Connect The Dots


A Review of The Philippine Contemporary: To Scale the Past and the Possible
Metropolitan Museum of Manila
Long regarded as the masterpiece that ushered in Philippine modernism, I was half expectant to see The Builders (1928) in this monumental survey. Part of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) collection, my old aesthetic sense kept bugging me why the Metropolitan Museum of Manila did not bother to borrow the canon Victorio Edades piece from making the short trip across the street. More out of respect than just being courteous to the late National Artist since the subtitle reads “to scale the past and the possible.”
How Horizon (1915-1964) opened with a portrait of Fernanda de Jesus (1915) by then 23 year-old Fernando Amorsolo intrigued me even more. It was refreshing though to view Amorsolo’s early rendition of the “perfect Filipina” (his words) and not his usual bevy of farmers planting in the rice fields. Horizon also had representations from Isabelo Tampinco and Guillermo Tolentino to the Triumvirate to the Neo-realists, showcasing artistic lineage of Filipino artists who were trained in western thought but were wrought in native sensibilities.

At a time when much of Philippine contemporary art practice suffers from exacting historicity and deft of social imaginings, with the non-inclusion of The Builders, the exhibition could have just started with the free brushstrokes of reds, blacks and whites that beckoned the Philippine abstraction in Episode in Stockholm (1964) by Jose Joya. Historically marking our country’s first representation (together with Napoleon Abueva) to the Venice Biennale that year, it emitted an outburst that was premature yet a perpetual state of becoming present.

Brown Man’s Burden by Benedicto Cabrera
Purposely hanged back-to-back Brown Man’s Burden(Undated) by Benedicto Cabrera and Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan (1978) by Antipas Delotavo highlighted Trajectory (1965-1984) representing the advent of social realism indicating the sovereign struggle during the repressive martial law era. Evidenced in Cabrera’s acrylic on paper is a period photograph of a seated American officer being carried by two Ifugao as reference found in an antique shop while still based in London.
Art critic Alice Guillermo stresses in her book Social Realism in the Philippines how the choice of contemporary subject matter must draw from the conditions and events of our time and is essentially based on keen awareness of conflict. Cabrera produced this rustic monochrome effect evoking an almost fleeting moment appropriately etched as colonial subjugation.
The call of the indigenous using mixed media became the employed vehicle as art became more codified to assert what Filipinos want to conceal yet politically profess. Latitude (1984) noticed how the assassination of Ninoy Aquino the previous year took its gravest toll with issues emanating from poverty and migration of our people become even more blatant. Bartolina series (1984), an assemblage of self-absorbing wood structures by Jerusalino Araos features how discarded wood induced with migrant issues can overlap yet compliment. Okupado (1994) by Mark Justiniani is another testimonial to this creative ploy. Using stainless sheets and stickers of the jeepney as graphic device, the interplay of commanding words like Rebelde and Kupad in what was supposedly this public transportation’s welcome arch was effective.   
MaMackinley by Alfred Esquillo
Philippine portraiture has been case studies in perspectives. Hanged beside each other, the dialogue between MaMackinley (2001) by Alfredo Esquillo and Insecured (2005) by Ronald Ventura proved to be the most potent in contrasts and relevance. 
A gripping image of mother and child, MaMckinley depicted by the Governor General clinging his bare claws on baby Philippine President symbolically summed up our imperial relations with the United States on canvas. MaMckinleyis considered a modern masterwork by the popular Esquire Philippines magazine to the aesthetically critical Afteralljournal and one of the most exhibited Philippine art pieces. Insecured (2005) by the highest priced Southeast Asian in recent auctions is a raw penciled depiction of one’s meticulous route in surviving one’s artistic career. It is said to be one of the few pieces Ventura has kept to himself and is now being shown to the public for the first time.
Insecured by Ronald Ventura
Noticing most of the chosen artists came from either University of the Philippines or University of Santo Tomas one is reminded how much has changed in these two bastions of Philippine art. The old UP with Amorsolo and Tolentino at the forefront were the first conservatives to espouse classical realism. UST with Edades at the helm was obviously more an advocate of modernism. The past twenty years saw their reversal of fortunes with UP fine art students making the crossover to the avante garde and taking the conceptual stance as mentored by UST-bred Roberto Chabet. Breeding the likes of Nona Garcia, Geraldine Javier, Wire Tuazon, the Ching brothers and more disciples, all at one-time shared the spaces of Surrounded By Water (their samples have their own room in this show) while UST strengthened the imaginative visual styles of classmates Esquillo, Ventura, Melvin Culaba and Andres Barrioquinto who honed their painting skills by winning national art competitions which still preferred the representational and wall-bound pieces. 
Eschewing grand narratives for multiple of presents, Philippine contemporary art persist on dwelling much on identity, socio-politics and spirituality as its main corpus even with the absence of the paint brush, New Direction speaks of the heterogeneity of preference to the fast and recent visual languages.

The Mabini Art Project by Alfred and Isabel Aquilizan (
Relying much on photography with the obvious text to what was written in blue and green in Maria Isabel Cruz’s Open your Soul To Me for Tomorrow May Never Come is an example. Engaging in ethnic heritage can one get offended when the revered bul-ol is sandwiched in between metal poles in the case You and Me (2013) by Paris-based Gaston Damag? Framed: The Mabini Art Project (2013) by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan took a manual pun of what is fine and folk, of what is commercial and academic in Philippine art practice.
With auctions houses and new independent art spaces figuring in the scene, Philippine contemporary art stubbornly asserts its own distinctiveness. Whatever the show lacked in space it made up in pedigree. Aside from Edades, a good exercise is to identify who were left out.