We are where we are not
Marrian Pio Roda Ching
Art is an invitation to inhabit spaces that are as infinite as our imagination allows, but imagination, even as it holds the promise of infinity, is also limited by our memory. One cannot imagine what one cannot remember, and memory helps us in our articulation of the unknown as we associate angels with light, spirits with scents.
Imagining Muslim spaces is difficult in a predominantly Christian country like the Philippines, with our imagination mostly linked to memories that associate Islam with fear and terror. This association extends to our collective imagination as Filipinos, as the word Moro was used by Spanish colonizers to name Muslims whom missionaries described as “swindlers and traitors, generous with words and yet accomplish nothing at all.”
It is in this context that Toym Imao and Lilianna Manahan collaborated on Manara (2017), an installation whose name is an Arabic word that roughly translates to “lighthouse.” It features interpretations of the tower associated with the Mohammedan mosque, from which a muezzin recites the adhan or call to prayer. Friedrich Zacharias Schwally suggests that this architectural feature was called manara because of the lamp that the muezzin carries at night, giving the tower the appearance of a lighthouse.
Initially set up at the Ayala Museum Plaza in Makati, it was then housed within the corridors of Ayala Malls in Davao and Cebu. In 2018, it was brought to Cotabato City.
For two years, the minarets stood near the entrance of a compound housing the seat of what is now called the Bangsamoro Regional Government. At the heart of the installation is a towering steel sculpture by Imao, with five minarets that represent the five pillars of Islam. As one walks into the structure on their way to the Office of the Chief Minister, one cannot help but stop and look up to the sky.
For a moment, one can easily imagine the colorful steel birds coming to life. Inside the structure, the memory of movement takes over as one watches the birds fly towards the vast, immense sky.
“Those are cranes, aren’t they?” a friend from Manila asked me as she pointed at the birds that have become emblematic of Imao’s recent works (Monument for the Pursuit of Happiness, 2017; Kasunduan, 2019). I told her they were sarimanok, mythical birds prominent in Meranaw culture.
My friend and I were both raised Catholic in Southern Luzon, but at the time I had already been working in the Bangsamoro for years. Looking at the steel birds, it was easy for me to imagine the sarimanok of the Meranaw, but I could also imagine the paper cranes my friend and I folded as children.
Walking around the installation meant a constant interrogation of my identity as a Filipino, while it was a process of discovery for a friend who found herself in Mindanao for the first time. The word I had for the woven mat featured in one of Manahan’s interpretations of the minaret was tepo, while my friend referred to it as banig. Another minaret featured brass gongs that my friend simply called kulintang, while I had a name for every gong depending on its supposed position in the antangan.
Every minaret featured something from the Bangsamoro, objects whose names I would have never known had I stayed in Luzon. The Filipino I once identified with had always located Muslims in an imagined elsewhere, a place so far from me it might have not existed at all.
And yet it exists. I look at the minarets and find myself using words in languages that are not mine — Meranaw, Tausug, Sama Bajau — for it is the only way I could name things without erasing what they really are.
Imao references Mindanao and the Bangsamoro in his work, owing to his father’s Tausug roots. Instinctively, he marries it with the sensibilities of Filipinos from Luzon where his mother was raised. Manahan, on the other hand, hails from Luzon and went to Lanao for the first time as she worked on her versions of the minaret.
While it features diversity in its attempt to appease conflict we inherited from our colonizers, Manara also invites us to interrogate what it means to inhabit a country where forgetting Mindanao and its history is of little to no consequence. It invites us to interrogate what it means to be a Filipino who sees Moros and Muslims as strangers who are always elsewhere, their identities discarded from our collective imagination.
Manara is an invitation to confront our ignorance in an “exchange of truths,” with the hopes of “mending what is broken.” We find ourselves among its minarets either as towers confident in our smallness, or as birds yearning to fly as far as the skies would allow.
 Jose Montero y Vidal. El Archipiélago Filipino y las Islas Marianas, Carolinas, y Palaos: Su Historia, Geográfia, y Estadística (Madrid: 1886). https://books.google.com.ph/books/about/El_archipiélago_Filipino_y_las_islas_Ma.html?id=mnAYAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y.
 Friedrich Schwally. “Lexikalische Studien.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 52 (1898), pp. 132–48.
Marrian Pio Roda Ching is a writer and editor based in Cotabato City. She currently works in the interim Bangsamoro Parliament led by the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.