Thursday, March 22, 2007

tabaco exhibit

Photo exhibit pays tribute to dying native tobacco culture

“I grew up on my lolo’s lap,” says Jose Enrique Soriano, “and he used to smoke cigars and pipes. So the aroma of tobacco always brings him back.”
His current exhibit, Tabaco, is inspired by memories of his grandfather and the hours of joy spent on his grandfather’s knee, enveloped in a comforting scent of habanas, Half and Half, and Mixture 79.
The collection of 40 prints pays tribute to the men and women in Ilocos Sur, where the culture of tobacco was born, and thrived for the past few centuries. It focuses on the “native” tobacco and the process of what the Ilocanos call‘Dobla’, the hand rolling of a whole tobacco leaf, cut in half. One half is used as a filler, the other as a wrapper--the same technique the Spaniards learned from the Mayan Indians, who were the first to smoke tobacco. The Spaniards brought this to Europe, and later to their colonies. When they reached the Philippines, Ilocos became the center of tobacco production.
The “native” tobacco used by the rollers today are of a similar variety, if not from the very same seeds Spanish friars took to the province from Cuba. This variant has been kept alive in small farms, as the plantations were replanted with Virginia tobacco by the Americans for the cigarette industry.
The ‘Dinobla’ cigar and the “native” tobacco are now a dying trade. It is the culture of this industry, kept alive by the fading numbers of tobacco growers and rollers, that Soriano captures in this exhibit.
Soriano frequently found himself in Ilocos over his 20-year career as a photojournalist covering the Philippines and Southeast Asia. “I used to watch the workers, and their toil would fascinate me,” he continues. Even when he lived abroad and other brands were readily available, Soriano stayed loyal to cigarillos produced and rolled in the Philippines. “I always asked people to bring some over for me,” he recalls.
As soon as Soriano returned to the Philippines from a 10-year stint in Singapore, he packed his bags and returned to Ilocos and shot the first part of the series. The project was shelved for almost two years, however, as Soriano continued with commercial and editorial assignments.
“It was also getting expensive,” he admits. Soriano is one of the few photographers who still works in the traditional way, using film and processing and printing out of his own darkroom. “It was also getting difficult sourcing paper and chemicals locally.” Last year, the project was revived when a friend suggested Soriano approach Instituto Cervantes, the arts and culture arm of the Spanish Embassy, for a grant.
Unlike other institutions that demanded a “methodology and scope of work,” Soriano says with a laugh, “Instituto Cervantes immediately understood the value of the work.” He returned to the Ilocos in September 06, and by December, had completed the series that is now on exhibit. Like most of his work, all the prints were shot with a Hasselblad and his trusty old Leicas on black and white film.
Soriano is known for the striking quality of his work. “They are stills that can still you,” remarked one writer of his 2004 show, Episodes, which documented mental illness in the Mandaluyong facility. The same can be said of this exhibit—albeit this time around, it’s a gentler, more settled Soriano that gives us the images. Only a calm, mature soul can express the stateliness in a worker’s gnarled hands; bring the viewer to near tears with woman’s tired gaze as she puffs proudly on piece of freshly-rolled tobacco; evoke the same restfulness with an image of women rolling cigars on their silyons, tired yet grateful.
When asked what his lolo would say if he saw the prints, Soriano pauses. “He’d say nothing—he’d just probably ask me to help him roll a cigar.”
His images—like his grandfather’s memories, a puff of smoke from a perfect cigar, and Soriano himself—speak softly, but their voices resonate and linger over time.

Tabaco runs till April 29, 2007 at the Silverlens Gallery, Pasong Tamo, Makati, Philippines. Artist's talk by Jose Enrique Soriano, "Sticking to the Path of Documentary Photography," will be on April 14, 2007, 3-5PM.

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