Fading Traditions: 3 'Vanishing' Crafts In The Philippines

We pay homage to three, little-known traditional crafts that are at the brink of disappearing, mainly due to a lack of active practitioners. 

All countries have their own unique forms of traditional crafts, practices that carry entire histories and narratives that span generations. Much like oral storytelling, families pass down these arts from generation to generation, or master to apprentice. As long as there are enough people practicing them, these crafts live on.

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However, as much as we want to preserve the country’s rich traditions—and the Philippines has plenty—certain circumstances make this endeavor a challenging one, especially in an increasingly modernized and globalized world

A photo of a woman from the tribes of Davao district, Mindanao
A photo of a woman from the tribes of Davao district, Mindanao (c. 1913)/Photo from the Field Museum Library via Wikimedia Commons

Socioeconomic conditions in the Philippines further complicate things, making it difficult for traditional artists to pursue their crafts while being able to support themselves (and their families) financially. The time, effort, and resources required to carry on these traditions are slowly becoming a luxury that not many people can afford. 

Still, we can remain optimistic, despite the circumstances. As long as there are people who strive to remember and create records of these precious crafts, they can revive them in some way. 

On that note, here are three “vanishing” local crafts that deserve to be celebrated for their beauty and cultural significance:

Borlas de Pastillas: The Art of Cutting Paper Wrappers

Pastillas are a cherished treat in the Philippines due to their distinctively sweet and milky flavor; but that’s not the only thing about the dessert that captivates. Even the tassels of its colorful Japanese paper wrappers can sport intricate embellishments. 

Labor of Love

If you open up a package of borlas de pastillas or pastillas pabalat, you’ll find a delectable selection of sweets with designs that artisans cut, one by one, by hand. The nature of these designs reflect aspects of Filipino culture, and feature iconography like the bahay kubo or native flowers. 

The art of borlas de pastillas
The art of borlas de pastillas/Photo by Mary Grace Nuevas from PAGCOR’s official Facebook

It’s a labor of love and a significant part of San Miguel, Bulacan’s traditions. It’s also more than half-a-century old according to an article from Rappler. The late Luz Ocampo is the progenitor of this complex craft. She passed away at age 93 in 2016, but her daughter Naty Ocampo continues the tradition and strives to teach it to younger generations. 

Pastillas with handcut wrappers or "pabalat"
Pastillas with handcut wrappers or “pabalat”/Photo from the Tangled Noodle blogspot

Preserving Artistic Paper Cutting

Sadly, despite its popularity and significance, the precious art form is slowly fading due to its inherently taxing process. Creating these delicate wrappers can consume a lot of time and energy. Unfortunately, these are things that not many people have the patience or resources to deal with in the age of technology. 

Still, those who wish to preserve the beautiful art are doing whatever they can to pass it down to anyone who’s interested. For example, Ruth Giron—one of Luz Ocampo’s former students—continues the practice and holds a variety of workshops on the art, as per a report from The LaSallian

Pukpuk (Repoussé): The Art of Embellishing Metal Through Hammering 

Encyclopedia Britannica defines the art of repoussé as a “method of decorating metals in which parts of the design are raised in relief from the back of the article by means of hammers and punches.” It’s a craft that dates as far back as the fourth century across multiple cultures—including the Philippines. 

Ancient Tradition

In an article for the University of the Philippines Alumni, Bryle B. Suralta wrote: “Our Visayan ancestors were famous for repoussé. […] The term is derived from the French word ‘pousser,’ which means ‘to push forward.’ It peaked in popularity in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.” 

A pre-colonial gold stud showcases our ancestors' use of the repoussé technique
A pre-colonial gold stud showcases our ancestors’ use of the repoussé technique/Photo from the Ayala Museum website

Though repoussé is a vanishing craft in the country, some artisans of Pampanga still practice it to this day, referring to it as pukpuk.” One can see vestiges of its popularity in the metal crowns and halos found on old saint statues and other religious sculptures. 

The country’s pre-colonial people were already practicing the art, even before the Spaniards arrived and “magnified” it, according to Suralta. This is evident in pieces of ancient gold jewelry and other adornments from archeological digs.

Contemporary Translation

Crown of Creation
“Crown of Creation” (brass repoussé) by Jandy Carvajal/Photo from Jandy Carvajal’s official website

Jandy Carvajal—an assistant professor of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Baguio—has made it his life’s goal to amplify and preserve the old metalwork craft. He transposes it to a more modern context, using the technique on materials like aluminum sheets from milk cans. 

“Repoussé, in general, can be done even with the common foil we have at home, just as long as we are careful enough not to puncture them. Pencils, popsicle sticks, and more can be used as tools, too,” continued Suralta. 

Kut-kut: The Art of Composing Multi-Layered, Textural Masterpieces

Among the three art forms mentioned in this list, kut-kut is probably the most enigmatic one. Filipino-American artist Fred DeAsis labels it as a “lost ancient Philippine art style and technique based on early century art forms.” 

A few of DeAsis' kut-kut artworks
A few of DeAsis’ kut-kut artworks/Photo from Fred DeAsis’ official website

According to DeAsis, several family generations in Samar province passed down the craft, which he had learned it from his father and grandfather. He presented his traveling exhibit entitled Kut-kut — Lost Art of the Philippines to a crowd of fellow artists and curators in Chicago. The 2008 showcase drew the attention of many admirers, and highlighted an artform that would’ve otherwise faded into obscurity. 

So what exactly is kut-kut? The artist described it as a technique that combined various art forms, including sgraffito, encaustic, and tribal inscriptions. One can identify these pieces by their “delicate swirling interwoven lines, multi-layered texture, and an illusion of three-dimensional space.” 

Some of DeAsis' kut-kut works were on display at the Yale University Art Gallery
Some of DeAsis’ kut-kut works were on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, which houses a significant encyclopedic collection of art/Photo from Fred DeAsis’ official website

Kut-kut incorporates the sgraffito technique, which involves layering paint and scratching off these layers with a pointed object to create different impressions. It also applies techniques in encaustic painting, which incorporates layers of heated and dyed beeswax, animal fat, and other raw materials. 

Artisans used to store works inside a slotted bamboo box, before placing the box in a crawl space of their nipa-covered houses [bahay kubo] for the slow curing process, according to DeAsis. The artist stated that it takes months to complete a single kut-kut piece due to the laborious process of layering, dyeing, and drying these emulsive mixtures.

Banner photo by Mary Grace Nuevas from PAGCOR’s official Facebook.

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