READING THE IMAGE
Alice G. Guillermo


I.

Our visual experience covers three kinds of images produced in society today: 1) the images of the traditional arts, 2) the images of print and tv media, and 3) the images of contemporary art (the visual arts as two-dimensional expressions, such as drawing, painting, and photography, as three-dimensional expressions, such as sculpture, and the audio-visual art of cinema.

A. IMAGES IN THE TRADITIONAL ARTS

Not all the productions of the traditional arts bear images, for they are often articles of everyday life combining design and function. A large number, however, especially those linked with ritual, bear images in the form of symbols and motifs which may convey narratives of communal significance. Done in an artistic form and in a traditional medium, they function to preserve the values and belief system of the community in the context of everyday life. This is because, as symbols and motifs, they are related to religious beliefs and rituals. Thus, to know their meaning, one has to study the culture of the communities which have preserved our indigenous ways of artistic expression.

The traditional arts contain their own visual vocabulary and symbolism, as in textiles, embroidery, brassware, etc. Most of these symbols and motifs are drawn from the natural world and reflect the close relationship of human beings and nature in the animist world view. Figures, such as sun, moon, stars, lightning, birds, frogs, lizards, the man doing a rain dance, are symbols of social values, needs, as well as fears. These symbols and motifs are juxtaposed or arranged in a meaningful series.

Of the different cultural communities, the T'boli of Cotabato are among the most artistic with a creativity that grows out of the belief that it pleases the gods to see humans embellish their persons with beautiful clothes and body ornaments which they themselves create. Their t'nalak abaca cloth done in the arduous ikat decorative dyeing technique shows a wide repertoire of symbolic figures. Their blouses bear richly embroidered motifs. In the Cordilleras, Ifugao blankets may contain motifs that constitute a narrative, such as warrior, shield, star, river, and crocodile. Animal motifs, such as the pig and the carabao which have a place in ritual, are prevalent in their vessels of carved wood. Tagbanwa sculpture in Palawan consists of stylized birds and animals with etched linear designs in the natural light tone of the wood that contrasts with the blackened surface. In Southern Philippines, the Maranao and the Taosug have among the richest design systems found in woodcarving, textiles, and brassware, including the sari-manok or bird with fish, the naga or serpent, the pako rabong or growing fern, and the tree of life embellished with numerous motifs, aside from the wealth of geometric designs in mats and brassware.

Aside from the figures themselves, other elements, like color, are conveyors of meaning. A community or society has its distinct chromatic code, color symbolism, and conventions in color usage relating to social class, age, sector, etc. In Philippine society, there are several simultaneously existing chromatic codes and symbolic color systems: that of the cultural communities with their lore of natural dyes, that of the Christianized lowland folk, and that of the urban centers which are influenced by Western cultural values and artistic forms. The chromatic code includes the range of hues used in a culture, the dominant hues, the preferred or recurrent color combinations, the saturation of the hues in terms of their component colors and their intensity in terms of their degree of whites and grays. The kinds of dyes and pigments used, their sources, whether mineral or organic, and their methods of production are important in drawing out the chromatic code. Not to be overlooked is the fact that different colors are symbolic of community values or are linked to a system of conventional symbolism.

In the study of the traditional indigenous arts, it is not enough to appreciate their beauty and skill of execution, for one must also examine their conditions of production. Under what economic and social conditions are these works produced? Are the prevailing conditions conducive to the preservation and flourishing of these arts? More often, these involve the community's difficult struggle to maintain its identity. Many communities are engaged in a continuing struggle to keep their ancestral lands against loggers and land-grabbers; they have also been victims of exploitation by dominant groups.

Indigenous artistic expressions, not only epic and song, but also weaving, pottery, basketry, and related arts, are situated in the folk tradition of orality. As part of the traditional lore of a social group, these skills are handed down through oral forms from one generation to another. In fact, there have been accounts of mnemonic devices in song and chant to serve as memory aids in executing difficult processes, as in weaving. The use of accessible materials in the environment maintains an intimacy and familiarity with the different art forms. As products of the creativity of the people, they are continually reproduced and replenished, provided the conditions of life make possible the continued survival of these forms. Likewise, in cultural communities, there exists a particular relationship of artist and society marked by a commonality of shared values and experiences. From the indigenous arts, one can also distinguish world views and value-systems distinct from those of urban western-influenced societies.

As distinguished from orality, literacy, on the other hand, includes recent works that follow the canons of written literary forms. In music, they are those that have written scores and give little room for improvisation. In the visual arts, they are painting and sculpture which are "read" as texts according to codes that have been systematized by fine-arts schools and movements of contemporary art. These also imply the leisure for reflection and contemplation, as well as a dialogic relationship between work and viewer. In our country, orality and literacy are not in opposition, nor does one necessarily replace the other, but these are two modes of expression existing simultaneously and complementing each other.

B. IMAGES IN EVERYDAY LIFE

These images are disseminated in the print and tv media; in the newspapers as cartoons, illustrations, comics, and advertisements; on tv as sitcoms, advertisements, and MTV. They function to convey values and attitudes favorable to certain social groups and classes, to promote products, local and foreign, and to convey the illusion through the mass media that these products and goods are accessible to all; to promote certain social values, such as consumerism, the idea that goods are the be-all and end-all of life; to perpetuate attitudes such as sexism or the exploitation of women as objects of pleasure; or to convey the power and dominance of big capitalist countries. The government and public, as well as private, institutions may use these images to instill conservative values, or to promote public programs such as population control, ecological consciousness, etc. These values and attitudes are conveyed not overtly, but covertly, through subliminal inducements or "hidden persuaders" that operate semiotically. An important part of visual literacy is to be able to decode the operation of these "hidden persuaders" in the skillful use of images by way of their semiotic or meaning-conveying potential, in particular, in terms of their style and use of line, color, tone, texture, and pictorial organization. The study of visual communications is based on a keen understanding of visual resources as they are harnessed to convey messages.

C. IMAGES IN THE CONTEMPORARY ARTS

Images of contemporary art are found in painting, sculpture, drawings, illustrations, cartoons, posters, murals, photographs, and film. They are conveyed through various media: oil, acrylic, watercolor, sculptural materials, film, mixed media, and other meadia, all of which have their own techniques, processes and technical approaches to image-making. These images may be representational in a wide range of figurative styles; they can be non-representational or abstract, or a fusion of the two. The images of contemporary arts represent reality, express emotions in cathartic release, convey values of particular groups, sectors, and classes, signify ways of looking at the world and life, or make a critique of prevailing social conditions in order to bring about change. (From Image to Meaning: Essays on Philippine Art)


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