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2021 Philippine visual arts ecosystem: A Review

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In 2021, the art world remained spirited despite the many constraints that the visual arts ecosystem resists. In photo: Professor Toym Imao's "Barikada." Photo courtesy of TOYM IMAO

Editor’s note: Alain Zedrick Camiling is an educator, arts writer, and curator based in Manila, Philippines. His background is in art education and curatorial studies and his ongoing research scrutinizes knowledge production, circulation, and practice vis-a-vis arts management in the Philippines.

For the purposes of transparency, the author declares his involvement in some of the projects mentioned below such as being deputy curator and art manager for “Alimuom Contemporary Exhibition,” being artistic director and curator for “The Manila’Bang Show: Art Fest International 2021,” being co-proponent with Dindin Araneta on British Council Philippines’ Arts and Culture Philanthropy Research, and being the current Chair of the Arts Management Program at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde Manila.

When struck by a question on what the best part of the Philippine visual arts ecosystem for the past year was, what answers must we expect?

As the arts ecosystem is still adjusting through the pandemic just like other industries, I look back on the year that was, including noteworthy activities, events, and initiatives across the visual arts sector in the Philippines propelled by myriad collaborative gestures among diverse entities, individuals, groups, and organizations. In addition, insights from art historian, professor, and UP Vargas Museum curator Dr. Patrick Flores as well as National Committee on Visual Arts (NCVA) Head and Art Fair Philippines co-founder Geraldine “Dindin” de Borja-Araneta are included, specifically their reflections and things they look forward to in the visual arts sector in 2022.

“I was struck by the network of communities and initiatives that was horizontally coordinated but with the depth and density of organic intuition,” Flores shares on anything specific he has in mind that are commendable or noteworthy for the past year. He mentions that this is a good sign as he observes surfacing of the archive, residency, solidarity as vital intersections “eluding the capture of institutionalized assimilation or ideological partisanship, both of which oftentimes turn art into an instrument or integer.” He eventually expounds that these intersections are local but extensively inclined outwards, “laterally, adjacently, tangentially.” “Also, we found out that projects may be conceived as part of an iterative stamina, incremental, scalar, multi-site, and therefore always decisively alert and open to afterlives or incarnations, without the spectacle of self-importance and righteousness.”

In February, the National Arts Month Project of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts transitioned fully online. The project aimed to “conserve, promote and popularize Filipino artistic creations; integrate the arts in the community life; and harness the arts as catalysts for values education.” To name a few, they mounted webinars, workshops, exhibitions, a film festival highlighting works by and for women as well as the LGBTQPIA+ community and presented Bagong Biswal by the NCVA to “find a new visual language brought about by circumstances'' that local artists find themselves in during the pandemic.

Similarly, the Cultural Center of the Philippines held “Tuloy Po Kayo,” a week-long multi-arts festival that included an art fair/market component and virtual tours and exhibitions with several museums, galleries, and venues as partners.

A screenshot of Metaverse homepage.

Unfortunately, the year also tallied many of the visual arts sector’s losses from the passing of visual artists like Professors Jack Pilar, Leo Abaya, Joey Tañedo, Neil Doloricon, and National Artist Arturo Luz, among many others.

However, 2021 has remained filled with interesting activities and projects. We were ushered into the Metaverse by Art Fair Philippines and opened discourses on nun-fungible tokens (NFTs) apart from focusing on digital art, introducing new programs and competitions, offering residencies, mounting special exhibitions, and facilitating tours, among many others, last May 2021.

The emergence of new art fairs at the latter part of the year, from various localities, has been evident and mostly recognized as those which attempt to veer away from traditional commercial approach through expanded programming and social responsibility.

Some of these recently established and new art fairs include regional and national initiatives like the 3rd Mindanao Art Fair (Oct. 1 to 31) having both virtual and physical components, Tarlac Art Fair (Oct. 1 to Nov. 13), ManilArt: The National Art Fair (Oct. 20 to 24), Visayas Art Fair (Nov. 25 to 28), Alimuom Contemporary Exhibition at the Ibagiw Festival, Baguio City (opened on Nov. 13), the 2nd iteration of Alt Philippines (Dec. 4 to 8, 2021), Fotomoto PH (opened on Nov. 20), and the recent The Manila’Bang Show: Art Fest International 2021 (Dec. 8 to 12).

“The crisis laid bare an overinvestment in an art system tied to high-maintenance infrastructure, and a supply chain dependent on First World expectations,” shares Flores as he explicates his reflections, perhaps realizations on the past year. “We now realize it to be an unwieldy hardware that requires a largely mechanical software, one not honed by workers who nimbly refunction procedures in the very act of running operations, or making a particular bureaucracy proceed while thinking through it with practical intelligence. Surely, there are improvisations and calibrations here and there, though well within the apparatus. That said, the field was able to strongly position itself to meet the challenges, at times by insisting on business as usual but at others by recovering intimate, if not counter-intuitive, resources and redistributing them across other recoveries. It was an alternation between liquidity and fluidity. The latter was inspiring, as it indexed an internal dynamism not exclusively indebted to, though also not totally unhinged from, dominant formations.”

As he refers to the art world as a lush rainforest having many subjective species, he hopes we don’t conveniently turn it into a terrarium. “The discourse, the writing and the thinking, the excitement, the self-management, the conviviality were all there,” he adds.

“The first year of the pandemic was one of adjustment. Artists were thinking of how to pivot, for the lack of a better term,” shares Araneta. She notes of a few notable initiatives in the visual arts sector for the past year, which are also keen on safety considerations in line with the pandemic. Araneta refers to these as natural transitions, perhaps progressions of things like the shift of face-to-face activities to online modality.

The current pandemic has also propelled everyone to rethink, perhaps reconfigure art residencies. Aside from ongoing residencies offered by Art Fair Philippines in Orange Project Art Residency in Bacolod, Manila Observatory, Linangan Art Residency in Cavite, Emerging Islands in La Union, and Butanding Barrio in Palawan, Load Na Dito Projects, led by Mark Salvatus and Mayumi Hirano, mounted Pasa Load Residency (September 2020 to April 2021) where an invited artist takes over their Instagram account as a residency platform to connect with publics as well as studio visits through dialogues with artists and professionals from all over the world, among many others. Additionally, Anakbanwa Arts Residency Project (November 2021 to January 2022) hosted three Luzon-based artists to immerse themselves in the 4th district of Pangasinan as well as its communities.

A poster for Load Na Dito Projects' Pasa Load residency. Photo courtesy of LOAD NA DITO PROJECTS

In terms of initiatives led by visual artists, collectives, and practitioners some notable ones include Prof. Toym Imao’s works which stem from ideas of remembrance and memory including an installation art at the University of the Philippines- Philippine General Hospital called “Whispering Flower Beds,” which targeted to honor our frontliners in this pandemic and “Barikada” which marked the 50th year of Diliman Commune, Tarantadong Kalbo’s #Tumindig Campaign which gathered a huge support from the online communities, Limbag Kamay Contemporary Print Fair (October 2021) which some of the proceeds are to be used for a prototype batch of etching presses for the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (AP) who are also one of the organizers, Concerned Artists of the Philippines’ initiatives to lobby for a “nationalist and people-oriented art and culture,” online zine FREE-Lances on the plight of freelance arts practitioners across parts of the world during the pandemic led by curators Con Cabrera, Renan Laru-an, and J Paceña II, and community-led projects at Project Space Pilipinas in Lucban, Quezon led by Leslie de Chavez, and the Visayas-wide biennale which started in 1990, the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA- EXCON) led by Dr. Patrick Flores in its 2021 iteration, among others.

“The digital interface was crucial in making this possible, but more basically I think it’s the enthusiasm of agents forming assemblies, and assemblies reaching out to one another with mutual care and introspection, that enlivened the digital sphere,” adds Flores when asked about his thoughts on collaborative gestures, specifically online, including their possibilities and ability to sustain activities in the ecosystem.

“This effectively fought the fatigue, ennui, and the angst of the pandemic, not to mention its depletion of material life and exhaustion of emotional spirit. The coming together of the digital and the inter-human stirs up the energy to imagine a different natural history of the artistic ecology: that there are different lifeworlds out there: ‘real life,’cyberspace, quarantine, bubble, and so on.”

Moreover, in the context of cultural institutions, the academe, and research grants, the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde Manila, Philippine Women’s University, and the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (The M), among many others, have hosted various online dialogues particularly on contemporary art, art and communities, cultural policy, research, among many others. These attempts by academic institutions are quite commendable to veer away from the ivory tower.

Also, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) Manila hosted a drive-in theater “Watch & Chill” (October – December 2021) for video work screenings in a carpark curated collaboratively with museums in Seoul and Chiang Mai and a district in Hong Kong SAR. Furthermore, the British Council Philippines has supported various initiatives like arts and culture philanthropy in the Philippines report led by Dindin Araneta and its Connections Through Culture Programme, which includes a “research project during the crisis of reunion” by Sultan Kudarat-based curator Renan Laru-an with United Kingdom artists and collaborators who worked on Mindanao-specific subjects both to be launched in 2022.

Filipinos have also been in the global limelight engaging in some of the art world’s biggest activities, platforms, and institutions like the recent acquisition of Pio Abad’s and Frances Wadsworth Jones’ “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders,” which utilizes jewelry as medium to tell a story of martial law corruption during late dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos’ regime, by the Tate Gallery London, Tessa Maria Guazon’s participation as part of the Asian Art Biennal’s curatorial team, Yael Buencamino Borromeo’s and Arvin Jason Flores’ participation as curators for the Philippine Pavilion and Dr. Patrick Flores’ appointment as curator of the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2022, and National Artist Kidlat Tahimik’s “Marilyn, Mickey & Fr. Damaso. 500 Years of Conquistador Rockstars”, where he exhibited materials explicating “impact of imperialism on local cultures” at the Palacio De Cristal in Madrid, Spain.

Additionally, awards and recognition bodies have continued on their traditions such as the Ateneo Art Awards’ Fernando Zobel Prizes for Visual Art and the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prizes in Art Criticism, Metrobank Foundation’s Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) 2021, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists Awards (TAA) 2021, among others.

“While people are still being cautious and anxious about the pandemic, there seems to be a strong desire for artists to show their art on-site,” says Araneta on how she envisions the coming year for the visual arts sector — that people, both artists and art goers, seem to be so eager in experiencing art on-site. “Within a span of a month in late 2021, we’ve seen more than 300 artists in recent events like Fotomoto PH, Alt Philippines, and The Manila’Bang Show. Art goers and collectors seemed to have enjoyed these face-to-face events while considering safety as paramount.”

Flores wraps up our email interview by sharing what he’s hopeful for in 2022, “I’d like to see practitioners further learning together and across persuasions to remake an ecology imperiled by potentially extractive interests like the market and ideology. The latter should be released from their impulses, or obsessions, so that more productive exchange and political work can happen. Also, the language of critique must find delicate tone, urgent texture, and hopeful style so that it doesn’t descend into the idle commentary on power, which is too complex to be left in the hands of intrigants and cynics who posture as critics of institutions in the manner of evangelists. As a corollary, we must be wary of operatives, entrepreneurs of traditional (cultural) politics who preach democracy but actually monopolize. Needless to say, we can revisit “critique” as the privileged language of analysis.”

“Finally, practitioners should predispose forces to be less acquisitive and instead be more generative, to diminish both profit and prophesy in the face of vulnerabilities and complicities. The universe of Philippine contemporary art is vast, both archipelagic and migrant. It may seem dispersed, but the pandemic has revealed how nodes can be rendered proximate to each other without necessarily making them align.”

Above all, 2021 is a year that remains spirited despite the many constraints that the visual arts ecosystem resists. This was evident through a rise in the number of celebrated art fairs, a constant test on models and platforms for artistic and creative experiences, engagement, and participation, numerous attempts to propel and continue conversations in/about the field, distinctive regional initiatives, strong digital intervention, and participation of Filipinos in notable activities in the global visual art scene. I reflect on how sustainability and evaluation become of utmost necessity to pave way for more of these in the coming year.

Conceivably, what remains crucial behind these projects is a question I would like to constantly ponder on in my practice and something I want to offer to all artists, practitioners, and professionals in the visual arts ecosystem — why are we doing these and who are we doing these for?