The Colossus and the Underling

BY MADS BAJARIAS | The history of Philippine-US relations is fraught with mixed signals, unresolved tension and good intentions gone awry. It is a love-hate relationship conducted over the bones of the half-a-million dead in the Philippine-US war. While some Pinoys have adopted a conciliatory "let's start afresh" attitude ("and let bygones by bygones"), some take a defiant approach.

Mark Justiniani is one artist who shines a critical light upon the forces at work behind the facade of our "Western-style democracy." For all the glitz that a US-styled existence lends to those who can afford it in the Philippines, Justiniani's "Stride" is a reminder about the tragic element in the Philippine-US bond.

As much as Justiniani tries an injection of defiance and fun into "Stride," a cloud of tragedy hangs over the work and brings to mind Cassius’s speech to Brutus in Julius Caesar.

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Here Cassius aims to draw Brutus into the secret plot to kill Caesar. Cassius paints Caesar as a colossus and inflates the reach of Caesar’s power to magnify his threat to the republic. Cassius riles Brutus by suggesting how Caesar’s imperial tendencies are undermining the status of the nobility, to which Brutus belongs. If the tyrant is not stopped, says Cassius, “we petty men” will find “ourselves dishonorable graves.”

We all know how this tragedy ends.

Like Cassius, the anti-imperialist fighter and icon Kwame Nkrumah had urged the Third World to shake off their shackles. In Nkrumah’s case, the tyrant was neocolonialism, a term he coined to describe the situation where a state is outwardly independent, but in reality, has its economic and political life controlled by another, more powerful country.

“A State in the grip of neocolonialism is not master of its own destiny," he wrote. "It is this factor which makes neocolonialism such a serious threat to world peace.” That was in 1965.

Not unlike Cassius and Brutus, Nkrumah had his weaknesses (he had Ghana's constitution changed to make himself president-for-life) and before he could persuade other leaders to heed the dangers of neocolonialism on the developing world, the CIA backed a coup that removed him from power and sent him into exile.

Alas, the CIA had studied Shakespeare's tragedies, too.

In Justiniani's "Stride," the underling strikes a defiant pose under the shadow of a colossal Uncle Sam. Yes, the odds are stacked against him, but history (and Shakespeare) teaches that every tyrant eventually gets his comeuppance. And yet, history (and Shakespeare again) also issues a stern warning: revolutions devour their own children.

"Stride" is part of Justiniani's 12th one-man show, at the Substation Gallery, Home for the Arts in Singapore. The exhibit is organized by Art Sentral Asia.

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