Expanding Boundaries: Islamic Visual Culture and/of the Philippines

National Museum of the Philippines and Sentinel of Freedom (Lapulapu) statue, Rizal Park, Manila (© 2020)

This term I’d fully intended to write about two ways I’m thinking about the issues of diversifying art history. With the demands of the last few months that didn’t happen, so I’ll just quickly say a few words about one, which I mentioned in my first post below. This is what I am thinking of as my Slow Research project, on Islamic visual culture of/and the Philippines. There probably is an actual Slow Research movement, but I call it this because I started this research as a PhD student, and have made only intermittent and sporadic process over the years, doing this research on the side as I worked to get a PhD (early on my mentor asked me which it was going to be, Spain or the Philippines?) then tenure, but always prioritising my research on al-Andalus and the early Islamic West.

Here I want to say thank you to András Riedlemayer, who first told me about Manila’s Islamic history and the existence of an Aga Khan Museum in Mindanao. That was the catalyst for my research into the Islamic visual culture and history of the Philippines. I thought of this work as a post-tenure treat to myself, and did a bit of research over the years (in Madrid in 2016 and before that, Paris in 2013) while carrying out work on my main projects on Islamic Spain. I thought I would focus on this after tenure, but as it turned out I had another monograph on al-Andalus that I wanted to write (and which I’m currently revising for publication) before I felt I could turn my attention to this Philippines research. I finally made progress over the past year. First, by attending a wonderful talk by Dr. Annabel Teh Gallop for the York Islamic Art Circle, and second by finally managing a research trip in the Philippines in February.

I arrived in Manila and left again before Covid was making headlines outside Asia. My first inkling of anything out of the ordinary was getting a call from KLM the day before my flight, advising that we had to be rerouted because Manila was not accepting flights from Taipei and we would therefore be going through Singapore instead. Anyway, long story short I’m extremely grateful I had the chance to carry out my research in the National Museum of the Philippines before all travel ground to a halt. I’m really grateful to colleagues in the museum who shared their collections, and I hope it won’t be too much longer before we can meet again. The photo at the beginning of this post shows the circa 1918 building in the museum complex, which houses the Anthropology and Archaeology collections where I was carrying out my research. Also known as the Museum of the Filipino People, it faces a monumental forty-foot tall bronze statue of the Muslim leader Chief Lapulapu, who killed Ferdinand Magellan on the Philippine island Mactan in 1521.

It’s going to take me a bit longer to get my current book finished and off my desk, so for now, here are the rough ideas I had going into the trip – much of it was upended, or proved to be just plain wrong, by the subsequent research, and the final sentence is quite embarrassing, but that’s research for you. It’s a process…

The relatively low visibility of the Philippines in discourses about Islamic art is striking, even in contemporary discussions of Islamic art in Southeast Asia. Yet, archaeological finds unearthed in the archipelago attest to a rich Islamic visual culture that bears witness to the circulation of people and goods between the central Islamic lands, as well as East, South, and Southeast Asian territories from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. This material is overshadowed by material from Indonesia and Malaysia, whose Islamic visual culture fits more easily, perhaps, into traditional notions of Islamic art.

Moreover, the earliest 16th century Spanish encounters with Muslims in what is now Manila, and the subsequent conquest and colonisation of the Archipelago, likewise had a transformative impact on the visual culture of the Philippines. Does the earliest visual material documenting the Philippines suggest that the 15th c. conquest of Islamic Iberia informed the earliest Spanish perceptions of the Muslims they encountered in the Philippines? And beyond the first moments of colonial encounter, how did the Spanish colonial connection to the Philippines inform artistic developments in Spain in the 19th century?  For example, the monumental Glass Palace which still stands today in the Retiro Park, Madrid was constructed in 1887 for the Philippines Exposition, serving as the setting for an exhibition of artworks and objects from the Philippines (now preserved in the National Anthropology Museum, Madrid).  How did the concerns of 19th century Spanish scholars and collectors position the visual culture of the Philippines as a colonial subject within anthropological and ethnographic frameworks, and thus outside the realm of art history? How did this and other Spanish exhibitions of artefacts from the Archipelago compare to other instances in which 19th century European collectors acquired and displayed objects from Islamic lands, and which subsequently shaped museum collections and thus art history? This research will contribute a distinct perspective to current discourses on expanding the boundaries of Islamic art history, and to research on Spain’s legacies of colonialism and empire.