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Garibay, Emmanuel - VM - Rod Pattenden

Emmanuel Garibay: Prison Cell

These Times

by Rod Pattenden

Emmanuel Garibay is a leading artist from the Philippines, who like a prophet is interested in the times in which we live. The recent work Selda or Prison Cell in English is a work that responds to the current issues facing the Philippines and in turn other regions around the world in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased military and political activity, and the resultant curtailment of individual freedoms.

The central figure of the composition is eating a golden apple, a symbol which should offer the promise to live forever but instead has become infected with the coronavirus. To the left, a front line health worker pales into death, sacrificed by the government that prefers to spend money on military spending. Two authoritative figures carry a large book with the names of those who need to be sanctioned or disciplined, and then walk over a dead body. A figure in the sky is blinded by a face mask which has slipped over their eyes, a representation of delusion and false news. A woman flies a paper plane, representing the huge number of Filipino workers overseas who contribute more than 10% of the nation’s income, while a sinister yellow cat lurks in the shadows.

Below is the Kalabaw, the native water buffalo, which is often used as a symbol of the hard working prosperity of the nation, but here it has died. Underneath a friar knocks over an indigenous woman representing the ongoing impact of political and religious colonialism. To the right a figure with a telescope, the current President, is seen spying on the helpless, while a hand comes in with a red yoyo, an action that names ‘red tagging’ or accusing trouble makers of having anti-government sentiments. And finally, tucked in near a golden door, is the historic figure of Jose Rizal, the great hero of the independence movement who was executed in 1896. Rizal was a writer, artist, and scientist, and Garibay gives him a position of understated prominence in this work, affirming the role of the artist who might see more clearly what is going on in these fractured and overwhelming times. The whole work is imbued with a golden light, full of promise and prosperity, that turns at times into a sulphurous yellow, toxic and decaying. The artist does not offer a possible future, but a contemporary view of this historical moment, full of warnings of danger that call for urgent response.

Rod Pattenden: This work stands in the tradition of large murals that will often convey the triumph of history or the virtues of a nation. But this work is far more complex and fragmented. The viewer has to weave these disparate elements together.

Emmanuel Garibay: This fragmented nature expresses the inability of most people to find a synthesised grasp of the general situation. What’s going on tends to be intentionally highlighted, while other trends tend to be obscured. We have a media that is easily co-opted by those in power. You have to make an effort to dig deeper and scrutinize and analyse to have a more complete and bigger picture.

RP: What role do you think artists have at a time like this?

EG: The innate qualities of an artist, such as being sensitive, observant and analytical, enable an artist to grasp or wrestle more with seeking clarity in one’s life situation and to understand the dynamics at play. This striving enables artists to have a more complete understanding of life situations.

RP: Do you think we lack an awareness of history which means we are too buoyant, without a place of stability to make decisions about the present or the future?

EG: In the Philippines it is the fault of the Church for having misrepresented Christianity, because it was obsessed with power and authority. It forgets Christianity is the exact opposite. So as a result it has misrepresented belief.

RP: What would you say that faith or Christianity has to offer this moment in history?

EG: I think it is more about being truly in tune with our humanity. It is one of the problems with the theology of the church fathers in the past. It emphasised too much the divinity of Christ and spent very little attention to his humanity. The incarnation of Christ is really about the idea of God becoming human, so that humans can understand the mind of God. He is a model to be followed rather than just a figure to worship. This is most emphasised in the way he lived his life, through washing the feet of his disciplines, uplifting the lowly, healing the sick, his passion for social justice. All of these are glossed over in favour of emphasising his divinity. That is what art can do: it can perpetuate the hope of what humanity is truly all about.


Emmanuel Garibay, Selda (Prison Cell), 2020, oil on canvas, 122 x 152.5 cm. Artist’s collection.

Emmanuel Garibay (born 1962) is a leading artist from the Philippines who has a wide reputation having exhibited his work in Europe and the United States. His work explores the experience of those marginalised in his own country and is strongly informed by a theological critique of social power and politics. In 2011 the book Where God is: The Paintings of Emmanuel Garibay was published by OMSC (Overseas Ministries Study Center, in New Haven, CT, USA, bringing his work to wider audiences.

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian from Australia. He has written widely on the arts and creativity.

New Book. This interview with Emmanuel Garibay is an excerpt from the new book, Imagination in an Age of Crisis. Soundings from the Arts and Theology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2022. Edited by Jason Goroncy and Rod Pattenden with a foreword by Ben Quash. This book explores the vital role of the imagination in today's complex climates – cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc. It asks: what contribution do the arts make in a world facing the impacts of globalism, climate change, pandemics, and losses of culture? What wisdom and insight, and orientation for birthing hope and action in the world do the arts offer to religious faith and to theological reflection? Marked by beauty and wonder as well as incisive critique it is a unique collection that brings unexpected voices into a global conversation about imagining human futures.

A video introduction and review of the book plus details on how to obtain a 40% discount is available here:

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