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“The Philippines: Archipelago of Exchange” stages the largest exhibition of indigenous Filipino art ever seen in Europe

The exhibition of pre-colonial art aims to convey an underlying notion of exchange, in all senses of the word

“The Philippines: Archipelago of Exchange” at the Musée Quai Branly in Paris is staging the largest exhibition of indigenous Filipino art ever seen in Europe. Around 300 pre-colonial artefacts including wooden sculptures of deities, zoomorphic ear pendants, terra­cotta burial pots, gold barter rings and woven textiles will be brought together from public and private collections in the Philippines, the US, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and Austria.

“The underlying thread of the exhibition is that of exchange,” says Corazon Alvina, the co-curator of the show and the vice-president of the board of the Metropolitan Museum in Manila. “Whether it’s about an exchange of goods or ideas, many of the objects in the exhibition are symbols of ritual, marriage or trade.” The reciprocal relationships between the Philippines and other countries prior to Spain’s colonisation in the first half of the 16th century is the focus of the show.

Organised geographically from north to south, the show starts with traditional works from the highlands, such as textiles, necklaces and musical instruments, as well as axes, shields and other weaponry. Here, the influence of the Austronesians, who settled in the Philippines around 3500BC, is strongest. A section is dedicated to sculptures of rice deities, which were prevalent in the mountainous region where rice was the staple food.

The second part of the exhibition looks at the southern coastal areas and the exchanges between the Sultanates of Sulu and Mindanao and the Indians, Chinese and Indonesians. Situated between Mindanao and Borneo, the Sulu archipelago was a centre of trade for the Philippines until the 17th century, and its port cities were known for producing vast amounts of gold jewellery. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (the country’s central bank), which in 1980 began a collection of indigenous Filipino art and has a large collection of pre-Hispanic gold, is lending a 1kg, 23-carat gold belt dating from AD500.

“Given the eminence of the Musée Quai Branly in the field of museology and its focus on indigenous art, to pick the Philippines is affirming,” says Alvina. “Since this is an exhibition of indigenous art by ancient Filipinos, it will show that we had a rich culture before Westerners came.”

Institutions making loans include the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila, the Ayala Museum in Makati City, the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Private lenders include Ramon Villegas, who is a Filipino art specialist and who is sending heirloom beads from the Kalinga people of the Cordillera region and a betel nut box of silver inlaid with gold from Mindanao, and the lawyer and collector Jose Maria Treñas, who is lending a secondary burial jar made of terracotta.

• The Philippines: Archipelago of Exchange, Musée Quai Branly, Paris, 9 April-24 July

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ancient island culture'