There are at least two categories of its use: for protection, or for harm. The continuum between these poles is long and wide, as scholars like Isabelo de los Reyes and Francisco Demetrio, S.J. have written. In the exhibit are a dozen found and crafted objects that purport to heal, protect, seduce, and so on, mere samples from the wide universe of anting- anting. Starting from left to right as you enter is an orange jumpsuit mounted against a Mylar emergency blanket, a contemporary image often associated with prison-wear by Guantanamo inmates.
Titled “Dekcuf Garment,” a pun on the word f***ed is written all over it. The label describes it as having the power to make the wearer “lose their luck…and can cause permanent emotional, psychological and physical damage over time.” One wonders what other clothing might manifest the same sense of powerlessness.
Further down, a pair of books in a case caught my attention. Apparently rare books, the title on the spine of one read: “The United States in the Making” by Canfield; the other, read “Hammond Complete World Atlas.” The books are held down by a cast of a left foot. The label suggests that by “caressing the foot’s furry parts, the user…over time will be able to discern truth from false narratives.” They would need plenty of these, inside and outside the White House, especially those who feel powerless.
Even children can be use charms as in Michael’s Bula bula or Bola Bola, depicting a large tear-shaped stone and a dipping jar. In Tagalog, the words may mean bubbling (bula bula) or fib/made up (bola bola). The objects when activated can bring “immediate joy to children.” Could this be a bubble blower that children can enjoy?
Closer to a more traditional anting-anting are a male/female pair of kulam dolls (witchcraft human figurines). Kulam (to curse, cause harm) is a powerful invocation that may be invested in an anting-anting. It would be wise as Michael recommends, to be wary of kulam for it can intensify or dissolve relationships.
You need to see the other objects displayed to get a grasp of what Michael is trying to convey. Michael’s anting-anting are wonderful museum art objects, installed to create a sense of awe. There is even a cove where viewers can contribute their own power objects.
I have known Michael since his MFA Stanford days and have always enjoyed his satirical view of Philippine history. His early more overtly historical works, exhibited in numerous galleries, offered a very personal view of Philippine history. He makes “pun” of history. It is as if Michael is saying history is gone, let’s get on with the now and the near future.
In comparison, historically grounded visual work of say, of BenCab, more gravely eviscerate colonial rule and its painful effect on the Philippines. Santiago Bose’s portrait of courageous Katipunero soldiers (recently exhibited at the Asian Art Museum) is emblazoned with anting-anting icons and phrases as if to defy danger. Michael’s view is that history cannot be truthfully reconstructed and what is left is the effervescence of unreliable memory. The artist in this situation is left with an opportunity to be playful, witty, satirical, and even morally ambiguous. Anting-anting, in this case, requires a suspension of belief.
This is where I deviate from Michael’s interpretation of a patently historical “text.” To understand and appreciate Michael’s work, the historical context of anting-anting needs to be identified, especially for the second and third generation Filipinos in the diaspora, who may have heard about anting-anting from grandparents or parents but did not get a full understanding of it. Anting-anting did not emerge from Filipino consciousness tabula rasa.
It is rather fitting that Anting Anting Magic Objects is currently on exhibit at the Thacher Gallery in the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit university, and runs through the Lenten season. Whether planned or an inadvertent scheduling, the exhibit is a stroke of genius, for the following reasons.
Folklore has it that the early Jesuit missionaries gave the Philippine natives power objects, which we now call anting-anting, to protect them from the oppressive frairlocracy. Allegedly, this was the reason the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines in 1768 (the historical explanation is well documented elsewhere 1). Coincidentally, the exhibit shows during Lent. Holy Week is the period for anting-anting seekers who travel to places like cemeteries and mountains to acquire an anting-anting (amulets, talismans, potions).
There are according to Jesuit scholar Francisco Demeterio S.J. in his Encyclopedia of Philippine Folk Beliefs and Customs, some 214 categories of sources of potency. In general, they fall into objects meant for protection (and the opposite, harm) and objects that charm. During Holy Week, seekers journey, a sacrifice in itself, to Mt. Banahaw in Southern Luzon (7,119 ft. above sea level). Considered in local history as the sacred mountain or bagong Jerusalem (New Jerusalem) the mountain and its foothills are home to mystics and religious cults. Other mountains like Mt. Arayat, and Mt. Makiling, as well as Mt. Apo in Mindanao, have similar reputations among believers.
Mountains hold magical and symbolic meaning to many Filipinos. In history, they have been refuges for anticolonial rebels like Hermano Pule, Macario Sakay, Robin-Hood style outlaws, and hermits. Other locations like Siquijor Island, off the larger islands of Negros and Cebu, is reputed to be home for sorcerers and witches. I spent a considerable time in Mt. Banahaw and the surrounding towns as an anthropologist. A body of popular literature and academic works delve into the mysticism and religiosity surrounding the mountain.
Anting-anting is part of a wider complex of beliefs around ancestor worship, spiritualism, mysticism, and magic that since pre-Hispanic times to this age of the Internet, continue to lurk in the Filipino psyche. Simply put, even to this day and age, some, if not most people, believe that spirits, especially ancestral spirits, live amongst them. When my mom died a year ago, a few hours after I had just arrived from San Francisco, my sister called that I should talk to my mom on the cellphone placed by her ear while she lay unconscious in the hospital bed, so I could say my proper goodbye -- by Internet phone! The belief is that her spirit had not completely departed to the other world and still lingerered in the physical world. An anthropologist colleague researching the use of texting among Filipinos reported that some mobile phone users claim that they had received text messages from long dead relatives. Disbelievers call these superstitions.
During colonial rule, superstitions earned endless ridicule from the Spanish and American colonial enforcers bent on winning over the Filipinos to Christian dogma or Western civilization. One only has to visit the sidewalk vendors near the Quiapo Church in Manila or the Baclaran Church to find objects that claim to solve any and every predicament. They may be cast bronze metal amulets of saints and emblems, Christian symbols in scapulars, fragments of Latin phrases written on a chaleco (vest), crocodile teeth, oil potions for all ailments, etc.
Anting-anting, as a concept, can loosely be defined as any physical object that is believed to embody power over other objects, events, persons, and situations that can be thwarted or averted or turned to favor the owner of the anting anting. Several terms are conflated into this definition: amulets, talisman, mutya (gem/diamond), burnt bones, human bones, etc. There are anting-anting for almost any type of predicament. (These objects maybe revealed to a seeker in some special circumstances -- a dream, in a vision after some ritual performance, or purchased.) Procuring bones of an “innocent” infant (believed to be pure) in a cemetery during Good Friday is said to add potency to the anting-anting. Some objects have only explicit symbolic power. They still have to be consecrated and activated in a ritual by a shaman, herbolario, ispiritista, or a mystic known to possess such powers, or during a holy mass.
A more efficacious way is to trek to Mt. Banahaw during Holy Week to acquire an object and have it activated. Holy Week is ideal for anting-anting seekers on the belief that this is the period when the anting-anting sought for is most potent because the spirits have been freed during the absence of Christ. The belief is that on this week the good and bad spirits compete for human ownership. Once a spirit is acquired, so that its power is maintained, the dutiful owner must “care and feed” the object with rituals. It must always be worn on the body. Its efficacy depends on the correctness of the activating ritual, which may be formulaic chants or oraciones, or occult baptisms involving fire, water, earth, and metal.
Belief in power objects is not unique to the Philippines. It is quite universal -- mal ojos (evil eye); lucky rabbit foot; baseball superstitions; or burying a small statue of St. Joseph preferably upside down so a house may be sold and so on, are common notions in American popular culture. What makes the anting-anting peculiarly Philippine is that the belief is embedded in its colonial history. In the resistance of the people against the colonial Spanish and American rules, the role of anting-anting is summarized by the definitive work of Nenita Pampid in the book Anting Anting o Kung Bakit Nagtatago sa Loob ng Bato si Bathala (U.P. Press, 2000) (Anting Anting or Why God Inside the Stone.
The anting-anting belief also existed in the native cultures of the Philippines. Indigenous Ifugao warriors were known to shield themselves with intricately handwoven blankets that can ward off enemies and evil spirits. The Mindanao bagani warriors among the Manobo/Bagobo cultural groups wore red clothing during battles for protection and to instill courage; these notions mutated during colonial times into vests (chaleco) inscribed with Latin and burnay phrases that served as power spells. Hermano Pule, who protected his native religious confradia from the Spanish civil police, fought to the end, wearing what was described as a red vest. During the Katipunan revolt, many Katipuneros wore scapulars and amulets to serve as protective shields from Spanish bullets. After Rizal was executed, the Spanish authorities buried him in an unmarked grave for fear that anting- anting seekers would scavenge the corpse. Rizal himself was believed to be a practitioner of magic and the black arts. Elsewhere, I have written that Rizal is considered by some, as not dead. He is among the world of spirits that anting-anting owners hope to access.
Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippine Republic was also known to have had an anting-anting that allowed him to elude for the longest time his enemies both domestic and foreign. In the absence of political nationhood strong enough in some countries to topple an oppressor, an imagined community of Filipinos struggled against great odds to come together and fight, spurred on by beliefs in supernatural powers and sheer courage and protected by their belief in the anting-anting. Historian Rey Ileto points out that bravery in fighting Spanish of American colonial forces emanated not from the physicality of an anting-anting but from a more internal, psychic source--the loob. Roughly defined as inner-consciousness, loob can be transformed into radical being-ness, the fount of courage. Ileto says this is a shared notion among Southeast Asian king-shaman cultures influenced by ancient Hindu/Buddhist syncretic cultures, from the Indonesian and Cambodian kingdoms. The ordinary Katipunero soldier might have relied on something beyond the idea of bayan (nation), on a spiritual-supernatural self-identiy. In the absence of compelling ideologies such as those that propelled independence movements elsewhere, Anting-Anting Power in the revolutionary context merged with the notion of patria or bayan and the protection that this afforded. Anting-anting was strictly defensive wear and weaponized versions were rare.
I would have wanted more historical context as in Michael’s earlier work. The exhibit neglects the role of anting-anting as a source of determination and power during the anti-colonial struggle, giving revolutionaries courage against all the odds. Nevertheless, in I find the exhibit bold, agnostic, atheistic, irreverent, culturally provocative, and potentially effective, in Michael’s inimitable fashion.