Tuesday, October 14, 2014
209. FAMILY FIRST: A Folk Urna From Ilocos
FAMILY FIRST: A Folk Urna From Ilocos
I remember the moment when I acquired my first antique urna, complete with the figures of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. It was in the early ‘80s when I started collecting santos, thanks to my Creative Director who turned me on to this fascinating hobby. But back then, my 50 peso budget could only buy ‘buraots’—an antique dealer’s parlance for old pieces on the verge of being called junk. So, my first pieces were crudely carved flatback santos, santo fragments ( a carabao from a San Isidro tableau, a Nazareno hand) and small crucifixes, often without bases.
It was while on a shooting assignment in Baguio, sometime in 1982 that I bought my first complete santo ensemble in an urna—not a santo fragment, not an incomplete figure--but an almost perfect primitive altar from Ilocos. In a break from the shoot, I accompanied my boss to Maharlika Shopping Center—then Baguio’s center for arts, antiques and souvenirs, located in a multi-storey building right in the market district. Pinky Garcia, then, an up and coming antique dealer, had a shop there—already called PNKY—and that’s where I beheld the folk altar for sale.
The first thing I noticed was its rich, smooth patina, indicative of its antiquity. It was in the shape of a house, with a tin roof, topped with a turned finial and trimmed on the side with two graceful wooden swirls. Four columns marked the corner of the main structure, that sat on short carved legs. Wooden frontals were carved and decorated with floral swirls and curlicues. Inside the altar were the carved wooden figures of the Child Jesus, flanked by Mary and Joseph. The naïve figures were no more than 10 inches tall, crudely carved and feature-less, but painted with once-rich hues, with their dressed painted with flourishes.
The whole ensemble was fashioned from soft wood and wood scraps—the latter, used as a backing for the urna. It had stood unscathed for years, saved for a few missing hands, tin halos and San Jose’s staff. I wondered too, if the urna once had glass panels, or if it had a door of some sort, but there are no nail marks to indicate that it had been equipped with these. The dealer had identified this antique piece as a Tagalog altar, but an expert corrected me to say that the style was very much from the Ilocos region.
Whatever, I fell in love with the urna, and so shyly, I asked the dealer for her best price. When she showed me the price tag—Php600—I nearly fell off my seat—it was way out of my league! I only had a Php 200 ‘baon’ for the duration of my production work (I still had a day to go). But—she added---she could lop off a few pesos more, arriving at a final, non-negotiable price of Php 495! Unfortunately, I still could not afford the discounted price—so sadly, and with a deep sigh, I turned away.
The next day, we packed up our shooting and made a final dash to the Baguio market to buy last-minute pasalubongs for the folks back in Manila. This time, I was with my boss, and I egged her—being a more knowledgable collector--to check out the urna which I wanted, as the shop was just a floor above us.
Of course, she was charmed by the piece! She then advised me to buy it, as the urna she said, was in such pristine condition and that I can’t get that piece for a Php495 once it is brought down to Manila. I told her though, that much as I liked it, I couldn’t afford it—and proceeded to show what’s left of my baon—all of Php150.
“Goodness, Alex! Why didn’t you tell me? I can lend you that amount and you can pay me back anytime!”. It was so unexpected that I felt so embarrassed, and I started to object, protestations that fell on deaf ears. Right then and there, she whipped out her credit card from her wallet, and dealt with the shop owner herself. I insisted that I chipped in my last remaining Php100, so she was charged just Php395 on her card.
We walked away from the antique shop with me lugging the packed urna proudly with one hand, along with my longganisa and peanut brittle. In the ensuing years, my dear boss would resign and make a splash as an accomplished advertising creative in Malaysia, while I would remain in the industry, until I too, joined the expat bandwagon in 1989. But through all those years, I have kept my beautiful Ilocos urna for 32 years—not just as an artifact of our religious history, but also as a wonderful reminder of the boundless kindness of friends.