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That Dante Hipolito painting and the papal visit

Preparations are now in full frenzy for the Manila visit of Pope Francis who is scheduled to arrive tomorrow afternoon at Villamor Airbase. The dry run last Monday should help iron out the kinks from security to traffic flow going to the Papal Nunciature for the press conference, but some epals reportedly made the dry run insufferable, like this over-eager Cabinet official with her security retinue that was getting in the way.

But what’s really beginning to irritate many is the opportunism and crass commercialism that some people are doing, jumping on the papal bandwagon to promote themselves and sell T-shirts and other souvenir items with the profit not going to the poor at all. Facebook users are having a field day lambasting a streamer put up by this kapitan de barangay welcoming Pope Francis, with a big Pepsi logo right smack in the middle and the kapitan’s name plus barangay and zone numbers in big letters. 

And in case you haven’t seen it yet, the oil on canvas painting “Salubong” by visual artist Dante Hipolito showing the Pope riding a carabao-drawn cart driven by Batangas governor Vilma Santos (garbed as a farm lass) with other celebrities has generated a flurry of negative comments. The accompanying write-up about the painting says the artist redefines art via composite realism – but critics were quick to lash out saying the 29” by 24” piece is an affront to the Pope himself – who would not like the idea of being lumped together with celebrities.

In her Manila Times column on Dec. 25, Ma. Isabel Ongpin noted that “Pope Francis is coming to the Philippines on a journey of mercy and compassion… to console the victims of the super typhoon…” and to show solidarity with the poor. That’s the reason why the Pope has expressly requested to share a meal with the typhoon victims and to have special face time with them to express his sympathy, his prayers and his goodwill, Miss Ongpin wrote.

Not surprisingly, the painting—which can be viewed at the ARTLeadoff 2015 show from Jan. 25 to Feb. 20 at Galeria de las Islas at the Silahis Center along Luna St. in Intramuros—has elicited a lot of anger and ridicule, with some even downright insulting. In fairness to the artist, there is such a thing as freedom of expression, and the gist of all the criticism and negative comment is the thought that he was doing the Pope a disservice by depicting all those celebrities (like Kris Aquino, Marian and Dingdon Dantes, Coco Martin and Gary Valenciano) instead of ordinary Filipinos welcoming His Holiness.

Some have a more interesting take though: it was either a subtle underscoring of the Pope’s message of love and acceptance of all people especially the worst sinners, or on the other hand, a clever satire as pointed out by Nathaniel Briones of UP Diliman. Just consider: Kris Aquino as a farm girl, when everyone knows she is an heiress of the controversial Hacienda Luisita (with the words “massacre of farmers” inevitably appended) and has been known to lead a very complicated “love life.”

Then, there is Coco Martin, who has done a lot of gay roles and has been the subject of bitter remonstrations by ex-partner Katherine Luna (Ang Babae sa Breakwater) with whom he has a seven-year-old daughter. Gary Valenciano of course is a non-Roman Catholic, a Born Again Christian. Protestants (non-Catholics) do not recognize many of the teachings of the Catholic church and some also question the authority of the Pope.

The newlyweds Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera made a splash with supergrand, multimillion-dollar wedding with the famous cake have become the new icons of excess in the eyes of disapproving Filipinos, and to see them included in the Hipolito painting is jarring and thoroughly ironic. Is the artist being satirical or is he riding the Papal bandwagon? It’s anyone guess.

But if the intention is to nudge people into critical thinking, we have to say Hipolito has immensely succeeded—much like the same way the Pope’s visit would be considered a success if he can “move the obscenely rich, the comfortable rich and the middle class in this country to share more with their poorer countrymen without whose help they would not be where they are… Otherwise, the visit will just be a celebrity bash, a Pope Francis and me story for the usual suspects and the favored few, albeit using a cast of thousands, with no good and transformative effect,” Miss Ongpin articulated.

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