Mambacayao Daku : Cultural Mapping through Storytelling

Preview of The Protectors by Martha Atienza. Used with the artist's permission.

by Cristina Juan

I first knew of the island of Mambacayao Daku and its precarity through the work of Martha Atienza. I met her at  2022 Frieze London  where she exhibited an evocative piece about the island and its people:

Frieze London. October 16, 2022 — Martha Atienza’s meditative video installation, The Protector, captures a tragedy over seventy black and white, slow motion minutes. At the centre of this tragedy is the heroic figure of Antonio Dacomos Turib, born into one of the small Philippine islands off of Bantayan, growing up beside the sea, a fisherman. He is almost carved onto the screen, standing, nearly stock still, on the back of his outrigger canoe as he goes full circle along the edges of his island home. His lean, cut frame, the slow ballet of balancing as he braces himself against the wind, holding a long bamboo pole which he uses to steer with great subtlety and economy of motion. One can easily imagine this piece in dialogue with the bronze Poseidon in the National Archeological Museum of Athens. In her capturing of form, Atienza ties these two visual traditions across the centuries through the beauty of the male body, the impassive majesty, the confident ease with the sea.

Just beyond the mesmerising cut of the heroic figure lingers images of huts cobbled together from corrugated aluminum, seaweed farms, sandbars, commercial docks, outcroppings of coral, patches of vegetation. It is not a picture of prosperity. Here one cannot help but feel the cruel irony of Atienza’s title, because global, unstoppable changes are about to crash down on these islanders and they will be the ones needing protection — from a rising sea level, from greedy real estate developers, from misguided tourism ventures, from decreasing fish stocks, from typhoons needing new names to describe their intensity.

And yet the heroic persists - insisting on its own place and power. You see this on many levels as the film progresses. From what seems physically impossible to do - holding the rigid pose while maneuvering a boat at high speed over rough seas and never falling, to controlling the speed with one foot with a DIY pedal cut out from an old rubber slipper.

Additionally, – and here the piece jumps the line and slips into the world of visual anthropology, of ethnographic self-representation – Atienza lets go of sole authorship and incorporates the story of the making of the piece into the narrative. She calls him Mang Tonio with the familiarity and respect of a long-time friend. She says she asked him to choose what to wear, and bring his own props. She recounts how Mang Tonio deliberately outfitted himself in garments that move beautifully with the wind. He cut up an old striped umbrella and wore it as a skirt. His torn tank top exposed his muscled clavicles, his toned legs, his bare feet. The t-shirt wrapped tightly around his head recalls a bagani’s headgear, part Petrarchan, part Greek helmet. He himself attached two small propellers to the banca’s rig, which did not really control the speed - but well, it was good optics.

Mang Tonio is a performer. He knows what he is doing. He knows that this filmic genre, this art piece that personifies him as the Tigpanalipod, literally translated from the Visayan word as the one who shields or defends, will somehow achieve what it sets out to do. The visual inscription of a protagonist who will continue to stand up, to stay the course. To be known by name. To articulate the inalienability of his right to be where he wants to be, to live the way he wants to live. And yet like all tragedies, one leaves the piece with intense admiration mingled with a sense of foreboding. The forces of change hang over Mang Tonio’s heroic stance like spectres in the farfield, off-center but only just a little blurry.

Martha and I kept in touch. We talked about the work I do at SOAS and with the Mapping Project, and the possibility of using cultural mapping as a way to articulate value and significance for a way of life that was on the verge of disappearing. We talked about material culture and how it embodied cultural memory and history, and its capacity to tell the stories of past lives, of symbolic complexes that were once valued. 

Late April,2023, and on the way back from digital repatriation projects in Mindanao, Martha found a way for us to finally visit Mambacayao and meet its storied people.  Below is a rough cut of the hours of footage we took of our time there.

Sample of the raw footage from the field documentation

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