Thursday, April 22, 2010


Cold and white, hard and heavy, ivory has fascinated man throughout the centuries. It has always been a luxury, and has been reserved only for objects of prestige and ritual. Ivory is obtained from elephant tusks, though in wider sense the term also refers to hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, and hornbill materials. Filipinos also carved various articles from the tusks, teeth and bones of the duyong or dugong (the sea cow), the wild boar, the crocodile and other animals.

In the Philippines, ivory was known as garing, a vague remembrance of the days when elephants and their cousins, the stegodons roamed the land. Fossil ivory and remains of theses proboscideans, dating to as far back as 500,000 years ago, have been found in the Cagayan Valley, Pangasinan, Manila, Panay, and northeastern Mindanao.

Early Spanish colonizers in the Philippines encountered the last remaining elelphants in Sulu, but these too, must have disappeared about the middle of the 17th century, as there is nor record of them after these period. One specimen was sent as a gift, complete with silk trappings, to the emperor of Japan before the end of the 16th century. According to accounts, it was such a big hit among the Japanese, who had never seen such a creature before.

The conquering Spaniards brought with them their love of saints’ images in ivory, and commissioned the Chinese to do the carving. Though we know that pre-Hispanic Filipinos used ivory for religious images (anitos), jewelry, and dagger hilts, frustratingly little has survived to give us an idea of this early art. Ivory began to be imported from African and Asian sources. The most important extant masterpiece of this early period is the Nuestra Señora del Rosario de la Naval, carved by a Filipino-Chinese artist in 1593, and now venerated in the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City.

Workshops along the southeastern coast of China and in the Philippines were soon turning out exquisite religious images of ivory for the Spanish and Mexican markets. By the eighteenth century, the Filipinos themselves were warmly praised by the Spaniards for their artistic productions. Their works gracefully combined Asian eyes with Hispanic noses; above all they masterfully displayed the Oriental quality of tranquility.

Through more than 200 years of the Galleon Trade, countless ivory pieces left the Philippine shores for Spain and Mexico, brought out by friars, bureaucrats and merchants as gifts, mementos and even contraband. Because of its value, many ivory pieces were smuggled into these countries, thus hampering research on provenance and dates.

The noted Spanish art historian Margarita Estella has spent several years tracking down what she refers to as “Hispano-Filipino” ivories in Spanish churches and collections. Majority of the earlier and larger ivory santos have thus been identified to be, ironically, outside the country.

Philippine ivories were valued even in Christian China. Manuel Texeira, the distinguished Jesuit historian, has pointed out that the image of Macau’s patroness, the Immaculate Conception, was commissioned from the Philippines. The image, consisting of an ivory head and hands on a polychromed wooden body, is now enshrined in the Chapel of the Leal Senado in that city. Other Marian images in Macau, of a style attributed here as Goanese work, are referred to there as Philippine instead, “and therefore of great age”. Clearly, much more artistic sleuthing is needed to clarify influences and attributions.

In the Philippines, ivory santos today are not easily accessible given their rarity and value. They are a popular target of church thieves who sell dismembered heads and hands to unscrupulous buyers. A sizeable collection of them has been assembled by the Intramuros Administration in Manila, thus keeping a number of important pieces in the public domain.

Major collections abroad are the Museo Oriental in Valladolid, Spain and the Museo Nacional del Virreinato in Tepotzotlan, Mexico. International awareness of Philippine art in ivory was highlighted by a special exhibit held in 1990-1991 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. Another exposition was recently held at the Ayala Museum in Makati, where these photographs were taken.

Today, as elephants fall to the greed of the “white gold” hunters, the trade in ivory is banned in most parts of the world. Although we continue to pay tribute to Filipino’s artistry in ivory, we also bid goodbye to an era of despoliation in the name of art.

(Text: Regalado Trota Jose / Photography: Kathleen Palasi,
Reprinted from Design & Architecture, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1992. pp. 92-95)

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