One Man’s Quest

Penman for Monday, February 25, 2008

I LOVE stories of personal quests. One of my favorite nonfiction books is titled Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them (by Thatcher Freund, Penguin Books, 1993) and it has to do, among other things, with one man’s obsession with a seemingly unremarkable blanket chest from the 1750s, a piece of folk art that spoke to him across 200 years. (I’ve told my own “quest” story once or twice before in this corner: how I, vintage fountain pen collector, had lusted after a burgundy-red 1934 Parker Vacumatic oversize, only to find it in a pen shop in Edinburgh, with a price tag exceeding a month’s salary; I paid for it by credit card with my eyes closed, and was immediately consumed by yawning guilt. To try and make my money back, I then wrote a story about that pen, which became the title of story of my next book, Penmanship.)

Let me now share with you the remarkable story of another man’s quest for a treasure trove of Philippine art.

I first heard of Manuel “Nonoy” Buncio as a friend of my daughter Demi—who, back in her grad school days as an Art Studies major, kept running into interesting people. He was supposed to be someone with a quenchless passion for art—but I didn’t know how quenchless until I actually met him a couple of weekends ago, when he invited Beng and me over for a cup of coffee and a preview of… but we’re getting ahead of the story.

Indeed, I didn’t realize that Nonoy and I had a lot more in common than we thought. In January 1973, as it turned out, both of us became involuntary guests of the Philippine military, on suspicion of being subversives (the word “destabilizers” had yet to come into fashion). We never bumped into each other in martial-law prison—I would be “detained” for only seven months, he would be stuck there for three years—but I’m sure that both of us came out of the place and the experience with the sense that there was more to life than whatever it was we were dealing with: barbed wire, bad food, and the bad vibes of martial rule. Strangely enough, that pathway out the prison led us both to art—I to printmaking, which I did for a few years with the help of my “ka-cosa” the painter-printmaker Orly Castillo, and Nonoy to collecting.

He had actually, in a way, been born into art. Across the street from the Buncios’ home in Cubao lived Lyd Arguilla and her Philippine Art Gallery, into which streamed artists such as Vicente Manansala, H. R. Ocampo. Cesar Legaspi, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and Fernando Zobel. Nonoy’s father, an engineer, became involved in clearing the Luneta for the 1952 Manila World’s Fair, and this was where Nonoy witnessed another artist leading a team in constructing and painting the fairground’s wall. That muralist was Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, whom Nonoy observed as he and his fellow painters dashed off quick still lifes and portraits on the side for the American engineers they were working with.

It would prove to be an important and life-changing encounter for Nonoy Buncio, who went on to an economics degree in UP, involvement in the Left as a co-founder of the Socialist Pary of the Philippines, a senior vice-presidency a the Iligan steel plant, and—after his release from prison—self-exile in America and a job with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Unionism was in Nonoy’s blood, but so was art, which he had never really ceased to be interested in. He had begun building up a collection of Filipino masters even in his Iligan Integrated Steel days, only to have it seized when the government took over the Jacinto-owned company during martial law. A second collection mostly of Ang Kiukok works was also lost when the company he joined tanked in the economic meltdown following the Aquino assassination.

But his time and his work in the States provided Nonoy with a unique opportunity to reignite his desire to find the best of Philippine art, right where he was. Art historian Reuben Ramas Cañete recalls what happened next in his book Homecoming: The Buncio Collection of Philippine Art (Quezon City: The Artists’ Guild of the Philippines, 2007): “Meeting art dealers at Bowles, Sorokko & Yarger at Beverly Hills in 1986, he slowly acquired a set of Miro prints. This reawakened love of collecting, heightened by the enforced hiatus away from the Philippines, revived Nonoy’s interest in finding the paintings he saw being purchased by his father’s engineer friends back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He became adept at prowling the homes of the Filipino-American manongs, who had substantial, if not unknown, quantities of genre paintings that were purchased as far back as the 1930s…. Nonoy was able to look up old acquaintances and renew connections with the two decades of owners. Through this regular and patient series of visits lasting more than a decade, Nonoy was able to acquire these ‘exported paintings’ and bring them home, precious relics in canvas tubes.”

Those paintings included six Botong oils, which in themselves now form an impressive collection covering some of the artist’s most productive years, from 1939 to 1962: Orasyon (1939), La Jota (1947), Fluvial Procession of San Clemente (1952), Tribal Dance (1957), Warrior Prince (1961), and Moriones (1962).

I’m not an art critic, but I could see—as Prof. Cañete acknowledges in his book—that these paintings echo many other Botong creations. Like many other prolific painters, the man had his favorite motifs and figures, and kept returning to them over the years. Nonoy is also aware that questions will be raised by some quarters about the authenticity of the works, but he stands confident that provenance and scholarship will erase any doubts that these six are, indeed, the handiwork of Carlos V. Francisco. (That's him on the right, courtesy of

For the moment, they remain unrestored (although some had been poorly retouched); some are in a much better condition than others, depending on how they had been kept through the decades. (Nonoy found one of them—the large, complex Fluvial Procession—rolled up like a carpet in a garage, and it would take him over 15 years to convince the American family that now owned it to sell it to him.) Cañete notes that “Another commonality is their generally poor surface condition, due perhaps to the thin dilution of paints that Botong often resorted to (perhaps to save on paint) and to the vicissitudes caused by tropical humidity and excessive heat.”

For all their flaws (easily remediable ones, in Beng’s professional opinion), the works exude the inner glow and the energy that typically animate Francisco’s art. I found the woman dancer in La Jota particularly intriguing—captured in mid-movement but in a contrapuntally pensive mood.

After storing them for years, Nonoy Buncio now believes that the time has come to share his find with the public. The limited-edition Cañete book—an easy but engrossing read, carefully researched and richly illustrated—will be launched this Saturday, March 1st, at Popular Bookstore on Morato Circle in Quezon City, at 5 pm. The book will be accompanied by a special printing of archival-quality individual posters of the six Botong paintings. (If you want to see the works themselves, you may have to arrange a private viewing with Nonoy, who runs the Deanna Gallery in Cubao.)

You and I may never get to own these paintings, but it’s good enough to know—at a time when a growing awareness of the achievement and the value of modern Philippine art is sending some of our finest works abroad—that a counterflow is also happening, thanks to the likes of Nonoy Buncio, who , like that old big game hunter Frank Buck, brought ‘em back alive. See you this Saturday at Popular Bookstore!

AFTER THE successful launch of the maiden issue of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature last December, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing is now inviting submissions for the second issue, which will be edited by National Artist Virgilio S. Almario.

Submissions will be considered in the following genres, in both English and Filipino:

- Short stories ranging from about 12 to 30 pages double-spaced (in 11-12 points Times Roman, New York, Palatino, Book Antiqua, Arial or some such standard font). A suite of short prose pieces will be considered.

- A suite of four to seven poems, out which the editors might choose three to five. Long poems will be considered in lieu of a suite.

- Essays (critical, scholarly, and/or creative nonfiction), subject to the same length limitations as short stories, above.

- Excerpts from graphic novels, or full short graphic stories, for reproduction in black and white on no more than 10 printed pages, 6” x 9”. Excerpts should be accompanied by a synopsis of the full narrative.

All submissions must be original, and unpublished anywhere else. They should be accompanied by a biographical sketch (no more than one or two short paragraphs) of the author, including contact information (address, telephone number, email address). Submissions may be emailed to, or posted to The Editors, Likhaan Journal, UP Institute of Creative Writing, Rizal Hall, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, 1101. They should be received (whether by email or post) no later than May 31, 2008.

For more information, please send an email to the address above, or call the UPICW at 922-1830. By the way, is migrating to a new host, so don’t be surprised if something strange turns up at this URL for the time being; I found a pic of Lindsay Lohan, which I must admit more engaging than the usual mugs I see around the UPICW, including the guy in the mirror.

In Praise of Moleskine

For MetroHIM Magazine, November 2007

LAST MONTH—after three years and eleven countries of traveling together—I finally retired my first Moleskine notebook, having reached those last few pages where you jot down an odd jumble of things like people’s phone numbers, stray lines of poetry, your cat’s vaccination schedule, and your Multiply password.

I’d picked up this notebook in the US after seeing it for the first time in a bookshop in Rome. As a certified gadget freak who never leaves the house without a laptop and a smartphone, I didn’t think I needed a physical, old-fashioned notebook, but it was finally the Moleskine’s snob appeal that got to me. It had been used, its ads proclaimed, by writers like Ernest Hemingway. And since I also collect vintage fountain pens, I thought that the combination of pen and notebook was very stylish in a retro way—as indeed it was.

But little did I expect that style would be resoundingly trumped by substance. I came to depend on the Moleskine much more than I expected—because it fit in my shirt pocket, could open flat on the table (another of its claims to fame), and never needed to boot up or to be recharged. Its creamy paper absorbed ink without feathering; it had a sewn-in bookmark, and best of all a small pocket in the back for business and phone cards, receipts, and ID pictures.

That notebook accompanied me to the Netherlands, Germany, America, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Korea, and China (aside from dozens of places here at home). I’ve whipped it out to write on in trains, boats, buses, and planes. Mostly I used it to take notes in passing, for some future story or column: the names of places, the flavors of food, the kind of details and impressions you can’t catch with a camera. It’s the closest thing I’ve kept to a diary, chronicling both moments of elation—like riding business class to Europe for the first time—and despondency (never mind over what grievous trifle). Here and there you might spot a dab of ketchup or a blooming blot left by a droplet of Coke. For a few pages the ink might be jet-black, then brown, then blue-black; the letters might display happy flourishes, or be cramped and sullen.

I was sad when I put that first Moleskine to bed, but then I very quickly unwrapped my next one, which I’d stored in reserve for over a year. I can hardly wait to fill it up—and to open many more before I myself reach my own last pages.

From the Readers (4)

I got this e-mail message from Manolo Quezon responding to a recent piece I wrote about his grandfather. I'd asked him if MLQ had said "country" or "government" in that famous quotation mentioned below, and Manolo had replied "country"--a little too quickly, as it turned out. I wrote Manolo back an amused note absolving him of all blame--"it happens to the best of us"--but it's a hallmark of Manolo's thoroughness that he went to these lengths to get the facts of a seemingly small detail straight. Here's what he wrote:

Uh oh. Read your column. Mea maxima culpa.

I couldn't find the massive encyclopedia of Quezoniana put together by Alfredo Saulo (Manuel Luis Quezon on His Centenary: Appraisal, Chronology, Reader, Bibliography commissioned by the the National Science Development Board in 1978), which is massively footnoted.

Here's the proper quote:"I would prefer a government run like hell by Filipinos to one run like heaven by Americans, because no matter how bad, a Filipino government might be improved."

Saulo cites the ff. sources: Teodoro M. Kalaw's autobiography (Ms) pp. 259-260; quoted in Theodore Friend, Fn. 19, p.40. They basically date the statement to 1922.

He (Saulo) also cites another, more contemporary, version:

"When we have our unfettered self-rule, I dare say we shall make mistakes, but in that respect we shall not be original or monopolistic. It is by our mistakes that we shall learn. America has aided us to learn much of the art of government, but we can master the art only by self-practice. In politics, as in law or medicine or music or painting, concrete achievement is not in the scholastic sphere, but only in the sphere of scholasticism applied. And, anyway, even in the United States and in England, democracy is still on trial. It is better for the Philippines to be ill-governed by the Filipinos than well-governed by the Americans."

Which came from an exclusive interview with Edward Price Bell for the Chicago Daily News, 1925.

But there's another quote from a speech MLQ made in 1939 (CLU-sponsored inter-university oratorical contest, Ateneo Auditorium, December 9, 1939) which has him quoting himself:

"I have listened to a speech warning our people against independence, on the ground that every liberty you now enjoy may be lost, while under the American flag you are not denied any individual liberty.

"No one has outdone me in giving credit to the government and people of the United States for what they have done in the Philippines. But I cannot permit anyone to say in my presence that our people have enjoyed greater freedom under the American administration, or that our people will not enjoy their freedom under an independent Philippines, as much as they have enjoyed it under the American flag.

"It is true, and I am proud of it, that I once said, 'I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.'

"I want to tell you that I have, in my life, made no other remark which went around the world but that. There had been no paper in the United States, including a village paper, which did not print that statement, and I also had seen it printed in many newspapers in Europe. I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by any foreigner. I said that once; I say it again, and I will always say it as long as I live." (applause)