A Visayan creation myth documented in the Boxer Codex (ca. 1590) tells of an ancient quarrel between the sea and the sky, incited by a cunning bird of prey. The sea lashed waves against the sky, and the sky threw rocks and islands at the sea. Finally, the bird, tired of flying, found some earth to rest upon. However, the bird’s peace was short-lived, disturbed by a length of bamboo that washed back and forth upon the island. Annoyed, the bird pecked furiously on the bamboo stalk until it split, revealing a curious sight. A sturdy brown creature slept in the stalk’s first node, while from the second node a supple creature with long, black hair stepped out. And so the first man and woman appeared on earth.
In the hills surrounding the Akiyoshidai International Art Village, bamboo trees grow to seven meters tall and twenty centimeters wide. To cut one down you need a chainsaw and an experienced person to operate it; three more people would carry each forty-kilogrampole down a muddy slope and over a narrow canal. You would do this sixty times. The seven-meter poles are inspected, cut into threemeter lengths with a table saw, transported to the concert hall through the piano lift, and carried piece by piece onto a flat staging area before the courtyard. With thick wara rope, the bamboo pieces are tied together into five large, heavy rafts. Finally, eight able-bodied men carry each raft into place, stumbling on the smooth rocks of a dried up fountain. Someone asks, »Are we building a house?«
Bayanihan is the Tagalog word for cooperative action, first defined in 1754 as obra cómun (common work) or ser juntado para la obra (to be gathered for the work). Its root words bayani (one who acts selflessly) and bayan (a place and its people) can be traced back to the Austronesian word bahay (house) and its collective bahayan (community of houses). Irrigation-based agriculture and
stable trade resulted in the establishment of permanent bahayan and led to the development of the bayan ethnic state. In the bayan, bayani was a specialized sociopolitical class tasked with the physical defense of the community.
Central to these pre-Hispanic communities was an animist native religion, anito. In the world of anito, the living exist on the same plane as unseen spirits of the dead, who may help those who are sick, lost, or in danger. The ritual worship of anito was a communal responsibility, and any individual’s wrongdoing could bring about punishment upon the entire community. In these egalitarian societies, bayanihan was understood as cooperation without expectation of reward.
Later on, bayanihan was expressed as unpaid farmwork carried out among relatives and neighbors, who collectively shared in the labor and gains of planting and harvesting. This interdependency enabled each member of the community to meet their needs and survive without money.
Within the Filipino value system, the basis of all relations and social interactions are the concept of kapwa (shared self ) and the core value of pakikipagkapwa (human concern and interaction as one with others). Kapwa is an awareness of shared identity or being »together with a person,« of having the same nature and being of equal status, while pakikipagkapwa is the conviction and moral standard of relating to one another as fellow human beings. It is within this unique value system that bayanihan is embedded.
Carlos V. Francisco’s iconic mural Bayanihan, commissioned by drug manufacturer Unilab in 1962, shows a pastoral scene of rural folk carrying a bamboo hut on their shoulders as they help a neighbor relocate. Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos evoked the same imagery in his ideology for a New Society »rooted in the bayanihan spirit exemplified by neighbors and friends who help out in transplanting a house.« Ferdinand and Imelda would be Father and Mother to this New Society, and in further acts of myth-making had even commissioned painters to depict them as Malakas (the Strong One) and Maganda (the Beautiful One) – the first man and woman of the archipelago, sprung out of a split bamboo stalk.
»Are we building a house?«
Five large bamboo rafts lay stranded in the Akiyoshidai International Art Village courtyard, waiting for the tide to come back in. The karst plateau was once a vast underwater coral reef, much like the Palawan microarchipelago in southwestern Luzon. In a thousand years, when the sea returns to Akiyoshidai, such rafts built through bayanihan might serve as temporary houses to transplant and relocate similar bodies that carried them into place.
In the Philippines, the ancient quarrel between the sea and the sky rages on, and the myth-making behind bayanihan continues into the twenty-first century. Bayanihan is evoked whenever collective action is needed. Disaster studies scholar Greg Bankoff cites bayanihan as a culturally specific coping practice that »guarantees support for members, especially during times of personal travail or common hardship.« However, studies undertaken on bayanihan in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 reveal that post-disaster resilience and bayanihan were myths: while bayanihan activities were observed immediately after the disaster, lack of transparency and unequal distribution of aid eroded trust and bayanihan within the affected communities.
In such times, a good question to ask would be,
»Whose house are we carrying?«
To which the only acceptable answer would be,
»Does it matter?«
The bamboo rafts in Akiyoshidai have since been dismantled without mythicization or romance. Neither man nor woman sprung out of the stalks, which were simply returned to the hills where they were sourced. Young bamboo shoots growing from stumps of cut stalks would serve as food in the spring; decaying stalks would provide organic matter for sprouting mushrooms when the rains come. Within the safe walls and egalitarian self-organization of the international artist residency, all would share in the gains of the harvest in the same way that they shared in the labor of building.
Mica Cabildo is an artist and designer based in Metro Manila, Philippines. She studied advertising, worked in visual communications, and trained in printmaking. She was a Solitude fellow for design in 2014–15 and has since undertaken residencies at Sapporo Tenjinyama Art Studio (Sapporo/JP), Schleswig-Holsteinisches Künstlerhaus (Eckernförde/DE), Akiyoshidai International Art Village (Yamaguchi/JP), and Gasworks (London/UK). Mica makes prints, installations, and community art activities about climate, landscape, and ecology.