Penman No. 326: A Season of Winners

Cafe.jpgPenman for Monday, November 5, 2018

 

UNEXPECTEDLY, OCTOBER turned out to be a season of winners, with a series of important awards being announced involving culture and the arts.

Foremost, of course, were the National Artist Awards, eagerly anticipated by the cultural community every two years or so. Dismayed as I was by the Palace’s decision to drop Nora Aunor (and even more by the silly excuse they gave for doing so—I’m reasonably sure I can live with the agony and torment if they went nuts and named me a National Artist, which I would shyly accept), the rest of the list pretty much got a pass from the arts community, as far as I could tell.

I was especially happy to see old friends and acquaintances like Amel Bonifacio, Resil Mojares, Kidlat Tahimik, and Ryan Cayabyab on the list, people whose work I’ve known and respected for a long time. And not to take the shine off any of the winners, but I was also sad to find, once again, that my personal bets for this highest of creative honors—among them the poet Jimmy Abad and the artists Junyee and Jaime de Guzman—would have to wait for yet another round. Having been involved to some minor degree in the search process for previous NAs, I know that more visibility for the artist helps, and we’ll work on it next time.

But there was plenty of recognition to go around last month, albeit on a more local scale.

For the past six years, I’ve been privileged to serve on the Selection Committee of Quezon City’s Manuel L. Quezon Gawad Parangal for Outstanding Citizens and Institutions. It’s a task I’ve shared with former Budget Minister and City Administrator Manny Alba, former UP President Emer Roman, former QC councilor Bert Galarpe, lawyer Vicky Loanzon, and former QC Vice Mayor Connie Angeles.

There’s never any shortage of achievers from Quezon City to acknowledge in whatever field, from politics, education, and business to the arts, media, and entertainment. This year, in ceremonies last October 12, I was delighted to greet some friends among the awardees. (I assure you our friendship had nothing to do with their recognition, impeccably supported by the evidence.)

Among them was the engineer and educator Rey Vea, who belonged to the mythical first batch of the Philippine Science High School, two years ahead of me; we worked together in the UP Collegian, were arrested within a day of each other under martial law, and flew to the US in the same batch of Fulbright study grantees. Rey went on to become dean of the UP College of Engineering, administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority, and president of Mapua University.

Another outstanding QC citizen honored was the poet, editor, and screenwriter Jose “Pete” Lacaba, one of those colleagues I deeply admire as much for his craft as for his dedication to it. Like his own hero Nick Joaquin with whom he worked, Pete never drew a line between journalism and creative writing, and produced first-rate results with whatever he put his mind to. A few years older than me and a Pateros boy, Pete hung out in the same Rizal Provincial Library that I spent many an afternoon in back in the mid-1960s. We later both wrote scripts for Lino Brocka, along with Ricky Lee and Joey Reyes, and the joke among us was that Pete got all the best, long-gestating projects like Jaguar and Bayan Ko because he also wrote the slowest.

And this is as good a time as any to congratulate my fellow STAR columnist and another good friend, the writer and entrepreneur Wilson Lee Flores, whom you’ll find smiling even in the most difficult circumstances, such as when the 79-year-old Kamuning Bakery that he had almost singlehandedly revived burned down last February. The bakery itself had won the same award last year for its artisanal bread, but our committee thought that the proprietor—also a three-time Palanca laureate—deserved one on his own.

In the institutional category, my loudest cheers went to Ma Mon Luk, the iconic house of noodles I’ve patronized since I was a boy and whose owner George Ma Mon Luk is a fellow fountain pen and typewriter collector, and the Erehwon Art Center, which its founder and patron Raffy Benitez has tirelessly guided within a few short years to becoming one of the city’s true cultural oases, virtually a mini-CCP that has projected the best of Philippine art both here and overseas.

And I can’t let this review pass without mentioning the Palanca Awards for Literature, which for the first time in its 68-year-long history held its Awards Night this year in October instead of the customary September 1. Among the winners was a neurosurgeon named Ron Baticulon who had nursed a dream of writing well enough to win a Palanca, which his work “Sometimes You Can’t Save Them All” did, for Second Prize in the Essay in English category. The piece is a powerful and moving account of a young doctor’s encounters with the families of the dying, and of the humanity that asserts itself in the bleakest of situations. I’m looking forward to the release of Ron’s first book from the UP Press early next year.

To them and all the other winners from last month’s derbies, my warmest congratulations.

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Penman No. 191: For Love of Art and Artists

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Penman for Monday, March 14, 2016

 

 

MUCH AS I’d want, I can’t possibly go to all the literary and arts events I get invited to, so I’ve occasionally had to deputize my wife Beng (June Mercy Dalisay to others)—a painter and an art restorer—to do the kibitzing for me. Or, I should really say, for herself, because, as president of the Erehwon Art Foundation, she often has more immediate reasons than I do to meet with artist-friends and luminaries from the arts world.

One recent event I was truly sorry to miss was a special raffle and auction held last February 27 for the benefit of Beng’s dear friend Norma Liongoren, doyenne of the Liongoren Gallery, sister, mother, and confidant of artists young and old. The Church Café, a Bible study group founded by Norma, initiated a fund-raising project for her, called “For Love of Norma.” The group was composed of writers Alma and Mario Miclat, painter Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, writers Fe and Roger Mangahas, sculptor Julie Lluch, and Magel Cadapan, Norma’s gallery assistant and curator.

Norma’s artist friends donated almost 150 artworks to the cause, and Simoun Balboa, manager of the Sining Kamalig gallery in Cubao, lent the venue. A mini-concert and performance was put together by pastor Ed Lapiz, together with the Day by Day Ministry, Kaloob Dance Group, and Jerry Dadap’s Andres Bonifacio Concert Chorus.

The event proved a resounding success, with the spirited bidding raising a substantial sum for Norma, who very graciously and bravely left her hospital bed to join the party with her husband Fred to personally give thanks. The audience—all deeply moved by Norma’s gesture—included writers Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Menchu Sarmiento, and Wilson Lee Flores, gallery owner Silvana Diaz, artists Junyee, Gus Albor, Adie Baens Santos, Anna Fer, and Ato Habulan, diplomat Al Vicente, Quezon City busybody Ruby Palma, pulmonologists Rene Cheng and Julius Dalupang, activist Princess Nemenzo, GSIS museum head Ryan Palad, and journalist Jenny Juan, who emceed the event. Beng helped organize the auction-raffle, which lasted well into the evening, along with businessman and art collector Sonny Go.

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A few weeks earlier, Beng also attended a media event organized by her friend Ricky Francisco, an independent curator and fellow conservator, at the Fundacion Sanso in San Juan. This time I’ll let Beng’s words speak for themselves:

“It was a sunny afternoon when I walked up the steps of the new and modern building of the Fundacion Sanso. I passed through a lobby with minimal furniture but glimpsed lovely watercolor paintings that filled the walls.

“I was late and the media event had started. I tried to be inconspicuous and sat between sculptor Toym Imao and a dignified elderly gentleman who turned out to be the artist himself, Juvenal Sanso. He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and said a few words. He didn’t say anything and just nodded his head. Later I would know why.

“Gilda Socorro Salita, managing director of Fundacion, briefed the guests and media people on the series of events for the celebration of Sanso’s 70th year as an artist. The retrospective includes art exhibits at the Ateneo Art Gallery, the Vargas Museum, and the Lopez Museum. By the time this report comes out, the first in a series of exhibitions will have started, entitled ‘Other: Zobel and Sanso,’ an exhibition of prints and drawings at the Ateneo Gallery. This exhibition is free and runs until May 20. As a memento of the afternoon, the media kits given to everyone included a charming bookmark lifted from an old plate and printed on cream paper by Pandy Aviado.

“The guests began to leave but I decided to stay behind so I could talk to Sanso some more. But it was Ricky Francisco and gallery owner Jack Teotico whom I found myself with. Jack was one of the founders of the Fundacion, which serves as a repository of Sanso’s personal collection of artworks, books, and other mementos representing seven decades not only of creative work but also of travels and lasting friendships nurtured and preserved despite great distances. An old friend from our UP days, Jack invested not only funds but also much time and effort in gathering good people to run the gallery and museum.

“When I asked Jack why the artist seemed to have a hard time hearing, Jack told me the story of how, during the Second World War and when there was heavy fighting between the Japanese and Americans in Manila, a bomb landed just a few feet away from Sanso. He sustained injuries on his arm and still has tiny bits of shrapnel embedded under his skin. However, his hearing was greatly affected, and he remains practically deaf on the left side.

“The afternoon settled quietly into dusk as I was transported to many places and events from stories Jack and Ricky narrated—Sanso as a child of an affluent family in Spain, his country of birth; the blue-eyed Sanso as a young boy in Sta. Ana, Manila speaking fluent Tagalog, playing with boys of his age and forging strong friendships with his playmates, especially one with Henry Sy; Sanso as he diligently worked on his drawings with his teacher Alejandro Celis; Sanso as a student at the UP College of Fine Arts in Padre Faura and his friendship with artists Araceli Dans and Larry Alcala; and his entry ‘Incubus’ winning first prize in a competition held in the 1950s and sponsored by the Art Association of the Philippines then headed by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma.

“It was time to leave but before I did, I treated myself to the mesmerizing display of visual delights that represented Sanso’s beautiful watercolors from the Brittany series as well as the paintings representing memories of Parañaque and Cavite. Sanso’s haunting and mysterious images in the retrospective Elogio de Agua or Hymns to Water keep running like a lovely brook in a quiet corner of my heart. The exhibit can be viewed until October 1st at Fundacion Sanso, 32 V. Cruz St., San Juan City, Metro Manila.”

Many thanks, Beng, for that glowing report, which makes we wish I had been there to chat with the artist (and now I’ll know to stay on his right side). I’d always been engrossed by Sanso’s dark waterscapes and their vegetal inhabitants, made even more intriguing by the total absence of human figures.

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I did, however, tag along on a day trip up to Baguio last week with the folks of the Erehwon Art Foundation led by Beng and the foundation’s chairman, Boysie Villavicencio, on a very special mission: to receive the donation of an etching press to the foundation by none other than National Artist Benedicto Cabrera. I’ve been a frequent guest of Bencab’s at his museum because UP’s summer writers’ workshops have always begun with a visit with Ben (except this May, when we move to Los Baños), and I’ve watched that museum grow from a few stakes in the ground to the breathtaking complex and tourist attraction that it’s become.

Bencab was as gracious as ever in meeting us, and his donation of one of his two etching presses will be a great boost to Erehwon and to other Filipino printmakers. The press used to belong to National Artist Arturo Luz, who gave it to Ben in the 1990s. Erehwon is now planning a printmaking workshop with Fil de la Cruz, Ambie Abano, and other noted printmakers leading novices into the art.

As a former printmaker myself, I just might reignite this old passion, this fascinating interplay of paper, ink, and metal. It was at the old Printmakers Association of the Philippines (PAP) workshop and gallery on Jorge Bocobo in Ermita that I met Beng in the early 1970s, so without art and a shared love of it, we’d never have married, and this column-piece would never have happened.

Penman No. 164: Art Meets Anthropology

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Penman for Monday, August 31, 2015

FACTOR 1: For the past 45 years, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been giving out grants to meritorious individuals and organizations for a variety of causes that fall within its stated mission of supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” In the US, the individual MacArthur fellowships are known as the “genius grants.”

Factor 2: Chicago also happens to be the home of the 120-year-old Field Museum of Natural History, a venerable institution housing over 20 million specimens from all around the world—including an impressive collection of 10,000 Philippine artifacts, many gathered from American expeditions to the Philippines in the early 1900s, very few of which ever go on display.

Factor 3: Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles—a Filipino-American social scientist and prizewinning writer who now lives in the Chicago area—put the MacArthur Foundation, the Field Museum, and the Philippines together in her head and hit upon the idea of seeking a grant from the foundation to fund a project that would help showcase the museum’s priceless Philippine collections before a larger global audience.

That initiative soon materialized in the form of the Art & Anthropology Project, conceived by Almi Gilles, sponsored by the two institutions, and supported in the Philippines by the Erehwon Arts Foundation. It involves bringing together five Filipino and five Filipino-American artists to work collaboratively on two huge paintings (mural-size at 7 by 28 feet, but technically not murals or wall paintings as they are free standing, on canvas)—one in the Philippines and one in Chicago—over three months from mid-August to early November.

I had a chance to mingle with these artists last week, twice—the first time, on a weekend run to Baguio, during which they visited National Artist Bencab at his museum, and then at the Quezon City domicile of the Erehwon Arts Foundation (which, aside from paintings, also hosts an orchestra and a dance studio). It was good to see Almi again, whom I’d first met in Michigan about 30 years ago when she was doing her graduate work in East Lansing and I (and her brother Jun) in Ann Arbor. I introduced Almi to my wife Beng, the vice-chair and a trustee of the Erehwon Arts Foundation, and along with Erehwon heads Raffy Benitez and Boysie Villavicencio, Almi and Beng helped crystallize the Philippine phase of the project.

The ten chosen artists went through a rigorous and juried application process on both sides of the Pacific. No one—not even established and well-known artists—got a free pass. This opened the door to young, vibrant talents—most of them under 40—representing a range of artistic styles and persuasions, from the realist to the abstract. While the Fil-Am artists come from around the Midwest, the Filipinos range in their origins from Baguio and Manila to Cebu and Cotabato.This August, the five Fil-Am artists arrived in Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts at the Erehwon Center; this October, the five Pinoys will fly to Chicago to do the same. The finished paintings will be on exhibit in their respective venues, and will feature artifacts the artists have chosen from the Field collections, recontextualized in the present. This way, the project’s as much a celebration of our continuing ties as global Filipinos—arguably one of our richest cultural resources—as it is of our pre-Hispanic wealth.

The artists involved are among the best of their generation. Herewith, excerpts from their profiles:

Leonardo Aguinaldo was born in Baguio City in 1967, and currently lives in La Trinidad, Benguet. Aguinaldo’s style is highly illustrational and graphic, derived from his experiences as a printmaker. He utilizes the rubbercut and acrylic paint to achieve highly dense and detailed designs derived from his traditional Cordillera background.

Jennifer Buckler was born in Dover, Ohio in 1986. She received her BA in Art from The Ohio State University in 2009 and her MA in Art Therapy Counseling from Marylhurst University near Portland, Oregon in 2011. In 2013, Buckler joined a Chicago-based Filipino artists’ collective known as the Escolta St. Snatchers Social Club, where she has explored her Filipino roots more deeply.

Elisa Racelis Boughner was born in the United States and raised in Mexico, and studied art in America and Europe. Her work reflects the influence of each of these cultures, and of a range of painting styles from Impressionist and German Expressionist to Cubist. The result is a unique and highly personal style that brings extraordinary vibrance to often ordinary subjects.

Cesar Conde is a contemporary painter who employs Old World techniques on modern materials to paint realistic portraits. He is a Filipino-American artist based in Chicago who studied with master painters in Italy and France. He counts Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Goya among his influences.

Florentino Impas, Jr. was born in 1970 in Danao City, Cebu, ands graduated from the Surigao del Norte School of Arts & Trade. A consistent competition finalist and winner and a member of the Portrait Society of America, Jun was a former president of Cebu Artists Inc. (CAI) as well as a former president of the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines.

Joel Javier earned a BFA in Painting and Drawing at Murray State University in 1999, then pursued a career in studio art which led to a career in art education, receiving an MA in Art Education in 2011 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Joel is currently the Education Manager at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

Emmanuel Garibay was born in 1962 in Kidapawan, Cotabato. With degrees in sociology, fine arts, and divinity, the many-talented Manny has mounted at least 19 solo exhibitions, and is well known for his expressionist figurative style as for the content of many of his works, which often express a keen social and political consciousness.

Trisha Oralie Martin is an interdisciplinary book and paper artist currently living, working, and teaching in Chicago. Trisha envisions her art as a catalyst that can convey important social issues across diverse communities. Inspired by her cultural heritage, her highly patterned works are pulped and printed with native Filipino designs.

Jason Moss was born in 1976 in Manila. He finished a BFA, Major in Advertising, at the University of Santo Tomas in 1997. An award-winning book illustrator, animator, and filmmaker, Jason is also a painter who has mounted 28 solo exhibitions since 1993. Jason’s work blends grotesquerie—his manifest suspicion that our world is beset by demons of one kind or other, some of them within the self.

Othoniel Neri was born in 1985 in Manila, and began drawing at a very young age. In 2003 he studied Fine Arts by mail through the International Correspondence School, and received several awards in international and local competitions. Being a figurative and portrait artist, Otho paints with a very sharp eye and a flair for detail, employing a palette of explosive colors.

The project has been a rich learning experience for the artists on both sides, so far, in terms of exchanging viewpoints, experiences, and techniques. Beng and I look forward to seeing what they’ll do in Chicago for the project’s US phase—whatever its content, surely a triumph of cultural kinship across the miles and the millennia.

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Penman No. 141: War and Remembrance

IMG_7163Penman for Monday, March 23, 2015

 

A FEW weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having coffee at the Ayala Museum with some good friends visiting briefly from the United States—the historian and professor Sharon Delmendo and her mother Judy, and the retired soldier, consul, and West Point lecturer Sonny Busa.

Both Sharon and Sonny were in town to do research—Sharon on President Quezon and the Manilaners, the Jewish refugees whom Quezon took in just before the War, and the Visayas-born Sonny on the guerrilla movement, for which he’s helping to seek more recognition in the US, especially those who may have fallen through the cracks of the American legal system. (Even Judy Delmendo proved to be a revelation, as I Iearned the story of how, as an idealistic young teacher, Judy signed up for the Peace Corps as soon as she heard JFK’s clarion call about doing something for one’s country. She was among the very first Peace Corps volunteers to ship out, and landed in Masbate, where she ended up marrying a handsome Filipino named Rene.)

Not surprisingly, history—both past and current—dominated our discussion. I’m not a historian myself, but have a keen interest in the subject, and might even have taken it up as my profession. (There was this fork in the road, more than 30 years ago, when I was returning to college from a long hiatus and was choosing between English and History as my major; pressed for time, I chose the path of less resistance.)

It must have been all those movies I saw and comic books I read as a kid, but I’ve been especially and inordinately fascinated by war and conflict—despite the fact, to which my friends will hopefully attest, that I’m a most unwarlike person, and have never fired a gun in all my 61 years. (In her college years, our daughter Demi was a proud member of UP’s rifle and pistol team.) I may be enthralled by the engineering that goes into a piece of weaponry, and I’m easily impressed and moved by tales of courage and heroism in battle, but I never for a minute forget that war is an ugly business, brutal and brutalizing, inevitably attended by grief and sorrow, and by the all-too-human impulse to wage even more war.

Sharon and Sonny had come to the Ayala Museum that morning not just to see me but also to take part in a conference on World War II, coinciding with an exhibit at the museum. I hadn’t known about the conference and couldn’t stay on for the rest of the day, but I did stay long enough to catch the first event, which was an exhibit on wartime Manila, particularly the uniforms worn by military personnel on both sides. The reason for this curious but interesting angle became apparent when we were soon surrounded by people dressed up as Japanese and American officers and soldiers, and also as nurses, guerrillas, and even a Makapili informer.

I turned around to see a familiar face, albeit in a totally unfamiliar context: that of the prizewinning sculptor Toym Imao, son of the late National Artist Abdulmari Imao and an accomplished artist in his own right. I’d last met Toym (so named because of the award his dad received) when he was a speaker at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation last year; he had been a Fulbright scholar in Maryland, honing his skills there. But now Toym the sculptor had transformed into Toym the tank commander, a figure right out of Fury.

“We started out as an Airsoft group,” Toym told me, “but we soon realized that it would be more interesting if we went for historical re-enactments using historically correct uniforms and costumes.” Thus was born the Philippine Living History Society, which had put up that morning’s special display. The society, which now has nearly a hundred members, counts HR managers, call center agents, and media professionals among others in its ranks; older persons, women, and children are also part of the group, which has staged re-enactments of famous battles or encounters (a mere costume parade, I learned, is simply an “impression”; members also have a term, “farb,” for historically inaccurate gear). Some of their uniforms and equipment are genuine artifacts—preserved, rediscovered and restored, or sourced from eBay; others are reproductions, but accurate down to the last button.

Despite their strong military bent, the society’s members are no warmongers. “We just want Filipinos to appreciate history better, and this is a good way of getting their attention,” Toym explained. They certainly got ours—even Sonny Busa, probably the only real soldier in the room (he had served with the US Army’s Special Forces before joining the diplomatic service), was caught up in the drama.

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Speaking of war and remembrance, I’d like to note the recent completion and turnover to the Philippine National Police Academy of a huge and breathtaking mural by the Erehwon Art Collective, a division of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Art World Corporation. We don’t have enough military art in this country, and quite apart from its powerful emotional appeal, this mural will be an important contribution to that genre. Let me draw on the description provided by Erehwon founder Raffy Benitez:

“Tagaligtas: Heroic 44 is a military mural that realistically depicts each and every member of the SAF 44 in their combat gear and uniform, portrayed as they are about to go into combat in realistic formations and stances. They gaze at the viewer with pride and fondness as comrades, sons, brothers, and fathers who have passed on into history. Portrayed across 182 square feet of canvas that measures 7 feet tall by 26 feet long, the SAF 44 are depicted in their various unit configurations, with the commanding officers and senior inspectors in front, middle ranking patrolmen in the middle, and junior-ranking patrolmen at the rear.”

Incredibly, the mural was completed in just three weeks by a talented and tireless team that included Grandier Gil Bella (head artist), Jerico de Leon, Neil Doloricon, Camille Dela Rosa; Lourdes Inosanto, Jonathan Joven, Othoniel Neri (assistant head artist), Emmanuel Nim, and Dario Noche (head researcher and photodocumentor); and Eghai Roxas. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) provided financial support for the project, while PSSupt Gilbert D.C. Cruz of the PNP-NCR Southern Police District provided technical advice. The mural design was conceptualized by Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete.

So whether through the theater of costumery or the quieter grandeur of a mural, the warrior lives on in our common memory.

Penman No. 138: On Wall and Paper

IMG_7127Penman for Monday, March 2, 2015

 

OF ALLl the forms of art, nothing catches the public eye quite like a mural—a painting on a wall. It isn’t just that murals tend to be massively larger than your usual living room portrait or still life. They very often seek to capture and represent the spirit and experience of a community, voicing the concerns and celebrating the values of that community. Starting with cave paintings, murals are also the oldest human art form, but they’ve survived surprisingly well into the 21st century, creatively adapting—often literally—to their physical and social environment. (For some of the world’s best contemporary murals, see here: http://www.cartridgesave.co.uk/news/the-50-most-stunning-wall-murals-from-around-the-world/)

In the Philippines, muralists like the late National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco have defined the content, style, and temper of the form, much like Diego de Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco did in Mexico. Informed by history and politics, their work also incorporates ethnic and religious elements, presented in a sweeping visual montage.

Given our colorful history and the need to inflame our people with greater patriotic fervor, you’d think we should have more murals adorning our many walls—think of the kilometer-long mural that snakes through downtown Hanoi, for example—but sadly, we don’t. Good murals take time, resources, and of course artistic talent and vision to make, not to mention the large blank spaces that are the muralist’s work- and play-ground.

Thankfully, the University of the Philippines—in cooperation with the UP Alumni Association and the Araneta Center Complex—has taken a major step to redressing that shortage, by commissioning 28 of the university’s top alumni artists to produce murals depicting various periods and aspects of Philippine history.

This distinguished roster includes Adonai Artificio, Armand Bacaltos, Adi Baen-Santos, Grandier Bella, Benjie Cabangis, Ben Cabrera, Angel Cacnio, Romeo Carlos, Cris Cruz, Denes Dasco, Gig de Pio, Simkin de Pio, Vincent de Pio, Neil Doloricon, Norman Dreo, Amado Hidalgo, Abdul Asia Mari Imao, Ben Infante, Gigi Javier-Alfonso, Aileen Lanuza, Romeo Mananquil, Norlie Meimban, Julius Samson, Jonahmar Salvosa, Randy Solon, Michael Velasco, Jun Yee, and Janice Young. The resulting exhibit, titled “” or Philippine History in Art—opened at the Araneta Center’s Gateway Gallery last February 18.

The murals—all of a uniform 6’ x 12’ size—cover the full range of Philippine history from pre-Hispanic times to the present, under the guidance of historian Dr. Luisa Camagay and project director and artist Dr. Gigi Javier Alfonso. To UP President Alfredo Pascual, the project is UP’s way of helping to promote a keener historical consciousness among Filipinos, especially the young. The Araneta Center in Cubao, which is marking its 60th anniversary, graciously agreed to host the exhibit in its new 5th-floor gallery.

Coming from a science background, a senior UP official whom I was touring the exhibit with asked me for my critique of the murals on show. I told her that while I was of course pleased with the project as a whole, with its intentions and execution, I personally preferred those works that went a step beyond the literal in their treatment of history, and that dwelt less on the big and obvious historical figures and more on pedestrian realities. I do understand that murals can’t be too abstract, lest they fail to connect with their intended mass audience; in any case, the murals did what they were meant to do, which is to provoke more thought and talk among their viewers.

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On another front, and also in Quezon City which seems to be shaping up as the cultural center of the metropolis, a new exhibit of paper and paper-based art titled “Pumapapel” opened last week at the Erehwon Center for the Arts, probably the city’s most dynamic privately-operated art center.

This exhibition expands the possibilities of Filipino artistic expression by combining many fields of art making, from painting, drawing, printmaking, mix-media, sculpture and installation, to photography and book/graphic illustration by focusing on the unique qualities of paper as both ground and medium. Curated by UP professor Dr. Reuben R. Cañete, “Pumapapel” features the works of about 100 artists including those of National Artists Vicente Manansala and Benedicto Cabrera, as well as those of Philip Victor, Renato Villanueva, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Juvenal Sanso, and Manuel Ocampo. Also on the list are upcoming artists from the Cordillera, Cebu, Bacolod, and Mindanao, and photographers and graphic artists, among others.

“Pumapapel”’s focus on paper art brings us back, like murals do, to the earliest periods and forms of artistic human expression. From paintings to paper sculpture, this exhibit showcases the myriad possibilities of paper both as medium and material, and also not incidentally celebrates Erehwon’s third year as the upcoming place-to-be for QC-based artists.

Erehwon may not be the easiest place to get to (it’s located at 1 Don Francisco Street, Villa Beatriz Subdivision, Old Balara) but it’s served as a home not only for painters and sculptors but also for musicians, dancers, and writers, thanks to the generosity of its founder and president, Raffy Benitez, and the support of people like Erehwon Arts Foundation President Boysie Villavicencio. (I shouldn’t forget to mention my wife June, who serves as Boysie’s vice president and who has been spending many sleepless nights helping to put this exhibition together.) The Erehwon Center for the Arts’ new Dance Studio was also inaugurated last week.

Pay these exhibits a visit, and you’ll remember and understand how and why art means something to ordinary people, in extraordinary ways.

(Mural by Janice Young. Batik painting on paper by Maela Jose.)

 

Penman No. 73: A New Home in Erehwon

IMG_2568Penman for Monday, November 18, 2013

I HAD a good chat with Metro Manila Concert Orchestra founding music director Josefino “Chino” Toledo recently at the inauguration of the MMCO’s new rehearsal space at the Erehwon Center for the Arts in Quezon City. Also a gifted composer and conductor, Chino is a fellow professor of mine at the University of the Philippines, and a batchmate under UP’s Arts Productivity System. We’ve run into each other during UPAPS ceremonies, but never really got to talk until the Erehwon event.

But let me digress a bit and say something about Erehwon itself first. Founded a couple of years ago by businessman Rafael Rivera Benitez, Erehwon is actually a big white building nestled in a corner of Old Balara in Quezon City (you can find the map and more details on www.erehwonartworld.com) that Raffy converted and devoted to serving as Metro Manila’s newest arts mecca—a studio cum gallery cum performance space cum residency and meeting venue.

Raffy himself is an old friend and compadre of mine, someone I spent one of life’s most privileged experiences with—prison time and space in Fort Bonifacio under martial law, when both of us were in our late teens. He made his mark in the baking and printing businesses, but late in life (he very recently turned 60), Raffy decided to pursue another passion—patronage of the arts, giving rise to Erehwon. (People our age will remember the late, lamented Erehwon Bookshop in Ermita—which was right next to my old NEDA office on Padre Faura, providing me with a perennial excuse for an extended lunch break. That Erehwon, however, has nothing to do with the new one.)

And now, thanks to Raffy Benitez and Erehwon, the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra will have a new home through a venue grant offered by Erehwon to the MMCO, which until lately was lodged with Miriam College, where Chino Toledo also held certain responsibilities. Its arrangement with Miriam having ended, the MMCO needed a white knight to come to its rescue, and that turned out to be Erehwon, which has also been seeking partners to work with in arts promotion.

Erehwon couldn’t have found a better partner than the MMCO, which was established in June 2000 and has since become one of the country’s leading semiprofessional orchestras. I asked Chino what set the MMCO apart from the others, and he told me that they were especially receptive to new and young Filipino composers and musicians. I noticed, during the inauguration, that the orchestra’s musicians were predominantly young, most of them clearly in their 20s and 30s. That’s exactly the kind of push our young musical talents need, particularly as orchestral music, like theater, involves the effort of a community working as one, and an individual really succeeds only insofar as he or she can find membership and nurturance within that community.

The MMCO now counts about 50 musicians in its ranks, coming from various schools in the metropolis. (“The number of people in an orchestra will vary depending on the piece,” Chino told me, “but at full complement, an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic could have as many as a hundred members.”) They hold an average of one concert a month, and practice at least twice a week. The conductor, Chino explained, functions as the team coach, and the concert master acts as the captain ball, leading the execution of the coach’s plan.

Funding is always a problem, Chino added; as a semi-professional orchestra, the MMCO does its best to pay its members what they deserve, but as with most other artistic endeavors, it’s love of music that really drives the group and Chino himself forward, and sustains the commitment of a faithful corps of supporters that include Executive Director Chinggay Lagdameo and MMCO Foundation President Corazon Alma de Leon.

Here’s hoping that the MMCO’s move to Erehwon will result in a new season of growth and prosperity for the orchestra and for Philippine music as a whole.

SPEAKING OF cultural initiatives, last week marked the staging of the fourth Philippine International Literary Festival (formerly known as the Manila International Literary Festival), spearheaded by the National Book Development Board in cooperation with four universities in Manila—the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, the University of Sto. Tomas, and De La Salle University—and the Ayala Museum. The urban setting was deliberate, because this year’s festival theme was “Text and the City,” focused on how centrally the city figures in Philippine and regional literature.

I joined a panel at UST with colleagues Jing Hidalgo and Charlson Ong in a discussion of how the city informs our writing. In broad terms, I noted that the city, not surprisingly, has figured in a major way in Philippine fiction, particularly in English, because most of the fiction published in the Philippines has been written by city-based middle-class writers. It has often been presented as the site of violence, poverty, and corruption, in contrast to the romantic conception of the countryside as a place of peace, plenitude, and spiritual regeneration. In more politically aware writings, however, that line has become blurred, as the feudal roots of urban wealth and power become more clearly exposed.

Our focus on the familiar city, however, comes at a great price—the near-absence of new writing that deals with the Philippine countryside in anything but a romantic mode. (By “romantic” here I mean I mean not only the highly idealized representations of rural maidens by the likes of Fernando Amorsolo, but also my politicized generation’s expectation of ascending into the mountains—joining the armed struggle—as a kind of revolutionary apotheosis.) As it happened, I was in Baler, Aurora that weekend, and rushed back to Manila at dawn to make it in time for the UST event. On the six-hour ride, over mountain roads with a view of the great ocean, I remarked how conspicuously absent the sea and the mountains were in our contemporary literature, despite the fact that we pride ourselves in being a vast archipelago. Our stories today take place in Starbucks Katipunan, or in some cozy corner of Bonifacio High Street that may as well be another country.

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In UP, I was happy to introduce an old friend, the Singaporean fictionist Suchen Christine Lim, a guest and featured speaker of the festival along with other international writers including the Hong Kong-based fictionist Xu Xi and cultural critic Peter Swirski. Suchen is a delightfully gifted writer whose title story in the collection The Lies That Build a Marriage (available at National Book Store) blew me away; her prose is crisp and to the point, but her command of character displays the depth and sophistication of her perception.

I noted how the Philippines and Singapore have had a long and special literary relationship, probably nurtured by the fact that we share the same colonial language, English. Among writers, Frankie Sionil Jose was a contemporary and good friend of Edwin Thumboo; Krip Yuson, Charlson Ong and I have had fruitful contact with Kirpal Singh, Robert Yeo, and Chris Mooney-Singh; our younger writers like poet Joel Toledo (who’s doing a PhD in Singapore) have their counterparts in Alvin Pang and Joshua Ip. Some years ago, Filipino and Singaporean poets got together to produce a joint anthology titled Love Gathers All. You’ll note that all of these pairings are between men, so it’s refreshing and important to remember that women writers have also figured prominently in Singaporean literature, aside from Suchen Lim—the fictionist Catherine Lim and the playwright Stella Kon among them.

Next year, Singapore will host the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators conference, followed by us in 2015. It’s events like these that will help put the Philippines where it deserves to be, squarely on the global literary and cultural map.