2018 in Philippine art

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"The Game of the Real (#8)," 2018, mixed media on canvas, 3 x 4 ft. Some of the words that had to be guessed here were child abuse, basilica, OFW, feud, and Hong Kong. Photo courtesy MARC ESCALONA GABA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At the beginning of 2018, there was already talk about this so-called Southeast Asian renaissance, mainly due to the continuous rise of contemporary art institutions in the region. In the Philippines, if the number of people going to Art Fair Philippines is an indicator of the Filipinos’ increasing consciousness in art, then it appears that there might be indeed a growing art-going public.

Perhaps art’s place in the Philippines has become important, especially in these conscientious times. Maybe Filipinos have seen art as a way to escape the drudgery of the everyday or maybe Filipinos have seen the need to make sense of how seemingly ludicrous our country has become. In this list, a curator, an artist, a critic, and an art patron share shows, art works, and even art collectives that have, in one way or another, shaped the way we see and interact with our surroundings, and ultimately, our nation.

                                   Ricky Francisco, curator at the Lopez Museum and Library

Photo courtesy of RICKY FRANCISCO

“Higa sa Hangin” by Leslie de Chavez, Finale Art File

For me, I like this exhibit because it is powerful, poetic, and gritty. It situates us amid the many controversies which we find our lives embroiled in — the rice shortage, the drug war, the culture of violence transforming the basic fiber of the Filipino, and the consenting silence with which the majority of us give in reaction to it. In one work, we are made to look at a mirror and asked to choose between “bayan o sarili”?

“Higa sa Hangin” is in reference to the torture that many dissenters to the Marcos dictatorship had to endure. One is made to lie down between two chairs kept apart, the head lies on one, the feet on the other. Aside from the physical impossibility of the act, many have been punched on the stomach as they tried to suspend themselves on air. The exhibit appears to poetically give form to the futility of what we find ourselves in, but gives a glimmer of hope in one work, suspended above the exhibition space,the question of when we act is posed.

"Back to Nature" by Oca Villamael

“Back to Nature” by Oca Villamael Finale Art File

Oca Villamael's body of work consists of installations made from foraged material. “Back to Nature” follows this pattern. A gigantic installation called Black Forest is the centerpiece of this installation. More than 5,000 individual nails, taken from demolished homes and used wood yards, have been welded together to create eerie, dead-looking plant like sculptures. These were situated on a bed of charcoal taken from several communities which make a living from it.

On the walls were colorful feathers placed in small bottles and arranged in rows. All the works were testaments to the cyclical nature of things. How things wear down and transform. What I loved about this whole show was that it highlighted the power of art to focus our attention on an idea. The magic of Villamael was to express the idea in a grand scale, capturing our attention, and allowing us to pause and think it through. What I love about Villamael as an artist though was how consistent he was in the social dimension of his practice. His work always needed assistants.

“Black Forest” needed a team of welders following his design and instruction, to fabricate the installation. His bottled feathers needed the continuous employment of assistants to collect and clean the feathers until enough was amassed. When a collector buys his art, many people benefit. The artist becomes the conduit for money to flow from those who have lots of it, to those who need more of it.

Photo courtesy of RICKY FRANCISCO

“Super Robot, Suffer Reboot” by Toym Imao in UP Bulwagan ng Dangal

“Super Robot, Suffer Reboot” is another solo exhibition of grand scale. Featuring for the first time together all the three “Super Robot” installations which were shown individually at the steps of Palma Hall in UP over several years, along with new works by Toym Imao, the exhibition transported us to a carnivalesque world of flashing lights, vivid color, and epic scale befitting how a child of the 70s might remember the super robots Voltes V, Mazinger Z, and Daimos. On T.V., these super robot series presented a narrative of good versus evil contextualized in the battle for survival by humans against overpowering alien forces which invaded earth. All these were cancelled a few episodes before they finished due to censorship by the martial law government of Ferdinand Marcos. Typical to Toym Imao, the works exhibited have used the narratives of the super robot series to create historical references in our society. Beyond the idea of merely remembering, they also cautioned of parallels between the happenings of the 70s to what we are experiencing today.

Photo courtesy of RICKY FRANCISCO

“Isla Inip” by Doktor Karayom CCP (as part of the 13 Artists Awards exhibition).

Doktor Karayom's body of work is easy to identify. It is often predominantly a particular shade of red. It is grotesque. And full of the fantastic, morbid images of a very playful mind which comes up with unusual scenarios of death, dismemberment and all manners of fears, but does so with witty and hilarious humor. “Isla Inip” is no different. The installation is a giant board game, most probably a pun for a game to be played by those who are bored. It invites viewers to play as they view how someone like Gulliver could have ended up if the Lilliputians were hostile cannibals. What I loved about it is, (like Villamael and Imao of my earlier selections), Doktor Karayom is a master storyteller who transports us to his world but allows us to deal with his stories on our own terms. He usually presents the environment, and allows us, this time literally, to play and go with it our own way. The added charm of this exhibit was that it was in the CCP 13 Artists exhibition, curated by Rica Estrada. Going back, being part of the 13 Artists Exhibition, which was predominated by images of dead bodies, in direct or oblique reference to the thousands killed in the government sanctioned “war on drugs,” Doktor Karayom's work can be related to it and you can have a lot of insight about it, but it does it without being preachy.

Photo courtesy of RICKY FRANCISCO

“A Million Things to Say” by Pacita Abad, MCAD

What I loved about it was how poetic it was. Everything was large, and the MCAD was the perfect venue for it. But everything allowed for even the smallest thought to have space. Despite the large works, you see how much care for details the artist had, and how consistent she was over the years, even those when she had cancer. The title of the show directly confronted her mortality, and her works stand as a testament to what we lost with her passing: an artist so attuned to her feelings and thoughts, that she is able to convey them through paint and thread so wonderfully, that we cannot help but hold our breath and smile when we see her works for the first time.

Photo courtesy of RICKY FRANCISCO

“To Tune The Listening Ear to What Cannot Be Seen” by Gerecho Iniel, Art Underground

Iniel has a fascination for science. Most of his exhibitions in recent years always had to deal with transforming an element, like the body's own electricity into another form of energy, like sound or light, through the use of gadgets which he tinkered with, and presented as interactive sculptures. This exhibit was focused on highlighting what we cannot see or hear, like gravity or electromagnetism, and transforming them to forms that we can. Iniel is a poet in highlighting these, and draws our attention to other things that we usually fail to see, or outright ignore, like our destructive behaviors which contribute to climate change, or the inequitable distribution of capital which causes widespread poverty, or even how transient memory is.

Photo courtesy of RICKY FRANCISCO

“Somewhere Else” by Don Bryan Bunag, Art Cube Gallery

Don Bryan Bunag has always been partial to the vast horizon, echoing perhaps the sensibilities of the wide plains of Bulacan where he grew up in. This predilection for the open spaces situates the viewer in a great expanse, where the viewer is solitary, and small, in relation to the landscape. In his previous solo exhibition, “Underneath the Fleeting Clouds,” Bunag brought us to a vast rolling plain with an unhindered view of the sky. The sky was where he masterfully painted clouds which enabled us to project figures and stories, making the work our own, in as much as they were his. “Somewhere Else” situates us near the shore of the wide open sea, with the sky taking up the upper half of the picture plane. Using diaphanous swirls and shading, he conjures a secondary picture plane over the main image. The secondary picture, hazy and incomplete, is of a multitude of peoples seemingly preoccupied with their own daily lives. Or is it just our projection?

Christian Tablazon, artist and co-founder of Nomina Nuda

Video still courtesy of MARC ESCALONA GABA

“The Game of the Real” curated by Marc Escalona Gaba, Mono8 Gallery, Manila

“If we don't understand each other's artworks, can we claim to be a community? What does it mean if the artist cannot speak of intention?” asks poet and visual artist Marc Escalona Gaba, who curated the exhibition. Deftly conceived and exceptional in its reflexivity and vision, “The Game of the Real” gathers 10 artists with curious relationships with figurative representation to collectively produce impromptu paintings by playing Pictionary on canvas, with words lifted from the front pages of national broadsheets.

“Infinite number of ways to paint [a word]; limited number of ways to identify its image,” says the curator, who selected the artists “based on whether the questions that involve figuration will enrich the understanding of each artist's practice.” Featuring Allan Balisi, Lena Cobangbang, Don Djerassi Dalmacio, Beejay Esber, Marc Escalona Gaba, Celine Lee, Kat Medina, Jason Moss, Mai Saporsantos, and Eva Yu, the show operates as a ludic interrogation of language, figuration, and realism through collaborative painting, generating a productive tension among rendition, recognition, and the ineffable order of the real that forever eludes communication.

“The Game of the Real,” Gaba writes in his statement, “discovers anew the resonance of figures outside the function of depiction, crucially during the moment of depiction,” the figures becoming performative “manifestations of the figurative as gesture and operation.”

Photo courtesy of the SHARJAH ART FOUNDATION

“A Tripoli Agreement” curated by Renan Laru-an, Gallery 4, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah

In one interview, researcher and curator Renan Laru-an shares, “Mindanao is framed as a place of insufficiency, a cultural ground displaced and fragmented by conflict and poverty. In other words, it is rarely approached as a source of knowledges and a horizon of diverse imaginations. I am taking Mindanao as a site for artistic thoughts that are not covered in the main discourse within Southeast Asia or the art history of the Philippines. I want to return to these rich discourses that were initiated — because they’re there already.”

“A Tripoli Agreement” takes off from the foundational peace treaty of the same name that promised to establish the first Muslim state in Mindanao, signed in 1976 in the Libyan capital by representatives of the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front. Brokered by Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which comprises 57 Islamic states, this breakthrough agreement represents a key moment in the emergence of modern networks forged between Southeast Asian and Arab countries during the Cold War period. Laru-an’s curatorial residency with Sharjah Art Foundation and Air Arabia culminated in this exhibition, bringing together artists and researchers from Tehran, Beirut, Mumbai, Manila, Marawi, Kuala Lumpur, and Berlin.

Their works explore the networked histories of the different regions involved; the formation of dialogues and negotiations around official documents, and how the archival can be subjected to new readings and constructions of history, allegiance and participation; and the capacity of artistic and cultural interventions to produce political subjectivities and surface other circuits of internationalisms and new political trajectories in the world.

Photo courtesy of TANYA VILLANUEVA

“How we exist together” by Tanya Villanueva with daughter Olivia, curated by Con Cabrera, Bulwagang Fernando Amorsolo (Small Gallery), Cultural Center of the Philippines

“How we exist together,” a multimedia collaboration between Tanya Villanueva and her 16-year old daughter Luna/Olivia, marks a significantly pragmatic and remarkable turn in Villanueva’s practice, which she has started to regard as a coming-to-terms with the various questions of her person and immediate material conditions. “I am using various mediums to explore ways to collaborate and perform the specific position I have as a mother, an artist and the sole parent to my daughter,” she states.

Artmaking moves away from the impetus of producing lucrative objects and the pressure and anxiety of having to be visible and relevant in the scene, and becomes first and foremost a private and intimate process of attuning to oneself that needs to be able to address their personal needs.

“To collaborate with my daughter is my way of working to care for our system as a family unit, a way to learn about ourselves together by working through our own pace and with our own learning processes.” Villanueva describes her ongoing series of working with her daughter as a way of exiting and growing together and persisting in this vicious world.

To regard art as a personal and thoroughly humane technology, a modality of kindness that clears a safe space with its own internal logic and ethical economy for subjects and relationships to thrive, allows for such affective collaborations to become means of contemplating and resolving issues about one’s practice, the systems in which one moves, and life at large, and “[puts] forth our body that exists beyond the part of us that peddles to be valued.”

Despite its humanist concerns and the affective relations it seeks to foster, Villanueva’s work remains stripped of bathos and strives to veer away from the use of metaphors. “I am looking for ways to be incorruptible and ways to explore art making that will not eventually feel like a waste of space by being too much about producing it, ways to share a personal garden where I can move with intention of tending life around me with critical care and private splendor. By working with my own experience and using my life as the source of images for my work, I can take control of my own visibility and my own space. In this installation, I am looking at a force as well as showcasing it. I am looking at my daughter’s face and taking time to put her into the light, looking to answer how can I uplift the both of us.”

Video still courtesy of SIDNEY VALDEZ

“Softcore” by Sidney Valdez, in “Resetting the Clock” curated by Con Cabrera, Pasilyo Victorio Edades, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay

Consistently characterized by their cutting irony and wit and calculating trickster rhetoric, Sidney Valdez’ shrewdly conceived projects are often ingenious critiques of class, state machinery, and empire. “Softcore” comprises two monitors: one displaying a collection of videos from the artist’s daily encounters and commutes, shot using his smartphone; and the other, a montage of televisual fragments derived mostly from local advertisements, noontime shows, soap operas, and newscasts. What could have been easily dismissed as a contrived, predictable, or blatant juxtaposition of social realism with the opiate fanfare of mainstream media here becomes a chilling and carnivalesque program of its own that locks the spectator in some limboid tautology. The oblique and riddling parade of video fragments makes clear a nightmarish fantasy world that contrasts and blurs the boundaries at the same time between social documentation and poverty porn, humor and horror, and the local material conditions and the perverse fiction of television. Valdez deftly and incisively surfaces the absurd and the perverse in the ritual of our everyday persistence and the already darkly comic hyperreality of Philippine contemporary life.

Video still courtesy of SIDNEY VALDEZ

“Dakel Saday” by Aaron Kaiser Garcia, live performance in “Littoral Drifts” organized by saranglayap and Nomina Nuda, Dogtown Collective, Baler, Aurora

Initially produced as a senior thesis at the Philippine High School for the Arts staged in March at the National Arts Center this year, “Dakel Saday” debuted as a solo performance in Baler, Aurora as part of the one-day group exhibition “Littoral Drifts.” Performance artist, dancer, and choreographer Aaron Kaiser Garcia’s hybrid project of ethnochoreography builds on the Tasaday hoax of the Marcos regime and the many choreographic fabrications by dance scholars passed as ethnographic notation to be later canonized into our dance traditions. Garcia’s project commemorates and critically reimagines the controversial Tasaday people while doubling as a work of fabulation and counterdocument to problematize myths of authenticity and ‘nation’ and the role of cultural production in assisting state power.

Through this work, he asks: “How much of the narratives in our history have been fabricated and false? How come the remains of a former dictator now lies in a graveyard reserved for heroes? What influence have artist-choreographers contributed to such insidious fictions and assisted the state machinery over the decades?” Rarely does one encounter a rigorous project that wields choreography and dance as tools of critical discourse, not to mention the commanding intelligence of Garcia’s body and the utter sorcery of his movements as he blazed the ground barefoot.

Photo courtesy of MARLON HACLA

“Estela Vadal” by Marlon Hacla, Roel’s Bookshop, Quezon City

Poet, photographer, and programmer Marlon Hacla recently launched the physical prototype of his groundbreaking and ongoing project “Estela Vadal” at an indie book fair in Quezon City in December this year, an interactive and makeshift wooden robot touring as a street poet and photobooth rolled into one. Named after his mother, Estela Vadal is an artificial intelligence machine, a recurrent neural network trained on poems in Filipino by Hacla to generate poetic text.

Her best poems during her first several months were compiled in a chapbook titled “Ito ang Pangalan ng Aking mga Dila,” published in December last year by Magpies, and from October 2017 until her incarnation this month, Estela Vadal has been an active Twitter bot that ‘recited’ lines of poetry by the hour ( The robot generates with a receipt printer the photos of its subjects along with poetry vignettes prompted by the image signatures of the photos. Graceful and visceral at once, these compositions provide a glimpse of Estela Vadal’s uncanny consciousness and the mysteries language can muster in the lines that seem to have emerged from some unfathomable void. Straddling and intersecting various media to mine further possibilities of the lyric gesture and create startling, new configurations of the Filipino language, Hacla’s project not only serves as a landmark work in Philippine literature and in local text-based and new media arts, but also generates perhaps one of the most numinous and unsettlingly beautiful poetry that we will ever see in print in this lifetime.

                                           Katrina Stuart Santiago, arts and culture critic


UGATLahi Artist Collective

Even if you have yet to be one of those who will include going to protests in your monthly calendar, it would be difficult to miss the artistry and creativity — not to mention the discursive critique — that is in UGATLahi Artist Collective’s effigies. To say that this group has upped its effigy game the past year would be an understatement, as its works have spun and rotated, unfolded and unraveled in ways that are always a surprise, and more importantly that are always in sync with the most current soundbite, the most urgent calls, the more important issues. That a bigger public now sees these effigies and asks why these must be burned down at all is a measure of the broadening resistance versus the current leadership, and the clarity with which we are now engaging with this brand of visual resistance, the power of which is in the fact that at the end of the day, it must go up in flames. No other art was as “lit” as UGATLahi’s all of 2018.


“Kahayupan” by Jose Santos P. Ardivilla, UP Bulwagan ng Dangal

While there was no lack of politically-engaged (i.e., anti-Duterte, anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship) art this year, there was one exhibit that decided to deal with the state of the nation by actually taking us back six presidents, and forcing us to contend with the fact that we have been willing passengers on this political carousel ride called “same shit, different dynasty.” And this is no simpleton analysis.

Using the form of the political cartoon in seven large-scale panels, one each for every President from Marcos to Duterte (each also labelled a Deadly Sin with Duterte as Wrath, PNoy as Sloth), we are made to see an unchanging political landscape: the same anti-people policies named differently, the same pigs and crocs, boors and snakes in government, the same wealth transferring hands, the dead people sacrificed in the name of. The devil was in the details of this exhibit, as it was also in its execution: an audio recording on loop, welcoming the spectator to the carnival ride, saccharine and sinister, bogus but believable — the most credible reminder that where we are is where we’ve always been, and the only way out is not only to get off this ride, but to burn it to the ground.


Space Encounters Gallery & Provenance Gallery

In a time and place where a majority of artists are treated almost like contractual factory workers with no benefits, no security, and certainly no negotiating power with “employers,” it is clear that the artist-gallery-collector dynamic has to change — at the very least the model needs to be experimented with, in case we are missing out on other ways in which this system might function with more compassion and kindness for those who actually make the art, without whom, well, there would be no gallery, no collector.

These two spaces were seen to be giving that a try in 2018, not just by choosing to exhibit lesser known artists, but also by providing artists the opportunity at expansion: for Space Encounters, it’s the decision to produce furniture, interiors, home accessories based on the artists’ work; for Provenance Gallery it’s bringing the right-sized art to captive markets within highly specialized and specific spaces. Both arguably in the hope of moving art more quickly from artist to buyer, towards making art more sustainable for artists, and actually seeing what it’s like when artists don’t have to worry about earning from their art. An interesting enough proposition, with great possibilities.

                                               Jam Acuzar, founder of Bellas Artes Projects

“Continuing Spirit: Alfredo Esquillo” at Ateneo Art Gallery, Manila

This retrospective of Alfredo Esquillo Jr.’s 25-year long career as a Social Realist painter is a much-anticipated tribute to his contribution to the Philippine Art Scene and his place within Philippine contemporary art. The exhibition not only shows his proficiency as a painter through 37 seminal works but also Esquillo’s commitment to a deep artistic practice, consistently reflecting on the tensions between the political, material and spiritual consciousness of the Filipino people.


“Moving House, Unpacking A Life of Critical Art Making: Judy Freya Sibayan” at Calle Wright, Manila

How do you document and exhibit performance? What makes an institution? These are questions that you encounter when you visit this show, if you can even call it that. In many ways, it is more than a show. Judy greets you in this house-turned-gallery where she walks you through an archive of personal belongings and stories, taking you through private details of her life and conscious decisions in her career. The result is a fascinating journey towards understanding Sibayan’s fascinating life as a thinker, artist, museum director, as she unpacks her very life in front of you. The intimacy of this exhibition is what really makes it special, as you enter a room filled with critical texts and art works, personal letters, and even shoes and clothing that she may or may not be willing to let go. You end up leaving the house with many questions, feeling very hopeful that an artist such as Judy is so committed to a critical art practice in the Philippines.