Note: Post under revision while auditing the HarvardX MOOC, Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You
Illustration © Indira Endaya
My image reference: An old miniature takâ, a quirky souvenir which I rediscovered under layers of dust in the bedroom of the house I grew up in. I somehow managed to stick this little red horse into my suitcase before flying back to London in 2018. (Someone told me to bring back Red Horse beer but this was even better.) The keepsake is time-stamped with hand-painted letters: ‘December 30, 2001. Keith and Issa.’
Back in the day, I attended this out-of-town wedding with a friend and his family. I remember happily chatting with GCF whose car it was that took us on that long drive from Quezon City to the bride’s ancestral house in the lakeside town of Pakil. After the vows were exchanged in church, the town plaza pretty much turned into an arts fest with at least two generations of artists (sculptors, art film auteurs, new-age earth mamas, painters, poets, literal drama queens) invited to join in the dancing as a traditional marching band played. Fiesta food was laid out on outdoor tables which were set to include the special touch of the complimentary miniature red horses for us guests to take home.
Seven years after that, in another part of the world, I encountered another red horse. At the Ikea in Croydon, of all places. There it was, emblazoned on a huge banner hanging from two stories above a showcase of assembled flatpack furniture. Complete with white harness and handprinted floral decorations. No way, I said to myself. A huge promotional image of the good old takâ in Ikea?! I started to wonder how they poached the design then had it mass produced. Then thoughts of the effects of capitalism on small communities trickled in.
My original plan was to just take the tram home and enjoy the Färgrik mugs that sold for less than a pound; not to think about all the cultural appropriation baggage that came with what the banner advertised. Not to start mourning lost childhood memories of road trips to the woodcarving village of Paete in Laguna de Bay. Homesickness is so easy to trigger. Later, back in the flat, I did a bit of Googling and learned that as a matter of fact, the red horse is actually an iconic piece of folk art found all over Sweden, a national icon called the Dala Horse.
A Dalecarlian horse or Dala horse (/ˌdɑːləˈkɑːrliən/; Swedish: Dalahäst) is a traditional carved, painted wooden statue of a horse originating in the Swedish province of Dalarna (Dalecarlia). In the old days the Dalecarlian horse was mostly used as a toy for children; in modern times it has become a symbol of Dalarna, as well as of Sweden in general….One particular style has, however, become much more common and widespread than others. It is stoutly carved and painted bright red with details and a harness in white, green, yellow and blue.—https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalecarlian_horse
Ok It looks remarkably similar but it isn’t the same. It’s made of wood, not papier-mâché, I tell myself. However, I find that it dates back to the 16th century and it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to say it could probably even be where the takâ got its look. For some reason, this compelled me to gather more intel online.
Old folks claim that Mexican friars introduced takâ-making to the pueblo of Paete some centuries ago as a cottage industry for the female population while the males worked on woodcarving.—https://traveleronfoot.wordpress.com/tag/papier-mache-of-paete/
The Paeteños believe that the idea originated in Mexico with a significant difference to what we have in Paete. While the Mexican “pinata” is decorated with cut-off colored paper, the Paete’s takâ are hand-painted and are sometimes small enough for little girls to use as dolls.
According to the Paete Phenomenon exhibited in the Bulwagang Juan Luna at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Maria Bague made the first known taka in 1920s. It was wrapped around a mold carved from wood and painted with decorative pattern that eventually became toys and ornaments. Unfortunately, nobody knows if Maria Bague’s taka ever existed as her town was destroyed by fire and almost all traces of the takas she produced have vanished.—PAETE’S TAKA by: Mailah Baldemor
Taka was pioneered by Paete local, Maria Piday. During Christmas, Piday was in charge of the church’s decorations. The wooden angels and cherub was heavy causing the carvings to fall. Piday devised the lightweight taka paper mache as an alternative to the wooden sculptures. Piday was also a maker of local toys such as the yoyo and the small acrobat hand puppet. Taka eventually became folk art and was sold to nearby towns for festivals. In the 1970s, Tere Afuang, a knowledgeable practitioner of the craft, popularized the craft.
Due to exposure and migration of Paete residents to Manila and abroad, European- influenced paper mache toys began to be made for export to other countries, such as Germany. Taka images now include those of Santa Claus, reindeer, giraffes, and other subjects that are in demand.—https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taka_(paper_mache)
This Maria Piday/Maria Bague: had she perhaps stumbled upon a galleon-trade wooden horse with a Spanish-Swedish provenance? Then maybe she used it as a base for the cast and painted it red but in her own floral style similar to jeepney art? Hmmm.
I asked Mama about it. A child of true Paetenians, she was quite protective of the takâ heritage as I expected and thought a Swedish connection was a bit far-fetched. She then suggested that it could be a case of repetitive patterns in anthropology; archetypes. On whether horses are indigenous to the Laguna area, she said she didn’t exactly know but weren’t T’bolis known to make earrings from horsehair and wasn’t Gabriela Silang supposed to have ridden a horse in Pangasinan? Also there seems to be no available research on the export of takâ horses as most of our local history seems to be oral-based.
I could only find Western pieces of scholarship on the net mentioning Swedish identity and exported dala horses from Southeast Asia. It was supposed to include a picture of the takâ and the Dala horse which was not available online but the notes say:
“The similarity of the two horses calls to mind Hitchcock’s (1998, p132) reporting of a version of a Bavarian castle in the Indonesian village museum of Taman Mini.”Hanefors, Monica & Selwyn, Tom. (2019). Dalecarlian Masques: One Souvenir’s Many Voices. 10.4324/9781315187457-19.
Wait, so what I thought was a heritage craft is just cheap replica? The colonial chip on my shoulder hurts, man.
There must be something there. Can of worms? Unturned stone? All ripe for my future speculative historical literary work to emerge (haha).
So many stories that are not part of the legitimised narrative. So many in-betweens.
Their conclusion though, had the same kinds of questions I always asked:
“The coming of globalisation, as several disguises (the Philippine and Danish Horses, the cast of Rinkeby horses, the Horse as kangaroo, for example) indicated, raised many kinds of interrelated questions about national identity. What does globalisation do to countries, their myths, legends, and the identities of their populations?…Are Philippine ritual artefacts as transient as the Dala Horse itself seems to be? How can A Gambian or Columbian immigrant become Swedish? and so on.Hanefors, Monica & Selwyn, Tom. (2019). Dalecarlian Masques: One Souvenir’s Many Voices. 10.4324/9781315187457-19.
Takâ, is neither a Swedish Dalecarlan horse nor a Mexican piñata. Perhaps it could be a mix of both and I might have happily lost the plot here because the point may no longer be about provenance but innovation, borders and cross-cultural pollination. It’s certainly another signifier to add to the collected narratives on Filipino national identity. (Just like the jeepney, the kalesa, San Miguel Beer, Mexican Mangoes that came from the Philippines via the galleon trade, the karaoke and the yo-yo origin story.)
So. Here’s to the non-essentialist, the post-colonial, the outsourced, the innovative, the repurposed folk arts and crafts. (Note to self: revisit old texts post-Benedict Anderson and Edward Said then spike this with a dash of Mark Fisher on consciousness-raising, ha!)
Further links that reminded me of this object:
- a talk by the artist Jenny Odell, noting that the Sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines actually came from the Himalayas
- a post on Rene Redzepi’s instagram where I learned that the Mexican mango came from the Philippines during the galleon trade
- tinikling dance performed by Chinese school kids
- the film Turumba
- Image of the Manila Sarao jeepney labelled as part of amazing decorated trucks of India
Monica Hanefors & Tom Selwyn. (2019). Dalecarlian Masques: One Souvenir’s Many Voices. 10.4324/9781315187457-19.
Mark Fisher, K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016), ed. Darren Ambrose, London 2018.