Wabi Sabi | Interview with Artist Jem Magbanua

Wabi Sabi

Artist Jem Magbanua ruminates on the concepts of time and place with illustrated collages

Interview Patrick Kasingsing
Art Jem Magbanua

Jem Magbanua, Header: iii. Self-Portrait Studies
American Standard

Hello! Please introduce yourself.

Hello! My name is Jem Magbanua, a visual artist and illustrator based in the outskirts of Metro Manila. My infatuation with the landscape gives me a constant itch to go on hikes or meander through the city. If I am not physically traveling through one hemisphere of the world, my mind wanders through the trails set in fiction and poetry books.

What fueled your passion for illustration? Where did it all start?

I have always been a keen observer of life around me. With all these thoughts swimming in my head, there was an urge to record them. And the most natural form of documenting came through the act of drawing. Drawing allows me to understand the world in depth. By depicting an object, place, or memory on paper, it’s as if I am also etching that particular thing in my memory. This is why drawing is so essential to me.

Your work often consists of calming compositions of plant life and objects, often architecture, executed with a mixture of paint and pencils and often with messages scrawled on the canvas. Can you tell us a little about this approach and aesthetic?

I draw inspiration from my everyday surroundings—places I pass by on a regular basis or objects that occupy the space I live in. As for my materials of choice, I enjoy the immediacy of gouache and pencil. These tools are mainly used to create plans or drafts so they possess these notions of temporariness and transition. They hold this potential to progress into something else. I regularly re-work old drawings, adding to the existing narrative as I continue to broaden my conceptual concerns. My aesthetic is of eastern influence where the subject matter is stripped down to its essence.

Would you say that you have a particular style of illustration and painting? Is this something that you are working to achieve or something intuitive?

I remember back in art school, I had a lecturer who told me that my work has no place in the realm of Fine Arts because it was too “Illustration-y”. I used to wince every time people would associate “illustration” with my work but now I have learned to gladly accept it. Illustration is not my main interest, but it is somewhere in the mix of various other genres and sub-genres of art that I am inspired by. I am quite pleased with the visual language I have developed over the years and I am continually expanding my vocabulary.

iii. Self-Portrait Studies

Art is often seen as some cloistered artifact appreciated by a select few until the advent of social media helped broaden its viewership. What’s your take on this, and what do you think are the positive and negative aspects this phenomenon can bring in terms of how people view and understand art?

Social media breaks demographic barriers in terms of allowing people from all walks of life to discover art. I think it’s a great platform where people can share, learn, and discuss artists and art-making. However, do not rely solely on the internet to view artworks. Unless the work was created specifically for viewing in the digital realm, I encourage viewers to visit the artwork in its original context: whether it’s in a gallery or a museum. Works that have been materially and tangibly produced carry a presence that can only be felt when confronted with the object itself.

Who are your artistic idols, and what about their work inspires you?

Oh, this is such a difficult one to answer. I revere a multitude of artists from a variety of backgrounds. Agnes Martin, for her ability to depict the intensity of a sunset just by using washes of color and mathematically precise grids. Andrew Wyeth, for his use of the exterior landscape to prompt interior reflection. Koichi Sato, for the multiple levels of meaning and expression in such simple compositions. Rae Armantrout, for her masterful ability to connect seemingly disparate words to resonate a particular energy in her poetry.

Your work often takes on the form of a collage of seemingly disparate objects, like construction cranes and trees; lamps, and shrubbery. What is the message behind these intriguing assemblages you have a penchant for constructing?

Each series is inspired by a multiplicity of ideas that are received differently for each viewer so I am not sure if I can pin down one ultimate message for the work. In truth, my work does not attempt to offer an answer but invites the viewer to think differently about the world around them. Overall, my drawings attempt to express a state of limbo I find to be evident in today’s urbanized landscape. The city is populated with more places of transition (bus stops, airports, train stations) and more generic buildings that can generally be found in various metropolitan areas. Every series is an exploration of how to expand on this narrative.

ii. Self-Portrait Studies

I have always been a keen observer of life around me. With all these thoughts swimming in my head, there was an urge to record them.


You went on a month-long artist residency in Fukuoka, Japan. How was the experience like? Can you share some of the insights and observations gained from your stay?

Japan’s countryside is a beautiful, tranquil and lonely place. Spending a month there was both isolating and rejuvenating. That was probably the only place I was able to confront the kind of silence you swear you can almost hear yourself blink in. As for artistic insights that I gained through the residency, I realized that I learned the most from the four other participants I shared the space with. Even with the advent of social media and the internet, the value of face-to-face communication and interaction with fellow artists from an array of cultural backgrounds cannot be underestimated.

Walk us through your process. How do you decide what objects go into certain artworks? And how do you compose them?

My reference material mainly consists of photographs I’ve taken from past travels or walks around the city. Usually, I begin with certain items that trigger my imagination then I pull them into a dimension of my own making. I find it interesting to depict psychological states through the use of everyday objects. Take a chair or electric fan, for example, symbols of privacy and comfort. Then we have a cement mixer, a symbol of non-permanence and displacement. When creating a drawing, I start out with one or two main objects in the composition. As the drawing slowly takes on a life of its own, I add in objects that fit the emerging narrative.

Just as how migration and diaspora bring traces of one’s own culture and story into different places, so it is with art. Especially for the pieces you’ve had exhibited abroad, what stories of home do they tell foreign viewers?

During my formative years, I moved to Singapore together with my family. While in Singapore, throughout the six years that I resided there, I lived in five different homes. I felt as though I did not grow roots that ran deep enough to consider any of those spaces “home”. Moreover, having lived a sheltered life in Manila before moving to Singapore gave me a rather simplistic experience of Metro Manila. Hence, my idea of “home” is not a physical space but a mental space that I carry along with me. The Italian architect Ugo La Pietra once said, “To live is to be at home everywhere.”

“Overall, my drawings attempt to express a state of limbo I find to be evident in today’s urbanized landscape.”

What other artistic fields do you dabble into? You seem to have an interest in architecture, judging from the numerous architectural references in your work.

Yes, my work is definitely that of a pseudo-architect. Architecture, particularly buildings created for domestic purposes, as places of memory and self-discovery are subjects that strongly inform my work. I am also fascinated by landscape design, especially the aesthetic and conceptual principles that come into play in Japanese gardening. Poetry—reading poetry—is also a literary field I delved into a couple of years ago. I still remember stumbling upon my first book of Armantrout’s poetry in the library. Her ability to bring out energy using dissonant words and phrases with no particular meaning or connection fascinated me.

When not holding your brush or facing your canvas, what hobbies or activities do you pursue?

I used to dance professionally and although I do not rigorously train in dance anymore, it is still very much a part of my life; whether it be through watching dance performances or twirling inside the comforts of my own room. A lot of my time is also devoted to reading. Over the years, I have amassed a collection of unread books due to my impulsive book-buying habits so that is something I seriously have to catch up on this year. In my spare time, I enjoy watching films or going for a stroll through the city with friends. •

Jem’s Workspace:

On the leftmost side of the photograph is my wall filled with postcards, posters, letters, and artworks by fellow artists amassed over the years. I love surrounding myself with things that inspire me. Every day reveals new aspects about them that I previously did not notice. On my table sits a wooden essential oil diffuser. The scent of lavender never fails to calm me down in the midst of tight deadlines or difficult clients. I also have a couple of things collected from my past Japan trips like an Uemura Shoen print, a sake ceramic cup, a traditional matcha whisk, and some chopsticks.

Behind these objects are two framed Indian botanical illustrations that I acquired from my mom. My journals sit comfortably within my reach. They contain notes from books, films, interviews, or personal insights about my own work. These journals are very important to me because they document the evolution of my conceptual concern over the past few years. Leaning on my journals is a letter from one of my most favorite people. I love having it within view whenever I work.

My room is filled with letters from people, I truly cherish hand-written encouragements from friends. Next to my journals is a wooden box filled with dried flowers. Aside from letters, I love receiving plants whenever my friends travel. Around the desk are various ceramics: a sushi platter turned painting palette, a hand-made water container created by a friend, and a Pettyjohn cup that I enjoy my morning coffee in. On the side of my table is a movable cart that contains my collection of rulers. I use them a lot with my drawings so I’ve accumulated a variety of lengths and shapes.

More of Jem’s contemplations on the natural and artificial on Instagram at @jemmagbanua and at cargocollective.com/jemmagbanua

*Originally published in Kanto No. 3, 2017. Edits were made to update the article.

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