Not much is known about the history of block printing on textiles in the Philippines. Although one could safely assume that this craft found its way to the Philippines through the Sino-Philippine trade beginning in the tenth century or earlier. Or it could have been the Philippines’ pre-Hispanic interactions with the Hindu-influenced, pre-Islamic civilizations of neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia that block printing as a craft was introduced in the archipelago.
This practice in the country pales in comparison to the rich block printing traditions of China, India, and other Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia. Consequently, there is little material evidence of block printing on fabric in the history of the Philippines as this art custom did not thrive alongside the more celebrated indigenous crafts like jewelry making, pottery, and basket making and, as mentioned earlier, cloth weaving. Some of these traditions have been preserved and are still extensively practiced today. Relics that bear proof of this Asian art tradition are limited or virtually non-existent.
While hard to come by, this is not to posit that block printing art is completely lost in the country. In one school in Bacolod, a laid back yet booming and vigorous city in the Visayan region in Central Philippines, art students in college have been working on block printing in one of their subjects as a course requirement.
It involves rubber (guma, in the local dialect) carved into a motif or pattern with a sharp knife, covered in paint and pressed against fabric or canvass. The textile is placed on a flat surface, usually a table and is stretched across the four sides before printing is done. Sometimes, a block of wood is used. The typical pattern is Christmas designs.
On some occasions, the students use potato as substitute for rubber and the technique is quite simple and pretty much the same principle as rubber stamp methods. Potatoes are carefully cut in half, and a design is drawn in the flat edge of the potato, after which it is cut around the outline with a sharp knife and painted to potato stamp perfection.
I got the opportunity to sit down with Professor Mary Anne Manganti, a faculty member in La Consolacion College (LCC), a revered art school in Bacolod. She said that this process of block printing is somewhat similar to the letter press printing. She is at the helm of block printing classes in LCC and showed me a design that communicates ornately of the intricately twined Western and Oriental traditions of the Philippines.
This design featured repetitive patterns of advent candles printed alongside a Babayin; an Indic indigenous script in the Philippines that was widely used by the early Tagalog people before it was supplanted by the usage of the Latin alphabet following the Spanish colonization of the islands.
Each block was individually inked or painted before being pressed against the textile. And to further achieve the ‘indigenous’ Christmas effect are the colors red and green applied on the carved designs. Other designs include flowers and regular objects like a coffee cup, sports items and fruits. How I ended up in an art school in my quest to gather evidence of block printing on textiles in the city was my determined, yet fruitless effort to dig up information on commercial printing hubs.
Sadly, today there are hardly any printing shops in Bacolod and the Philippines that offer block printing on textile services, as this form of art is no longer popular largely due to the tedious and painstaking process in the preparation of a manually manipulated block print on fabric. Moreover, the dawn of commercial digital printing, which by the way is a lucrative business in the Philippines, has virtually rendered block printing obsolete, outdated, and henceforth commercially unmarketable.
There were some printing shops that used to offer block printing services but eventually ditched the practice. And we go back to academia to learn about an art practice that has been around the country for quite a while but regrettably did not find its way into the portico of renowned Philippine arts and crafts. It is my fervent wish that schools will keep reminding us that there is more to indigenous arts and crafts than weaving and pottery.