Flying Men

Entry 4: Bacolod-based artist Charlie Co on the moment of inspiration for Soaring High and the challenge of realizing a vision into a finished work by remote

Charlie Co as told to Judith Torres
Images Charlie Co and BUDJI+ROYAL Architecture+Design

Whether bleak, humorous, or whimsical, Charlie Co’s social expressionist works speak of issues plaguing the country and the world. Blind Pinocchios Leading the Blind Pinocchios, from the Dummies collection, oil on canvas, 2011. Header: Charlie Co’s Flying Men hovers above Bangkóta, the Philippines Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020

What was the design process from the moment I received the call to join the Expo to the completion of the design? Oh wow! (Charlie makes a rewinding sound.) I have to rewind everything in my head!

The Call

Marian Roces called me one morning. That was a year before the pandemic. So, 2019. She had seen some of my whimsical paintings—Dummies—in Galleria Duemila. Then she saw one of my sculptures at Art in the Park. So that must have sparked the idea—“Why not Charlie?”

So she called and I was, “What? World Expo?!” The last time I had represented the country was at the São Paulo Art Biennale in 1996, so it had been a long time.

She already had curatorial ideas for Bangkóta, the coral reef concept for the Philippines Pavilion. She said most of the artists invited to participate would be sculptors. I said, “Why don’t I do a human figure with a fish head?” Just joking, but also playing with the idea.

Then came another call where she said, “Do something on OFWs (overseas Filipino workers), the importance of OFWs, Dubai.” There were a couple more calls until we went to the Manila DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) office to see the Bangkóta scale model and presentation of Budji Layug and Royal Pineda.

Atomic Scream, acrylic on modelling paste and canvas, Guerra Guerra collection, 2017


So I was internalizing, just thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking. Flying men have been in my work—I have paintings of men flying in their dreams or in child-like imagination. Sometimes the flying men are sinister.

I was thinking about a flying man, this time, like a hero because OFWs are our modern-day heroes. Everybody knows an OFW story, right? We all know a relative or a friend working outside the country. Because of their sacrifice, they keep our economy afloat. Next, I was thinking, what is the best way to position the hero figure?

One of Charlie Co’s early sketches for Soaring High, his contribution to the Dubai Expo 2020 Philippines Pavilion, Bangkóta


Then, in October 2019, my wife, Ann, and I went to see watch The Joker—the last movie we watched in a movie house before the pandemic.

We were waiting for the movie to start; it was the last full show. Then the national anthem played, and we all stood up. And when I put my hand on my chest—wow! It hit me. Love of country. It was powerful. I said, “Ann! I have a vision of flying men, heroes with hands on their hearts!” Love of country, love of family, Filipino workers, flying, sacrifice, and soaring high.


And so, I started working on a clay figure to create a model for Marian to see. Aside from flying men, what Soaring High has in common with some of my other works is paper boats. The hats of the flying men are shaped like paper boats, which, in my previous works represent childhood and play. And now, in Soaring High, you could see them as representing work, love, travel.

“I’ve been playing with clay and my kutsara (spoon) since the Eighties.” – Charlie Co

The flying men’s clothes are not from an ethnic design. I wasn’t conscious about having to represent this or that. But probably, unconsciously, it may have been inspired by weaving, you know, by things you encounter all your life that you make it into your own. So that’s my process.

When we create, the possibilities are endless. It goes from one story, you get inspired, you inspire others, you get inspired again. These are always very important in my work, to connect with people with my work.

Digital artist Barry Cervantes worked with Co to translate his vision into digital renders for the architect, creative team, and the Dubai manufacturer to use.


There were limitations. Not enough budget. Originally, I was told there would be twenty-four flying men. Then they reduced it to twelve.

The hitch for all the artists participating in Bangkóta is that all fabrication would take place in Dubai. We would not be able to execute our work. There was no money to fly us to Dubai, and even if we had, we could not because of the pandemic.

They were telling me to design by computer, to submit the design in digital format. I said, “Well, I can’t do that. I don’t do that.” So, I needed my friend, Barry Cervantes, an artist friend with whom I’ve collaborated for 15 years, 20 years. He’s very good with the computer. I gave him sketches, a color guide, and previous work as reference.

Soaring High flying man gif by Barry Cervantes

Out of the box

Getting the figures done was a long process! At times, it was so frustrating, I said, “Wow!” But I was also trying to be very patient because if I’m going to be (makes grumbling sounds), it will worsen the situation.

For example, they told me they would no longer use my design for the clothes. The Dubai maker would just paint the figures in three colors flat—yellow, red, and blue. “WHAT? You can’t do that.”

So, I said, I have artist friends in Dubai, maybe they can do the design! Ayaw ko talaga na ganun lang, three colors lang. I contacted Lester Amacio. He’s from Iloilo, a very good friend and I asked him to organize a group of artists to do the twelve sculptures and paint their story on the figures in the form of tattoos.

Doing that would be meaningful for the sculptures because the artists themselves are OFWs. So we were able to think out of the box. I think Marian was happy with that idea.

The Soaring High figures were made by Star Spring Exhibition Services in Sharjah, UAE

Another hitch

Lester found Filipino artists in the UAE, all willing. But it would entail them getting swabbed and quarantined before they could work in the Dubai factory. And, they all had full-time jobs and preferred for the figures to be brought to their studios so they could work after-hours. But the manufacturer said no, saying the figures might be damaged.

It was very frustrating. Then finally, DTI agreed to use my original designs and asked the manufacturer to paint the sculptures following our digital files and color charts.

Drying out the flying men’s painted attire

Soaring High

I’m happy looking at the photos. The close ups, well, not so much. The flying men are flying. I think Royal and DTI are happy. It boils down now to the curator, Marian, right, to see that Bangkóta realizes the vision.

I’m also happy with the project because it’s light and uplifting. We’ve been under a dark, dark cloud for so long. We need light. We need to look up.

When the Expo ends in March 2022, there are plans for Bangkóta to be dismantled, shipped, and reassembled in New Clark City. I was telling Marian, “Great, now I can execute the figures exactly how I envisioned them.”

I don’t mind doing them over. And then I’ll bring my family there and my grandchildren will say, “Oh, look, there’s the work of my Lolo! There are the Filipino heroes!”  •

(Editor’s note: The Dubai Expo 2020 organizers are planning to retain the national pavilions onsite and extend the exposition for another four or five years. DTI and New Clark City are considering having a duplicate Bangkóta built from scratch in New Clark City.)

Day and night shots of the flying men, September 12 and 13 , 2021

Modern Bayanihan Philippine Creative Team

BUDJI+ROYAL Architecture+Design

Artistic and Thematic Direction
Royal Pineda

Curation and Content Development
Marian Pastor Roces

Creative Services
Architect-of-Record, Yaghmour
Design & Build, RAQ Contracting Co.
Landscape Architecture, Al Shomoos

Cultural Sites
Exhibitions, Creative Services by Christopher Draye
Exhibitions, Audio-Visual Content by Beyond Limits
Exhibitions by Star Springs

Cultural Expressions & Design
Furniture & Fit-Out Design by Budji Layug, B&R Solutions
Artisanal Objects by Bros Mastermind
Arts & Crafts by Common Room
Arts & Crafts by Go Lokal!
Arts & Crafts, Fashion by Marahuyo Designers
Fashion by Ezra Santos
Gastronomy by Jovy Tuaño

Visual Arts
Abdulmari Toym Imao

Baby & Coco Anne
Charlie Co
Dan Raralio
Dex Fernandez
Duddley Diaz
Lee Paje
Patrick Cabral
Riel Jamarillo Hilario

Ivan Sarenas
Scott “Gutsy” Tuason
Tirso Paris

Performing Arts
Original music by Dr. Ramon Pagayon Santos
Show Production (dance, music) by Nestor Hardin & Silang Communications
Dance and Choreography by Denisa Reyes & JM Cabiling
Music by Tereza Barroso

New Media & Audio-Visuals
Animation by Avid Liongoren, Rocketsheep Studios
Video Production by Manny Angeles, Twenty Manila
Game Development by James Palabay, Digital Art Chefs
Film, Advertising, Software by BBDO Guerrero
Exhibitions, Audio-Visual Content by Beyond Limits

Media, Broadcasting & Audio-Visuals
News Creation, Publication by New Perspective Media
Broadcasting, Television, Advertising by ABS-CBN TFC Dubai, Metro Group
Broadcasting, Television, Advertising by GMA, CNN

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