Basi(s) for revolution and art

The next time someone offers me a glass of basi, I will not refuse.


The next time someone offers me a glass of basi, I will not refuse. I will take it with pride and offer a toast to the pre-Katipunan Filipino libertarian spirit. This was one of my resolutions as the roundtable discussion on the Basi Revolt and contemporary art drew to an end at the UP Vargas Museum on April 5. Revisiting Philippine art history and contemplating on the wave of revolts against the Spanish colonial rule before 1896 won’t hurt either.

The symposium synthesized thoughts on Ilocano history and historiography; myth and myth-making; and the current production of art anchored on Esteban Pichay Villanueva’s depiction of the Ambaristo Revolt of 1807, popularly known as the Basi Revolt.

Facilitated by Art Studies professor, Dr. Patrick Flores, the panel was composed of Dr. Vic Villan, an expert on Philippine history and Southeast Asian history; Arnold Molina Azurin, poet and essayist; Roberto Feleo whose thought-provoking artworks constitute the ‘Mito ng Aklasang Basi’ exhibit; and Antipas Delotavo, social realist extraordinaire, whose mural of the victorious Ilocanos charging towards the Bantaoay River before being summarily executed by the Spaniards is the main feature of the exposition “Agos”.

History in art

Villan positioned the Philippines as part of the string of Spanish colonies that was established to wreak havoc on the withering dominance of the global Islamic ummah and the Hindu-Buddhist mandala polity that prevailed in Southeast Asia until the late 1400s. Forts were built on the islands to thwart Muslim marauders who usually came by sea and extend Spain’s influence in the region. The Ilocano basi, a specialty made of fermented sugarcane, kept the soldiers’ spirits high, while the Ilocano blankets kept them warm.

Artist exchange ideas during the roundtable discussion on the Basi Revolt and contemporary art, April 5. (Photo by Ima Ariate/ Bulatlat)
Artist exchange ideas during the roundtable discussion on the Basi Revolt and contemporary art, April 5. (Photo by Ima Ariate/ Bulatlat)

Without any regard for its cultural value, the colonial masters harnessed basi’s revenue-generating potential. Its production and sale was monopolized in 1786 and it was listed as one of the exports in the Acapulco Trade. Income could fund Spanish expeditions to Mindanao to assuage their Moro problem back then.

As a result, angered and deprived Ilocanos under the leadership of Pedro Mateo and Salarogo Ambaristo gathered at the mountains of Piddig and seized Vigan to overthrow the Spanish regional government in 1807. This was quashed with the beheading of the revolutionaries beside Bataoay River.

Villanueva produced 14 paintings on the Basi Revolt in 1821. He was tasked to paint the scenes of the 13-day uprising to ensure that people would remember the unforgiving violence of the Spaniards to those who rise against them.

Nascent nationalism

Azurin asserts that it was the Basi Revolt that historically ingrained the identity of the Filipino as a freedom fighter. The defiant naturales in Ilocos were already assuming the collective consciousness of being ‘Filipino’ through their battle cry, “Atake Filipinos! Puwera Españoles!”

Villanueva’s paintings chronicled the continuum of proclaiming and legitimizing the Filipino identity even before 1896. Nevertheless, Azurin discloses that the Ilocanos were ready to step aside for the Tagalogs in the name of unity in the course of the Philippine revolution against Spain.

At present, textbook history is quiet on this. Villan notes that historiography in our country has always been “Tagalog-centric” and “Christian-centric”. This has been driven by the need to establish narratives for the nation-state to solidify its monolithic culture after the Second World War. Accounts have been sourced from the predominantly Tagalog center in the 1970s to the detriment of existing ethnolinguistic groups.

Derivations and deviations

When asked about the evolution of his work on the Basi Revolt, Feleo said he started by imitating the original paintings. Mythological characters have been incorporated “naturally” after long conversations with Villanueva. Feleo also emphasizes the inclusion of cosmology, sociology, and pedagogy in what he has produced. Despite the intense mediation of his imaginarium on these historical paintings, he maintains that his sculptures remain accessible because all symbols are Ilocano. In fact, for him, we can all partake in myth-making. Additionally, he has remained firm in his position to disallow anyone from interfering with his methods and output.

Delotavo appreciates this project as part of his ongoing education as a student of history. For him, making the mural has enriched his soul. He tried to divert our attention from a nagging question: how did he reconcile his political standpoint to being commissioned by Imee Marcos for this? Notwithstanding, he revealed that this is his first time to paint under such circumstances so he was initially very reluctant. Surprisingly, Marcos did not ask him to remove the social realist elements in his work.

In this context, Delotavo likens an artist to a mercenary who gets hired and paid in order to deliver the goods. The process by which his other paintings were produced is quite different: inspiration strikes, he creates, and the sale is incidental. The current reality is that, like Villanueva who had to portray the Spanish soldiers as looming and huge and the Ilocanos as weak and inferior, artists have to compromise for the survival of their paintings.

The value of Villanueva’s concession lies in the fact that his images still continue to elicit feelings of nationalism and reinterpretations of anti-colonial struggle despite being carelessly painted over during restoration efforts. However, the fact that artists are still beholden to the powers-that-be after all these years is enough basis for a revolution. (

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