New dawn: Mining the Indigenous

In my play, Collection, staged in 2015, I wrote of a dystopian Philippines where the Banaue Rice Terraces, the Bohol Chocolate Hills and the Manunggul Jar were all put up for auction.

The opening scene of the play depicted the frenzied bidding activity as the protagonists bid on priceless heritage sites and objects in an attempt to possess for oneself what once were a shared, sacred and communal narrative.

Pure fiction? In 2018, a controversy erupted when original handwritten documents penned by Andres Bonifacio and other personages of the 1896 revolution were put up for auction at the Leon

Gallery. The catalogue entries described the documents as “exceedingly important” and “extremely historically important” — glowing auction-ese that seemed superfluous and trite when placed next to the hallowed names of the documents’ authors.

photograph courtesy of FLOY QUINTOS | FLOY Quintos

An attempt by the National Historical Commission to block the sale failed. The documents were the highlight of the auction and sold for millions. So it is safe to assume that they are now in the vault of some private collector, one who no doubt has the means to conserve and protect these fragile treasures.

Despite the cries about how these fragments of our history had been commodified, who was to say if they were not better off in private hands?

Since then, many other Philippine objects have broke auction records. (Note please, that we are speaking here of objects, not master or contemporary paintings which have always been bankable auction favorites.)

Most notable among these were the sales of two important Hagabi or Ifugao prestige benches in 2020 and in 2022. In both cases, excellent provenance combined with age and aesthetics came together to exceed the P20-milion mark for each object.

Later in 2022, one Philippine indigenous object set a new world record when an Ifugao Bulul was sold at Christie’s in Paris for the equivalent of P36 million.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GALLERY DEUS | In 2022, one Philippine indigenous object set a new world record when an Ifugao Bulul was sold at Christie’s in Paris for the equivalent of P36 million.

The auction results and the ensuing publicity may have whet the appetite of both local and international collectors for more examples of Philippine indigenous arts. But more important than the covetous frenzy for objects (and the inevitable rise in prices) is the growing interest among young Filipinos. More and more, there is a resurgent interest in the culture of the indigenous. And it is tempered not by acquisitiveness but by an earnest desire to learn.

Whang-od’s tattoos and her recent Vogue cover were only the latest manifestations of this growing yearning, this return to the native, so to speak. It has been manifested in the interest in arnis and other forms of Philippine martial arts. In the study of Baybayin and other pre-Hispanic syllabaries. The deities, the heroes and heroines of pre-Hispanic epics now given human faces through graphic novels and, yes, AI.

Fashion, the most appropriative of the arts, has long mined the indigenous. But in the work of designers like Len Cabili, the production process now includes, and benefits, the indigenous weavers and embroiderers.

Music, the visual arts and, yes, social media are equally appropriative fields of expression, but now there is a consciousness among many content creators of context, of origin, of inclusivity and fair representation.

This is happening now, among younger Filipinos who may not have the means or the inclination to possess objects. But what they have — this curiosity, this ownership, this agency to learn and discover and protect this heritage — will guarantee that the most essential aspects of our indigenous cultures will survive and be shared. Long after all the objects have been bought off.


Floy Quintos is one of the most accomplished and awarded playwright-directors in the local performing arts scene. He is also well-known for his curatorial work on museum exhibitions in the Philippines and abroad, and is the owner of Gallery Deus, a shop specializing in Philippine tribal and colonial art.