Juan Luna’s Spoliarium is undoubtedly the most famous painting by a Filipino artist. The masterpiece won the first gold medal in the 1884 Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts. Unbeknownst to many, Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho (English translation: The Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace) that garnered a silver medal in the same event was painted by compatriot Félix Hidalgo. The themes of the paintings were meant “to satisfy the ‘erudition-quotient’ essential to the conservative scholarly Neoclassicism of Hidalgo and Luna while they were spending time in Europe.” Pondering the message of the two oeuvres, the themes still resonate in the current Philippine society even though the artworks were created 136 years ago.
Spoliarium is the Latin word for the basement of the Roman Colosseum where the losing gladiators were disposed and dismantled off their possessions. Juan Luna depicted the covert scenes of the bloody spectacle in ancient Rome where an audience on the left pillages the armors of dying gladiators while being dragged by Roman soldiers. On the right side, an old man carrying a torch and a woman mourning for a loved one can be seen. On the other hand, Virgenes portrays two young Christian virgins being mobbed by sex-hungry Roman men. One woman is seated with her head bowed down, completely naked, and her ankles tied. The standing maiden has resigned to her fate while being stripped of her garment by one man.
The country is one of the top labor exporters in the world. The gladiators and virgins allude to the overseas Filipino workers who are heralded as modern-day heroes in the Philippines as they undergo ordeals in foreign lands especially in the Middle East where the kafala system is practiced. The system binds the employee to the employer, which has been criticized for its slave-like conditions. In December 2019, a Filipino maid was raped and slain by her Kuwaiti employer. A diplomatic row ensued between the Philippines and Kuwait after the incident. The heinous crime happened approximately two years after another Filipino maid was found dead in a freezer in Kuwait that compelled the Philippine government to issue a temporary ban on the deployment of Filipino workers. These cases barely scratch the surface of what Filipino migrants experience in search of economic opportunities for their families left behind in the Philippines.
A sober description of Spoliarium has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Behind the canvas and the painted figures, there floats the living image of the Filipino people sighing its misfortune. Because the Philippines is nothing more than a real Spoliarium with all its horrors.” The horrors pertain to injustices committed by the Spaniards during the colonization of the Philippines but remain relevant to the prevailing social reality. Our people are trained to be sent to the battlefield where death is imminent. Filipinos, fully knowing the dangers, continue to seek better lives outside the country only to be exploited by foreigners. Virgenes illustrates the sexual exploitation and gender inequality that persists anywhere in the world. Similar to the expression of the female in a flimsy robe, we can merely look from afar and pray for divine intervention.
President Duterte has vowed to reverse this culture of migration by creating more jobs in the country so that working offshore is not a necessity but only an option. The migrant remittances contribute the biggest portion to the national gross domestic product (10%), with the business process outsourcing industry coming in second place. With the continuous flux of young, highly-educated, highly-skilled, and predominantly female service workers, the Philippines is tethered to suffer the socioeconomic impacts of brain drain. The country has made considerable strides in bridging migration policies into broader development goals. Migration is integrated into the Philippine Development Plan and a coordinating mechanism between different cabinet departments has been created in the national planning agency. However, these gains shall be sustained over time by looking after the well-being of migrants and re-skilling those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 20th International Dialogue on Migration in Geneva held last 15 October 2020, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Sarah Arriola presented the government efforts that she summarized as the 5R’s: Relief, Repatriation, Recovery, Return, and Reintegration. The Philippine pandemic response cements the country’s leadership in migration governance and steadfast commitment to the human rights-based approach to migration.
Migration is deemed as a positive milestone in the Filipino culture that constitutes social mobility. The protection of the rights and promotion of the welfare of overseas Filipinos is one of the pillars of the Philippine foreign policy. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs can only do so much to assist distressed nationals abroad. It takes a whole-of-society approach to come up with a migration policy that responds to the needs of the state and its people. Contemplating the genius of our prized painters enables us to peek at the conundrum of migration. The context of their success shall remind us that Indios (natives) can rise to the occasion and win the game of their colonial masters. If migration is an art, it would be a Gordian knot: it can be solved by cutting the knot or handling it like an artist.
Photos are Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Kenneth Jim Joseph Jimeno
Kenneth Jim Joseph Jimeno is a Foreign Service Officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of the Philippines. Jim is currently a principal assistant at the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs. He is also a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a Global Shaper from Manila Hub. He is interested in the nexus of migration, health, and security.