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What was the last piece of art you bought? Was it something small, maybe from a maker faire or an Etsy store? Was it something mass-produced, like a poster or a piece of home decor from a big-box store? Was it something you bought at an art auction house? I think for many people the answer to that last question is probably “no.” Much of the art sold in auction houses or through other venues in the so-called “secondary market” is far beyond the reach of the average consumer. There’s an exclusivity to auction- and gallery-sold art that is mainly a result of high price tags, but also partly a result of a pervasive classism that makes you feel a bit silly for even bothering to look around. The phrase “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” feels like it was made for the secondary art market. That exclusivity is why I try my best to pick artworks for this podcast that are available for people to view in public collections, either in person or online. It’s difficult to try to expose a work of art to a wider audience when it’s locked up tight in some anonymous private collection.
The painting I’m discussing in this episode, however, is an exception to that rule. While seeking out artists from the Philippines, where my random location selection method landed for this episode, I found a work by Filipina artist Anita Magsaysay-Ho listed among the works in a 2010 auction at Christie’s Hong Kong. The four-panel work, entitled Girls with Baskets, struck me as unique among the body of Filipinx works I had been looking at, and the fact that its creator was a woman intrigued me even further. As I researched, I found that many of the issues raised by Magsaysay-Ho’s life and career intersected with issues I’ve discussed in previous episodes, such as women’s work, race, immigration, and colonialism, with an extra emphasis on questions of class.
While the resources available on Magsaysay-Ho are limited, especially those in English, I was able to find a fairly recent monograph by Alfredo Roces that includes direct quotes from Magsaysay-Ho, as well as a more general examination of the Philippines and its colonial history by Luis H. Francia, both of which I think are extremely useful for better understanding Magsaysay-Ho and her native country, albeit with some issues when it comes to Roces’s text. As always, you can find the transcript of this podcast at arthistoryforall.com, with footnotes to direct you to the specific sources I used. There’s so much I’ve learned in researching this topic that I want to share with you, and so many issues I want to explore. So, without further ado, let’s talk about Girls with Baskets!
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A description of Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s Girls with Baskets. 1966, possibly mixed media on canvas on panel, 62 x 38 cm, private collection. The work consists of four panels of equal size. Painted on each panel in a graphic style is a Filipina woman carrying a near-spherical basket. All the women wear white kerchiefs around their heads and simple white blouses—two of them have orange wrap skirts, while two of them have greenish-blue wrap skirts. The leftmost woman is shown from the side, facing left, holding her basket at her side so that it obscures her lower legs. Her face is slightly turned towards the viewer. The woman second from left is shown frontally, holding her basket in front of her, but turns her head to the right so that her face is seen in profile. The woman second from right is shown in a three-quarter view, her basket held in front of her, her face turned to fully face the viewer. The rightmost woman is shown with her body in profile facing left, while her face turns towards the viewer. She lifts her basket up to about head height. All four panels have a dark green wash that suffuses the otherwise blank background and the skin tones of the women, making their bright white kerchiefs and blouses pop. The panels have horizontal white lines across them, perhaps indicating that the canvas was applied to the panel in pieces and the divides between the pieces have worn over time. A cream-colored border surrounds the entire work, and it is unclear if it is a frame, a mat, or part of the original composition.
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Born in the Philippines to a family of the mestizo principalía class, a class of wealthy people with mixed Spanish and native Filipino ancestry, Anita Magsaysay had a sheltered and privileged upbringing in Manila. The glimpses of lower-class lifestyles that she got on summer holidays in Zambales and from watching cascos, or barges, navigate nearby rivers seem to have been the biggest influence on Anita’s art as an adult. Despite living on her shipping tycoon uncle’s large estate, she says she “used to wish that someday I would own a casco and ply through the rivers of the nearby provinces and see the countryside.” She also maintained clear memories of watching the women of Zambales haggle for goods: quote, “I loved to sit…during the sultry afternoons, watching the buyers bargain. I was so fascinated by the old women who bargained for a reduction of ten centavos. Despite the heat, they would be willing to go around the plaza to the other stores to try to save the ten centavos. Life was difficult and money was hard to earn. I realized how frugal the people were.” End quote. Anita’s fascination with the customs of the rural and working poor contrasts starkly with both the circumstances of her birth and the trajectory of her life. At 13, her parents enrolled her at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts as a way of consoling her in the wake of her grandmother’s death. After World War II, she moved to New York, where she studied at the Art Students’ League, and then later moved to Michigan to study for a year at Cranbrook Academy of Art. In addition to this extensive formal art training, Anita also landed major commissions fairly early on in her artistic career, illustrating Catholic school readers that remained in use for decades after their initial publication, assisting modernist painter Victorio Edades in creating the first fresco mural in the Philippines, and even painting portraits of U.S. Army officers during the war years that later led to a 47-painting exhibition opened by the First Lady of the Philippines, Doña Esperanza Osmeña. While studying in New York, Anita met and later married Robert Ho, the son of a Chinese shipping magnate, whose resources would allow her to live in multiple cities throughout her lifetime. She said later of her wish to travel on a casco, quote: “How could I have known that my wish would come true. I married a man who eventually owned a yacht and in it we sailed to many places!” End quote.
Magsaysay-Ho’s life up to this point appears fairly charmed, and it makes you feel as though she may just be an example of a wealthy art hobbyist who used her connections to manifest a successful career. However, when we consider the moments when Magsaysay-Ho’s life butted heads with global politics, the context casts her otherwise quaint paintings of rural Filipinas in a new light. Around 1947, Anita, her husband, and their young daughter Helen stopped in the Philippines on their way to Shanghai. Alfredo Roces, quoting Magsaysay-Ho at points, describes the predicament in which the family then found themselves in the following way:
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“In Manila, while preparing to board the ship for Shanghai [a steamship Robert had purchased while in America] news of the Communist military triumph in China flashed around the world. Mao’s armies were now marching to Shanghai. Marooned in the Philippines, Robert and Anita suddenly and quite unexpectedly found themselves in an awesome bureaucratic quicksand that would dictate their fortunes and irreversibly change their lives.
Anita: ‘I believed, or I was hopeful, that because I was a Filipina, Robert would be allowed to become a permanent resident of the Philippines. But no — to my great shock, I learned that not only could my husband not be a resident, but that I was no longer a Filipina citizen but a Chinese citizen! [Philippine law stipulates that a wife automatically assumes the citizenship of her husband.] I explained that I never owed allegiance to China, to no avail. They took away my Filipino passport. No amount of begging and crying or explaining could change their minds. I felt I had lost everything. Thus it happened. Robert lost his country to the Communists, and I lost mine by marriage to a Chinese citizen. I was now [without a country]; I who loved my country so much…’”
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As far as I can determine, Magsaysay-Ho’s Filipino citizenship was never reinstated, despite her rise as an artist depicting particularly Filipino subjects, and despite being the cousin of Ramón Magsaysay, who was President of the Philippines from 1953 until his death in an airplane crash in 1957. She and Robert lived as aliens in the Philippines for fourteen years, then moved to a number of different cities around the world, eventually settling in Canada, and Magsaysay-Ho became a Canadian citizen in 1971.
It was around the time that the Magsaysay-Ho family moved to Canada that Anita painted Girls with Baskets, and while in terms of subject the painting is similar to much of her earlier work, the four-panel format is somewhat of a departure, and the isolation of each woman in her own panel, without background or other context, also appears unusual. Magsaysay-Ho’s paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s usually depict women in groups, interacting in a market setting or working together harvesting crops. Here, the women are without any sort of setting and are isolated from one another, rather than closely packed together, forming a geometric arrangement of bodies, as in earlier works. The treatment of the faces and bodies in Girls with Baskets is also notably less geometric than in earlier works, with a sketchy sort of quality that differs from the thicker brushwork of Magsaysay-Ho’s oil paintings. Flipping through the catalogue section of Roces’s monograph of Magsaysay-Ho, I stumbled upon two other four-panel works from 1967 and 1968, respectively, with a similar quality of brushwork and surface texture to Girls with Baskets. Both of these paintings are described as being “watercolor on silk,” and a quote from Magsaysay-Ho underneath one of them reads, quote: “I bought a few of these screens in Tokyo. Thy are lined in silk. I painted on them and gave them as gifts to special friends.” End quote. That Girls with Baskets is actually a watercolor-on-silk work seems highly likely to me, though I don’t doubt that the folks at Christie’s know their stuff and had solid reasoning for labeling it as mixed media on canvas laid on panel. Even in the two other four-panel works, however, there are two women per panel, all depicted among fields of wheat, some with chickens around their feet. The isolation of the four women in Girls with Baskets, without even a hint of where they might be or what their baskets might be for, remains fairly unusual. This, plus the graphic sensibility of the painting, as emphasized by the overall blue-green wash and the black contour lines of the women’s bodies and faces, brought a number of different references to mind for me. The most immediate of these was the graphic quality of mid-twentieth-century tourism posters, which range from the minimalist to the fantastical in the way they advertise other countries and regions. Such posters reduced places, people, and cultures down to a few key signifiers, giving potential travelers a sense of what they would experience in a single glance. Some posters focused on a single figure, sometimes a person in a regional costume from the country advertised. As Magsaysay-Ho appears to have traveled quite frequently, she likely saw these sorts of posters, and they may have informed her work. The idea that the four-panel screens were purchased and painted while the Magsaysay-Hos were living in Tokyo may also point to influences from Japanese art. While living in Tokyo, Magsaysay-Ho learned Japanese calligraphy and ceramics, and the design sensibilities of Japanese screen painting and prints, in which backgrounds are often reduced or abstracted and emphasis is placed on line and washes of color, may have influenced the lack of background, dark contour lines, and soft washes of Girls with Baskets.
Alfredo Roces’s book on Magsaysay-Ho frequently speculates and questions precisely why she focused on these depictions of rural Filipinas in her work—but he seems unwilling to place emphasis on the connection between that focus and Magsaysay-Ho’s nostalgia for a country that she herself says she “lost” when she married Robert Ho. It’s strange how little Roces explores Magsaysay-Ho’s personal connection to and opinion of her native country’s history and development, especially given that the Philippines was ruled by three different colonial powers over the course of over three and a half centuries. Roces’s primary acknowledgment of the impact of this colonial occupation on Magsaysay-Ho’s life is his inclusion of a poem she wrote during the Japanese occupation of the archipelago in 1944. But prior to the Japanese, the United States had been occupying the Philippines since 1899, when, as part of the treaty to end the Spanish-American War, we acquired the Philippines from the Spanish, who had been occupying them since 1565. Luis H. Francia’s book A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos is extremely detailed in its examination of the trajectory and impact of this colonization on the Philippines, and if you’re interested in learning more about it, I highly recommend you read it.
Anita Magsaysay-Ho was not immune from the effects of this recursive colonialism. That Roces immediately identifies Magsaysay-Ho as part of the mestizo principalía class in his book is a result of the Spanish colonial legacy, which divided colonial societies into classes based primarily on racial makeup and birthplace, with full-blooded Spanish people born in Spain at the top, people native to the colonized region or of African descent at the bottom, and mestizos, or people of mixed race, somewhere in the middle. From birth, Anita Magsaysay occupied a specific place in a Hispanic colonial hierarchy, even though she was born after Spanish rule ended and American rule began. Over the course of their occupations, Spanish, American, and Japanese rulers in the Philippines enacted policies of assimilation enforced with tactics that ranged from the condescendingly benevolent to the cruel and unusual. Francia notes that Filipino elites, particularly those with a Hispanic background, tended to align themselves with the ruling power—that Anita Magsaysay’s family was incredibly wealthy and that her cousin eventually won the presidency suggests that hers may have been one of those upper-class families that cooperated with the colonizers. Anita herself benefited from working with colonial powers, as evidenced by her portraits of American Army officers and her work on a mural depicting explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the Manila hotel suite of General Douglas MacArthur. Interestingly, while Roces frames the American presence in the Philippines in the first half of the twentieth century as largely beneficial to Magsaysay-Ho’s career, he repeatedly characterizes the Japanese occupation as traumatic and violent, specifically in relation to Magsaysay-Ho’s elite circle, even though Francia acknowledges that many elite Filipinos collaborated with the Japanese.
This complexity and conflict of attitudes toward colonial powers, both between Roces and Francia as authors and among Filipinos throughout history, has to be acknowledged in relation to the work of a Filipina artist whose life and work were intertwined with colonialism. She lived under two different occupying forces in Manila, and later would live in both Hong Kong and Canada, both of which were at one point British colonies. Her father was a pensionado, part of an American colonial program to bring middle- and upper-class Filipinos to the States to educate them, and thus train a workforce to take over civil administration in the Philippines while at the same time ensuring loyalty from Filipino elites because the U.S. had given them a college degree. Magsaysay-Ho’s nostalgic visions of rural Filipinas must be considered in this context. I’m not saying that her works are malicious or stereotypical, just that they were created from the perspective of a person who may have never seen the full extent of the injustices visited upon the Filipino people by the occupying Americans and Japanese. Since Roces makes a point of mentioning Magsaysay-Ho’s sheltered and happy childhood on a large estate, it makes sense that she only would have seen a fraction of the effects of colonialism on her fellow Filipinos, and, despite explicitly recognizing that, “life was difficult and money was hard to earn” for lower-class people, she may have still viewed their lifestyle through rose-colored glasses.
Girls with Baskets depicts definitively Filipina women, but separates them from the Filipino landscape and even from each other, similar to the way in which Anita Magsaysay-Ho was isolated, first as the shy and sheltered daughter of a rich family, and later as an alien in her homeland, stripped of her Filipino citizenship. The nostalgia displayed in Girls with Baskets appears to float between indigenism and ethnic kitsch, phenomena that anthropologist Cherubim Quizon identifies in Filipino art and discusses in relation to the formation of Filipino national identity. Quizon does not explicitly discuss Magsaysay-Ho’s work, but she does discuss other artists from Magsaysay-Ho’s generation and circle, and particularly mentions another artist who collaborated with Victorio Edades named Carlos Francisco, whose murals, Quizon mentions, often dealt with Spanish colonizers and explorers like Magellan, the same explorer Magsaysay-Ho depicted in her mural for MacArthur’s suite. Ethnic kitsch as Quizon describes it is characterized by “scintillatingly clad exotic women, such as ‘Moslem’ maidens from Mindanao or their male counterparts,” as well as “fantastic, sometimes cartoon-like…representations of archetypes such as the Spanish conquistador or pre-Hispanic ancestors.” This phenomenon spanned both conservative and modern art groups because, Quizon says, quote: “these elements of exoticism and folkloric Filipiniana…come from the same postwar, post-independence interest in an authentic national culture, an idea that seized the cultural and political imagination of the emergent elite.” End quote. Girls with Baskets could be categorized as ethnic kitsch, but it lacks the key quality of tackiness that tends to characterize kitsch objects. Magsaysay-Ho’s screen is far gentler, more sentimental, and less over-the-top than what is typically defined as kitsch. So, then, perhaps it falls into the category of indigenism, which Quizon defines as, quote, “a postcolonial twentieth-century phenomenon…fuelled by increased knowledge of a pre-colonial past…[whose] ultimate objective is to reorder the project of representation, in effect seeking to reify what is known or believed to be known of that pre-colonial past.” End quote. But that doesn’t quite fit either—Girls with Baskets is not necessarily pre-colonial, especially since we know Magsaysay-Ho’s work was heavily influenced by real rural Filipina women she saw in her youth, when colonialism was alive and well in the Philippines. Despite Magsaysay-Ho’s earlier involvement with nationalistic projects that could fall into either ethnic kitsch or indigenism, Girls with Baskets, and, it seems, the bulk of Magsaysay-Ho’s body of work, seem to sit apart from those nationalistic projects. It’s difficult to characterize any of her post-1947 work as exemplary of Filipino nationalism, because by that point she was no longer Filipina in the eyes of the Philippine government.
Throughout his monograph, Roces questions (to an almost condescending degree) precisely why Magsaysay-Ho depicts these rural women, and why almost always exclusively women with no men present. Having learned about her life and the history of her country of birth, it seems to me that Girls with Baskets, among the many other works on similar subjects she executed, particularly after leaving the Philippines, is a way of coping with the traumas of colonial occupation and loss of identity. However touristic her interest in the daily lives of poor Filipinas might have been, for her, their lives and their appearance were the essence of the Philippines. Roces mentions repeatedly that Magsaysay-Ho was uncomfortable around men, and he even asks Magsaysay-Ho herself about it, to which she replies, quote: “No men. It’s hard to include them. I need a model before me to paint a man. So why bother?” End quote. Roces chooses to interpret the absence of men in Magsaysay-Ho’s work by concluding that the women “are mere parts of compositional elements and colors,” and that, quote, “Woman as an exploited gender is not the song Anita sings…Quite simply she exalts the feminine mystique.” End quote. And while Roces is perhaps right in acknowledging that Magsaysay-Ho’s work does not focus on feminine pain or exploitation, Magsaysay-Ho’s women are not sexualized in a way that might convey any kind of “feminine mystique”. Rather, Girls with Baskets and paintings like it are characterized by a sense of carefree serenity. Isolated though the women are within their context-free panels, they are also free from the context of hard physical labor or a landscape overtaken by colonial power. For an artist like Magsaysay-Ho, whose nanny accompanied her to art school, who attended an all-women’s private school, whose most potent childhood memories center around women’s activities and spaces, it makes sense that she would primarily depict women, around whom she appears to have felt most safe and calm. A particularly potent line from Roces’s book seems to sum it up best, despite his hemming and hawing about “the mystery of the missing male” elsewhere in the book: quote, “The women in Magsaysay-Ho’s paintings are her bridge to the onslaught of discontinuities in her adult life.” End quote.
Roces makes little mention of the impact of the Marcos administration on Magsaysay-Ho’s career, but the violence that developed under the regime in her homeland must have been yet one more discontinuity for her to deal with, even though she was living abroad. The year Girls with Baskets was painted, Ferdinand Marcos had just been sworn into office, and his wife Imelda was being hailed as “the Jackie Kennedy of Asia.” Less than a decade later Marcos declared martial law, and by 1986, when Marcos left office and entered exile, Quizon remarks that the violence in the Philippines, quote, “had become so normative that family-oriented establishments such as restaurants posted signs asking customers to check their guns at the door.” End quote. Still Anita Magsaysay-Ho painted her women with white kerchiefs, clutching sheaves of wheat and baskets and fresh produce and fish. They became increasingly idyllic and serene as Magsaysay-Ho continued painting them into the late 90s and early 2000s, before passing away in 2012 at the age of 98. Just four years after Anita Magsaysay-Ho passed away, Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as president of the Philippines, after an election that Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie said was used as a “petri dish” in which to experiment with voter manipulation tactics that were later used in the 2016 election in the United States. Since then, Duterte, whose father was one of Ferdinand Marcos’s early cabinet members, has instigated a war on drugs in which, to quote a Reuters article from earlier in September 2019, “police say they have killed more than 6,700 suspected drug dealers who all resisted arrest, and deny involvement in the mysterious murders of thousands more drug users.” End quote. Martial law has been declared on the island of Mindanao, and much of the violence committed in the name of Duterte’s drug war appears to have been targeted at environmental activists trying to stop illegal logging or the building of plantations on the ancestral land of indigenous people. If Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s idyllic Philippines ever truly existed, it is certainly disappearing now. It’s situations like these in which Magsaysay-Ho’s paintings, and art in general, are so necessary—just as they provided Anita comfort as she moved from place to place, recalling the safe, female-dominated spaces of her youth, they can provide us with comfort and aesthetic joy in a world where many other things made by human hands are destructive or harmful. There is an emotional value in sentimental, nostalgic images, and though Magsaysay-Ho’s Girls with Baskets certainly emerged from a complex and fraught historical context, we can still take pleasure in the cool washes of color, the women’s easy poses, and the infinite possibilities of what they could carry in their spherical baskets.
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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving a tip at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall. This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. New episodes go up on the last Monday of every month. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.
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Additional Music Credit:
Music from https://filmmusic.io
“Infados” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
 Francia, Luis H. History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos. 1 edition. Harry N. Abrams, 2013.
Roces, Alfredo R. Anita Magsaysay-Ho: In Praise of Women. Pasig City, Philippines: Crucible Workshop, 2005.
 Roces, 16.
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 Timeline in Roces, 293-294.
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 Cherubim A. Quizon, “Indigenism, Painting and Identity: Mixing Media under Philippine Dictatorship,” Asian Studies Review 29, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 287-88, https://doi.org/10.1080/10357820500270169.
 Quizon, 291.
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 Magsaysay-Ho, quoted in Roces, 40-41.
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 Roces, 23.
 Francia, 220.
 Quizon, 292.
 Maria Ressa, “The Philippines, a Social Media Dystopia,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-09-24/philippines-facebook-cambridge-analytica-duterte-elections
 Miguel Paolo P. Reyes, “The Duterte-Marcos Connection,” ABS-CBN News, accessed September 29, 2019, https://news.abs-cbn.com/spotlight/09/30/19/the-duterte-marcos-connection.
 Martin Petty, “Filipinos Give Thumbs up to Duterte’s ‘excellent’ Drugs War: Poll,” Reuters, September 23, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-drugs-idUSKBN1W803M.
 Carmela Fonbuena, “Philippines’ War on Drugs Fuels Attacks on Land Defenders – Report,” The Guardian, September 27, 2019, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/27/philippines-war-on-drugs-fuels-attacks-land-defenders-report.