CARLOS CELDRAN standing in front of the Leandro Locsin Cultural Center of the Philippines during his Livin’ La Vida Imelda tour, Manila, 2006. Photo by Juan Caguicla.

With a Wink and a Nudge

Carlos Celdran

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Cultural activist and performance artist Carlos Celdran is “a man who is trying to change the way you look at Manila—one step at a time,” as he puts it on Walk This Way, a blog about his city walking tours. For almost a decade, he has been attracting a growing audience to daily tours that reflect on the Manila of the past and, he hopes, provide a vision for the city’s future. 

One of his tours is based on the life of Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. In Livin’ la Vida Imelda (2011), Celdran describes the former first lady’s efforts to host a Miss Universe pageant in Manila in 1974: she had a postmodernist building erected in a record 77 days, the grass painted green, coconuts nailed onto palm trees, not to mention a Boeing jet flying overhead releasing dry ice to repel rain clouds. “As the wife of the dictator,” Celdran jests during the performance, “this is of course horrific. But would you hire her to organize your special event? I think so!”

Given his caustic sense of humor, it seems fitting that Celdran was the youngest professional cartoonist in the Philippines when, at the age of 14, he began working on political cartoons at Manila’s BusinessDay newspaper (now BusinessWorld) in 1986, just after the People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos. “It taught me how to laugh at things,” he explains. Today, his tours are like interactive political cartoons on the Marcos era and colonial Manila, tackling the sociopolitical issues that are at the heart of Filipino identity and history. Engaging with his audience is something Celdran does well, both on- and offline. In 2008, he was reaching approximately 800 people per day through his blog and social-media sites; today, he boasts a combined audience of 200,000. “It may be nothing compared to Paris Hilton, but it’s not bad for an artist and tour guide living in Manila,” he quips. 

Social media is transforming existing power structures in a country where half the voting population is 25 years old or younger. “Until now, information was only given in one direction, whether it was from the colonizers, the Catholic Church, Ferdinand Marcos, or traditional media,” he explains. “Now, we can actually talk back and interact with the news around us and that makes a big difference. Without the internet, the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill would still be languishing”—referring to what he calls a “G-rated bill” to promote basic sex education and contraception in a country with one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Celdran has been a vocal advocate of the RH Bill for the past few years, despite much opposition by local religious and political interests. The Catholic Church is charging 159 professors at Ateneo de Manila University with heresy for supporting the bill. Celdran shrugs, “It’s all a sign of a desperate end. The Philippines is the last bastion of Catholic conservatism. But I don’t want to jinx it,” he adds—as the bill is expected to pass before Congress this fall, supported by President Beningo Aquino III.

It was after staging a highly publicized protest against Church opposition to the RH Bill in September 2010 that Celdran was propelled into the public eye. Dressed in period costume as 19th-century author and national hero José Rizal, Celdran entered Manila Cathedral during Sunday mass carrying a sign saying “Damaso”—referring to the priest in Rizal’s Noli Me Tángere (1887), a novel exposing abuses by Spanish friars and the elite in colonial Philippines. Celdran’s sign-toting image made headlines and was understood instantly by all Filipinos, who are obliged to read Rizal’s novel at school. Overnight, his audience went from a few hundred to many thousands: the “Free Carlos Celdran” Facebook page garnered 30,000 “likes.” Yet, while his message may have resonated with the masses and highlighted the bill, it also landed him in jail for a night, and he continues to attend trials for “offending religious feelings,” as per Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code. 

In March this year, Celdran stirred up more controversy, this time overseas, at Art Dubai, where he was invited to stage a tour through the art fair, based on Imelda Marcos’s state visit to Libya in the 1970s. The artist delivered an imagined conversation between Muammar Gaddafi and Imelda Marcos on passages from the Quran. However, his performance was interrupted by security guards who pulled him aside for questioning, before asking him to complete the tour away from the exhibition area. After finishing his performance in the parking lot, he was taken in for further interrogation by local police. “When I was talking about a country sacrificing freedom of speech and human rights for the sake of economic development, and using art and culture as opium for the masses, I wasn’t talking about Dubai today; I was talking about the Philippines in 1976!” This experience underlined what Celdran had taken for granted in his home country: freedom of expression as an artist. “Shocking anybody in the Philippines is something you really have to work hard for,” he jokes. 

Celdran’s work revolves entirely around Manila, yet he did spend a few years in the United States, first at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1990s, then interning with the Blue Man Group and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Upon returning to the Philippine capital, he began his walking tours in 2002 and opened an exhibition space called the Living Room, where he invites overseas guests and local residents to lecture and exhibit on topics ranging from S&M to contemporary architecture. His audience is English-speaking, and middle to upper class. He admits that his work is not yet directed to a mass audience in what is a highly stratified society—although many issues he takes up are of general social and political import. 

Every year, for example, Celdran commemorates the Battle of Manila, a one-month campaign by the United States Army in February and March 1945, during World War II, to “liberate” the country from Japanese occupation. The air raids and shelling resulted in a bloodbath that destroyed Old Manila. For Celdran, this episode marks a transition point for the city, which he observes with a barter tour of Intramuros, the restored old city. “Pay me in fruits, vegetables, art, household appliances, a car—anything!” says his blog. The annual art festival and concert focuses on “the city that was and the city that can be.”

Celdran says ten years from now he expects to be doing exactly what he is doing today. His work is a daily practice that evolves in different ways, with different challenges, but always building on the past to project a new vision of Manila society, whether through his walking tours or the pictures of “random acts of beauty” and Manila Bay “sunset alerts” posted on his Facebook page. He aims for nothing less than a sociocultural paradigm shift in how people understand themselves as Filipinos, at least in his immediate social network, on- or offline. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze spoke about creative expression as a form of resistance—resistance against general opinion, against stupidity and against the status quo. For Celdran, art is a form of resistance, which he undertakes one step, wink and nudge at a time.