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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Friday, March 31, 2017

entry arrow10:34 AM | Hersley’s Bakery of the Magical

People find a primal emotional pull in the works of Hersley-Ven Casero. I’ve noticed this every time I post a picture of one of his works—a photograph or a painting or a sketch—on social media. I’d wait for a minute or two, lean back casually, and then I watch the eventual flood of likes, of comments signaling adulation, of queries about where to find more of his works, come.

Earlier in March, I had posted a photograph of his—“Early Morning in Escaño,” a haunting photo of a bluish dawn capturing a silver stillness of sea, a floating barge made to look like a hut, and a man wading in the shallows—and people responded with fervor. “Beautiful,” said the writer Marra PL Lanot. “Solemn,” said another writer Hope Sabanpan Yu. I agree on both counts. The first time I saw that very photo about two years ago in a photography exhibit, it moved me tremendously.

Such is the power of a Hersley-Ven Casero image: the magic is in the composition, the awe is in the cognizance that he had the eye to capture beauty so fleeting, wresting it from the mundane.

The responses to his works from people are telling, and they are scarcely singular. Hersley has arguably become, in so short a time, Dumaguete’s most successful and fast-rising visual artist to date—someone whose body of work has come to help define contemporary Dumaguete visual arts, joining the ranks of Jose Laspiñas, Cristina Taniguchi, Paul Pfeiffer, Jutze Pamate, Babbu Wenceslao, and Maria Taniguchi. With his peers—which include some of the most prolific local artists like Razel Salvarita, Jana Jumalon-Alano, Amihan Jumalon-Fernandez, Mark Valenzuela, and Rianne Salvarita—he has done much in carving out an idea of Dumaguete as an artist’s city, creating considerable buzz.

These days, when not busy conjuring new works (or continuing a series) in his studio at Foundation University, which he calls The Bakery, Hersley jets off to another invitational exhibit somewhere in the Philippines or, increasingly these days, somewhere abroad. Or he entertains the occasional curious media or celebrity who come to The Bakery ready to be wowed, ready to commission, or ready to purchase an artwork on the go. Indeed, these are heady days for a simple guy from a simple background.

He doesn’t complain, of course. In fact, he takes all these things in a stride uniquely his, partly aware of his genius and partly cognizant that a certain groundedness is needed now more than ever. He keeps a good balance of things. He is in fact more amused than overwhelmed by the success he is getting.

Only five years ago, in 2012, I had invited him to share an event with me—I was launching my book of short stories titled Heartbreak and Magic, for which he had painted the cover art and had rendered beautiful illustrations for the stories, and I wanted very much to curate and exhibit at the same time the works he had done for the book, and then some. That show—Uncommon Ordinary Magic—was his first solo exhibition, and quickly garnered for Hersley a following in Dumaguete, and then just as quickly, a following beyond even that.

That 2012 show marked the first time in years he had dabbled in painting, after turning decisively to photography and kept at it for a number of years. “[But] painting,” he had told me then, “has always been a part of me.” And he went on to link this passion for painting as something that was closely intertwined with life and living: “I exist because my art exist. Art is everywhere and in everything. We just have to see it, and recognize it for what it is.”

That show and the friendship that unfurled later on between us gave me an intimate chance to find out his “secret,” why his images seemed to be finely wrought in the magical capturing of moments. I had written then for the 2013 exhibit: “But what he does not readily profess is how his art has come about—even early on when he was still a child exploring a certain yearning for color and texture and lines—with an eye for the magical. Or a feel for it, which feeds the creation. Call it ‘instinct,’ or call it ‘the muse,’ but the magical works a little differently with Mr. Casero. He believes it to be otherworldly, and true enough, something of the uncanny is always at work when he decides to put subject to canvass, or to the shuttering clicks of the camera he holds. You see it in his photography, when you care to take a look a little deeply: composition upon composition of people and places and things happening that seem almost contrived in the strange ways they converge. In many pictures, you behold his instant subjects connecting with an alchemy of background, foreground, angle, light, shutter speed. The pictures always turn out tinged with the divine, or the improbable. ‘When I go out to do a photo walk,’ Hersley once told me, ‘there is no deliberate search for subject in my part. I just listen. I listen to the air, and the air whispers back to me—pick up your camera and shoot, it says. And so I shoot, sometimes even without looking through the lens—and always something remarkable gets captured.’ Sometimes he calls this magic, clearly an uncommon gift. He knows it’s there, and so he uses it to capture the ordinary world that surrounds, and raise aspects it from the banal.”

I return to this piece because I believe that the strongest manifestation of this “supernatural” feel for composition has found its truest expression in one of his latest exhibits, Sanctuary, which opened in Art Verité Gallery in Serendra sometime in late 2016. We didn’t get to see that exhibit in Manila, but I’ve seen of the works at The Bakery, and they struck me immediately as perhaps the most personal Hersley has allowed himself to be in his art.

The poet Carlomar Arcangel Daona, writing for the show’s catalogue, surmised that “the idea behind these works is about constructing our personalities by detaching ourselves from other’s reality. Even though those around us mold us. Even though we learn from what see and we react from what we feel; and we become the person that we are from what we consider acceptable and distasteful, to know right from wrong we have to fall and rise. Our walls have to break and we should pick up the smithereens and start again.” He continues: “This exhibition is an introduction of each artwork as a part of another series they represent. This is a set of openers that embodies different facets of life that we know of ... and the one beyond our comprehension. As a group we are a sanctuary, but there is always a magical story in individuality.”

That “magical story in individuality,” the hidden narrative from deep within us that is always on the verge of breaking out, comes close to defining the very heart of Hersley’s aesthetics. But what has not been concretized in my and Carlomar’s estimation of his works is that Hersley approaches “personal magic” in his art in the alchemic feel of the folk traditions of the native Camiguin of his ancestors—and I recognize that the images in Sanctuary are very much enervated by a sense of blood, history, and folk magic. They spill all over his canvasses, all over the ten paintings he had done for the show, all over their sepia-tinged narratives, evoking nostalgia, that follow seemingly ordinary figures—men, women, and children in the guises of daily living—who are suddenly made to reveal an inner self, dramatized as natural objects given a spectral manifestation.

In “Wonderer,” the head of a swimming boy becomes a large rock populated by fish, lichens, and starfish. In “Wanderer,” we get his female twin—a young girl on a walk grows for a head a rock with a crab embedded in it. In “Balance,” a young man on a bicycle grows a hill for a head, overladen with naked trees, embracing a cave that also embraces a pigeon. In my favorite piece, “Build, Destroy, Build,” a bunch of people riding an invisible habal-habal, sports broken pieces of rock for heads, each one graced by fledgling growth of green.

Not everything in the series are outlandish in their surrealism, although they are as equally fantastic. “Day” is a portrait of a woman whose face becomes intertwined with seahorse, and “Night” continues that theme, this time in profile, with goldfish becoming a girl’s hair accessories. “Home” is the haunting image of a girl floating about in a bed, the linens of which become a whale.

That treatment of the natural as supernatural and their intimate intertwining in people’s lives as the spectral illustration of secret selves are all straight from Hersley’s old magical motifs, something he secretly works in as the first layers of his early paintings, and whose invisible essences inform by and large his instinct for composition. The rock, for example, remains a powerful symbol from his folk beliefs, and in that perhaps “Father is a Giant” serves as the most autobiographical piece in Sanctuary. It depicts a haze of a boy holding up a photorealistic rock—an abyan, he calls it—from which spring forth figures of children diving into the sea, into a lake, and instantly recalling for me Hersley’s old tales of the magical of his Camiguin folks. I have promised however never to divulge much of the details of these stories.

But the paintings are enough: they’re hints made into art. For Hersley and in much of his artmaking, there is a world deep within and around us that is our secret sanctuary—but sometimes it does beg to see an expression of itself. This is Hersley exactly doing that.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

entry arrow12:37 PM | The Places We Leave Behind Live On Without Us

There is almost nothing left of my childhood in Bayawan. The lot of that corner building, all concrete and hollowed out, used to be the house I grew up in. That lot with the trees and the little shed used to be where my Aunt Fannie’s house once stood. That NOVO store used to be the imposing El Oriente, the cinema where I saw my first movie in.

The cliches abound: everything has indeed become smaller. Only a muscular memory of things remain. For example, there is no getting lost in the maze of Bayawan’s little streets -- I find that a kind of compass remains deep within, and so while the corners and byways now look utterly unfamiliar, a quiet instinct takes over, gently telling me, “Turn this way, turn that way.”

Must I be sad that so much has changed? But what do we expect of places we leave behind really? Do we expect them to remain static in time, museums to our memories, embalmed and preserved and waiting for eternity for our inconstant returns where we can expect to embrace the comfortable unchanging of things, even as we leave, even as we change, even as we turn adult with all its attendant regrets? I don’t begrudge my childhood “erased” in Bayawan. Places have to live on without you. One has to learn the irrevocable truth that the past is a different life, a different country. You were a footnote in one chapter of this place’s story, and you had long since gone.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

entry arrow11:59 PM | Clean-up Therapy

As a confirmed bachelor who lives on his own, I don't entrust the cleaning of my apartment to other people, especially hired help. The last time I hired a cleaning person to do it, my entire stamp collection -- which included many, many rare pieces -- went to the trash, for some reason. That broke my heart: it was a boyhood hobby, and it was gone, just like that. (But from this incident, I learned quickly not to get too attached to things, even those you think you couldn't part with.) And so I always take it upon myself to clean my apartment despite my tight schedule. I've come to cherish it, too: it has become a time for me to be introspective. I get good ideas and I remember things I must do when I clean -- so that's all good. But it does take me approximately two days to do everything. (I have shelves and shelves of books.) Today, however, I told myself I must try to finish everything in two hours. That meant getting rid of distractions, because I've noticed that when I clean, I'd stop for stretches of time to read this and that, but mostly to Facebook or to watch movies, ostensibly to while away the cleaning hours. Deep inside, I knew I was bullshitting myself. So tonight, I told myself, "Turn off the laptop, Ian." And I did. And it was hard, at first. But I persevered.

It still took me seven hours to do everything instead of the two I planned, but I'm done, and I have surprised myself with my capacity for will power and thorough single-mindedness. The apartment is finally clean, my soul is at ease, and everything is in place, more or less. I can breathe properly again. And suddenly the days ahead are filled with possibilities and hope.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

entry arrow2:05 PM | A Second Year of 'Dagit' Art

There is always a vision of Dumaguete as an artists’ haven. In the best of times — when everyone’s artistic energy is in sync with each other and the circumstances are conducive — it strikes us as the most ordinary, the most beautiful truth about the city. You go around and you see the musicians doing their thing, the writers doing their thing, the theatre artists doing their thing, the dancers doing their thing, the visual artists doing their thing, the filmmakers doing their thing — and when these disparate, colourful things collide or collude, the result is often a startling beauty that makes you go, “Of course we can do that. This is Dumaguete, after all. An artists’ haven.”

I’ve seen that beautiful synthesis happen many times in Dumaguete over the years, but for now, in the interest of this space, my best example would have to be the local theatrical triumph of Scharon Mani, a small but resounding musical that dared tell the lives of ordinary Dumaguetenos. But more than that, the production skilfully weaved together the artistic threads of various disciplines that thrive locally — the theatricality of the Youth Advocates Through Theatre Arts or YATTA combined with the musicality of the Belltower Project, and infused with the visual feast of a production design by Aziza Daksla, the smart and knowing script by playwright Junsly Kitay, and the moves of choreographer Nikki Cimafranca.

In the worst of times though you can feel lonely as an artist in Dumaguete. In barren moments, you ask yourself, where are the galleries, the street art? The happenings? The film productions? The concerts? The organizations? They are there, of course, if you know where to look — but a common blindness still characterize us as artists in a community. When we finally formed the 6200 Film Society, a network of local filmmakers, one of the things we realized we needed solving was the fact that, despite our love for local filmmaking, we didn’t even get to see, or know of, each others' works.

And the community as a whole is still largely an inchoate one that is saddled with old grudges, stifling disappointments, and hidden agendas — all understandable, all part and parcel to the dynamics of any group, especially artistic ones with incurably sensitive souls. Artists are still humans, after all. We are still getting there, to that vision of a Dumaguete art community that hums and sparkles and works, and we will get there, somehow, soon.

One such miracle of communal undertaking is the Dagit Arts Fest. And today is the last day to catch the best and the most startling art made by local visual artists in Dumaguete. The DAGIT ARTS FEST opened last February 25, in the final flourish to end National Arts Month — or Kisaw 2017, as we call it in Dumaguete. Sponsored by the Provincial Office of the Department of Trade and Industry and coordinated by Gugma Gaia's Raz Salvarita, this is the second year of exhibition of local arts and crafts.

To go to Robinson’s Place to see all these artists and their works gathered together under the festival’s theme of “Istorya Isla” is to see them in their vision of place, in their phase of artistic growth, in their hopefulness that Dumaguete is at heart a haven that nurtures them.

I love several of the works by artists I already know… Danni Sollesta’s “Body Poetry,” a sculptural work in terra cotta, is a delightful and witty Botero-esque piece that somehow awes and terrifies all at once. Irma Lacorte’s “Untitled,” with its circular frame and pen-and-ink finish is a melancholy meditation set in jagged natural geometry. Rianne Salvarita’s “Gaia” is a bold take on an environmental theme that strikes one as being both traditional and groundbreaking at the same time. Babbu Wenceslao’s “Habal-Habal” is a joyful depiction, in terra cotta, of a regular transportation scene — and proves art’s biggest theme: to pull the ordinary into a beautiful defamiliarization. Glory Abueva-Tobias’ expressionistic “Embrace” is a riot of colors and shapes, depicting hazy human figures in that titular act, that is both warm and disorienting. But Jana Jumalon-Alano’s sculptural piece, a gigantic papier-mâché ziggurat of personal mementos, is probably the most breathtaking and towering, literally and metaphorically: it is a piece that intimidates with its size but is also conducive to inviting the casual passersby in examining its intricate nooks and crannies — the small windows scattered here and there, the significance of all the pictures embedded here and there…

The exhibit also boasts of other artists I have yet to hear more about — and already their works show much promise: the tight representational works of Audie Estrellada and Hope Estrellada, the spare minimalism of Epefanio Mate and Heun Yang, the moodiness of Ken Concepcion, the witty and graphic beauty of Tenet Vanguardia and Grape-Ninja, the whimsy of Wilson John Abiera.

The Dagit Arts Fest feels very much like the start of that community of local visual artists we’ve been waiting for to happen for years now. And it seems to be the seed of an even more considerable anthology of art that is uniquely Dumaguete in the years to come. Mr. Salvarita and all the other artists deserve congratulations for pulling this off the second time around. Our expectations for the next editions are even higher now — and deservingly so.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

entry arrow2:25 PM | Miguel's Small World

I am endlessly fascinated by the small and miniature. When I was growing up, I fantasized there were tiny people living underneath my bed — all of them thumb-sized — and that they navigated our world into theirs via a tiny enchanted door somewhere along my bedroom wall. I was so convinced of this that I’d spend many nights on stakeouts, waiting for one of these magical creatures to open that door and give me a glimpse into their miniature lives in their miniature world. (I have a feeling this was induced by my childhood devotion to the TV show Fraggle Rock.) That this glimpse never materialised never fazed me. It was a kind of wonder that proved sustainable, and sometimes, even in the full reckoning of adulthood, I’d still think about that childhood fantasy and believe that one day I’d be granted entrance to that world, like Alice into Wonderland, like Dorothy into Oz.

This fascination has since blossomed to assorted other things of a similar nature. I am fond of the small. Like the haiku and other gnomic verses. The bonsai. Doll houses with their miniature furniture. Matchbox cars. Lego. And miniature art.

And so, when Miguel del Prado started an Instagram account [ @mig_doodle ] devoted entirely to miniature doodles, I was hooked instantly. That this impulse came from him was both a surprise and not a surprise. The first because I had never known him to be particularly expressive over overtly artistic endeavours, something that can truly be declared as part of the personalities of his siblings: Ramon is into animation, Gabby is into culinary arts, Anna is into theatre and dance, and Carmen is into documentary filmmaking. We know Miguel as exemplary hilot, a completely different sort of craft. But this hidden talent — at least to me — ultimately proves unsurprising — because artistry must truly run in the Del Prado blood, and these doodles are only another revelation of that.

In his doodles, Miguel makes the effort to partner his drawings — usually done in color pencil — with an everyday object of comparable size. A thumb. A coin. The tip of a pencil or pen. Beside these objects, we see the full resonance of the doodles’ miniature nature. The result is a kind of whimsy that brings out a merrier consideration of these works.

What I love about these drawings is the seeming ease of their execution — and that’s part of these doodles’ deceptive appeal. Truth to tell, these are not easy to make: to reduce the essence of the original inspiration — an ice cream cart, a bottle of Coke or beer, a violin, assorted animals, Dexter and his sister, a jeepney — to something the size of a 5-centavo coin is an achievement that requires great skill, a reality that I believe only poets can limn. And the poet Edith Tiempo did try in her wonderful poem, “Bonsai”: “It’s utter sublimation / A feat, this heart’s control / Moment to moment / To scale all love down / To a cupped hand’s size…”

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

entry arrow10:12 AM | A Memory of Bayawan as Hometown

I have three hometowns. The city I was born in: Dumaguete. The city my late father came from: Butuan, in Agusan del Norte. And the city my mother came from: Bayawan, at the southern tip of Negros Oriental. I live and work in the first; the second is the source of all my longing for paternal roots, but also the one place I have never really been to; and the third is the mythic source of all my heartbeats, and a significant number of my fiction. And because February 18 was Bayawan’s fiesta (one of three it celebrates annually), I shall write about it. I should: because I rarely go back anymore to visit, but every time I do, I fall in love with it all over again.

The last time I visited was quite recently — only last December 2016, and friends of the family had willingly toured me around even as far away as the mountains of Omod, where we visited the very site on which the legend of Bayawan’s naming came from.

Its old name is Tolong Nuevo, then a part of Tolong Viejo, which is present-day Sta. Catalina town. “Tolong Nuevo” had existed as a place-name as early as 1868. But in 1953, the name was changed to Bayawan, and the name “Tolong” had since lapsed into obscurity, forgotten by succeeding generations.

To “bayaw” means to raise, and in the legend’s case, to raise the chalice for a mass, the very act by which a Spanish priest was doing when he was speared to death by a native Maghat. Today, the site of that old chapel which gave witness to this historical murder is graced by a gigantic statue of the Christ, which overlooks most of Bayawan’s mountains, as well as the plains of rice and sugarcane fields below. It is a rarely visited site, too far away from civilization, overgrown by weeds, and not many Bayawanons actually know of the place, to my surprise.

Somewhere around that area, my own family had once made an old fortune — now gone — from sugar. Our hacienda then was named Hacienda Roca, after “Rosales Casocot,” one of the biggest plantations then at the height of the sugar boom of the late 1950s into the early 1970s. We lost everything in the terrible bust that followed. I have scant memories of this time in my family’s lives.

All I know is, like many Bayawanons who were born in the 1970s, I was born in a Dumaguete hospital — but grew up, and knew childhood, in Bayawan. It is my mythical place of roots, like no other, not even Dumaguete in which I’ve lived most of my adult life.

In Bayawan lay the secrets of my blood, my history. Also here is the setting of my mother’s bedside stories, of those moments when I was a young child and she’d tuck me to bed and gamely recall a life when she was a young woman and World War II was brewing, or much later when she had returned to Bayawan as a married woman in the heyday of the sugar boom and became, for a while, one of its fairer society hostesses. Those were the heady days, when sugar cane oiled the pockets of young hacienderos on the make, and everybody was rich. (And then there was the hard, hard fall…)


Bayawan means memory—and this word alone means so much in the ways it must mean: as a threshold of recollections both happy and tragic.

Bayawan is the stuff of stories. And no wonder that after many years of listening to my mother regale me with her growing-up stories in this place, I would become a writer, most often chronicling what I can from a childhood of ghosts. One such story would later win me a Palanca Award.

When I, too, would move away from Bayawan due to the circumstances of family and adulthood, it was always this place that I kept turning back to as my essence of a "hometown," as a past, as a cache of memories that sustained me as a writer.

It is fixed in my mind like my true north. I remember my family once lived in a fortunate corner just along a narrow stretch of road in Poblacion. I say “fortunate,” because this corner was the focal point to everything else, especially when one was a young boy just ascertaining the world outside, his immediate environs his kingdom of discovery.


My Tita Fannie just lived a stone’s throw away from us. And just next door, in a block that contained so many relatives I cannot remember them all, my three lolas — Rose, Lily, and Adeling — manned their stores, and would give me treats when I passed by. To this day, I cannot forget my Lola Adeling’s lechon de carajay, which remains, for me, the best of its kind anywhere.

Across the street, to the right, there was Oriente Cinema—my bodega of dreams, the place I first saw a movie in. It remains in my imagination as the true birthing place for my current scholarship on film. To the left across the road was Chua’s general merchandise store, its mud yellow paint still sticking to my memories; and further down the road is the old Diao house, where I played away so many afternoons. Everything was big and large in my memory.

Today, however, whenever I go back to Bayawan, everything looks smaller when once they had all loomed large in my seeing as a child. And things have also changed — for the better, I guess, but all these I cannot help but feel as a slight betrayal to a boyhood memory.

The first time I saw the corner of what used to be my family’s house, when I was already in high school and had come back to visit, I saw that it housed a ramshackle selling second-hand clothes from abroad. The ukay-ukay felt sad then, but also somehow liberating. Today, there’s a building there, a squat and common thing of no architectural value, finally obliterating what is left of my memory. But even then this tiny spot continues to haunt me to this day, and provides me the inspiration with which I have built a literature upon: of this spot I remember my mother’s lively beehive of a beauty parlor, my father's yellow sakbayan, my older brothers' merry shenanigans.

Here, there used to be thickets of bamboo guarding its roadside wall, and it was in their very shadows that I’d hide in, most of the time, from little friends hunting me down in our games of hide-and-seek. Occasionally, from within these bamboo thickets, I’d spy the town’s resident madpeople, Pidong Buang and Wana Buang (for a long time, I thought they were married because they shared the same family name—Buang), who both embodied the perfect caricature of a town’s conscience. Years later, when I was in high school (or college?) somebody reported to my mother the news of Pidong Buang’s death—and it was surprising to feel inside me a surge of memory folding in onto itself, like a chapter in my life of remembrances suddenly coming to a close. How strange that even mad people from our childhood can have such a hold on our imaginations! Our lives!


Bayawan, in reminiscence and in reality, begs me to ask: What is indeed the integrity of memory? Do we really remember what we remember? But always, even with such unsettling questions, my hometown still manages to nurture me.


Whenever I am in Bayawan, I somehow cease to become the citified adult that I am; there, I become the child I once was, and everything else turns sepia… to memory, to play, to running across the brown fields while childhood friends chase me, to scraping knees trying to battle a bicycle, to hearing the sound of bamboo cannons on New Year’s Eve, to chewing on sugar canes fallen down cargo trucks, to tasting baye-baye from Manang Julia’s kitchen. And then—better late than never—I, too, somehow become part of my mother’s stories. Bayawan has become what is in the heart.

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