Is it a bird? Or a plane? Tell me what you connect with the Sarimanok and I will tell you how old you are. Better yet, I will tell you who you are.
Ambeth Ocampo wrote in his February 21, 2014 Philippine Daily Inquirer column that one candate a Pinoy based on what he associates with the Sarimanok. If you are young, probably you associate the Sarimanok with ABS-CBN with their many appropriations of the image: Sarimanok News Network, Global Sarimanok and of course their logo. Or perhaps you think of Megan Young’s “Sarimanok costume” when she competed in and won the Miss International 2013 title, a first for the Philippines. Or, if you are older, you think of the 1974 Miss Universe Pageant held at the Folk Arts Theater which used the symbol as its logo. If you are a college student or athlete, you will associate it with Season 72 of the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) which used the image as its logo to inspire member universities to unite. An MSUan will recognize it as an integral part of graduation ceremonies and lately, as Mindanao State University’s (MSU) official mascot named Sari, the Sarimanok.
What is really the Sarimanok? It is a mythical bird that figures in the legends of the Meranaos, the people of the Lake (Lanao). Any Meranao kid raised in Lanao will recognize the Sarimanok image in our everyday life: decorations such as mamandiang, ceremonial umbrellas and ampas; enthronement ceremonies, kalilangs , wood carvings and of course souvenir items. However, as Ocampo has rightly mentioned, the “Luzon Christians tend to forget that to the Maranao, the Sarimanok is not a tacky souvenir item but part of their culture, a symbol of wealth, power, and prestige.” In fact, I would not be surprised if most of them would not even know that it is associated with the Meranaos at all. It has become so used, appropriated and interpreted by many artists and groups that it has become ubiquitous that just like its legend, it moved away from the original. To a Meranao however, Sarimanok is more than just a beautiful palette of different colors interpreted in many ways—it is a cultural symbol and cultural capital.
Legend has it that the daughter of the Sultan, the beautiful Sari was swept away by a rooster who turned into a handsome man. Both of them were never seen again and the Sultan ordered the carving of the bird to remember his daughter by. Most of the Meranao wood carvers similarly use the Sarimanok image in most of their products–be it a simple table decoration, a tidura, kubing and even children’s play things. Most of these artists are male and not many of them ventured into other forms of art such as painting. In fact, the first Meranao woman artist to have had a painting exhibit at the Sining Kalilang ng Maynila only happened fairly recently, on June 14-16, 2011. Perhaps, she is even the first Meranao artist to do so.
Meet Bai Jamila Tamano Lucman.* While Meranao women of her generation indulged in other ventures, she produced paintings that showcase the rich cultural background of her people—their legends, traditions and aspirations. She wonderfully marries modern styles using indigenous inspiration and come out with a unique interpretation that is modern yet traditional but definitely her own. Her oeuvre showcases her rendition of the Meranao epic Darangen. In Princess Lawanen Riding a Golden Niaga, the eponymous princess floats riding a combination of the naga and the Sarimanok images shaped into a boat. Both the naga and the Sarimanok are popular images among the Meranaos. The Sarimanok naturally features prominently in most of her paintings and readily among the favourites of her fans.
She recognizes the fact that there are very few Muslim artists in the Philippines particularly women artists. But, this is only in so far as those who are nationally recognized like National Artist Abdul Mari Imao and those who are in the media spotlight just like other mainstream artists. Meranaos had always been artists as far as the legend goes. The disappearance of Sari and the princess probably commemorated the beginning of Meranao woodcarving. The imposing Meranao Torogan, the residence of the Sultan, with the protruding panolong in all four corners showcase the artistry of the Meranaos in woodcarving. Her great grandfather himself, Tamano Bacaraman was an artist who made okir designs aside from being a jurist. Another uncle, Edres Tamano is both an architect and a painter. Being an artist is in her blood but she also gained inspiration from the works of great artists in the Louvre museum she has visited.
While there are other Meranao women artists, like the loom-weavers who have never really been recognized, only Bai Jamila managed to break into the national art scene as a painter. The loom-weavers, most of who have already passed away did not manage to attract successors in the very backbreaking art form. Most of them have been seen as producers of cultural products such as the landap, but not primarily as artists in their own right. Unfortunately for the Meranaos, such skill has not been handed down to the future generation and is in danger of ultimate oblivion. To illustrate, one cannot find a newly woven rawaten nowadays for the only person who knew how to weave the pattern is already very old. Bai Jamilla’s paintings come as both a fresh outlook of Meranao art and a consolation that Meranao women artists have simply migrated into another genre.
Her paintings reflect her background as a Meranao. Her masterpiece Kalilang aptly captures the essence of the playing of the kolintang—it is a social and cultural event. It does not happen in a vacuum but there is a whole array of social interactions that happens before, after and during the playing of the ensemble. The Torogan is prepared for the kalilang and the sambolayang (representing the Sultan) is proudly flown high, towering over smaller flags like the pasandalan (representing the Radiamoda), the umbrella-shaped tiered flags (representing the women) and the flaglets (representing the people). Every kalilang brings together the whole community in a collective effort to hold the festivity. The sound of the kolintang and agong playing invites the nearby communities to join in the merry-making. Kalilang is a social institution that is more than just music nor entertainment. It fosters closer ties and camaraderie between hosts, visitors and the community. It also ensures that the tradition is handed down from one generation to another. The true essence of kalilang is what is lost in today’s kolintang ensemble that is staged mostly to entertain guests.
The painting Kalilang depicts the disappearing kapangalilang among the Meranaos. Through this art piece, it preserves a part of the Meranaos’ social institution that is slowly being replaced by influences that are both Western and Eastern. Bai Jamila considers her art as a reflection of both her personality and her political views. One painting shows a masjid and a church side by side with a beautiful panorama of the sun setting which she entitled Prayer Time. Perhaps, it is a reflection of her dream, if not of every Meranao, of coexistence among religions.
It is also high time that the hugely popular, interpreted and often misinterpreted Sarimanok image and other cultural symbols of the Meranaos are seen from the perspective of the bearers of the culture itself. Not only for artistic purposes, but most importantly in putting these cultural icons in their proper perspective, in their true cultural settings. These symbols may have evolved and will continue to evolve, but Bai Jamila’s paintings will serve as the reference point of what they truly mean or used to mean to the Meranaos by whom such rich trove of art inspiration emanated.
*Bai Jamila Tamano Lucman is also crowned as a Bai-a-labi a Dalomangcob sa Dayawan.