Kanto Art and Culture Review 2021

Notable art museums, galleries, and independent collectives in the Philippines trod along alternative avenues to exhibit, circulate, and activate art initiatives as 2021 presented potentials for hybridity, network, and change

Words John Alexis B. Balaguer
Images Ayala Museum, CCP, Galerie Roberto, Silverlens, Vinyl on Vinyl, and Mono8

The year at a glance

Major art shows, cultural projects, and national awards opened in museums and art galleries this year—an incessant response to the continuity of the arts and culture stature within the challenges of the second year of the pandemic. While millions of Filipinos were able to get vaccinated throughout 2021, new waves of the coronavirus pandemic devastated the country in unpredictable periods. In August, the Department of Health was criticized for failing to spend 2.07 billion pesos in managing the pandemic response with most of the funds reaching expiration. The unemployment rate in the Philippines also rose to 8.1% in the middle of the year, with an estimated 4 million unemployed Filipinos. As the nation faced economic crises due to an increase in the number of cases and the emergence of new variants, the pandemic continued to affect the operations of arts and cultural institutions, including the employment and practices of numerous artists and cultural workers. Towards the end of the year, visual artists, filmmakers, songwriters, writers, stage artists, and art educators notedly opposed the possibility of a Marcos-Duterte administration in 2022 forming “Artists against Resurgence of Tyranny (ART)” and advocating for solidarity against the “resurgence of monopoly politics.”

Recognizing stalwarts in the arts

Cultural institutions pushed to recognize individuals who merited excellence and potential in their artistic practices and cultural advocacies. The Ateneo Art Gallery conferred its annual Ateneo Art Awards (9/15) with visual artists Nice Buenaventura, Christina Lopez, and Jo Tanierla emerging as winners for the prizes for Visual Art, and Portia Placino and Carla Gamalinda as winners for Art Criticism. In June, the Cultural Center of the Philippines announced the winners of the triennial “Thirteen Artists Awards” (6/30) via an online conference. The thirteen awarded artists including Allan Balisi, Nice Buenaventura, Mars Bugaoan, Patrick Cruz, and KoloWn, to name a few, offer new perspectives in art-making including explorations of materiality, as well as artistic formats such as installation and publication. CCP-Visual Arts and Museum Division Head, Rica Estrada, shares of the artists in the award announcement held online: “Moving forward, I’m seeing more diversity, [and] more experimentation. I’m seeing how artists will find new ways to talk about what’s happening in the world, in ways that we can’t even imagine yet.”

The newly-reopened Ayala Museum, Header: Photos of the Digital Gallery in use at the Ayala Museum lobby

Museums highlighting nation-building and world-making

In March, the National Museum of Fine Arts featured the homecoming exhibition of the Philippine Center New York Core Collection (3/2021 – 2/2022), bringing back to the Philippines over 115 representative artworks from National Artists and notable experienced artists, during the 1974 inauguration of the center in New York selected by National Artist Arturo Luz. The Vargas Museum in Quezon city highlighted artworks and archival material unpacking colonial and neo-colonial contexts of the region in “Cast But One Shadow” (9/2021 – 1/2022) with works by Lesley-Anne Cao, Jean Claire Dy, and Yee I-Lann, to name a few. After two years of renovation, the Ayala Museum reopened in Makati City with the exhibition “Intertwined: Transpacific, Transcultural Philippines” (12/4) highlighting over 240 objects from the museum invoking intercultural associations from the collection’s histories. The newly renovated galleries and library hope to bridge history and future sensibility—the addition of a digital wall for showcasing permanent collections, an architectural revamp for socially-distanced spaces, and a refreshed ideology for exhibition-making, responding affably to the museum mandate in the pandemic time.

Archie Oclos’ “Sacrifice” in Vinyl on Vinyl

Galleries contemplating on macro-realities

As galleries continued exhibition programming online, many reopened theirs onsite with limited visitorship. In the anticipation of navigating this hybrid, artists and curators turned their attention to the recognitions of local realities and socio-political considerations. In Makati, Silverlens hosted “Striking Affinities” (3/20 – 4/17) with mixed media paintings and video work of archival notes by Baguio-born artist Santiago Bose which traced the artist’s political positions as informed by his travels abroad. Vinyl on Vinyl presented the solo exhibition “Sacrifice” (10/27) by Archie Oclos—the paintings and installation works foregrounding the plight of indigenous communities. Altro Mondo brought together sculptures by Roberto Feleo in “Ang Mga Sinasanto at Iba Pa” (10/30 – 11/28), which ruminated on the complexities of colonial history and iconic reverence. In Blanc, the exhibition “A Summary of Executions” by Cian Dayrit, Mideo Cruz, and Buen Abrigo among others, presented mixed media, sculptures, and installation works with a critical bent, reflecting on politics of power in the urgency of the present. In its Batangas space, Eskinita hosted inter-disciplinary artist Alwin Reamillo’s mini-retrospective “Fifth Twin, Twenty One” (3/14 – 4/12) gathering sculptures and installation works as a demonstration of the artist’s questioning of historical monoliths and continuing democratic practice.

New impulses in contemporary art-making

Other galleries explored new or alternative conditions for art-making, thinking, and practice in contemporary reality. At the beginning of the year, Artinformal presented the works of Ringo Bunoan in “Proofs and Mysteries” (2/3 – 3/6) exploring the conceptual relations between faith and transience as informed by conceptual art pioneer Roberto Chabet. Conceptual artist Joe Bautista in “Throw, Hide, & Twist” (6/12-7/11) at Mo_Space highlighted multimedia works, which played on interactivity and materiality as prompts to intellectual associations. In Finale Art File, artists including Joey Cobcobo, Dex Fernandez, and Doktor Karayom in “Alternating Atmosphere” (3/11 – 4/9) gathered drawings, paintings, and video work as nascent approaches to contemporary practice. Similarly, West Gallery in Quezon City hosted Romeo Lee, Manuel Ocampo, Gerry Tan, and Soler Santos with “Stone Age Doesn’t Matter” featuring paintings and collage work that challenged the notions of beauty in contemporary expressions. Finally, artists working with digital media including Marlon Hacla, Bjorn Calleja, Mac Andre Arboleda, and others opened “OBJKTion!” (4/27 – 5/15) in Mono8 with works exploring the potentials of art as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) and the possibilities of authorship by artificial intelligence.

From “Tagpian” by Patrick Jamora

Mega-exhibitions and the rising of the regional

While some large-scale art fairs shifted to the online, other mega-exhibitions launched on-site throughout the country as major cities reopened economically in the latter part of the year. The art market was lively online with Art Fair Philippines (5/6 – 15) and Art in the Park (7/25 – 8/1) launching digitally, with thousands of works by contemporary artists, as well as education programs repositioned in the digital platform. As alternative to the mega-fair, galleries including Underground, Drawing Room, and Galleria Duemila showcased works in “ALT” (12/4 – 8) in Makati City with the intention to restructure the presentations of and the engagement with the art fair as mode. Galerie Roberto hosted “The Manila Bang Show” (12/8 – 12) in Muntinlupa with an international lineup and education programs spanning connoisseurship and market consciousness. In Visayas and Mindanao, Art Fairs also opened onsite–with the  Visayas Art Fair (11/25 – 28) presenting in Cebu, while the Mindanao Art Fair (11/25 – 28) opening in Davao carrying contemporary art from the regions. The Visayas-wide biennale, VivaExCon (12/2020 – 7/2021) in Bacolod, helmed by curator Patrick Flores, gathered hybrid exhibitions and discursive programs as evocations from and around consciousness and world-view.

Independent initiatives collaborating for community

Among independent art projects and curatorial initiatives, the online platform became a popular and participatory space, presenting new expressions for workshops, exhibitions, and artist talks. In August, Load na Dito initiated “Stop Over” (8 – 11) a series of conversations with artists, curators, and practitioners across Japan and the Philippines including independent curators Con Cabrera and Makiko Hara as online studio visits that bridged artists and audience virtually. From Kamustahan Art Projects, (4/23) workshops, talks, and art exhibitions for Filipino migrants across a number of countries were held as a way to gather, share, and address issues brought about by the migrant labor and global health crisis.

Visualizing Histories: Jel Suarez
Visualizing Histories: Jo Tanierla, “Hunyo 20”

In Cambodia, the Museum Collective presented “Visualizing Histories” (11/24 – 12/18) gathering photography, collage, video work, and illustrations by emerging Filipino and Khmer artists Jo Tanierla, Jel Suarez, and Eunice Sanchez, among others, to explore contemporary productions of memorializing local and regional traumatic histories. The community-based platform for film and video screenings, Lost Frames, launched “Movements of Persistence” (9/30 – 11/30) gathering video works by Cristian Tablazon, Nathalie Dagmang, and Leslie de Chavez, among others, while the photographers’ collective FotoMoto inaugurated the exhibition “Invitational: Portraits” (11 – 12) with over 300 images by 100 photographers which opened across various sites around Metro Manila. Lastly, Green Papaya launched “Laswa and Miso Soup Diaries” a collaborative project of exhibitions, interviews, and conversations connecting Visayan and Japanese artists, aiming to strengthen alliances during these times of toil.

Visualizing Histories: Kanha Hul
Visualizing Histories: Seakleng Song
Visualizing Histories: Seakleng Song, “Spine Chilling”

Commemorating those who left

The year also left us honoring and celebrating the lives and work of some major contributors to the modern and contemporary arts and culture circle. Among them, National Artists Arturo Luz and Bienvenido Lumbera, social realist artists Pablo Baen Santos and Neil Doloricon, authors and art critics Emmanuel Torres and Jak Pilar, artist-curators Leo Abaya and Riel Hilario, playwright Virginia Moreno, and visual artists Angel Cacnio and Bree Jonson, among others.

The late National Artist, Arturo Luz, photographed by Neal Oshima

Towards a new normal

The second year of the pandemic may have presented several obstacles in the socio-political and economic sectors, but with the reopening of arts and cultural institutions later in the year, refreshed expression and inspiration offered not merely a return to normalcy, but also alternative and new opportunities for collaboration, space-making, criticality, and circulation. In Manila and the regions, the arts and culture ecosystems remain dynamic, democratic, and exploratory, with a conscious consideration of the demands of the new present: institutions recognizing potentials of artists and cultural workers, galleries and art spaces tackling heady issues of nation and the individual experience, and major art players offering participatory platforms as art’s response. While galleries and museums continue to open in the coming year, the hybridity of online and onsite art programs and initiatives presents exciting potential for emerging notions of space, form, technology, and intention. The year ahead may offer opportune moments for the expansion of contemporary art in the Philippines—so long as we move with where change treads. •

John Alexis Balaguer is an independent art manager, critic, and art curator based in Manila. He is the founder of Curare Art Space, a digital space for curatorial collaboration. He was formerly operations manager and head of research at Palacio de Memoria, a heritage house turned arts and events center; curatorial writer and researcher at Ayala Museum, writing for exhibitions and publications, and acting as managing editor for the museum magazine; and gallery manager at Archivo 1984 gallery. He received the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts in 2012, the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism in 2019, and was the proponent of the heritage project which was awarded the Philippine Heritage Award for Adaptive Reuse in 2021. He studied AB Communication – Film and Media Studies, and Minor in Creative Writing – Poetry in Ateneo de Manila University, and is currently an MA Art Studies – Curatorial Studies candidate at University of the Philippines, Diliman. He currently contributes art writing and criticism to Art Asia Pacific magazine, and Kanto.com.ph

Kanto thanks Scavolini for the writing grant that made this article possible
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