Swords, Santos & Filipino Heritage

santos3After many years in Canada, Vancouver doctor Miguel Tecson, who was born and raised in the Philippines, felt well-adjusted to North American culture. But there was something missing.

“I felt like a marginal man,” says Tecson. “I could identify with both cultures, but I was never at ease with either one. There was a yearning for the Philippines.”

This feeling led Tecson, and his wife Julia, to begin collecting Filipino artifacts—from the Philippines, as well as China, other parts of Southeast Asia and Europe. When they began to collect pieces from their heritage, there were few Filipinos in Canada; now there are thousands, and Tecson wanted to share his collection.

“The children of Filipino immigrants are Filipino, but Canadian in their orientation,” adds Tecson. :They don’t know anything about the Philippines and we wanted to make these things available to that generation.”

The Tecsons donated their collection to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and it was organized by that institution’s anthropology students.

The collection includes silver bracelets, wood and fibre containers and several ceramic pieces, including seven giant ‘dragon’ jars. There are also two Kris swords, which are highly-ornate, gilded swords made of steel, brass, copper and ivory and with wickedly serrated edges. Two other stand-out items are ‘bululs’, images of granary gods dating from 100-800 BC.


Prior to the arrival of the Spanish traders in 1565, indigenous people worshiped before pagan idols, usually very roughly carved in human likeness. The Spanish quickly replaced those with figures representative of Catholicism, and these images were referred to as santos (Spanish for ‘saint’). Santos were wood carvings covered with a gesso-like layer, like fine plaster, which was meant to cover the grain to make the surface smooth and white before painting. The santos in this collection were made specifically for home use—at 6:00 pm every day, families would kneel at their home altars, before the santos, and call on the saints for spiritual or material aid.

Today, santos are molded from plaster or plastic. The older wooden ones are in great demand by collectors and museums, but imitations are so easily produced that the Tecson collection contains many that are worn out or damaged, which is proof of their authenticity. The Tecson collection offers a window on an ancient culture about which we know surprisingly little.

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Blitz Magazine, July 2001

Sierra Nevada: The Heart of the World

sierraBlitz Magazine, November 2002

According to Colombian legend, the snow-capped mountain known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was created at the centre of the world, and at the beginning of time, by Shibalauneuman (the Mother of All Things).

Located at the northwestern tip of South America, in the Republic of Colombia, only 42 km from the shore, the peak of the Sierra Nevada reaches 5,775 meters (18, 948 feet) above sea level, making it the highest coastal mountain in the world.

Centuries ago, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a place where diverse human groups flourished; one of them, the Tayrona civilization, reached the highest level of development without deteriorating its environment. The European conquest destroyed that nation; today, all that remains of the Tayrona peoples are some gold, stone and shell carvings, and the intricate lithic (rock) pathways they carved into the landscape to link hundreds of their ancient towns and city-sites to terraced farms and water sources. The mountain is now inhabited by aboriginal communities that proudly preserve their complex religious, social and political societies.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the world’s most important ethnic, ecological, archaeological and cultural patrimonies, and is internationally recognized as a ‘Man & Biosphere Reserve’. Its environs are typical of tropical America, containing an extraordinary variety of climates and habitats with great biological diversity. Its fauna and flora are abundant and several of its species are to date still unknown to science.

Vancouver-based Colombian photographer, naturalist and educator Diego Samper, who has lived in the Sierra Nevada, has worked with the Museum of Anthropology to create an exhibit, and unique public programming, focused on the living cultures of ancient lands, issues of sustainability and the complex continuing relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. The 26-panel exhibit of images, words and soundscapes offers rare insight into aspects of a country so often overshadowed by news reports focusing on drugs, corruption and social decay. It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of the photographer as cultural and historical documentarian.


Frank Burnett: Interesting Life, Interesting Legacy

Blitz Magazine, September 2003

Scotsman Frank Burnett led a fascinating life. The son of the captain of a Greenland whaler, he was apprenticed to a sailing vessel at age 14. Four years later, he moved to Canada, where his uncle was Archbishop of Montreal. He worked as a purser on vessels plying the Ottawa River, then as a stockbroker. After the 1879 market crash, he moved to Manitoba, where he worked as a farmer, grain dealer and private banker, then became the first police magistrate in that province. In 1895, he moved to Vancouver, became a pilot commissioner, then a pioneer in salmon canning and finally made a fortune in real estate.

But you can never shake the sea. In 1901, Burnett outfitted the 80-ton schooner Laurel and sailed to Hawaii, the Gilbert Islands and Fiji. That led to nine more voyages—to Africa, Australasia and South America and, all the while, he was writing extensively, taking pictures and acquiring artifacts. He died, in 1930, in the middle of a speech he was making at a Canadian Authors’ Association banquet.

But Burnett had already given the fruits of his travels to the University of British Columbia—1200 Pacific Island objects which became the founding collection of the Museum of Anthropology and the largest, most comprehensive collection of its kind ever held in a Canadian collection.


The exhibit has an interesting twist. Bennett wanted to document cultures and cultural interactions. He photographed groups of white visitors and settlers existing in foreign climes, to show how distinctly separate they were from their surroundings. He stepped well away from the tourist track to take portraits of Pacific Islanders, photographing their dwellings and cultural events. And he purchased photographs to augment his own, and to more clearly depict the fabric of the societies he visited—becoming one of the first explorers to purchase photography.

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The museum sent its curators to the origin of 112 exhibited artifacts, and many of the photographs, to revisit the cultures—of Micronesia (Kiribati), Polynesia (Cook Islands, Samoa, Niue, Marquesas, Tonga), and Melanesia (Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea). The result is a juxtaposition of historical and contemporary photographs that form a narrative linking the world as it was in Burnett’s time, and the Pacific world as it is today.

Here, photography serves as a visual representation of documentation recorded almost 100 years ago, and as a cultural artifact that illustrates a series of complex personal, social and cultural interactions.