Last night, at the opening of the art exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, I had a bits and pieces of conversations with viewers about the two art pieces I contributed. Here are some about the painting “Notes for a Theology of Struggle.”
Why did you choose that title for your painting?
Just before my second imprisonment, Christians in the revolutionary movement were asking what kind of theological basis we had for our involvement.
Is it not the Latin American theology of liberation?
To some extent, yes. But not quite. We told ourselves, “In the Philippines, our focus is on the struggle. Liberation is still in a distant future.” At some point, Fr. Louie Hechanova said: ” Let the name of our theology reflect that. Let’s call it a theology of struggle.”
So you set out to paint this theology?
No, I wasn’t thinking of something that ambitious! I started the painting in my prison cell in Bago Bantay simply wanting to portray the tension between our understanding of Christianity as a call to struggle for justice and the more dominant interpretation of Christianity as a consolation for the poor and oppressed who bear their suffering patiently.
So I painted a Christ figure with the right hand stretched out in resignation, even unto death, while the left hand is a clenched fist of resistance.
What about the leaves on the left arm of the cross? Why did you add those? What do they mean?
I was painting inside my cell, and there was not enough space to stretch the whole canvas. So I was painting it section by section. After finishing the central Christ figure, there was extra space beyond the arms of the cross.
So I had to find something to fill the remaining space on both ends of the canvas.
I decided to add leaves sprouting from the left arm of the cross, beyond the fist of resistance. Although the theology of struggle focuses on resistance, we do not need end there. We believe that new life will rise, like the leaves, from the dead wood of the cross. It adds the perspective of hope.
To balance the leaves on the left, I filled the space beyond the right arm of the cross with leaf-like patterns on jungle uniforms of the military, and the face of a frightened child.
You included some quotations. Why?
Again, there was still space to fill! I must have run out of additional images, or energy… So I thought of adding some texts, in the tradition of Chinese paintings that add calligraphy.
In the same spirit of acknowledging a tension within Christianity about struggle, I chose two biblical texts about struggle that seem contradictory. One says, “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.” The other says, “Those who live by the sword, shall die by the sword.”
But I also included a Filipino saying: “Ang taong nagigipit, sa patalim ay kakapit.”
The painting does not try to achieve a resolution of the tension. That’s also why I left unfilled spaces. it is not a theology of struggle. Only some “notes” for a theology of struggle.