, when De Guzman and friends founded an NGO that set out to build museums. To do this, they had to preserve or rebuild heritage structures. Today, a sixth museum is in the works as are plans to expand the festival’s scope. De Guzman in a public address to artists his vision of a Mandalá Biennale.
Across the Philippines, heritage structures are under threat. A way to preserve them, suggests De Guzman, is to turn them into spaces of living memory: museums, galleries, and the like. And in the case of the planned biennale, pavilions for each participating country’s delegation. De Guzman emphasizes the need for local governments who will set an example of keeping their heritage alive and intact. He cites Manila as a blisteringly bad example for how it treats built heritage. “Kapitolyo siya, eh ‘di idol siya. Sasabihin ng taga-bayan, eh, ba’t ang Maynila, ginaba ito, giniba ‘yan?”
The photo contest awarding comes to a close and a homegrown band begins hitting the opening notes of an original song, and my day-long conversation with De Guzman and his friends fades into comfortable silence as the crowd starts clapping to the dropping beats.
Pulilan is a town secure in its identity, a community rooted in its natural, built, and cultural heritage, supported by the local government and business sectors, its people offering an alternative suggestion of what the good life can be, a place that the rest of the country can learn from.
Green is the new black
Passing by the river, it’s refreshing to see such pristine water cutting through thriving fields both wild and cultivated. If the greenness of grass is an indicator of soil health, then Crayola should release a Pulilan Green.
Aside from economic, environmental, and community health reasons, a factor in Pulilan’s conservation drive is how quality of life provides the headspace to enable the latent creativity in everyone. And it’s not just for and by the art community: De Guzman admits that if not for the business community, if not for the municipal government, and if not for average citizens, the festival would have none of its unique flavor. Here, civic participation thrives.
The Mandalá Art Festival doesn’t just celebrate art, but reminds us how creativity thrives in thriving creation; a statement that artworks don’t just beautify a locale but keep its social memory alive, relevant, and connected. Vice mayor Ricardo Candido emphasizes this intersection of advocacies in a speech delivered before the awarding of the festival’s photo contest, where shutterbugs from around the country visited Pulilan to capture agricultural scenes. Candido exhorted constituents to continue upholding their land-use laws, especially if big businesses propose developments with the promise of “creating more jobs.” This is echoed in a speech by UP Diliman Fine Arts dean Joey Tañedo where he questions the destruction of nature’s life support systems in the name of dubious progress: “Kaunlaran ba na nawala ang elementong pantao?”