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In the Shape of Tradition

Indigenous Art of the Northern Philippines

Published in Hali Magazine 166 Winter 2010


Eric Moltzau Anderson et al.

E, Zwartenkot, Leiden 2010

415pp., 753 colour and b/w illustrations, bibliography

ISBN 9789054500094

Hardbound, €98.00


Reviewed by Thomas Murray

This book is the first in a century to take on the worthy but long overlooked topic of indigenous art from the northern Philippines. It includes an introduction to the history and ethnology of the region, a discussion of traditions and styles, and a thorough review of all forms of sculpture, featuring many previously unseen objects with early collection dates from the Leiden Museum and many private collections in Europe, America and the Philippines. All are ‘good’ pieces, and almost all objects throughout the book are accompanied with careful notation of provenance. I particularly admire the author’s conservative approach, with the inclusion, for example, of only what might be termed classical bulul rice gods, and his suggestions of regional origin based on stylistic grounds and find sites.

HALI readers will especially enjoy the full chapter on costumes and textiles, a major interest of the primary author. Opening with images of young and old women spinning and weaving, taken from very informative turn-of-the-century postcards, Anderson reviews all published works on the subject as well as all early museum collections. Beginning with the recognition that clothes were not really essential due to favourable climate and a traditionally relaxed sense of modesty, we come to understand that the primary use of textiles was almost entirely ceremonial.

Old figural sculptures, some carbon-dated to the 15th century, give us clues as to how clothes were worn in the pre-Colonial era. We know that all ethnic groups had one or more of the following costume elements: loincloths, small jackets, ritual skirts, shoulder cloths or capes, waist wraps, small bags, and funerary blankets, the later examples of which sometimes had to ‘capture’ a malevolent spirit in their design motifs. On a more positive note, a textile might be used as a courtship device when presented during a dance to member of the opposite sex… I would like to say that is how I collected many of the pieces in my own collection but alas, that would not be truthful. 

Most weaving was done on back-strap looms similar to those used in Indonesia, although a small frame loom was introduced to some tribal areas as a result of increased contact with the Hispanic-influenced lowland culture. Sources of thread are discussed, from various plant fibres such as ramie, as well as non-indigenous cotton and imported silk, and bark cloth is also described. Local natural dyes offered red, yellow and blue, with commercial trade cloth and chemical-coloured trade yarns coming into the area at a later date. Twill weave was employed to great effect and many textiles had coloured stripes and supplementary warp patterning. Beadwork represented an extravagant statement of wealth and resources.

The communities Anderson monitors include the Tinguian (now preferring to go by the name Itneg), Ibaloy, Kankanay, Bontoc, Ifugao, Illongot and, in greatest depth, the Kalinga. This chapter is a significant contribution to the field in its own right, but the fact that it is but one of many deeply informed chapters confirms the importance of this book.

Personal adornment, basketry, weapons and other cultural artefacts round out the offering in this important book that benefits from great graphic design and fabulous early photos and maps throughout. It joins a small but choice listing of books published by C. Zwartenkot Art Books in the Leiden Museum. All of us who have awaited a voice to champion the arts of northern Luzon, take heart! Eric Anderson has honoured this tradition with a keen eye for art and ear for language as his informants share their insights before all is lost to the forces of contemporary assimilation via missionaries, education, and modern medicine, economics and lowland political authority.

Bravo, Eric!

Now go buy the book!