Local Roots in Global Eyes

As much as I want to believe that Visayan street dance spectacles reflect truly local talents, it would be false to claim such colorful creativity as mere representations of “folk” imagination. Modern Visayan festival culture, rooted in spiritual abstraction & social realism, evolved out of international investment in its innovative local arts.

Even though Ati-Atihan is an event that celebrates the religious icon of Santo-Nino (Baby Jesus), its representation is far from “realist” aesthetics of religious devotion; full of color, life, indigenous animism and international creative support, it reflects many layers of local adaptations and global influence.

One of my first contacts on festival culture in the Philippines, Susan Arcega, director of Aliwan Festival, established a firm foundation for the role of international production involved in supporting regional street dance cultures. With a background in communication arts, Susan Arcega began her professional career as a program director hired by US information services at the US Cultural Assembly to study Philippine festivals. She later worked under British Council for its Cultural Center focused on East Asia, scouting and supporting artists to do collaborative work in the Philippines and Filipino diaspora communities in the UK, while also witnessing festival cultures across Southeast Asia. At this point, I am only speculating the international political linkages that influenced region-wide creative direction of these local street festivals, so I can further explore the role of international investment involved in local cultural arts.**

As Jonathan Beller discusses in Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-media System, 20th century Philippine literature and cinema poses a distinctive art history trajectory by switching between themes of abstraction & realism. However, it is only now that artist researchers are beginning to unpack the role of international political networks, like America CIA and British Intelligence Services, which funded cultural arts production in post-colonial states towards “spiritual abstraction” in order to challenge Russian communist-funded “social realism.” Could even Visayan festivals, often rooted in religious histories, also have had influences by decades of international politics?***(For More Details, See Footnote at End)

Today, Arcega builds on this international expertise in broadcast communications as a creative consultant, scriptwriter and director of Aliwan Festival. Hosted by Manila Broadcasting Company and Cultural Center of Philippines, Aliwan invites winning regional dance troupes to the Philippine capital to perform for a three-day concert, pageant and national street dance competition. For dance troupes across the Visayan region to have locally funded support and competitive status to participate in Aliwan is a huge honor. To win, is the ultimate bragging rights of community-based creative arts.

“The culture of Manila is now in television soap operas. It’s important to show, here in the capital, the cultural arts of dance and theater living across the 7,000 islands that make up this nation.”


The opportunity to join Aliwan Festival first requires talent, but also local political financial support, private corporate investment and community funds. During election years, the number of competitive troupes reduces as local leaders hold back resources. Being seen on national stage is a communal dream that needs capital! The model examples, like Sinulog, organize through a mix of private, public, secular and religious sectors to fund festival participation.


When a festival dance team delegate wins Aliwan, they bring bragging rights back to their community, which will likewise use this success to further promote their festival as a creative industry. From airline companies to hotels, to bars, to street vendors and craftsmen, whole economic infrastructures become built around the festival. Again, the best examples mobilize political support, public education funds and multinational corporate investors to build local economy around festival tourism.


Many scholars of Filipino festival cultures have established how the dance spectacles reflect a synthesis of pagan ritual and folk Catholicism. On one hand, many competitive street dances still reflect oral histories of ancient pasts passed down by folklorists. However, contemporary happenings including earthly disasters, quakes, typhoons, also make their way in competitive street dance storytelling to express the resilience of its peoples.

International judges for each competition have a criteria analyzing the adaptation, precision and innovation of storytelling. Thematic interpretations of folklore cannot just be retold for entertainments sake, but must be performed with a fusion of contemporary novelty and indigenous tradition. When international judges give critiques to develop and improve routines, the dance troupes return the next year with further refined choreography.

This is to say that:

Global communications network drive the creative direction of local mass cultural arts productions.

Regional folk arts develop in relationship to the international and cosmopolitan viewer.

It’s not just the standards of internationalism being judged, but the myriad private corporations, political collaborations and religious institutions in the structure of national competition that inspires innovation & draw uniqueness of local mode of street dance storytelling. 

Contemporary arts and culture in decolonizing nations is a living legacy of Cold War era parapolitical networks, in which American and British intelligence agencies, funded its artistic development. Local is global.


***I cannot speak on behalf of Arcega’s work history, but her description of her past alliances with US information services made me reflect on this exhibit.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) exhibit from last winter, “Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War” curated by Anselm Franke, Nida Ghouse, Paz Guevara, and Antonia Majaca

“The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organization founded in West Berlin in June 1950 by a group of writers driven to consolidate an “anti-totalitarian” intellectual community. From its headquarters in Paris, the CCF subsidized countless cultural programs from Latin America to Africa and Southeast Asia, developing a network of journals, conferences, and exhibitions that advanced a “universal” language of modernism in literature, art, and music.

By 1967, it was revealed that the CCF was secretly bankrolled by America’s espionage arm, the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA scandal confirmed that the CCF had been enlisted in shoring up an anti-Communist consensus in the service of U.S. hegemony during the cultural Cold War. The disclosure destroyed the CCF’s reputation, exposing the ideological contradictions and moral ambiguities of advocating freedom and transparency by means that were themselves outside of democratic accountability.

Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War is devoted to the global dimension of cultural politics in the Cold War and to the changing meanings and aims assigned to modernism. Departing from an examination of the interdependencies between the political and aesthetic struggles of the era, the exhibition further reflects the ideological foundations of the conflict lines of today’s global contemporary art.





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