Isa Lorenzo: 'These women are national compasses'

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The "Filipinas" exhibit returns to local shores after its previous runs in New York and Paris. It is currently on display at the National Museum of Anthropology until June 19. Photo from the NATIONAL MUSEUM FACEBOOK PAGE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In January 2006, the artist Isa Lorenzo’s exhibit “Filipinas” opened at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) to wide acclaim. Featuring portraits of 30 exceptional women — representing the arts, education, civil society, and politics — the exhibit served as tribute and testament to the strength and power of the Filipino woman.

“Filipinas” features a wide range of women, from cultural icons like the late former president Corazon Aquino to unsung heroes like Eva Fidela Maamo, a nun and medical doctor who served 60,000 people from seven mountain tribes. That the women are generally given the same photographic treatment — stark, black-and-white portraits — makes a point: Whether they’re publicly acknowledged figures or the kinds of game-changers who sometimes slip through the cracks of public consciousness, these women are national treasures.

At the time, Lorenzo was a young artist balancing her time between photography work and running the gallery Silverlens, then two years old and slowly making a name for itself as one of the more dynamic art spaces in Manila. Today, of course, she’s primarily known as the force behind Silverlens, now one of the leading contemporary art galleries not just in Manila, but also in Southeast Asia. A formidable presence in key international art fairs and a frequent collaborator with different art museums and institutions around the world, Silverlens is home to some of Philippine contemporary art’s leading names — Maria Taniguchi, Gabriel Barredo, and Patricia Perez Eustaquio, to name a few.

A decade after “Filipinas” first opened at the CCP, nine years after it traveled to the UNESCO House in Paris, Lorenzo is reunited with the exhibit that helped establish her reputation. The photographs are once again on show in Manila, this time at the National Museum of Anthropology.

Lorenzo and Deanna Ongpin-Recto, the curator of the exhibit, spoke to CNN Philippines Life about putting the show together in 2004, reviving the show for 2016, and the enduring importance of “national compasses.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

This show comes 10 years after the initial exhibit at the CCP and nine years after it traveled to the UNESCO House in Paris. Can you take us through the decision to restage the show in Manila after such a long time?

Deanna Ongpin-Recto: The invitation to show “Filipinas” again came on Jan. 31 from Dr. Ana Labrador, assistant director of the National Museum. She remembered seeing it at the CCP in 2006, and recalled “admiring the collection.” She wanted to have it at the National Museum in celebration of women’s month in March.

Let's go back to 2004, when you started working on the show. In a 2007 interview, Isa mentioned that it started as an idea to pay “homage to women who have reached lifetime successes.” Where did that idea come from?

Isa Lorenzo: I was looking for a personal compass, a simple reason. Soon enough, it became obvious that these women are national compasses for our country. We should all take examples from their lives lived well, with legacies untarnished.

In the same interview, you mentioned that “accomplishment and age” were factors in selecting the women to photograph. Do you remember how you put together that shortlist?

D.O.R: It was in mid-2005 when Isa talked to me about wanting to do this exhibition, and asked me to be the curator. She had a list with about 10 names on it. We saw it and added a few more names, then a few more. We decided that 30 was the right number, neither too few nor too many. We chose the women from different domains. Most were well-known personalities who had distinguished themselves in their professions, but others were completely unknown except to those whose lives they had directly touched. The guiding principle was Isa’s: “They must have done a lot in their lives and they must be old enough to not screw up their achievements.” The “Filipinas” women’s ages ranged from 60 to 90 plus.

Did you encounter any difficulty in booking the subjects? Were you able to assemble your dream 30?

I.L.: The most difficult part was the scheduling. Many of them were very busy. Once we got the schedule, it was fairly quick and straightforward of a shoot, with Deanna interviewing them during the shoot. This is where the information for the book came from, as well as the captions accompanying the show.

With the benefit of 10 years worth of hindsight, if you could go back in time, would you change anything about the show?

I.L.: Nothing.


Below is a selection of portraits from the exhibit with notes from the catalog.

Eugenia D. Apostol

b. 1925, Sorsogon

Journalist and defender of freedom. Founder of Mr. and Ms. Magazine and Mr. and Ms. Special Edition, publications which went beyond the usual women’s magazine coverage by featuring sociopolitical issues. Founder of the weekly paper The Inquirer, which later evolved into the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the tabloid Pinoy Times, which published reports on the mistresses and hidden wealth of Joseph Estrada.

Corazon C. Aquino

b. 1933, Manila

d. 2009

First woman to become President of the Philippines. As the widow of Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., she was catapulted to power after his assassination on Aug. 21, 1983. From 1986 to 1992, she presided the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy. She was named Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1986. She also served as President of the Aquino Foundation.

Gilda Cordero-Fernando

b. 1930, Manila

Lover and promoter of Pinoy culture. Prize-winning author, publisher and theater producer. Founder of GCF Books and GCF Productions. Long-time columnist of The Manila Chronicle and regular contributor to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Author of “The Last Full Moon: Lessons of My Life.”

Fe del Mundo

b. 1911, Manila

d. 2011

Distinguished physician. First Filipina National Scientist, first Filipina to enroll at Harvard Medical School, first Filipino diplomate of the American Board of Pediatrics, first woman President of the Philippine Pediatric Society, founder and first President of the Philippine Women’s Medical Association, and the first Asian to be elected President of the Medical Women’s International Association.

Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil

b. 1922, Manila

Writer and historian. She was Chair of the National Historical Commission from 1966 to 1971) and has been Chair of the Manila Historical Commission since 1994. She is the author of a novel, “The Rice Conspiracy,” and several collections of essays: “Woman Enough and Other Essays,” “A Question of Identity,” “History Today,” and “The Philippine Centennial Reader.” She most recently published a collection of late essays called “Whatever.”

Alicia P. Lorenzo

b. 1931, Manila

Mother of Isa Lorenzo. Besides bearing and raising seven other children, she is a doctor of medicine, finishing cum laude in 1956 at the College of Medicine of the University of the Philippines, one of the first women to ever do so. She married the Ateneo basketball legend Luis F. Lorenzo, better known then as Moro Lorenzo. She has lived her life as primarily her husband’s wife and her children’s mother. She has 34 grandchildren.

Eva Fidela Maamo

b. 1940, Leyte

Nun and medical doctor. She started private practice in 1966 in Lilo-an, Southern Leyte, and went on to become the Community Physician of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres in Taytay, Rizal. In 1974 she became the Medical Director of the Sta. Cruz Mission Clinic in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, serving 60,000 people from seven mountain tribes.

Solita C. Monsod

b. 1940, Manila

Educator and public servant. She was the first Filipina Director-General of the National Economic and Development Agency from 1986 to 1989 during the Aquino government. At present, she is a Professor at the School of Economics of the University of the Philippines. She writes a weekly column for two Philippine dailies and is a co-host of a weekly television talk show dealing with current sociopolitical and economic issues.

Virginia R. Moreno

b. 1925, Manila

Poet, playwright, filmmaker. Her single published book of poetry, “The Batik Maker and Other Poems,” won First Prize in the Carlos Palanca Literary Awards. She founded the U.P. Listening Center in the 1960s, and established in 1976 the U.P. Film Center, which for many years was the only venue that offered screenings of world film classics. She was most recently honored by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings.

Socorro C. Ramos

b. 1923, Laguna

Entepreneuse sans pareille. Named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year of the Philippines in 2004, she and her husband established the National Book Store when she was only 19. Starting as a general merchandise store, it became a store that sells more than just books. Never having attended university herself, she has nonetheless been passionate about helping educate Filipinos.

Gloria Romero

b. 1933, Colorado, U.S.A.

Actrice extraordinaire. The Gawad Urian Awards bestowed upon her the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Philippine cinema as an actress for more than half a century. Starting as an extra at Sampaguita Pictures in 1949, she became a movie queen in the early 1950s, and went on to win the FAMAS Best Actress trophy for “Dalagang Ilocana” in 1954, and a second trophy for Best Supporting Actress in Ishmael Bernal’s “Nagbabagang Lupa” in 1987.

Armida Siguion-Reyna

b. 1930, Manila

Award-winning and highly acclaimed actress, director and producer. She started her career as opera singer in the 1950s and later as theater actor in the 1960s up to 1990. She ventured into film and television production, beginning in 1970 with her first production, “Aawitan Kita (Let Me Sing For You),” a musical featuring the best of Filipino music, and which, at 35 years, is the longest-running program on Philippine television.


The “Filipinas” exhibit is on display in the Reception Room on the 4th floor of the National Museum of Anthropology, located on Padre Burgos Avenue, Rizal Park, Manila, until June 19, 2016.

An educational program is also planned for the exhibit, comprising one session in April for talks by three of the women featured in the exhibit and one session in June for talks by the daughters of some of the women featured in the exhibit on their own advocacies.