Different people can look at the same grain of rice and see different things. Rice, to farmers, represents food security and their children’s future. Economists see a form of currency, while governments view it as a means to achieve sociopolitical stability. For scientists, rice is a key to ending global hunger.
But rice can also be a muse. The humble grain has inspired artists to conceive exhilarating bursts of creative expressions captured on canvass, in tapestries, on film, in poetry and song, and in many other forms of art.
A grain of soul
“Most people see rice as something you eat, but there is more to rice,” said Kwanchai Gomez, executive director of The Asia Rice Foundation (ARF) and former scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). “There’s something inside it that’s not physical. Rice has a soul.”
Not surprisingly, the “soul of rice” has been immortalized in so many ways because rice is part and parcel of many Asian cultures. “In Asia, culture is rice-based,” Dr. Gomez explained. “Many things such as festivals and rituals originated from rice because most of the Asians before were farmers. Agriculture was our bread and butter and a large proportion of the people deal with rice farming. Rice is in the culture itself.”
“The connection between rice and the arts is the affirmation of the essentiality of rice to Filipino life, and to most, if not all, Asians,” Corazon Alvina, former director of the National Museum of the Philippines, wrote in Rice in the Seven Arts, a collection of essays published by ARF in celebration of the 2004 International Year of Rice.
Rice on canvas
Initiated by Dr. Gomez, Rice in the Seven Arts features the role of the golden grain in Philippine traditional dances, music, theater, motion pictures, architecture, literature, and the visual arts. In the field of visual arts, paintings in particular, rice was the subject of some of the Philippines’ iconic artists, among them, Carlos Botong Francisco (Angelus), Fabian de la Rosa (Planting Rice), Cesar Legaspi (Gleaners), Jose Blanco (Lucban), and Anita Magsaysay-Ho (In the Rice Field), to name a few.
But, Fernando Amorsolo was perhaps the most famous Filipino painter who used rice as a subject in his art. Although his artistic talent virtually knew no bounds, he is celebrated for his vibrant depiction of the ideal beauty of the Philippine rice landscape and the romanticized life of Filipino farmers and peasants.
He was born in 1892 in pre-war Manila, which, even then, was keen on shedding all traces of its agrarian past. His family, however, moved to Camarines Norte in southern Luzon soon after. Growing up in a rustic environment, the rice-driven rhythm of rural life made an indelible mark on the young Amorsolo, according to his daughter, Sylvia Amorsolo-Lazo.
“He wanted to portray what he saw every day—the simple life of Filipinos and their daily chores,” said Mrs. Amorsolo-Lazo, herself an artist. His paintings also depicted how the cultivation of rice acted as a cohesive force that bound families and communities together, she added. “In Afternoon Meal of Rice Workers, you could see the families, relatives, and farm laborers working together, their lives closely entwined. It is there in the rice fields where they eat their lunch and supper.”
“Rice fields were not close to homes,” Jane Allinson remarked in Maestro Fernando C. Amorsolo. “The harvesters worked from early morning until dusk. They did not have time to return home for meals; they either brought food or food was brought to them.”
Rice through the maestro’s eyes
It was in 1922 when Mr. Amorsolo focused his creative depiction of rural life as colorful and effortless. His peasants welcomed the grueling labor involved in every stage of producing rice, from transplanting the seedlings to harvesting the grains, and winnowing the chaff, with gentle smiles on their faces.
“Idealized agricultural Philippine scenes are the heart of Amorsolo’s work,” said Ms. Allinson. “There is no hint of the extremely arduous work and the uncomfortable task of constantly bending to plant seedlings in a flooded field that provides unstable footing.”
“The works of Mr. Amorsolo are an iconographic representation of the countryside,” Mr. Patrick Flores, professor of Philippine art history, noted in Rice and the Seven Arts. “This ideal is a political construction of a Philippines insulated from the material constitution of war, imperialism, urbanization, and industrialization.”
“His art showed how he wanted life to be and not how it really was,” said Romeo “Romi” MananQuil, an accomplished Filipino artist. “It is idealism on canvas, more of interpretations than representations. Of course, every artist sees and interprets life in his own way.”
Blood, sweat, and beauty
Artists do see the world in more ways than one. Through their works, they allow us to use our eyes not just as an organ of sight but as a sense of insight.
Many farmers have been conditioned to regard themselves as tillers of the earth and lowly workers. But perhaps, like Belle, the lead character in the story The beauty and the beast, Mr. Amorsolo was looking past the profuse sweat and the tired muscles to reveal the inner beauty of the hardened life most people do not see. Through his eyes, he could find every reason to feel proud and joyful because they produce the grains that make it possible for towns and cities to exist in the first place.
“This is hot, dry, and uncomfortable work,” said British artist John Dyer. But in the midst of the back-breaking labor that supports only a meager standard of living, his paintings captured what art director Sue Hill aptly described as the sheer human thrill of being alive. “It is a tough harvest but one that is worth celebrating,” Mr. Dyer said.
A new crop of soul seekers
Although the idyllic agrarian life that stirred and stoked the passions of venerated artists of the past has largely given way to urbanization, the fascination with the staple grain as a subject of paintings and other art forms is very much alive among the newer generation of artists.
Aside from winter and fall scenes, Mr. MananQuil, now based in Canada, continues to paint Philippine subjects,rice planting included, but from another angle. “Although I have always admired the works of Amorsolo, his colors especially, I do not exactly subscribe to his idealized romanticist style,” he said. “I paint what I see and feel. Beauty inspires me, but there is also something in life’s ugliness that drives me to paint. Pastoral life is not always beautiful. Oftentimes, it is more of a struggle than a picnic.”
For Indonesian visual artist Agus Kama Loedin, rice, as his subject, stemmed from the jump in rice prices in 2008. He wanted to contribute something that would draw attention to the price rise, being an indicator of the world rice crisis for all rice-consuming countries, and also its impact on the people of major rice-consuming nations.
Mr. Loedin used montage and mirror techniques to create his pieces in his 2009 art exhibit “Patterns: Rice-Life” in IRRI’s Riceworld Museum. Montage is the use of multiple images, though he generally sticks to the use of one image and repeats it, transforming it into multiple images. Mirror, on the other hand, simply takes a starting image and then mirrors it to create a completely new image.
Through his art works, which also incorporate images, objects, music, poetry, and dance, Mr. Loedin beautifully and accurately depicts one of Asia’s most vital sources of life. “Rice is life,” he said. “You are not planting it for nothing. It is for eating, for food, for life.” He has already taken steps forward for his next exhibit and, just like rice, Loedin and his art are constantly growing and evolving in what is simply a pattern of life.
Ms. Dobermann is a student at the University of Victoria in Canada and wasa trainee in IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services.