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Crystallized clouds, chequered in bright urban colours, undulate serenely in perpetual tranquillity. Like jewels they adorn a hundred different backgrounds, from expensive paintings in the living rooms of some of the Philippines’ richest people to the walls of public schools lining the busy highway. Lullabyes – the most iconic work of artist Kublai Millan – has decorated the southern Philippine territory of Mindanao for almost a decade.
Kublai Millan is one of the Philippines’ most popular and bestselling artists. His art has been exhibited internationally, from Australia to the Vatican, and his paintings have been bought by collectors from all over the world. Many of those artworks will feature the Lullabye, a distinct and easily recognizable motif that has become a signature feature in Millan’s paintings.The Lullabye was first conceived in the mid-2010s, while the artist was in the process of building the Caluya Shrine in the town of Sapang Dalaga, Misamis Occidental (one of his many large public art monuments). Built in the shape of the Salvator Mundi, the giant Caluya Shrine overlooks the island-dotted Casul Bay, one of Mindanao’s most scenic bays.
It was on this bay that Millan first saw the inspiration for the Lullabye. Tired from a day’s hard work building the monument and tipsy with some Tuba (palm toddy), Millan experienced a moment of profound contentment in his drowsiness. As his imagination drifted dream-wards, he saw the clouds reflected on Casul Bay, prismed by the seawater, floating freely among the cloud-shaped islands. These toddy-visions, he realized, were peace – his experience of peace – taking shape. Millan refined the concept, and in 2014 the Lullabye debuted as a series of colourful paintings of acrylic on canvas. The Lullabye Series first exhibited in the Marco Polo in Davao City, Mindanao’s biggest metropolis.
Although conceived in a state of languor, the Lullabyes have quite the opposite effect. Visually striking, they are conspicuous without being foreign, additive without being aberrant. Against backgrounds of two to five horizontal stripes of varying colours, they suggest jewelled clouds drifting serenely on clear skies. Some are large and plump, dominating the canvass, while others are as small as rice grains, forming clusters on a corner.
And they are ripe intersections of possible significances. Considering their provenance, it is unsurprising that they have a strong association with sleep, from their name to their shapes evocative of cradles. From this lulled serenity the paintings also acquire a connotation of peace, reinforced by Millan’s marketing of it as part of his ‘art as peacebuilding.’ The tilde-like shape of the Lullabye ends up implying approximation and similarity between Mindanao’s diverse but often conflicting peoples.
Since it debuted in 2014, the Lullabye has become a key element in, and distinctly illustrative of Millan’s voluminous oeuvre of colourful paintings, an oeuvre I have come to call Kinublay. From the series of dedicated paintings in which they debuted, the Lullabye motif has drifted into other series in the Kinublay oeuvre, adding to their complexity. In Millan’s paintings after 2014, the motif is often present, mostly functioning as clouds, but sometimes reimagined as boats, cradles, leaves, or feathers.
Kinublay paintings (including the Lullabye Series) are characterized by the balanced composition of Flower and Rock (the softness of round, often curling and undulating lines complemented by the angular solidity of straight lines), executed with vivid, often neon-bright colours to create undeniable visual impact.
They are highly decorative. But in Mindanao where the rich diversity of artistic traditions has been overshadowed by ubiquitous poverty brought about by decades of conflict and state neglect, to be decorative is political. Millan’s Kinublay paintings – like the Lullabye – defy expectations of Mindanao, showing that the place, usually dismissed as a backwater by the rest of the Philippines, is in fact full of contemporary creative expression. In the case of the Lullabye, this decorativeness-as-defiance lends an empowering beauty to public spaces. Millan is by far the most well-known visual artist from Mindanao, and a large reason for that has been his role as public artist (he is one of few artists in Mindanao who manage to straddle the divide between high and popular art). The Lullabyes played a prominent role in this. In 2018 they were painted, with the help of several artists (including the school’s art students), as a one kilometre mural on the otherwise empty fence of Davao City National High School. They appear as another series in the Kinublay oeuvre, Journey to Becoming, in which the Lullabyes serve as backgrounds to hyper-realist depictions of Lumad people wearing their traditional attire (Journey to Becoming would later become paintings too).
The mural not only overlooked one of Mindanao’s busiest roads, but it was seen every day by the schools’ thousands of students, many coming from very poor backgrounds. With Journey to Becoming, these students – and the public in Davao City – got to see for free what would usually be in paintings worth thousands of dollars.
Then in 2019, the Lullabye was reimagined as a boat, and built into a public monument, entitled Bangkapayaaan, in another metropolis in Mindanao, General Santos City. The monument’s title is a portmanteau of two words in Tagalog, ‘bangka’ (boat) and ‘kapayapaan’ (peace), further reinforcing the Lullabye’s peace connotations. In a port city like General Santos, the Lullabye-as-boat acquired a particular local resonance.
The decorativeness-as-defiance is not the only aspect where the Lullabye – and the Kinublay oeuvre – becomes political. They also serve to add to the still emerging repertoire of Mindanao Settler art. People in Mindanao are roughly divided into three broad groups: the over twenty indigenous cultures known as the Lumad, the around a dozen Islamized cultures called the Moro, and the mostly Christian descendants of historical colonial immigrants from the Philippines, the Settlers.
The Tri-people triptych, also part of the Kinublay Oeuvre, shows abstractions of the three peoples: stones and fire to represent Lumad animistic worship, the crescent to suggest Islamic faith of Moros, and the cross to indicate Settler Christianity. Photo courtesy of the author. While the Lumad and Moro cultures have rich traditions of visual expression, the Settlers have remained invisible, only ever imitating the sensibilities in their ethnicities’ homelands, if not misrepresenting themselves as Lumad and Moro. Millan, a Settler artist, is helping undo that, creating a distinct visual voice for himself and his people.
Kinublay is emerging as a uniquely Settler style. The Lullabyes that appear in Millan’s paintings after 2014 often find themselves amidst figures inspired by the floral okir motif of the Moros, and geometric patterns reminiscent of Lumad textiles – one distinct characteristic of Settler forms of creative expression is its proximity with and consequent influence from Lumad and Moro styles. And yet Kinublay manages to be distinct from these two within Mindanao by acknowledging the Westernized colonial art tradition it diverges from: Kinublay has strong influences from Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Joan Miro’s brand of abstraction, while it has some visual borrowings from Cubism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus movement, mixing all those with elements taken from traditional Lumad and Moro visual arts.
And Lullabye, part of the Kinublay oeuvre, is slowly becoming an icon of Settler art. Its suggestions of the tilde – what has become an emblem of the colonial Spanish language – give it an added layer of colono-genesis. In Journey to Becoming, this visualized coloniality is made to stand in the back of indigenous people. Both decorative and highly political, Kublai Millan’s Lullabye draws a large part of its appeal from the rich locale it emerges from. As it evokes the serene clouds reflected on Casul Bay, its re-appropriation in different contexts allows it to serve as prism, from which splinters the myriad ways of signification and appreciation inevitable in a land of such diverse perspectives and experiences as Mindanao.
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