With the exception of a few established artists on the international stage, the Filipino art scene was long confined to an insular environment – until about a decade ago. After a 50-year hiatus, the Philippines participated in the 2015 Venice Biennale with a national pavilion, which drew attention to the region and brought a new wave of local artists into the limelight. We profile ten contemporary Filipino artists you should know.
In 2011, Ronald Ventura broke the record for highest-grossing Southeast Asian painting at Sotheby’s Hong Kong when his graphite, oil and acrylic work titled Grayground sold for $1.1 million. Ventura’s paintings and sculptures feature multiple layers of images and styles, symbolic of the multifaceted national identity of the Philippines – a country that, throughout history, has been colonized by the United States, Spain, and Japan. Ventura’s work embodies the complexity of postcolonial culture through the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western motifs; high and low culture; tradition and progress; past and present.
Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan
Husband and wife duo Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan emigrated to Australia in 2006 – an event which became integral to their artistic practices. Their work speaks of community, personal experience, memory, and displacement, alongside the emotional and psychological affects of migration. The Aquilizans often use culturally-significant objects as metaphors of the “lived experience”. In 2006, they exhibited Project Belonging: In Transit at the Biennale of Sydney; made with traditional balikbayan boxes used by Filipinos to ship their belongings around the world, the installation evoked the couple’s voyage to Australia. This work evolved into Project Another Country: Address (2008), made of the contents of 140 balikbayan boxes, each carefully packed and curated with personal items. The Aquilizans have since produced several works involving the local community, employing donated materials and creating complex installations from objects of significance.
Themes of urbanism and everyday politics are central to the work of multidisciplinary artist Mark Salvatus, who also serves as co-founder of local street art groups Pilipinas Street Plan and 98B Collaboratory. Drawing inspiration from his urban landscape, popular culture and the media, Salvatus depicts the contemporary experience, both in his native Philippines and in the places to which he travels. Salvatus links cross-cultural commonalities, as represented in Haiku (2013) – a video projection of graffiti that the artist photographed during his travels throughout Japan, New York, Australia, and Indonesia. The video links otherwise unrelated people and cultures to create a global dialogue. In 2014, the artist presented Latitudes at the Cultural Center of the Philippines – a series of three works engaged with socio-political issues surrounding the resources of land, air and water.
Familiar objects are deconstructed beyond recognition in the conceptual works of Gary-Ross Pastrana to the point where they inherit a new form, significance, and function. Pastrana is interested in the consequences of transforming an object’s physicality, observing how its connotations are subsequently changed. Set Fire to Free (2002) explores whether an object can retain its ‘thing-ness’ if it’s broken. Pastrana destroyed a ladder, burning a section of the remains and creating a bird from its ashes. For Two Rings (2008), the artist melted two of his mother’s rings and shaped them into a sword-like object to investigate whether that physical transformation would alter the material’s sentimentality or worth. Pastrana concluded that the monetary value wouldn’t be lost, but more significantly, their sentimental value augments as the rings’ properties merge. Pastrana reconfigures reality to reveal an object’s truth.
José Santos III
José Santos III has long challenged perceptions of ‘the everyday’. In his early works, Santos painted hyper-realistic trompe l’oeil scenes and surreal, dreamlike compositions. The multimedia artist has developed a cryptic style, leaving his work open to interpretation. He continues to explore a fascination with objects in an effort to uncover their histories, simultaneously obscuring the viewer’s perception of the familiar. In ²hide (2014), and exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries, Santos exhibited a new body of work featuring everyday objects imbued with new meanings. Unnoticed objects are often placed in the spotlight, re-positioned to create a new experience. Santos evokes a renewed appreciation for the hidden, showing us the extent to which we take objects for granted in daily life.
Costantino Zicarelli is a self-proclaimed ‘failed musician’ and graffiti artist whose works reflect the history of drone metal, black metal, and everything rock n’ roll. His works and exhibitions are often inspired by song lyrics, such as his 2013 show at Silverlens titled white as moonlight, as white as bone, as dark as the snake, as dark as the throne. Exploring pop culture’s ‘dark side’, Zicarelli’s graphite grey drawings reveal images of skulls, dark forests, locks hanging in tangles, disco balls, smashed guitars, dead rock stars, and tattoo emblems. The artist explains that his practice is less about being a groupie, and more about showcasing a less chaotic side of the industry. His 2014 exhibition The Dust of Men was inspired by the work and aesthetic of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. From images of sacrifice to decay, this exhibition showcased the eternal fragility of humankind.
Founder of Black Artists in Asia – a Philippines-based group focused on socially and politically progressive artistic practice – and Green Papaya Art Projects, Norberto Roldan addresses local social, political, and cultural issues. His assemblage of text, images, and found objects consider the lived experience of daily life in the Philippines, alongside the complex country’s history and collective memory. Roldan places particular emphasis on historic objects and their capacity to retain significance once they’re discarded and forgotten, questioning whether an object is inherently sentimental or exclusively endowed with meaning. His assemblage titled In Search For Lost Time 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 (2010) was inspired by Hitler’s apartment in Berlin, which was supposedly incongruous with the megalomaniacal dictator’s nature. The work questions the ways in which objects reflect who we are. The Beginning of History and Fatal Strategies (2011) was inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s essay titled The End of History and Meaning, in which the philosopher argues that globalization precipitated the dissolution of history and the collapse of progress. Each work is a collection of old objects displayed in cabinets, recalling a past that is fabricated by an attempt to create a sense of order from forgotten memories.
The richly-ornamented and often grotesquely-humorous multimedia works of Louie Cordero merge indigenous traditions, Spanish Catholicism, and American pop culture to express a long history of tension. His vibrantly-colored compositions draw from the aesthetics of b-movie horror films, heavy metal music, comics, folklore, and street life, engaging with issues stemming from the artist’s colonial past and Catholic upbringing. At the 2011 Singapore Biennale, Cordero presented a disturbing multimedia installation titled My We, inspired by the then-recent murders of innocent people singing Frank Sinatra’s My Way in bars around the Philippines. The installation showcased a multitude of fiberglass figures stabbed all over their bodies with body parts broken. In the background, a video installation projected Sinatra’s fatal song to create an eerie recreation of the macabre events.
Tapping into themes of memory and history, Rodel Tapaya weaves contemporary reality with folk narratives in a vibrant tableaux inspired by folktales and pre-colonial history. Cane of Kabunian, Numbered But Cannot Be Counted (2010) won him the 2011 Signature Art Prize. The painting—displayed at the 10th Gwangju Biennale in 2014 and now housed in the Tiroche De Leon collection—features imagery from Filipino folklore, merging multiple narratives and diverse allegorical references, from the central canine figure to origin myths and other creatures. Tapaya cautions against humankind’s greed and environmental destruction. In a similar vein, Mountain Fantasies (2012) comments on the dangers of over-mining and the importance of preserving of nature. The painting draws influence from Filipino legends such as the beautiful forest goddess Maria Makiling who protects the woodlands, and spirits who nurture seedlings where old trees have died. Tapaya’s work serves as a critique of humankind’s rush towards progress at the expense of the world around us.
Born to a Dutch mother and a Filipino father, Martha Atienza has moved between the Philippines and the Netherlands throughout her life and her mixed background is reflected in her video work. Somewhere between imagination and understanding, her work is a sociological study of her environment. Atienza is interested in investigating the potential of contemporary art as a tool for instituting social change. Along with Rodel Tapaya, she was among the finalists for the 2013/2014 Sovereign Asian Art Prize, where she presented her work endless hours at sea. The video installation pays homage to the history of ocean voyages, inspired by her father’s past as a sea captain. With a moving video of the sea refracted through a glass of water and accompanied by the sound of the ocean, this work captures the illusion of moving waters and suggests a sense of hallucination brought on by the isolation of a life at sea.