ERMITANEO. While walking along Mabini Street under the glaring mid-morning sun, a street-side vendor selling yosi, candies, bottled water, along with excavated Asian ceramics, rusty Maranao kris, and ethnic Kalinga necklaces invited me to check out his merchandise. Welcome to Ermita’s antique district.
Antiques, tribal artifacts, and folk art are beautiful objects with intrinsic and historical value. They give hints at our culture and can inspire a feeling of connection to the different periods in our history. They are expensive providers of inspiration. That is why I visit antique stores in Ermita mostly to satisfy my visual cravings for our ancestral heritage more than to shop.
NUESTRA SEÑORA DE GUIA. I usually start my walks around this district in its Church that houses the oldest antique statuette of the Virgin Mary in the country. When the Spanish arrived in the seaside village of Lagyo, the old name of Ermita, the natives were found venerating a wooden icon set atop a clump of pandan plant. Its head and shoulders were carved from narra and body from molave with fading swirls of blue, red, and gold. The men sent by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi were quick in convincing the villagers that the image of the Nuestra Señora de Guia was brought by angels.
A chapel was built not far from where the image was found. This same chapel went through several reconstructions and expansions on the same site along Del Pilar Street. High on the main altar of the present Ermita Church is the original antique icon now glowing in golden robes, bedecked with jewels, curly wig and crown, and holding a baston de mando that was presented to the image by a galleon commander for saving his ship from a storm upon the invocation of Ermita’s titular patroness. The original provenance and how the image of the Nuestra Señora de Guia ended up in the beach in Ermita centuries ago remains a mystery.
REPRO AND ORIG. The priced items in Ermita stores are the rare santos, colonial jewelry like the tambourine, excavated pottery and ceramics, tribal artifacts that were used in rituals like the bulol, old wood furniture like a mesa altar from Baliwag, a galinera from Batangas and a lamesa from Bohol.
They are sold side-by-side with copycat versions. A seasoned antique hunter can easily spot a well-made reproduction from an authentic piece inside a crowded antique store at a glance or at close inspection.
GALLERY DEUS. Antique dealers and their reliable
storekeepers are good mentors on how to spot a repro versus an authentic piece. Multi-awarded playwright Floy Quintos is always an exciting company at Gallery Deus. His store at the Faura Center specializes in antique santos and tribal art.
In one of my visits, he sends me an Ifugao spoon with a polished patina that according to Floy cannot be copied not even by the best fakers. But more to the patina and encrustation on the surface of an object, the intangible spirit of an antique santo or an old bulol cannot be captured in a fake.
SPOT THE REAL ONES. Housed in the stately pre-war Casa Tesoro is Maria Closa, an antique store that specializes in tribal artifacts from the Cordilleras. This antique store is airy, filled with light, and well-curated enough that it can be mistaken for a museum. On pedestals are darken Kalinga jars next to massively heavy kinabigat. There is a display shelf of bulols in different age and sizes and a table lined with ritual boxes, spoons, and plates, and Ifugao baskets.
To train the eye and instinct to spot real antiques and tribal art, Gallery Deus and Maria Closa are the stores to visit when in Ermita.
MABINI STREET. Close to the antique stores are art stores that sell framed paintings on canvas depicting folk and rural scenes bursting with tropical colors. This has become the character of the Mabini Art Movement, a genre in Philippine paintings that took its name from Mabini Street. In one of my recent walks, I took a photo of a group of artworks sunning at a corner along Mabini. It reminded me of artist friend Jose Yap Baguio who spent painting his last works under the lamp post near Ermita Church.
It was also on Mabini Street in 1966 where Paul McCartney with his group the Beatles chose to spend the afternoon as tourists after ignoring the invitation of the Marcoses in Malacanang. In one of the art stores along Mabini, McCartney bought a painting by Ben Cabrera for 70 pesos!
UNUSUAL BREAK IN 1973. On my way to Mabini Street one morning for my usual rounds of antique window shopping, I dropped by Solidaridad hoping to catch National Artist for Literature F Sionil Jose. He wasn’t in the bookstore but read about this short narrative entitled Memento of Martial Law. Framed with a Sheafer fountain pen, it tells about an unusual break in that took place in bookstore a year after the declaration of Martial Law.
EPILOGUE. Visiting stores in Ermita is a delightful way to learn our culture and our historic past.