MANILA, Philippines — There is a sweet dish in the Philippines called halo-halo, a rainbow of beans, fruits, and jellies mixed with ice and topped with ice cream. Literally translated, it means “mix-mix,” as if repetition were needed to reassert its delectable cacophony of flavors.
Walking the halls of this year’s ManilART was a bit like working through a tall glass of halo-halo: each spoonful brings a new flavor and texture in a strange, ever-changing combination of components. At the end, one is left tantalized and wanting more.
Now in its fourth iteration, ManilART, which ran from October 2 to 6, gave me the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with the local art scene in the short time I was in town. The event has grown tremendously, with 43 participating galleries and 11,700 people passing through the halls this year (compared to 6,000 last year). From a modest tent area it has now transferred to the sprawling SMX Convention Center (the largest trade venue in the country).
The work at ManilART reflects the strange juncture at which the Philippines finds itself today — half steeped in tradition, half straining toward the future. At times, the two warring impulses could easily be separated. Philippine national artist Abdulmari Imao’s bright and bold pieces are unswervingly inspired by indigenous motifs found in the southern part of the country, while Vincent de Pio’s Asian dystopian future featuring geisha warrior women bear whispers of The Fifth Element or The Last Samurai.
But sometimes, convention and exploration occupy one canvas, creating a crazy alchemy that can lead to either a dynamic clash or surprising harmony. “Flying Fish” by John Paul Antido is undoubtedly the former. His bold strokes and vibrant palette carry us along a bumpy Jet Ski ride on strange waters driven by a fearless Filipina. Then there are the works of Rovi Jesher Salegumba, whose sharp lines and bold geometry stem from his background in digital art, while his themes extolling harmony with nature suggest pre-colonial Philippine values with a dose of James Cameron’s Avatar.
Filipinos are renowned for their ingenuity, and that quality showed at ManilART. Architect Carlo Calma’s 3-D woodworks popped off the walls, giving me an eyeful of his imagined, whimsical male and female anatomies; what could have been a placid conversation between a Spanish-era couple becomes a playful postmodern construction. Raffy T. Napay’s painstaking stitching turns the boring silhouette into homespun visions of loneliness in a far-flung Philippine province.
With over 400 artists on display, I couldn’t hope to see everything, but as I walked along the halls, I noticed the artworks that really touched my gut were ones that reminded me of life in the Philippines, of the simple joys that make up Manila’s verve and vivaciousness.
Robert Deniega’s “Birth of the Stars” brought me back to decades of Christmases in Manila, when people actually seemed nicer and small star-shaped lanterns hung all around the city. Sporting more portly figures, Roel Obemio’s “Unli in the Philippines” pokes fun at the country’s odd accolade as the world’s texting capital.
As one can easily note from the two works, life in the Philippines often isn’t easy. Shanties become permanent homesteads while people scrape together enough to make a living. But they do the most with what they have, and Filipino art is obviously fueled by the same spirit of invention. Art here is an impulse, though not always a profitable one; given the continued interest from the auction houses, though, I suspect that will soon, happily, change.
ManilART ran October 2–6 at the SMX Convention Center (Manila, Philippines).