Visualizing communities and creating together - an interview:
Parallel Practices and Dissimilar Experiences in Mindanao and Sabah
By Abraham Garcia Jr. & Harold Reagan Eswar
Artistic realization unravels into fruition due to the support of the ‘whole village’ that includes the family, engagement with educators and mentors and working (or having tensions) with practitioners together, while already in the midst (not necessarily fully aware yet) of the rich tapestry of cultures and contemporary art in a locality and its surrounding environments. This is repeated many times among practitioners in the different sub-regions and intergenerationally in Mindanao and Sabah – two regional peripheries becoming centers of their unique milieus in the East ASEAN Growth Area (EAGA) in the Philippines and Malaysia.’
Those reading in are most likely viewers of the visual arts. They are familiar with the spectacle of solo and group exhibitions, the art objects created or performed, and the press (or praise) releases that drum up the personalities behind these endeavours. Moreover, after the event and after revisiting the inspirations and creative processes, the understanding of ideas and concepts behind these artforms unfold. The traces of influences, first from the artist’s lived experiences in relation to the locale (place) and second, the locale itself is transformed with the artist’s lived experiences.
The unravelling of the local and the locale might be similar but still unique for Mindanao and Sabah as loci of common and diverse indigenous ethnolinguistic and diaspora communities, both the documented and the undocumented. For both regions, contemporary art practices add layers to their cultural heritage with dynamic interpretation and mode of expressions through material transformation that embody wisdom, spirituality, and cosmos of the place and its creators. For the latter, some artists are inspired by the wellspring of cultures including outside influences either through appropriation or appreciation, especially now that we are all connected through the internet and social media. For the current generation of young artists, these inspirations are translated as massive urban murals and street art projects on walls, pillars, building facades, hidden spaces, or on idle property structures while other contemporary artists further explore painting, sculptural, photographic or installation works, out-of-the-frame video, and performance-based practices. When these like-minded individuals collaborate and interact among cross-generational artist-peers, multidisciplinary engagements, especially when seeing each other’s processes and mount their works side by side in exhibitions, create a vibrancy and synergy in the imagination of their viewers and patrons.
Let us hear the artistic narratives from personal to the communities between hyphenated artist practitioners Harold Reagan Eswar of Malaysia and Abraham Garcia Jr. of the Philippines. Get a glimpse of their respective early development in art, local visual art practices, and how their artist communities found each other. We can also see here the future of these partnerships of creating together.
Can you highlight how individual artistic practices developed within your families, meeting mentors and peers in the visual arts?
Eswar: My first experience with art was as early as seven years old. I exhibit a lack of interest to the written word or numbers. I was more interested on how to make my imagination into art. My escape if I can recall, was to run away from my reality, from school and also from home. My parents were not the happiest people in the world so most of the time I turn to my art to divert away when they argue. Art was my safe, happy place in the midst of the chaos around me.
I grew up in a family with mixed Indian heritage. My grandfather’s Indian roots goes down deep in the upbringing of his children, where it was hard for me to express my love for art. My family’s subtle nudge to all the grandchildren was to grow up and be doctors, engineers, and architects. Art was never accepted. When I was 16, my parents often fight, so my mother moved to her family’s house, where she stayed there till today. My father and my grandmother took care of me but my father has always distanced himself emotionally while my grandmother was too old to understand my struggles. I saved up money for art materials like pencils, sketchbooks, and watercolor. I started producing art as my escape. My defocus affected my academic subjects in school. I was never good with numbers. However, today I still love history. In Malaysia, the history lessons we get are only based on the history of west Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur and that part of the country. Little was written about my home state, only stories that was deemed “important” that lessened my interest on history.
I had an art teacher named Azize Mohd Yusoph, he taught us music and art ever since we were in primary school. He showed us the basics of all that we know today. Having Azize as our teacher brought so much fond memories. We were lucky because he was the type of teacher who actually cared about what was going to happen to us in the future. He genuinely wanted us to bring our best to the table. Never was a time where he would show that he was not interested in teaching us, his students.
When I was in college, friends there help me recognize the importance of learning the history of art as a base to what would be my future today. After college, I was more exposed to the outside world, my wife helped a lot in connecting the dots. She introduced me to different types of social environments that we were living in. I then realized that behind this “perfect” world, there lies a dark place where unfortunate people also exist due to poverty, due to marginalization, political instability, and many more dystopian situations that I could not comprehend.
Eventually, I affiliated myself with the art collective called Cracko Art Group (CAG) in attempt to get myself validated in the art scene, to make my presence known in a way, and a stepping-stone for me to make an impact. The collective and I did make some amount of noise that echoed through the state of Sabah to the western part of Malaysia and eventually out of the country.
Garcia Jr.: As an aspiring young Filipino painter in the 1980s, my artistic inclination was encouraged first within the family (Dad Abraham Sr., Mom Erlinda, and Tito Alex Ambo for the support) then nurtured by mentors in elementary (Ms. Marilen Jalandoni and Mrs. Ma. Teresa Allado). In secondary school, I was influenced by Roberto Feleo, Benjie Cabangis, Ginny Dandan, Dodo Defeo, and Nestor Vinluan. In the university, Jose Tence Ruiz and Antonio Austria and fellow students with similar interests. My heart will always be grateful for much sacrifice from the part of my parents who supported me, even if they do not understand what my art is about.
My parents did not appreciate fully what I am doing in the arts. My father wanted me to be an architect but the calling was strong to be in the arts. Creativity opened out the sense of wonder and set artistic directions through my play with drawing materials – expanding color palettes through experimentation with pigments and painterly techniques. The imagination was tested through design problems through trial and failure until it is visually right.
Formal art education honed skills and thinking by working in studios or rented one-room apartment for at least four hours a day. The awareness of local social experiences was being planted early on but I was not yet aware then of my home region, Mindanao.
In the university setting, we went through theories and art history, where we were exposed to western ideas, knew Filipino practitioners that preceded us that enriched contemporary artistic practices. I remembered art began from the early communities of humankind and it evolved to different art movements and styles in their unique time and place which were not linear and chronological in different parts of the world. With that, I realized art is defined and categorized differently even in various locales in the Philippines.
Through at least eight years of art studies, I appreciated using available materials in mixed media works, explore film and darkroom photography, learn printmaking techniques, and glass etching. I learned in Los Baños, Laguna and Manila away from my hometown.
In addition, can you expound why art is more potent when it is nurtured and strengthened first in your local communities?
Eswar: I come from the interiors of the Bornean plains where the word community brings simple meanings: family, tradition, culture, life, and also death. When the word “community” is used, it would often tell something that relates to the social infrastructure of the place. Now, it sounds very opposite to the word “government.” This is due to the lack of government attention into sub-urban areas in the state. The community has to be formed, organized to an extent that their voice can catch the attention of the government or perhaps another community which can provide assistance and aid. Art is a strong tool here, too. Only in recent times, it is something that can help the people of the land. Borneans are people who are known to resolve conflicts with violence, war and headhunting but slowly, we are beginning to see the importance of art to communicate better with other people or those in power in our land. We now can see that the visual arts, film, music can bring attention to create an ongoing conversation to better recognize the peoples of this land. Art practitioners such as the art collective Pangrok Sulap, filmmaker Nadira Ilana of Telan Bulan Films, and myself tread this path and document these current practices as reference for the younger art workers of the future. In a sense, art betters the lives of the community. Politicians or people in power are afraid of art if it goes against them. Most countries could not cater to the needs of their people that is why art represents the people’s voice.
I am a volunteer curator for four years from 2010, setting up four exhibitions and compiled art works of the youth around Kota Kinabalu. An exhibition coincided with a one-day concert to spread information on youth migration from the rural to the urban areas of Malaysia, especially in Sabah. Youth migration is a very big issue in Malaysia. There are lot of cases when some become homeless while some turn to substance abuse and many more. Curating these exhibitions made me see the challenges caring for the works and the young artists they represent. I would like to do this again because I enjoy working with fellow artists because being a curator helps me see the potential of the art movement in Sabah.
Garcia Jr.: My own local artistic experiences transpired and developed through different layers of awareness and engagements. It began by deciding to be an art student, being exposed to other artistic expressions like appreciating music and dance theater in Mindanao, as a practicing solo artist and with an art group, expanding engagements to curatorship within contemporary art practices, and being a committed educator where art is also an ally in design, general education, and industry career directions.
Even when I was studying as a visual arts scholar at the Philippine High for the Arts in Los Baños, my other artistic exposures were in Metro Manila’s environs by looking at Philippine contemporary art practices during visits, especially at the Hiraya Gallery. When I was in the university, I started to be aware of art movements in the regions like Bacolod’s Black Artists of Asia in Negros Occidental and further seeing exhibitions at Pinaglaban, Kulay Diwa, Liongoren, and Boston galleries.
By meeting more student-artist peers from other fine art universities in Metro Manila at art openings and working together in on-the-spot art competitions (the trend then), I get to see more diverse material explorations like photocopying and photo transfers using stains and varnishes, plaster of Paris, and found objects and sculptural pieces from styropor, wires, paper, and textile.
The most memorable art project that I participated in was “Handa” (Banquet) of Jose “Sir Bogie” Tence Ruiz, our university mentor, where he invited a number of artists to bring ‘food’ as art work and visually critique an installation on Corazon Aquino’s administration two years following the People Power Revolution during the 13th Artist Awards exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 1988. Ruiz was one of the awardees that year. During the opening, the guests thought food at the end of the Main Gallery was catered but it was not. This event was my introduction in working in a collaborative art piece.
Even when I went back to Davao in 1990, I maintain the friendships, especially with curator Bobi Valenzuela and artist-friends at Hiraya Gallery.
What made my decision to be a Mindanawon was the encouragement of Sir Bogie Ruiz who advised me to nurture back my regional roots. A foretaste of Mindanao was listening to the songs and being at the performance of Davao-based Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad (And the New Native) at the Concert at the Park in Luneta, Manila. There is more to music besides Asin (Salt), a folk-rock band whose members hail from different provinces and are popular all over the country.
I met Bobi V through artist-mentor Roberto Feleo (Sir Bob) who is known for his sculptural works through his pinalakpak (the act and sound of hand-moulding sifted sawdust with glue) technique. I was also drawn to Sir Bob’s ethos of harnessing the Filipino’s collective memory from the cosmos of creation mythology and indigenous (Bagobo and Bukidnon myths), local histories, and popular culture. Bobi also introduced me to his artist-kumpare Ega Carreon as my entry into the Davao arts scene. Furthermore, I appreciated Bobi’s commitment to uncover more regional contemporary art practices when he became the traveling curator of Sungdu-an 2 (sungdu-an is a Waray word for convergence) in 2000 and met the visual artists of Mindanao. He became an honorary Mindanawon through his generous role in the second iteration of Panit Bukog in 2001. The latter was a regional initiative of Mixed Media Artists Group (Iligan), Oro Art Guild (Cagayan de Oro), and later with the Davao Artists Foundation, Inc.
In the early 1990s, I joined a Magenta art exhibition with Ega, Paul Corpus (now a Toronto-based artist), and Earl Bontuyan (now a film director). Together, we exhibited at the CCP in Manila and while traveling by bus during one typhoon season, we got stranded in Surigao City. That event was a first for me to exhibit with Mindanao-based artists. More importantly, it was also at the time that Bobi advised me to eventually develop my own visual language weaning away from the style and inspiration of my mentors.
Another opportunity opened to me, becoming an art instructor for nine years (from 1992) at the first fine art school in Davao and the Mindanao region where I met my first fellow artist-educators headed by Brenda Barba, now the Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Design of the Philippine Women’s College of Davao. Through her, I also got to know the art practices of her artist peers and reconnected with fellow artist-mentors Rachel Holazo and Carlota de Pio after almost a decade of art studies. Both were mentors at the Learning Center of the Arts (now Ford Academy of the Arts – sadly its fine arts program had closed now). Rachel was my mentor in life drawing using charcoal and pastel in 1980. With them all, I also got to see and appreciate the works of their women artist peers: Lydia Ingle, Tita Lacambra Ayala, and Joan Edades.
This is a lengthy peek on how artistic experiences are very organic, take root and grow, and intersect with other fields of human interests. Looking back, it all makes sense because they form a connection together.
In addition, can you expound why art is more potent when it is nurtured and strengthened first in your local communities?
When I was in high school, I was 16 when this incident happened. Our art teacher was a substitute. She actually taught math but she was free during our art period so she volunteered to babysit us in class. She gave us a topic and told us to paint, usually very standard subject matters such as mountains, rain forests, and rivers. She will not even see it through till my painting is done. So, after few sessions of being ignored, I painted my own “topics” and after finishing with my art works, I would pin it on the bulletin board near the school entrance and see how long it would be noticed before teachers take it down. I guess this was the start of this rebellious art style I intended to develop. After high school, I worked in a Taiwanese supermarket in the ramen noodles section. I love the western influence I see around me that time. This was in 1998. The skate and surf culture were “in” that time along with graffiti, b-boy dancing, and more. Pop culture was my main influence – MTV and Channel V music. These are the things I look forward to experience. Then, we had a few metal or punk music underground gigs from time to time that would be something we would mark our calendars for.
During my college years, I was well hidden from the Kuala Lumpur art scene, even when I am in the urban areas of the capital. I was overwhelmed with the racism, the different way of living in the city, and maybe most of the time, I was broke. I was good in my studies though. I got “A” for studio design class and was proud of myself in college but after finishing my diploma, I lost interest in proceeding to a degree program.
After college, I went back to East Malaysia, got myself a job and then in 2010, after curating a few exhibitions for the youth art festival, I was approached by Cracko Art Group to join them. I have never been in a collective before, so the feeling at that moment felt very good. I accepted their offer. Being a part of this collective made me feel like I belong somehow. We did things in a group from then – exhibitions, talks, graffiti bombing. All of those activities gave an important feeling to the collective existence when all we did was going around the city vandalizing public property. More importantly, a lot of time, the collective proved to be what the city needs. We organized poetry nights, group exhibitions, solo exhibitions, and many art workshops – anything to promote art in the state.
I was away from the Mindanao region for almost eight years from high school to my higher education at the University of Santo Tomas’ College of Architecture and Fine Arts. I was able to get a scholarship for university studies and was grateful for this needed support. My connection with my family was when I go home during Christmas and summer breaks in the 1980s.
My other professional life began as a publication designer in 1990 at the Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao (AFRIM), a non-governmental organization where I got to know deeper the stories behind the diversities of peoples and the contradictions of living in the Mindanao region. This greatly expanded the content of my artworks where the inspiration comes from life experiences in my home region.
Although family life was generally peaceful, I was also made aware of the cross-cultural tensions of land ownership in Mindanao which resulted in decades of violent conflicts in the region and displaced a lot of local communities caught in the crossfire. Due to the divergent histories of the peoples and on contested ancestral lands, the simmering conflicts still persist. These lands were previously populated by indigenous communities, the first peoples. Later, some of these peoples adapted Islam starting from the13th century through Arab traders or perhaps from our Sulu zone neighbors. Coming from a local migrant heritage, I think we should be more concerned to what is happening to the first peoples of Mindanao, on why the state could not give them what’s left of their ancestral lands.
After the project with Magenta, I became more active under an umbrella art group, the Davao Artists Foundation Inc. (DAFI) and I was with them through the wider contemporary Mindanao art scene for many years. This engagement with DAFI, through thick and thin, culminated in Tipon (Gather), a group show on art groups in the Philippines at the Metropolitan Museum of the Philippines in Metro Manila in 2006. This was co-curated by Bobi Valenzuela, Brenda Fajardo, and Cris Rollo. I think this was also the last project Bobi had with us in Mindanao.
Like DAFI and other art groups, the new, still active, those that cease to exist and those members who already passed on deserve their own conversation space in contributing to the impetus of contemporary artistic development in the region, working together as catalysts notwithstanding the challenges of being with personalities in a group.
I do hope the Mindanao collective art communities get to inspire young people to become local art historians, eventually able to read contemporary art works. Artistic ideas are not just in the minds of the artists. Their works are responses to external factors like the socio-political history of the place, culture the artist grew in, even the art works and the practitioners that preceded them, and including the wider regional environment of creating together and collaborations. All these have different layers of meanings which need to be uncovered. So, the art presented to the public is enriched more, whether the creative attempt is successful or if the artist further explores a more mature creation.
As practicing artist-curators, can you share your experiences working with more artists in other locales outside of Davao and Kota Kinabalu?
Eswar: I am always alone when I started. I never knew the relevance of being part of a collective. I was not aware of my social environs that I would need to better push my craft. Before joining CAG, I thought joining the art exhibition organized by the local government is good enough to get noticed by galleries with international influence. However, it was through the collective that I was noticed by curators from places outside of Sabah and north Borneo. My institutional collaboration was with Japan Foundation in 2015 where I was mentored by Mami Kataoka of Mori Art Museum (Tokyo). Initially, everything about the project felt foreign to me – the working culture, the paradigm shifts that I had to make again and again. For me, the more I get to work with people with new and different ways of reading artworks as I see them, the more it leads me to reflect who I am. After all these, I appreciate my people more, the whole community here in Sabah.
Curating my first international contemporary art exhibition Being Maphilindo1 was an eye opener with working with locals, international artists, and collectives. The locals were my very own CAG and Pangrok Sulap. The international participants were Bram Ibrahim of Indonesia, Dina Gadia of the Philippines, and Tsubasa Kato of Japan with my curator mentors Kataoka Mami, Kazuhiko Yoshizaki, and Kyoko Kugai. Here, I learned that not all art should be presented straight forward. In other words, not all assertive ways of presenting art are good. Softness in the presentation can also be powerful in times, where grace is needed.
Garcia Jr.: The local communities will greatly benefit if cross-generational practitioners support each other through a thriving ecology of artists, art groups, local gallery and spaces, curators, art reviewers, and writers. This creative ecology in towns, provincial centers, and cities that drives the local art scene, hinges on the synergy generated by the wider region in Mindanao. It generates more ideas of working together and the context of creation within the real two-fold personal and artistic tensions.
Though artists from major cities were represented in the first curated (with Imelda Cajipe-Endaya) Mindanao-wide Sungdu-an exhibition in Davao City, it also gave birth to the idea for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to support the Mindanao Legworking/Networking Project. Together with Norberto Monterona (now a Vancouver-based artist), we helped in enlarging the awareness of art communities with each other from Davao to Bongao, by land and sea travel for three months in 1996 – years before email, text messaging, and social media were in vogue. It culminated in the seminal coming together of Mindanawon visual artists called Tagbuan (Visayan for gathering) in Cagayan de Oro City hosted by Oro Art Guild, with Nonoy Estarte at the helm, the following year. From here on, the artist communities fostered initiatives to do more iterations of the Sungdu-an exhibitions (still supported by the NCCA) to nurture local curatorship with artistic initiatives that reconnect other regions in the Philippines. The leg working also highlighted a lot of unknown artists; most are independently trained and sustain their practices as forms of expression and means of earning a living.
My early co-curatorial experience included mounting monthly exhibitions at the University of the Philippines (UP) Mindanao Art Gallery in Davao City and in co-organizing key art exhibitions such as the DAFI-like Miting de Abanse (advance political rally prior to election day) that happen prior to presidential elections.
My seminal curatorial work was realized after a region-wide consultation done in Kabasalan, Zamboanga Sibugay in late 2002. I attempted to capture the context of the moment through solo and collaborative projects coming from Mindanao for Lambigit (interweave) in Cagayan de Oro, the third instalment of Sungdu-an: Making the Locale in 2003, and along with the respective projects of artist-curator peers Alfredo Aquilizan (Luzon-Pangasinan), Estela Ocampo Fernandez (the Visayas-Cebu) and Imelda Cajipe Endaya (National Capital Region-Pasig) with Patrick Flores as the Project Director. It was a humbling and learning experience for me to conduct field research on the current practices of artists Al-Nezzar Ali, Michael Bacol-Lagos, Joel Geolamen, and Rameer Tawasil and collective (Padayonay of Zamboanga del Norte) and taking risks on upcoming artists (Witik of Bukidnon). Initial attempts in installation had to be modified for the latter during the national traveling exhibition. The site-specific works done by Padayonany and Witik in Davao were great.
The succeeding instalments of Sungdu-an 4: ExTensions and Sungdu-an 5 Current: Daloy ng Dunong progressively updated the artist networks and practices from western, northern, and southern Mindanao regions featuring local curators Kelly Ramos and Christopher Rollo. One of the highlights in the art and research caravan during Sungdu-an 4 was to survey Mindanao women art practitioners and collectively mount an exhibition project.
Subsequently, due to dynamic leaders in the visual art communities (Al-Nezzar Ali, Chester Mato ,and Rhyan Casiño), artist communities were able to further evolve in other cycles of sub-regional visual arts congresses in 2012 – Dibuho for northern Mindanao in Cagayan de Oro City, Methepuk for western Mindanao in Pagadian City, and Sambolayang in southern Mindanao in General Santos City. These events reconnected cross-generational practitioners. The harvests of these gatherings culminated in an art festival and conference called Mindanao Art Best in 2014 held at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University where western Mindanao finally hosted a major contemporary event at the school’s Gallery of the Peninsula and the Archipelago. The exhibition component was curated by Janine Michelle Cabato of Zamboanga City.
Are there other initiatives to further reach out to local artists in Sabah and Mindanao? Can you share some of those initiatives?
Eswar: I was an architectural design graduate. I immersed myself in a money-making course and earn a living as an architect in the real world. During my college years, I learned a lot about design styles, philosophy, and everything “architectural” without seeing the latter has a very obvious link with the visual art world. As I discovered for myself, the arts have impacted a lot of our architectural movement. I saw the significance of learning visual arts, not just to add value to a certain design but to understand where we come from, the history of our own art scene in our region. This opened a few doors for me to dig deeper into my roots as a designer and as an indigenous person of my land. This was way back in the 2000s.
Meeting other artworkers or artists usually generate pleasant feelings. When we go to schools and colleges to talk to junior art students and aspiring artists, that is where it gets to be interesting. Sometimes, we will meet one or two students doubting their artistic abilities. This challenges me and my collective to see through these dynamics and try to overcome it. At the end of the day, we can only talk to these people. However, we do our best to make them see that art can be an alternative of “something good.” We hope these invitations to talk to students will often be repeated. These private colleges prefer our real-world experiences rather than topics of motivational speakers. Unfortunately, government institutions like the University Malaysia Sabah has never invited me or the Cracko Art Group.
Sabah holds the record for the longest organized art selection awards in Malaysia – the 35th year this year. In a way, this event has brought the art scene in Sabah together. It might not be for the goal of winning and be recognized but this event have always been about the participation. Being in the competition gives almost all participants a sense of camaraderie. We used to go against each other with sense of warfare, a lot of emotions, and self-censorship but as time pass, most of us had chances to understand that the art scene is not as big as we had imagined it before as it’s really small. Once you’re starting to create art, someone will notice you in the circle. It might not be the best of feelings but it will help one move forward toward their goals.
In 2015, when our daughter was five months old, Cracko Art Group was commissioned to paint the biggest mural in Sabah. We were tasked by the local petroleum company PETRONAS (Petroliam Nasional Berhad). This was our first commissioned art project. During the initial design stage, we had a lot of screening of mural studies, dos and don’ts, and censorships. Eventually, we came up with a feel-good monument where people can be inspired by Sabah’s local history, myths, and legends. The theme we had to follow was “Kita Sama Dipunyai” (We Are Owned Together). It was a line from a poem by West Malaysian poet, Usman Awang. When he wrote the poem, the Federation of Malaysia was not formed yet but was he really thinking of the well-being of Borneans as well? I ignored the fact that I will never fully understand the poem. Our collective played along with the designing of the mural, adding in silent, our minute detail to send our message through this art piece. The Petronas “tanah air-ku” (my homeland) initiative was to have murals painted around the country, commissioning young emerging artists to have their voice heard out to the general public. The hype was real. Their effort was heard throughout the nation. To an extent, we were happy with the project. However, maybe, we won’t do it again due to the amount of political interference.
Pillars of Sabah was an art project done by local art workers Hong Yi and Jared Abdul Rahman. Through this project, they selected approximately 30 emerging and established artists of Sabah to come together and contribute their original art pieces which was site specific on the pillars of the abandoned welfare building that was built during the British Commonwealth era in the 1940s. The building burned long after the Second World War. The project was executed for two consecutive years and I can say both were successful. Every year, Pillars of Sabah would have a specific theme. First, it was the heroes of Sabah. The artists selected their own heroes and created an artwork to commemorate these individuals’ heroism. The year after, the theme was on the protected animal species that are endemic to Borneo.
Finally, Kota-K (@Kotak8sireh), is an art space run by architects Phyllis Chin and Nur Filzah and also my good friend contemporary artist Yee I-Lann. Kota-K is an important venue in the Kota Kinabalu art scene. I say it’s a bridge between Sabah art scene and the rest of the world. It is also an alternative venue for art events like talks, workshops, forums, among others. It’s a non-government space accessible to almost everyone.
Garcia Jr.: In Mindanao, let us not forget the uniquely homegrown regional art initiative Panit Bukog travelling exhibitions. It was an engagement twice between visual artists from Oro Art Guild and Mixed Media Artists Group and once with the Davao Artists Foundation, Inc. The curated exhibitions nurtured local contemporary concepts in terms of artistic and curatorial practice with the late Bobi Valenzuela.
Panit is the Visayan word for skin, while bukog is for bones. The words convey the importance and essence of artmaking within Mindanao realities using various expressive mediums. Moreover, “on a philosophical level, the exhibit addresses man’s basic existence. He is because the human soul remains integral. And soul is what art is all about.”
The fourth instalment, after 17 years, in 2019, was truly a Mindanao region-wide “display of various works, from wall-bound pieces, sculpture, installation, performance to video, animation, digital image, and multi-media art forms”3. The curatorial team included University of the Philippines assistant professor of Art Studies Tessa Maria Guazon, visual artist Errol Balcos, and United Nations-Habitat Country Programme Manager Cris Rollo. Balcos and Rollo both hail from Cagayan de Oro.
They directed the field work and conversations, studio visits, and selection of works to install in the three venues around Cagayan de Oro with their own separate opening days. The 48 participating artists came from the cities of Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Iligan, Dipolog, General Santos, Pagadian, and Zamboanga and the provinces of Bukidnon and Cotabato.
Since DAFI ceased as an organization, I pursued postgraduate studies on art-based research in Brisbane, Australia from 2009. Upon completion in 2011, I still continue to be an art educator first, in an art college and senior lecturer in the Humanities at a state university before working full time at the Languages, Literature and Arts Department of the Ateneo de Davao University. Here with faculty colleagues, we are on a collaborative mission to nurture the cultural souls of our higher learning students who are mostly non-artists and non-designers, through our art appreciation courses. The value we impart to the undergraduate students is to perceive art as important to their personal and social development. This is to remind them that they are culture-bearers and culture-movers of the region. In the university setting, they participate in creative projects, basic cultural mapping experiences in traditional and contemporary realms in their household and hometown sites, and culminate by sharing their own cultural milieu of the everyday in their respective localities. At least a third of our students come from the various provinces around Mindanao.
When was your first encounter with fellow artists in Southeast Asia (and beyond)? What was the experience about?
Eswar: I love meeting people. I love making new friends and I am very fortunate to meet so many art-workers in my life. Going out of Malaysia and meeting these talented people have given me changes in my paradigms again and again. If it is not about the differences in culture that we have, it will always be in the methodology, their surroundings, communities and struggles.
In more recent times, a big influence in my mind-shift was an experience of visiting the Singapore Biennale back in 2013. It really changed my perspective on the art practices in Asia as I never had the experience of witnessing most of the prominent Asian artists all in one roof. There, I was absorbing everything like a sponge. It made me realize art is not what it seems and whenever we think art is something that we can actually put our finger on, we need to rethink again because art is fluid, ever changing, and it will always renew itself without failure in another form. I have witnessed practices that combine a lot of persuasions that I normally would avoid mingling with, like politics and religion, homosexuality and agriculture, among others.
Then in November 2014, I was selected as one of the participants of Japan Foundation’s curatorial workshop. Winning or being selected for this workshop means my exhibition idea that I pitched, will be materialized and it will be institutionally funded. Plus, I will also be doing a training-tour in Japan. While there, I learned so much from new friends, experience new cultures, acquired new culinary taste, and further expanded my view in art again. I experienced paradigm shifts with more shifts along the way, particularly when I was in Mujin-to Art Gallery and met Tsubasa Kato, contemporary art practitioner who introduced me to a series of art performances entitled “Pull and Raise” project. This was the first time I was exposed to an artform that involved public participation without having to learn a specific skill like painting. Furthermore, in the Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum, I met Mami Kataoka, who is currently the Director of the museum. She facilitated our workshop back in Malaysia and seeing her engagements there made me want to push art in my hometown further.
As I came back from Japan, I was sent straight to work on the exhibition and there I learned to apply the Japanese way of working. For me, it was very difficult and being a very sluggish artist driven only by my weak motivation, I struggled, but my team was comprised of people who are really into this sort of practice. Even my collective gave their full support which was really awesome. A lot of my realization in art were discovered when I was abroad, while in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and of course the Philippines. Being away from home make you appreciate home more.
Top of my head are the new friends I have made during the Japan Foundation training tour in Japan, among others, from the Philippines were Merv Espina of Green Papaya Art Projects and Con Cabrera and Ricky Francisco of Jorge B. Vargas Museum in Quezon City. Others were Soifa Saenkhamkon from Thailand and Asep Topan of Indonesia. Meeting people like these curators gave me a glimpse of how curators are somehow artist themselves, too. They tell their own stories by organizing art-related events, collaborating with other artists and art workers and also non-artistic practitioners in getting the message through.
Garcia Jr.: From the mid to the late 1980s, the on-the-spot art competition was the rage during that generation of young art students in Metro Manila. In the last cycle of the ASEAN4 Workshop & Exhibition selection organized by the COCI5, there were six countries in the primarily regional economic alliance. Brunei Darussalam was the last country to host it.
Five artists from each member countries were selected as members of their delegation. For the Philippines, the selection was through an art competition in Metro Manila. I already forgot the theme that what we worked on. Shortlisted artist students were interviewed and the five selected will have to travel with their artworks. I was included in the five with Carlo Tadiar and Emmanuel Garibay. Tadiar later shifted to art criticism and became an editor in print media while Garibay is now an established painter who depicts his own idiom on the personal lives of ordinary people affected by socio-economic-cultural dynamics of the everyday. The two other delegates are currently not active in their respective local art scenes.
After this two-week Bandar Seri Begawan experience, it was more about developing and growing together with the Mindanao contemporary art community in the next three decades. I think the latter experience strengthened us in reconnecting back with our artistic neighbors in the East ASEAN Growth Area (EAGA), the engagements, much fulfilling and the experience together became richer.
It is important to note that my Bruneian mentors Awang Bin Sitai and Osman Mohammad still remember me after this time, when we were starting to reach out in the EAGA region in organizing the “Under One Sky” visual arts exhibition component of the first Budayaw Festival of Cultures in General Santos City in 2017. Budayaw is a fusion of budaya (Malay word for culture) and dayaw (Filipino word for ‘pride in culture’).
Where there more engagements afterwards? How did your art communities in Mindanao and Sabah get to exhibit together?
Eswar: To my knowledge, I found out about art practitioners from Mindanao only from the Budayaw Festival of Cultures in General Santos in 2017 – people like Michael Bacol, Rameer Tawasil, Jong Tangiday, Michelle Lua, and Mariano Catague. By seeing their works and meeting the artists was a new feeling. Compared back home, Malaysians (that I know) tend to aim very high by executing “huge” feats. After seeing the artworks of my fellow friends from Mindanao, I soon realized that something great can also be achieved with a simpler methodology done in a great scale. It is not always doing physically bigger is better. Years before, during the Singapore Biennale 2013, I didn’t get to meet any Filipino artists or curators which was unfortunate, but there, I did get to see really good art works – a large-scale painting by Leslie de Chavez and the room-full installation work of Oscar Villamiel.
The art practices in Mindanao was a bit different than what I have experienced in Malaysia. The exhibition in General Santos was held in a shopping mall. If it was in Malaysia, the art exhibitions always try to avoid places like a mall which will always be disastrous due to the direct sunlight, ignorant visitors touching which are curator’s hell. But when we were at Veranza Mall for “Under One Sky” (2017), it was different. The light was beautiful, the crowd was awesome, and the feeling was positive all the way. There were students who came with their own questionnaires. I assume they were doing some kind of assignment. So, when they asked me, I thought of simple “school-type” questions but I was wrong! Their queries were really good. I had a wonderful time answering them, probing about religion, politics, and many methodological ones, too. To compare with Malaysian students, we are not open enough to accept the importance of arts and culture to our norms. The Malaysian education system is okay, not great. It just barely makes to a level. It is a hundred percent useful, when we leave the local institutions.
Garcia Jr.: Prior to Budayaw in 2017, I was really grateful for meeting and working with Yee I-Lann during the series of workshops, preparations, and selection of works for the 2013 Singapore Biennale: If the World Changed. She is also a Malaysian photographer and visual artist and hails from Kota Kinabalu. We got to talk over sweet and ice cold kacang in Singapore after the Lahad Datu siege that transpired February to March 2013 and conversed about the narratives not depicted in the mainstream media and diplomatic channels. We contemplated that our histories in the Sulu Zone is catching up with the present. Our present. We decided to dream and do something coming both from our contemporary artist communities on either side of the sea that try to renew cultural ties and form new connections despite the historical and present traumas between Sabah and Mindanao.
The dream went on hold due to professional commitments in Davao and the raising of finances for travel expenses and the return flight to Kota Kinabalu for the artist reach-out project6. Trying to set a line of communication was not smooth at first. During the early implementation, I also feel for my Sabahan friends that undocumented immigrants are also putting pressure on their local communities along with the historical rift between the Philippines and Malaysia. Unfortunately, travel was not possible on a short notice in February 2015 when I-Lann invited me for the opening of the Being Maphilindo exhibit at the Sabah Art Gallery.
Additionally, a reconnection with Malaysian art and museum friends made this Sabahan Reach-Out initiative possible in late 2015. Among them is Yap Sau Bin, artist-curator based in Kuala Lumpur and Jennifer Linggi, Sabah Art Gallery manager-curator. I have met Sau Bin way back in 2005 for a British Council-sponsored museum audience development workshop in KL. It was he who facilitated the additional communication line between Cracko Art Group and Pangrok Sulap. What’s more, Ms. Linggi invited us (eventually with Juria, my spouse-travel companion) to be at the 30th Sabah Annual Art Selection Exhibition (Karya Pilihan Tahunan Negeri Sabah Ke-30) in October 2015 where the state recognized the contributions of its visual artist communities and finally, meet the CAG and PS artists at the event.
After the evening event, the continuing conversations happened at the Asylum studios of CAG (with Harold Egn Eswar and Anddy Romeo Dulait) in KK and secondly, in Ranau (with Jerome Manjat and Rexella Marosa), the hometown of Pangrok Sulap. With the possible commitment of Sabah Art Gallery through a meeting Ms. Linggi and CAG, this set the groundwork in realizing Silingan Seni7, an exhibition, workshop, and conference between contemporary artists from Sabah and Mindanao in 2017. The project name is a combination of the Visayan and Malay words that mean ‘artistic neighbor’.
Do you have additional reflections on working with artists in the BIMP-EAGA in the near future?
Eswar: BIMP-EAGA is a melting pot of culture and arts. We can learn so much from events like Budayaw and Silingan Seni. What more can I say. I will always look forward working in these types of exhibitions in the future. Such undertaking brings so much clarity, understanding to both the Philippines and Malaysia. A lot of questions and learnings can be answered through art talks, workshops, and other types of programs. I would love to work with Mindanao art practitioners again, in discussing issues such as religion, migration, education, and many other topics I find intriguing. Art should and will continue to bring people together.
Right now, in Malaysia, arts and culture are being used for political gain. A lot of practitioners in Malaysia are doing art solely for income purposes. I feel there is something that is stopping the art and culture industry in producing art for art’s sake.
Malaysia and the Philippines have lots of differences and commonalities. Our governments and leaders might not be as perfect as we might want them to be. Our political dynamics are not “moving forward” as we hope for and all these are factors that affect us art workers. We can take these factors in and make them our motivation. We can explore them as our subjects and in joint art events, we can take part in discoursse around these topics and be as involved as we can. In that way, I believe, we can be the change in the “not so perfect” countries that we live in. We can always work with each other and give moral and artistic support. It might not change anything in the end. Moreover, as artists, we will only have arts to ourselves and leave something (artworks) that will make our communities contemplate on how come we are in this situation (Mindanao and Sabah).
I learned a lot from both Budayaw and Silingan Seni. Through all I have realized, I found, that art is worth the fight even if no one appreciates you back home. Maybe our audiences, the outsiders, not from our homelands. At least one person might be touched by our works.
Going out of Malaysia always give me some kind of inspiration and being in the Philippines is just a bit more about that. I get to see a familiar world, a glimpse of my home from 20 years ago and also what it might become in the future – good and bad all included.
In the future, I wish we can have more projects together such as exhibitions, dialogues, talks, and residencies. However, with the pandemic, maybe I can’t ask for so much. We really need to rise up in this occasion and lift up each other again and again. I do have few project ideas that I can propose to my counterparts in the Philippines which I hope can materialize.
Garcia Jr.: Prior to Silingan Seni, unexpectedly for me, Budayaw Festival of Cultures was also happening in General Santos earlier in 2017. The fruition of the artist reach-out project bore more cross-border exhibitions. Unlike the coastal communities in the Sulu Archipelago and north-eastern Borneo which continue to interact in their everyday for many centuries, most of us have never been familiar with our regional neighbors for decades in terms of contemporary art.
It was during the Philippine hosting of the 50th anniversary of the ASEAN that the governments activated the cultural pillar of the BIMP EAGA sub-regional alliance where Budayaw Festival of Cultures was envisioned.
I worked again with one of my mentors in Brunei Darussalam, Osman Mohammad and meet another contemporary artist, Faizal Hamdam, who facilitated their participation and travelled with their works. The robust Malaysian delegation were represented well not only from Sabah, but Labuan and Sarawak as well. We did try ways to include east Indonesia represented by Anwar Rachman (aka Jimpe), the art director-curator of Makassar Biennale, to help us out and possibly travel with a selection of works from his region. Unfortunately, their participation was not meant to be due to a centralized facilitation of delegates. Moreover, we are elated that after the 2019 Budayaw in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, Jimpe was able to participate on the “Conversation on the Arts and Culture Sector in the BIMP-EAGA amid the COVID-19 Pandemic” with all EAGA visual artists represented in discussing the possibilities of engaging in the arts despite the pandemic crisis last 17 July 2020.
The learning realized when working with other artists in various art communities is to diminish in a constructive way, a part of oneself when organizing art projects, curating an exhibition, thinking about artist participation and financial capacity to support. Organizing a festival-conference setting should be open to additional ideas, mutual reciprocity, especially those capable of directing and handling such endeavors.
For those artists having hyphenated roles in such engagements, be aware that they should be open to be vulnerable. It is a thankless job. In my mind, this is not a solo show. It is about helping members of the art communities who are starting up – new and possibly without representations yet in the art world and show artworks that best (mostly coming from mid- to established artists) represent their localities. Going about this is not easy when trying to consider every factor towards the goals of these projects.
What is consistent is about being open to everybody by listening to all ideas – plausible and impossible – and knowing the limitations and parameters on the ground and doing the best on how to express the voices coming from our local art communities.
Now, as we try to move forward in the BIMP-EAGA or the Sulu Zone, we cannot at the moment plan projects that involve physically traveling to the rest of Mindanao or to Borneo because the Covid-19 pandemic is still wreaking havoc. Whatever those feasible projects are, we should continue making connections and belongingness in our respective regions. Local art exhibitions are still possible with limited number of spectators following current health protocols. Online exhibitions, the disembodied virtual local spaces that cannot replace spatial experience, are also possible. However, art still begs to be appreciated in person by our senses and imagination.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Abraham Ambo Garcia Jr.
is a practicing visual artist, art educator, and cultural worker doing doctoral research at the Queensland College of Art (Griffith University) as an international higher degree researcher in Australia from 2018 to 2022. Since the past decade, he continues to do art in photography by exploring the evolving identities of Filipinos in the Philippines and abroad. His other interest is sustaining cross-border engagements among artistic neighbors near Mindanao. He is a faculty at the Language, Literature and Arts Department of the Ateneo de Davao University. He lives with his loving and supportive family – Juria, Mivida and Kahlil – in Davao City.
Harold Reagan Eswar
1 Being MAPHILINDO featured the Sabahan collective (Pangrok Sulap), individual artists from the Philippines (Dina Gadia), Indonesia (Bram Ibrahim), and Japan (Kato Tsubasa). The international exhibition was curated by Harold Reagan Eswar where the artists and curator revisited the early dream of MAPHILINDO, a proto-ASEAN organization in the sub-Southeast Asian region.
2 Timonera, Bobby. 2001. “Mindanao artists stage exhibit.” Mindanao Times. September 17.
3 “‘Panit Bukog’ art exhibit returns to Cagayan de Oro”. 2019. https://rappler.com/bulletin-board/panit-bukog-art-exhibit-cagayan-de-oro-november-2019. November 7.
4 The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was still composed of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand in 1988.
5 ASEAN-Committee on Culture and Information (COCI) organized a one cycle hosting of ASEAN Workshop & Exhibition for art students.
6 Eventually, the Sabahan artist reach-out project was realized with the financial support of the 2015 International Fellowships Program Alumni Awards and the Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts International Office. A letter of support for the project was given by the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
7 Silingan Seni (Artistic Neighbour) was realized with the help of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts-Committee on Visual Arts and the Ateneo de Zamboanga’s Gallery of the Peninsula and the Archipelago. Janine Michelle Cabato was invited to be the curator. A call out was made for the participation of Mindanao contemporary artists to submit their proposed works. Harold Reagan Eswar and Jerome Manjat did the selection process in Sabah. The original proposal that the Sabah Art Gallery host a counterpart exhibition and hosting of the Mindanao delegation was not realized.
8 Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area