The art of making a 'higante'

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The Higantes festival in Angono, Rizal has become an event that strengthens the creative economy of the town. In photo: Higante-maker Toti Argana with his masterpieces. Photo by JILSON TIU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the outskirts of Angono, Rizal, a ramshackle structure houses a concoction of recycled things: paper made into superhero masks, plastic containers used as plant pots, a nonfunctional van turned into a cupboard, unfinished planks of wood transformed into a dining table.

Dito ako binagsak. Dulo na ng sementeryo,” says Totie Argana, a 52-year-old bonsai landscaper by profession who, during most of his free time, makes higantes for Angono’s annual Higantes festival, an event that originated during the Spanish era in honor of the town’s patron saint, San Clemente.

Throughout the years, the festival turned into a celebration of the many arts and crafts created by the people of Angono; not just a commemoration of the municipality's saint. The town is, after all, known to be the art capital of the Philippines (as displayed through plaques, signage, and wall art at the local government office), and is home to National Artists Lucio San Pedro (music) and Carlos “Botong” Francisco (visual arts).

Festival preparations — hanging of banderitas in the streets, setting up of flea markets in every corner — start on the first week of November (usually on Nov. 4, during Botong’s birthday), but the official parade of the giant effigies happen on the third week of the same month. For this year, Argana is making 90 higantes of the approximately 100 higantes to be shown on the streets of the town. As he has been creating effigies for the festival since he was 19 years old, he already has a collection of structures that he recycles, retouches, and refurbishes every year.

‘Yung original na higante dito sa bayan namin ng Angono, paper mache ‘yung ulo, ‘yung katawan niya bamboo. Ngayon, binago ko. Nare-recycle ang ginawa kong ulo [kasi] fiber glass. Tapos ang katawan niya, aluminum. Kaya, kahit bumagsak siya, masira, matatagpi yan, buo uli,” he says. 

Photo-58 (1).jpg Totie Argana, a higante-maker from Angono, makes use of termite soil when forming the mold of the hgiante's head. Photo by JILSON TIU

EC 1.jpg Most higante-makers nowadays make use of fiber glass (right) instead of paper, as this enables them to easily repair a head when it breaks. Photo by JILSON TIU

Another technique that he boasts of doing is his use of termite soil when forming the heads of the higante. “Gumawa ako ng sariling hulmahan ko. Kasi ‘yung ibang kasamahan nating nagagawa ng higante, screen ang ginagamit sa paggawa ng ulo,” he says. “Pero ako napakinabangan ko ‘yung kinaiinis at kinakatakutan nilang anay, ‘yung bahay ng anay, ‘yun ang ginawa kong clay, kasi wala siyang bato eh.”

When he is already satisfied with the mold (whether it’s a face of a horse or a face of a president), he puts two layers of paper, then wraps a fiberglass around the mold. Once the fiberglass is in place, he takes it off from the mold and smoothens the surface, so painting on it is easier. After which, he starts illustrating details of the face to resemble whoever he wants to imitate, whether its President Duterte, an aeta, Andres Bonifacio, or a little girl.

Making the head may be the single most important part of the process, as the rest is essentially just assembling pieces. The body of a higante, for example, consists of strips of aluminum put together by hammering, one that is usually done by adolescents he employs to help him. “Di ko naman magagawa mag-isa eh. May mga katuwang din ako, katulong,” he says.

Photo-38 (1).jpg People in Angono gain temporary employment during the festival because they get paid to do various preparations for the event — from assembling higantes to carrying higantes during the parade. Photo by JILSON TIU

Photo-69 (1).jpg The body of a higante consists of strips of aluminum put together by hammering, one that is usually done by adolescents Argana employs when preparing for the Higantes festival. Photo by JILSON TIU

An important value of the festival is the creation of temporary employment for those who need it (like the boys Argana hires for the festival or the ones who carry the effigies during a parade). Argana says that some people get paid at least ₱300 for carrying a higante for a few hours.

There are also establishments in Angono that want to showcase their products through the festival, and this is where he gets to earn. SM, for example, commissioned Argana to make higantes wearing metallic SM colors (blue, white, and hints of gold), with the “SM Savemore” sash around some of them.

‘Yung budget natin nakukuhua ko ‘yan diyan sa mga sponsor na gustong gumamit, nagbibigay ng kaukulang bayad para dun sa nagbubuhat na higante, sa transportation, kumpleto ‘yun,” he says of his work for SM. “‘Yung natitipid ko [dahil sa mga bigay ng sponsor], imbis na gastusin ko sa sarili ko, dinadagdagan ko pa at gumagawa ako ng bagong higante,” he adds.

Gerardo Calderon, mayor of Angono, agrees that creating employment for the townspeople is the most significant aspect of the festival. “Imbis na lumuwas sa Greenhills, pumunta sa SM o pumunta dun sa mga free market … ‘yung Angono people, sila mismo [nakakatrabaho].”

Calderon says that because of the attention given to the Higantes festival, their municipality was also able to get multinational establishments like McDonald’s, Mercury Drug, SM, and Jollibee, among others, to invest in their town. For a town of 113,000 people, Angono, he says, has a creative economy that can compete with other “first-class municipalities” that have similar festivals, such as Iloilo’s Dinagyang, Bacolod’s Masskara, or Aklan’s Ati-atihan. 

Photo-32.jpg “[The festival] is our way of marketing our town, anchored on art and tourism, showcasing the artistry of our people, showcasing the environmental management of the LGUs of Angono, and how people react and participate during [the] festivals,” says Gerardo Calderon, the mayor of Angono, Rizal. Photo by JILSON TIU

Photo-40.jpg Argana houses his materials for higante-making in a lot that the local government provided him. “Napakaimportante [ng suporta], parang halos buhay ko na ang katapat. Dahil kung walang lote, edi wala na ito,” he says of the help that their mayor extended for him to have a space for his works. Photo by JILSON TIU

“[The festival] is our way of marketing our town, anchored on art and tourism, showcasing the artistry of our people, showcasing the environmental management of the LGUs of Angono, and how people react and participate during [the] festivals,” says Calderon.

For Argana, making the higante and parading the higante are of equal worth. While he is happiest when he is working on these higantes, he also finds fulfillment when he is able to parade his work, as it validates him as an artist, even if only once a year. “Marami pang maliliit pang artists na hindi lang nakikilala. Napakadami. Kesa pa dun sa mga sikat na artists natin dito. Kaya nga, ‘yun nga, naging proud ako,” he says.

Argana is also most grateful for the support that he has gotten from the local government. Had he not been allowed to create a makeshift space for his workshop, he would have given all of his materials to his uncle who lives in another town in Rizal. “Matatambak nalang sana doon,” he says. 

Napakaimportante [ng suporta], parang halos buhay ko na ang katapat. Dahil kung walang lote, edi wala na ito,”  he says, as he covers the gigantic heads with bubble wrap, cautiously stacking them one by one while he peels off remnants of clay from his palms and fingers.