The bulul as an important piece of Philippine art

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At Salcedo Auctions’ “Important Philippine Art,” ethnographic art is on equal footing with other forms of fine art. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A carved male figure made of narra is seated while its crossed arms rest on its raised knees. Believed to guard rice crops, this figure was traditionally bathed in pig’s or chicken’s blood during rice planting rituals in Ifugao.

Now, the bulul, as it is called, is displayed next to works of Filipino National Artists — such as BenCab’s “Mother and Child” and Jose Joya’s “Tagaytay Mist” among others — and pieces of renowned contemporary artists, as part of the “Important Philippine Art” auction at Salcedo Auctions.

“We want to put [the bulul], even symbolically, on an equal footing with important Philippine art,” says Richie Lerma, director of Salcedo Auctions. “Some of the best tribal and ethnographic art, in other words, the works of our indigenous peoples, most of the good pieces are no longer here. They were acquired early on in the 20th century onwards.”

When asked what constitutes an “important” art piece, Lerma says they considered several factors in assessing the works included in the auction. “One [factor] is that the artist has made a significant contribution to the definition and development of Philippine art. Number two, also within the career of the artist, that this particular work is from a significant juncture in their career,” he says.

The pieces, he explains, should also have impeccable workmanship. A factor also taken into consideration is provenance, meaning, that one can trace the ownership of the piece all the way back to the artist.

Cropped-2.jpg When asked what constitutes an “important” art piece, Richie Lerma, director of Salcedo Auctions, says they considered several factors in assessing the works included in the auction. “One [factor] is that the artist has made a significant contribution to the definition and development of Philippine art,” he explains. In photo: Jose Joya's "Tagaytay Mist." Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

Another crucial indicator is the importance of the piece to the art market in the Philippines. “This is where we differ already from a museum,” he says. “Whenever people ask me, ‘Why do you have this or that? [I say,] ‘Well, this is a venue for the sale and acquisition of art, and therefore, I also respond to the market in terms of what the market deems as important.’”

Lerma says there have been times where artists who were not included in previous “Important Philippine Art” auctions became part of the auction because of a growth in the interest in a particular artist’s work. He says it would be remiss in their duty as an auction house to not offer these pieces when there is a clear demand. New developments in the career of an artist or new scholarship on the artist that have come to light are also significant factors that inform Salcedo Auctions’ decision on what goes into an “important sale.”

In the eight years of running the auction house, Lerma adds that they have been very fortunate to have pieces brought to them, rather than having to solicit the pieces. He also highlights that for an auction like this, they reject more than they accept.

“When these pieces are brought to us, we make the assessments,” he says. “If we feel that it's not a fit for us, we very diplomatically say no. For example, there are works by certain artists that, sad to say, proliferate, and which we don't feel strongly about or we're not comfortable offering, so we have to reject these as well.”

He shares that there have been dubious works of National Artists that were brought to them, and sometimes, even unbeknownst to the people bringing in the pieces. “We're not in the position to say that something is a fake or forgery — that is a legal matter. However, if Salcedo Auctions is not comfortable with a particular piece, we simply say no,” he explains.

EC1 (1).jpg Another crucial indicator of what constitutes an "Important Philippine Art" is the importance of the piece to the art market in the Philippines. “This is where we differ already from a museum,” Lerma says. “Whenever people ask me, ‘Why do you have this or that? [I say,] ‘Well, this is a venue for the sale and acquisition of art, and therefore, I also respond to the market in terms of what the market deems as important.’” In photo: BenCab's "Mother and Child." Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

The auction also features ‘important Philippine furniture,’ which have been vetted as well. He says that a furniture’s significance in Philippine design history and the types of materials used were considered in evaluating the furniture to include in the sale. As much as possible, there should also be minimal restoration done to the piece, and if there were restorations made, he says these were fully disclosed to the buyers.

While Salcedo Auctions is already known to showcase traditional art forms, such as paintings, drawings, original fine prints, and sculptures, Lerma says that including other items such as furniture and ethnographic art is a step they are taking towards educating the art market about the importance of pieces that are distinctly Filipino.

“In as much as the important Philippine art is distinctly Filipino, let's take a look at the works of our indigenous peoples and pre-colonial works as well,” he says. He shares that major museums, such as the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, have already highlighted these art forms in their exhibitions, and it’s high time Filipinos do the same.

“We better learn more about [ethnographic art] before more of it actually leaves the country,” he says. “Because it has been leaving the country all of this time and it had to take people from overseas to tell us, ‘Look, what you have is important.’”

EC5.jpg “When these pieces are brought to us, we make the assessments,” Lerma says. “If we feel that it's not a fit for us, we very diplomatically say no. For example, there are works by certain artists that, sad to say, proliferate, and which we don't feel strongly about or we're not comfortable offering, so we have to reject these as well.” In photo: Solomon Saprid's "Tikbalang." Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

To further educate their market, Salcedo Auctions has also launched a series called #SalcedoSays, where they share information and start lectures on topics like tribal and ethnographic art. Lerma says that this kind of initiative can go a long way in shaping the way the market perceives certain works of art. In fact, four years ago, he shares that when they became the first auction house to include abstract expressionist Alfonso Osorio, this influenced galleries and art buyers.

“Nobody had heard of Alfonso Osorio, if not for Salcedo putting him on the cover,” he says. “We believe he's important, we put him on the cover, and that did very, very well at auctions. So much so that afterwards, there were all of these other galleries that started to look at Osorio. So Salcedo takes full credit in having discovered Osorio and brought him to the market.”

This is also the kind of impact that he says Salcedo Auctions wants to achieve in championing overlooked art forms that are uniquely and undisputedly Filipino, specifically those of the Philippine’s indigenous peoples. He sees that there is a growing interest in ethnographic art in the art market, and they plan to continue promoting it.  

“We need to start with us,” he says. “I don't see why Philippine ethnographic art, for example, would have to be sold in New York, or London, or Hong Kong. If the rest of the world is collecting it, they should come to the Philippines.”

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For more information, visit the Salcedo Auctions website.