A country (and a body) to die for

Think it’s just art? Mae Paner is Juana Change and she embodies the popular sentiment that “we’ve had enough.”

by Rick Olivares

In a place that is known to be a bastion of change and a challenge to the status quo, the University of the Philippines remains unobtrusive in its lush greenery and decades-old buildings.

But this is an institution for learning and one should remember about never judging a book by its cover. Or in this case, a building by its façade.

A statue of an old Rajah warrior king stands in front of the Jorge B. Vargas Museum; perhaps a guardian for the art and culture that resides within its walls. After all, it’s powerful stuff more so for the message that needs to be imparted.

“Come in. Come in,” invited Mae Paner who in her Juana Change identity was dressed as Warrior Woman in armor of native wicker design.

A couple of hundred people braved the inclement weather last Thursday afternoon, November 5, to attend the opening of Pangatawanan Mo Nah, an exhibit featuring the works of 36 painters, photographers, and sculptors – all featuring Juana Change in her feisty and naked glory.

When the statue of the old Filipino warrior is mentioned to Paner, it cannot be coincidence to her. It smacked of symmetry and she had one thing to declare: “Then it’s perfect.”

Paner, who works as an advertising director and as an occasional actress, brainstormed along with some friends the character of “Juana Change.” Tired of the repeated and successive scandals that rocked the country under the current government, they all felt that enough was enough.

And their sentiments coalesced into two words: “Wanna change?”

The collective answer of Paner and her friends was a resounding “yes” and “Juana Change,” a play on their challenge to all Filipinos, was born. On YouTube, she went viral (although those on the other side of the political spectrum might consider the character more of a virulent virus).

The name is Filipino albeit with the touch of humor that says much about the peoples’ ability to find humor even in the direst of circumstances. It’s a defense mechanism that helps Filipinos cope and face adversity.

“My friends (in the Artists’ Revolution, a group of artists working for real and lasting change in the country), said, ‘Mae, wala tayong pera. Ikaw na lang kaya ang gumanap sa papel ni Juana Change?’ And well, you don’t become an actress or director if you’re the shy type. Since I’m not, well… the rest is history.”

The first Juana Change video was uploaded onto YouTube in December 2008 and to date, nine more have hit cyberspace to popular acclaim with a total of over 200,000-plus views. The character is a far cry from the Obama Girl who is an example of blatant self-expression. Juana Change is as real as real can get. There is a target for her criticism. And literally, Paner has embodied – pangatawanan in the vernacular, her call for change.

Panahon na para ilantad kung ano ang nasa loob natin.” she said.

Weng, a 38-year old woman who works in an NGO, has been in the thick of fighting against the forces that seek to twist the constitution to suit their selfish designs. She got to know Juana Change through the internet and making it to the Vargas Museum has given her the courage to continuously stand up for her rights and the plight of the Filipino people, seemingly forever mired in corruption and poverty.

“She (Paner) puts herself out there. That’s her life. As a woman, she encourages me to be proud of who I am and to stand up for what is right. This exhibit concretizes that,” said Weng.

“It’s an expression,” offered museum curator Marian Roces, who was quite happy with the opportunity to host a most unique and fun exhibit. “We do this to criticize institutions. When I found a woman like Mae who had an idea where artists can interpret what she stands for – and she has an incredible pulse on popular sentiment — as a curator, this is something I cannot pass up on.”

Paner, who stands five feet and five inches, is an imperfect woman in a world that glosses over image over substance. She once weighed 260 pounds (she shed 30 during the three-month preparation for the exhibit) and she bluntly minces no words:

“I am fat. But… I do this not because I want to become a boldstar but to say that we are an imperfect people but that doesn’t stop us in striving to be perfect. By that I mean riding ourselves of social ills that is what the YouTube videos talk about. It’s a statement. And for me on a personal level, I am making good on a promise to lose weight.”

“It’s an eye opener for me,” expressed Sen. Francis Pangilinan who was one hand to grace the affair. “I may have been somewhat adventurous in my younger days (as a student), but I’m old fashioned at heart. What this exhibit does is tell me and it should tell everyone as well, that change has to begin with oneself. And that is the ultimate message of this exhibit by way of art.”

And regarding the artwork, Mae Paner said that the paintings, photos, and sculptures are all for sale. After all, they do have to make a living.


Pangatawanan Mo Nah! the exhibit is at the Jorge B. Vargas Museum at the University of the Philippines from November 5-15, 2009.

The exhibit features the works of Leo Abaya, Alfredo Juan Aquilizan, Ernesto Aquino Jr., Carlo Aranton, Elmer Borlongan, Charlie Co, Reynold de la Cruz, Kiri Dalena, Thomas Daquioag, Gilbert Daroy, Roger Dio, Ewing, Brenda Fajardo, Egai Talusan-Fernandez, Karen Flores, Dennis Gonzales, Kawayan de Guia, Ings Isungga, Nap Jamir II, Winner Jumalon, Mark Justiniani, Irma Lacorte, Nina Labatique, Julie Lluch, At Maculangan, Joy Mallari, Norlie Meimban, Lee Paje, Jim Paredes, Benjie Reyes, Don Salubayba, Ioannis Sicuya, Christine Sioco, Baldy Tapales, Wig Tysmans, and Boy Yniguez.


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