Copy of an Inquirer News Service
SHE wears her faith on her rings, around her neck and on her arms.
For New York-based jewelry designer Mary Ann Ubaldo, what may seem like body ornament or fancy accessories may in fact be deeply spiritual. "Jewelry is usually handed through generations, so it is wrapped in the mystique of ages," she notes.
More so if their design are inspired by the pre-hispanic Filipino alphabet, the alibata or baybayin which, Ubaldo claims, has a strong psychic force born of centuries-old belief systems. "Even before the Spaniards colonized us with their Christian faith, our ancestors already beleived in parallel gods and goddesses, most of them found in nature."
Using Baybayin in modern jewelry design is "a way of reconnecting to our past and finding our spiritual core," adds this 49-year-old community activist. Her forays into the Internet and public libraries in New York to research on the Alibata, Ubaldo says, led her to her mutya, her muse, "an inner guiding spirit" that she identifies as "our ancestors." Their voices, she says, nudged her to make a pilgrimage to
Mt. Banahaw where she found common folk fusing Christianity with native beliefs. "It's not so unusual to find that in Mt. Banahaw, there are cults that worship Jose Rizal. For them, Rizal is like Jesus Christ in that he also died for us.
So fascinated was she with Filipino Spirituality that Ubaldo last year launched a series of jewelry designs based on it in Quaipo, "the center of Filipino Spirituality." The launch was at Bahay Nakpil-Bautista, now a museum but also a former plateria and the ancestral house of Gregoria de Jesus Nakpil, the widow of Katitpunan founder Andres Bonifacio. The designs revolve around the themes, "Maka-Diyos, Maka-Tao, Maka-Bayan."
She also did the Philippine Centennial Series to mark 100 years of the country's independence and what it means to the ordinary Filipino. "Are we really free in our mind, heart and soul? Are we working towards a de-colinization process?" asks Ubaldo.
It is such nationalist flavor that this musician and photographer seeks to bring out in her jewelry designs. "I see the power of art as a tool to raise consciousness about our indigenous roots," Ubaldo, who crafts her designs in gold, platinum and sterling silver, has aptly called her business Urduja Jewelry, "after a powerful indigeneous feminist whom I felt was the ideal embodiment of how we were before the colonizers came." Urduja, she notes, was "a strong, fearless woman who reminds us that once upon a time in our history, Filipino women were acknowledged for their strength. She is my inspiration."
That might well be. After appeasing her parents by taking up Hotel and Restaurant Administration at UP and in Salzburg, Austria ("any course related to business, they said") Ubaldo tried her hand at actually running a restaurant (Penguin in the early '80s). Filial duty done, she finally asserted her love for the arts by moving to New York City in 1985, "where I could be anything I wanted to be." To nurture her artistic side, she bought a camera and "recorded the beauty all around, even in the graffiiti."
Ubaldo also found time to learn gold smithing from a former Maryknoll classmate she bumped into in Texas and forthwith spends her time designing and making jewelry after her day job at a digital design firm.
Latching on to the alibata theme started as way of making her designs stand out in sophisticated New York, says Ubaldo. It ended up as a lakbayan or a pilgrimage for her and her Fil-Am clients "towards what it really means to be Filipino without being defined by colonizers.
So far, she notes, most Fil-Ams define themselves and their loved ones as Mahal, Giliw, Irog, Babaylan, Kalikasan or Asawa, the most popular jewelry designs. Others simply ask that their names be spelled out in alibata. "However they want their customized jewelry, it's always a collaboration of art and the clients' personal stories of how they relate to Filipino culture."
Ubaldo, who visited the country last month to observe how the goldsmiths of Paracale do their designs by hand, is also active in civic groups in New York. As a community activist, she donates designs and jewelry raise for auction to raise fund for the Asian American Foundation of the Arts in San Francisco as well as the Acacia Fund-Asian Pacific Island Coaliton on HIV-AIDS (APICHA) in New York. The Fund was named after a Filipino who died of AIDS in 1995 and who wanted an acacia tree planted on his gravesite.
In two to three years' time, Ubaldo hopes to open a shop in the Philippines, but in the meantime, she's content to let her art take her back home-deep in the heart of the Filipino soul.
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