At the very beginning of this month, just as I was about to embark on the planning and execution of all the events related to Pride Month, I was seized by so much doubt and fear. For all my years of doing events and cultural shows in Dumaguete, I realized that the pandemic had extracted a terrible cost: it made me forget the instincts and the muscle memory I used to rely on when I went about organizing things. I didn’t know what to do anymore, and I panicked. For our first event, which was a screening of films by Jay Altarejos, I was so panicked about logistics that I found myself gasping for air. Mugna Gallery’s Vince Lopez noticed it, and told me: “Don’t surrender to the fear. Worry and work, but don’t fret. Let things flow.” And the event was a success! It took me a while to grasp his advice though. But for the rest of the month, despite all the obstacles and challenges [and occasional skirmishes with people], I relied on Vince’s advice. Don’t fret. Let things flow.
Part of my reprieve was finally allowing myself to think of all the events as experiments in post-pandemic behavior. Let’s see if people are ready to mingle and to partake of events despite pandemic fears. Let’s see if people will come on their own accord, without having to be urged by a teacher requiring classes to attend such and such [hahaha]. Let’s see if people are willing to go to not-so-accessible venues for an activity. Let’s see if people will care. Let’s see if an intimate set-up, following COVID-19 protocols, is enough to conjure magic. Among other things. I’ve been pleasantly surprised again and again by how things turned out. We even had devoted attendees who tried to go to all events, and some of them even turned out to be tourists in Dumaguete! It was amazing.
Last night, June 24, we were invited by our PETALS Dumaguete colleague Hanover Lenor to watch a gay basketball game in Lo-oc, which was part of the festivities the baranggay was holding for its fiesta. Who would have thought I would enjoy a basketball game this much? Certainly not me. I have always been loathe to playing the otherwise nationally popular game for certain reasons, and I consider all the times I had to play it just to pass P.E. in high school and college some of the worst memories I've had of growing up. I’ve had no trouble swimming or playing soccer and volleyball, but the mere suggestion of having to play basketball in my youth filled me with so much dread. It was a source of anxiety I could still vividly remember even now.
Still there was a time in my life when I recognized that loving basketball contained a certain social cache that could not be denied, and made you a member of a community you desperately longed to be part of. This meant following the games of the NBA or the PBA with a passion, and rooting for a team of your choosing [usually informed by an uncle or two]. This also meant hanging out with friends and playing hoops in a neighborhood court. I tried. I must have been about 10 or 11. I couldn’t hack it. I knew I was playing pretend. Eventually I stopped.
In high school, I played one or two games just to be able to pass P.E., and fumbled around the court like a mess who didn’t know how to dribble [and subsequently endured the jeers and laughter of lookers-on]. In college, I opted to write a paper about the game instead of playing it.
In hindsight, I know the game itself is not bad — it is in fact a powerful game to behold once you get to know its strategic gameplay, and how certain players have somehow defied physics to make a beautiful dance out of it. It is a beautiful game.
The truth of the matter is, basketball for many Filipino gay men [although not all] has always been synonymous with conforming to societal standards of masculinity that we fell short of. Basketball can be such a minefield of toxic masculinity, which is why many of us stay away from it.
But something was different in the game I watched last night in Lo-oc. In the presence of players who strutted to the basketball court in various attempts at drag — one was wearing a grassskirt, another one was in a gown, another one was in a small black dress, another one was in a bikini entirely made up of packaging tape, another one was in a dress that recalled the mascot from Julie's Bakeshoppe [the commentator, in fact, referred to her as “Julie’s Bakeshoppe” all throughout the game], and several others were in cheerleading costumes — I knew the game was in the service of undermining all the toxic masculinity I used to associate it with.
True, it was not thoroughly a technically-clean game. Early on, there was a tacit agreement to allow the players a pass for “travelling.” According to one judge, “Pasagdi ra na sila, wala na sila kabalo unsa’y travelling.” [This elicited good-natured laughter from the crowd.] And true, there were many missed chances by the players at scoring. But those things did not really matter. What mattered was the camaraderie among these gay players, who took to the game with a fantastic combination of fierceness and fairness. What mattered was the appreciative response of the Lo-oc crowd, who might have been lured initially to watching it by the circus-like promise of “mga bayot gadula og basketball” but ended up cheering for every shot made, and laughing with and not at the queens when they made some hilarious fumbles [and resorted to shenanigans]. What mattered was subverting the deeply masculine makeup of the game in our culture, and giving it a very nice gay vibe.
It was a game between young gay men from Sibulan and Dumaguete, by the way. Sibulan won. Con-drag-ulations, Lo-oc!
The things that make contemporary life relatively easy are also invariably the things that make it hard when they go awry.
I remember growing up and coming of age in the 1990s when the idea of a cellphone was this cumbersome block of a thing we saw on American movies about yuppies and laughed at—the device was as big as your face!—and largely remained inaccessible to most of us, hence alien.
Instant communication via newfangled technology was not something we were used to in that decade—but not knowing any better, we had no problems. We lived.
So we resorted to keeping unspoken but somehow subconsciously agreed upon schedules with one another, meeting in places where we regularly hung out at specific times of the day. In college, this was the office of The Weekly Silliman at Guy Hall, where I was editor-in-chief. Or the swing at the Gallogo Compound behind Silliman Ballfield, at around 5 PM on the weekends. Friends would begin to trickle in around that time and in that place, and we would spend the remainder of the day trading stories, monkeying around, planning things, or preparing for a communal dinner where each one of us had a specific role to play. [I invariably was the buyer of two liters of Coke.]
That communal understanding of our comings and goings is largely gone now. The cellphone is the culprit. Its ease is heaven sent to most of us, allowing us to instantly message each other about, not just our comings and goings, but also most of everything else. [Booty calls included.] In the late 1990s, when everyone was starting to get a Nokia, I was probably the last holdout among my friends. I was deeply skeptical of cellphone technology, hated the ease it seemingly afforded.
For me, ease was—and is—an illusion, and also an intrusion.
What I loved about the pre-cellphone days was the bubble it afforded us with regards giving each other ample space. We communicated face to face, thus only during the hours we allowed ourselves to be together—and when we were apart, we were permitted our own breathing space, our own pace of doing things, our own solitary pleasures where we were not answerable to anybody’s company. I doubt that space exists today in a world where anybody can text us anything at 11 PM—asking something, demanding something, explaining something. That old bubble is gone, and we are barraged by intrusions 24 hours a day, not just through SMS, but also through Messenger, and WhatsApp, and the various inboxes of all our social media apps.
And that ease of communication? All an illusion.
I lost access to my Facebook account [and its accompanying Messenger app] for several days because I also happened to have lost my iPhone more than a month ago, and when I got locked out of Facebook because of a browser glitch, I could not retrieve the 2-step verification code it sent to that phone.
I was never checking my phone regularly to begin with. People who know me well know that I barely check my phone, and use it only to order food for delivery, or to inform my significant other where I’ll be heading for the day. It’s a behavior I’ve learned to cultivate to be free from the constant intrusions the phone provided a portal to, and which I hated. So when I misplaced my phone, I would not know until more than a week later when I felt the need to order food from Neva’s and found it gone from its usual perch on my work table. I searched the apartment, and could not find a trace of it. It just vanished.
But it was not as if I mourned its loss. You don’t mourn something you’ve always felt as something alien to your way of living—and a cellphone was an alien thing to me, something I used only for the most basic of services and barely even that. Besides, it was an old iPhone, a relic from earlier generations of the technology whose shape and utility I loved and found missing in the latest models. That it ran out of battery power within two or three hours of charging, or after a brief but vigorous use of its camera, was only a tiny inconvenience for me. I didn’t need a cellphone.
Until I got locked out of Facebook.
The 2-step verification required getting the code Facebook was sending me through my now lost phone. From a few years back, I had downloaded a set of 8-digit recovery codes just for this very emergency—but then I soon found out that Facebook was no longer providing that facility to recover my account. It insisted on the 6-digit verification code sent to my phone.
I emailed a friend who worked at Facebook Philippines for help, but never got a response. Luckily enough, it provided one last recourse: a seemingly simple matter of requesting Facebook to let me access my account again by using a valid national ID which Facebook captured via an in-app camera. It felt like a relief. I went through the process, but whenever I submitted the screenshot of my ID, all I got was Facebook’s version of the “color wheel of death”—a spinning little arrow with the label: “Submitting Your ID.” The arrow spinned. And spinned.And spinned without end. It was exhausting to watch and wait. And when I’d check the page hours later, the arrow was still spinning. I was beginning to think there was a bug in the system—although on that, I was not surprised.
It took many, many days of waiting for me to get a response. Facebook emailed me. That one was a surprise. Apparently one of my attempts to send an ID worked. The email provided a link to process re-entry to the app, and then, just like that, I was back in Facebook again.
It made me realize that we really have no idea how insidious Facebook’s hold on our work and lives is—until we get locked out of it.
I wish this weren’t true, but it is.
I left Facebook last year for more than six months, starting around September, for a much-needed mental health break. I stopped posting, I stopped scrolling down to read everyone’s feed—which felt like a load off my burdened brain. But I was still accessing Facebook Pages to do my work in. I was out—but not entirely: it was a necessity to still somehow be in, even in a diminished capacity.
When I lost my access to Facebook altogether, I found myself actually on the verge of buying a new phone! Just so I could retrieve my old number. Just so I could access Facebook again—because all the things I was doing [preparing for events, contacting people for these events, etc.] apparently needed Facebook to properly manage and execute. Without Facebook, I was lost—I was adrift in a sea of anxiety of not being able to have proper executive function.
It felt crazy, that swirling need to be inside this social media platform in order to properly do things. I absolutely hated that hold on my capabilities. And I realized for the nth time that Facebook has changed the genetic makeup of our lives and time, and I think perhaps for the worse.
But on that note, Facebook did provide a semblance of human connection throughout the pandemic and gave us a kind of virtual comfort. (Although it also magnified the depression among so many, and helped in the skyrocketing of mental health breakdowns [and visits to psychiatrists] in the interim.)
It did serve as window to others coping with their lockdown loneliness by sharing their music, sharing their art, sharing their expertise when people needed practical help to get through things in the limiting space of quarantine. (Although we also quickly grew to detest all those Zoom events, the inevitable detachment of things that once felt intimate.)
It did serve as news bulletin when we were hungry for morsels of information to understand the rampaging virus and the other troubles that also plagued the world. (Although it also magnified all the fake news as well, strengthened various conspiracies, and—with YouTube and TikTok—helped make a dictator’s son attain the highest office in the land.)
The ease of Facebook is palpable, communication-wise, but it is also an illusion, and an intrusion. I need it, but I also don’t really need it—and I also know that I hate having to acknowledge that I do need it somewhat. (So many qualifications!)
As for that phone, I still might have to buy a new one, to be honest.
To order food delivery.
To tell the s.o. I’d be in Qyosko for the day.
And to be able to get into Facebook just in case I’d get locked out again.
8:22 PM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 5: An Incubator for the Arts
In June 2021, two rooms on the second floor of 58 E.J. Blanco Drive—an art incubator founded by Sandra Palomar-Quan that shares a name with its postal address in Dumaguete—were converted into exhibition spaces hosting the first solo art exhibit of local urban artist Dyck Cediño.
The venue was a curious thing to take in, especially for Dumaguete locals: the house on that address is an old residential space built in a split-level style that was ubiquitous in the 1950s, and had recently been a massage parlor and spa with a yoga center that had closed right before the pandemic, and which then sat empty for some time before it became what it is now: a haven for artists.
That June, while the world still swirled in heightened concerns over the pandemic, 58 E.J. Blanco Drive was haven for Mr. Cediño, who goes by the artistic name of Deadlocks. He himself had once admitted that his current Dumaguete foray was an unexpected one, which was for the most part pandemic-induced. He was in Manila when the lockdown was announced in 2020, and had been making preparations to do the move back to the United States after graduating with a BS Physics degree and then an MBA from Silliman University. But the move was inevitably postponed by pandemic realities, and he quickly decided to hurry back to Dumaguete just before the borders closed. In the long lull that followed, he turned to drawing as a kind of salve from the pandemic boredom—which was something he had already been doing on the side while studying in Dumaguete. Later on, he established with like-minded friends a tattoo parlor near ABC Learning Center along Hibbard Avenue in Bantayan. The business, surprisingly enough, thrived even during the lockdown, and the drawings he was making on the side would come to constitute the bulk of the exhibition presented at 58 E.J. Blanco Drive.
The exhibit—self-titled “Deadlocks”—was very much an introduction into the art of someone we knew for so long as a tattoo artist and a skateboarder, an uncanny look into the mind of someone who thought of his art as something that “emphasize[d] spontaneity, the elimination of artistic expectations, and the urgency of the present.” That it was a surprise was itself not really a surprise—Deadlocks had long since considered himself an outsider in the art world, hence his embrace of not having any expectations at all with regards the machinations of that world, doing art as a spontaneous exercise of reflecting the world as he saw it in the moment. In that sense then, “Deadlocks” was a way for that world to take urgent notice without it necessarily being a calling card.
And notice that world must: “Deadlocks,” curated interestingly enough as paper pinned to the walls and as drawing notebooks lying about on several tables, was a thoroughly immersive trip that held bursts of wonders as one got deeper into each sketch and drawing—finding commonalities in styles, finding details that hinted of the artist’s evolution in his creative process, and finding themes that resonated again and again. From one drawing to the next, you could see the artist being arrested by several sparks of inspiration—a set of sketches depicting people on bicycles, a set of drawings that featured lines and shapes reminiscent of Picasso or Mondrian, a set of illustrations depicting “saints” with halos with telling details of not-so-saintly preoccupations. Then he sets upon those established parameters and pushes later drawings of those sets to another level altogether.
A work by Deadlocks
What I loved the most was a series that Deadlocks restricted to a small rectangular space right in the center of each drawing paper, depicting stark and surreal imagery in ink that recalled Biblical depictions of hell, various kinds of Armageddon, staircases to heavenly realms, the immaculate hearts of Christian dispensation, and other nightmarish landscapes. Their darkness and their humor collided to work as a biting commentary on our religious preoccupations and mindscapes.
Deadlocks’ exhibit was the physical manifestation and latest evolution of the work being done by Art/n23, a talent agency that caters to contemporary artists and designers from the Philippines—a partnership created by Ms. Palomar in Asia and Cristina Herfort in Europe. It was Art/n23’s first major exhibition after moving into 58 E.J. Blanco Drive, which launched the space into an art incubator at the height of the pandemic. But Deadlocks would only be the latest Dumaguete artist Art/n23 would come to represent at that time. A year before that, right before lockdown happened, it had taken the black and white photography of Dumaguete biologist Jean-Henri Oracion to Art Fair Philippines, where the works—a haunting photo series of trees being cut down for road-widening projects in Negros Oriental—became Art/n23’s centerpiece in the photo section of its booth exhibition.
In an interview with Adobo Magazine’s Arthel Tagnipez, Ms. Palomar said that Art/n23’s initial conception was meant to be “progressive,” designed to be a creative agency that “push[ed] the boundaries of what [art] space and [art] management [was],” while at the same time “[tackling] relevant issues on the current practice of art management and where it could be years from now by a creating a non-physical space that [was] more sustainable and accessible for the global landscape.” That was Art/n23’s origins—an online art space. With 58 E.J. Blanco Drive, it has found itself going for higher stakes—providing a physical space for artists, not just from Dumaguete, to create art, to teach art, to sustain artistry. In other words, a haven.
Sandra Palomar-Quan, a native of Antipolo City, Rizal, considers her work as a necessary juggling of three roles—multi-media artist, consultant, and researcher. After completing her BFA in painting from the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in 1992, she went to France to pursue work and further education, earning an MFA at the Paris American Academy in 1994, and then an MFA in intermedia/multimedia at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts [ENSBA] in 1998, winning the prize of its foundation in multi-media work in 1996. Returning to the Philippines, she became the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila from 2012 to 2015.
In her cultural work, Ms. Palomar has endeavored “to breach the gap between subject and experience in art, willingly participating in its dissemination through skills training and managerial projects.” This led her, in 2010, to establish a company, Palomar Fine Arts Services, in her hometown of Antipolo City for continued training of fine artists and art assistants. She has taught at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, and has also organized exhibitions and contemporary art production projects for designers and visual artists, both local and foreign—honing a specialty in art production and the management of public and private cultural organizations.
Following the footsteps of a sister, a professor of biology at Silliman University, she moved to Dumaguete City where she currently teaches, as guest faculty, at the Fine Arts Department of Foundation University, starting in 2019.
She was drawn to Dumaguete because of its “slow pace,” its “down-to-earth, and peace-loving locals.” “Because Dumaguete remains human in scale, I found it a good environment to raise our daughter,” she says. “We can walk or bike for our errands.”
58 E.J. Blanco Drive Studios, formally the Palomar Fine Art Studios, was the offshoot of two projects she was pursuing: establishing a home for retired creatives, and founding an independent art center. “The first was born from a performative and conceptual art practice,” she says. “And the second [is] from an entrepreneurial practice in the arts.”
It was a longtime dream, stretching back to 2016, but “the key to its realization was finding a structure that already existed,” and which “could be occupied in a relatively short amount of time to become functional in the spirit of adaptive re-use.” Around that time, she and her husband were staying in an apartment at Amigo Subdivision, which quickly became a gathering place for local artists to talk shop—and also became the site of another business venture: Mister Saigon, a food delivery service that focused on Vietnamese food.
After a failed attempt to collaborate with local government to find such a structure, they chanced upon the house in the present address, only a stone’s throw away from their Amigo residence. Finding it available for rent, they signed the lease—and 58 E.J. Blanco Drive Studios was born.
The drive to establish such a center sprang from a specific inspiration.
“I had a friend who survived an aneurysm after visiting Dumaguete,” Ms. Palomar says. “He was back to painting after a month into his recovery. Although he is disabled in some way, he symbolizes the people who inspire me and give me courage to make and support art that lies in the margins of the ‘scene’ and the market.”
“The biggest challenge now,” she continues, “is finding like-minded individuals who share a vision for a community of creatives who care for the environment, the differently-abled, and a sustainable future for slow and local food, products and practices.” Which is why she has designed the space “as a laboratory to achieve a self-sustaining cultural enterprise—the end goal being a common-use facility for artists and artisans.”
Mister Saigon, meanwhile, became a full-fledged restaurant, operating out of an old garage in the venue—and maintains a slew of faithful patrons who love Vietnamese food. The venture helps sustain 58 E.J. Blanco Drive Studios, which has also converted many of the compound’s tertiary spaces into studios for local artists as well as shops. At the moment, it houses the creative spaces for visual artists Sharon Dadang-Rafol, Iris Tirambulo-Armogenia, and Hemrod Duran, as well as a branch of Ritual, a “sustainable specialty store that serves as an experiment in biocultural diversity and waste reduction, selling local and interesting products without plastic bags or bottles, and with special attention on underutilized plants, food history, and ingredients,” ran by Bea Misa-Crisostomo, also a recent migrant from Manila.
The Palomar Fine Art Studios at 58 E.J. Blanco Drive
An art workshop with Iris Tirambulo-Armogenia
A nude sketching session with travel diva Angelo A. Villanueva
Today, 58 E.J. Blanco Drive Studios runs several arts programs, which it manages on site, including an open call studio grant [which since 2021 has hosted various creatives, including a writer from Manila and a fine arts students from Foundation University]; La Pièce Unique [a curated “one-wall, one-artwork, one-dish” event hosted quarterly in the venue’s salon, which engages the public to view art, taste food, and exchange friendly and critical discussion—and which has featured the works of Daniel Fabros, Totem Saa, Vincent Ardidon, and Jose Elvis Alaton, a deaf artist who works at Mister Saigon]; free introductory art workshops; year-end art and community bazaar; and various art events co-sponsored with partners in other cities [in 2021, they hosted extensions of Art Fair Philippines, VIVA Excon 16, and fotomoto.ph.].
In a sense, the pandemic helped bring about the fruition of 58 E.J. Blanco Drive Studios. “The pandemic allowed the creation of a co-working space that was much needed at a time of physical distancing and mental fracture,” Ms. Palomar admits. “Our stakeholders found meaning in coming together for the following reasons—to provide a context to gather and engage artists, designers, academics, cultural workers, and art enthusiasts in a safe space of camaraderie and collegial exchange, to increase the visibility of local artists’ work to a larger audience hors region by maximizing each other’s remote and online networks, and to bring awareness of events happening in other city centers and to physically introduce and present the work of artists based in and outside of Dumaguete.”
“The pandemic taught us that a ‘larger’ community is as susceptible to the effects of a crisis as much as a small one,” she continues. “It is important today to consider how any sizeable group of people can work efficiently and resiliently.”
For Ms. Palomar, the Dumaguete art scene is large enough to sustain something like this experiment in art incubation and art space. “[The scene’s] constituents require a kind of nurturing that requires attention to its specificity before we can ‘reach out,’ [and] I hope for 58 E.J. Blanco Studios that it finds the right balance between growth and creativity; that we do not participate in a simple-minded gentrification of an already fertile populace.”
The right balance between growth and creativity. This is what every art city, like Dumaguete, should always aspire for—and 58 E.J. Blanco Drive Studios is leading the way.
I lost access to my Facebook account [and its accompanying Messenger app] for several days because I lost my phone more than a month ago, and when I got locked out of Facebook because of a browser glitch, I could not retrieve the 2-step verification code it sent to that phone. I had to request Facebook to let me access my account again [using a valid national ID it captured via an in-app camera], and it took many days of waiting for me to get their response.
Today, I got it.
[Sigh.] One has no idea how insidious Facebook's hold is on our work and lives — until one gets locked out of it. I wish this weren't true, but it is. Even when I left FB for a mental health break for more than six months starting around September last year, I still accessed the Pages I needed to do work in.
The past few days, I was on the verge of buying a new phone just so I can retrieve my old number, just so I can access Facebook again, because the things I'm doing right now apparently needs Facebook to properly manage. It felt crazy, that need. [I still might have to buy that phone though.]
2:19 PM |
Dean Francis Alfar's 'Short Time' for 6200 Pride
PINK THEATRE presents a staged reading of Short Time, a Palanca-winning play by Dean Francis Alfar about friendship, marriage, and forbidden passion. Directed by Dessa Quesada-Palm, featuring Nikki Cimafranca, Rojan Bungcasan Talita, Jo Camille, and Mellard Chiong Manogura of Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts [YATTA]. Also streaming at 6200Pride!
The past week was incredibly heavy for me, perhaps a bit of a side effect of the second booster shot I had on Monday. Was sick, on and off. There was also a socials thing earlier in the week that drained all of me. And there was also the fact that it took me five — five — days total to download all the video files I needed to have to edit the Pink Theatre video I just uploaded.
Talk about frustrating: the worst wait was for a 6 GB file to download, and it kept encountering errors. The video editing itself, which I thought would be a nightmare [e.g., we didn’t get the venue we needed because of unavoidable circumstances, and had to make do with taping in Dessa’s house which had occasional sound disturbances (tricycles, planes, dogs, etc.)], only took a total of one day to do, so that was a surprise. Lesson relearned: it’s all about perseverance, even when the going gets tough. But I do think I deserve a massage.
Thank you, Dessa, Mellard, Nikki, Rojan, Jo Camille, Renz, Benji, and Renz for all your help and contribution to this project. And thank you, Dean, for allowing us to do your play!
Dealing with mental health issues is a struggle with invisible scars. It is certainly a disability, just not an obvious one. The broken thing is in our brain, and while it has physical manifestations, one can hide it well with practice. So one thing that feels defeating every single time is when someone comes up to me to say, “But you look fine.” What did you expect? That I’d be like a disheveled Sisa crying, “Crispin, Basilio!”? That I’d be glassy-eyed and drooling? To be honest, I still have no clue how to respond to these people. Most of the time, I just walk away.
6:31 AM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 4: Coffee and Art
To see the works of Flomil Rey Labarento in the light of his recent solo exhibition, At the Moment, which opened [and closed] at the new Shelter Gallery in Tabuctubig a few weeks ago, is to see an artist finally coming to his own—with a glorious new voice and an intriguing technique that make his latest works as a whole feel very much like an arrival.
I think back, for example, to the first works by him I’d seen—and their comparison to what I see now is an evolution I have no other way of acknowledging except to applaud. In paintings like “The Boy Above,” or “To Feel,” or “To React”—works Mr. Labarento exhibited in a 2017 group show at the local mall—we got an artist not quite fully formed, although in retrospect you could see the origins of his style already emerging piecemeal: the pull towards portraiture, the tendency towards the malleability of features, the showcase of ordinary people. But you knew at first glance that this was artist still trying to find his voice. In the case of these early works, you could see the extraordinary influence of Hersley-Ven Casero, from the ubiquitous golden tint to the display of whimsy. One old work by Mr. Labarento in particular, ”The Gentle People,” which is a mélange of faces spread across the canvas, quickly reminded me of Mr. Casero’s tendency to litter most of his paintings’ backgrounds with line drawings of people’s faces.
This was to be expected. Mr. Casero, after all, was his teacher when Mr. Labarento found himself enrolling in Fine Arts at Foundation University and then beginning to participate in art exhibitions around Dumaguete. Soon after, the boy from Calayugan, Valencia found himself becoming enamored enough with his craft to decide to become a full-time artist, molded by the likes of Mr. Casero even in his photography, devouring what inspired him, and letting their influence simmer in his own works.
One such inspiration was Onib Olmedo. Just before the world locked down for the pandemic in 2020, Mr. Labarento was in Manila for Art Fair Philippines and there encountered the drawings of Mr. Olmedo. His discovery was like lightning for him—and it was impactful enough that he felt moved to develop more his skills in drawing. When the pandemic happened, he spent the lockdown in Dumaguete constantly drawing and using a variety of media on paper, looking for what felt most essential. “I was going around town with various art materials in my bag, and I would draw not just in the house, but also in places like El Amigo,” he said.
He knew what he wanted to achieve: to focus on the human figure, and to find ways to highlight it using its negative space. He went by the feel, not usually constrained by details, and sometimes even leaving his experimentations unfinished. He would often get inspired by the children playing in his neighborhood for the entire day: sometimes he would capture their rambunctious play by photographing them, and sometimes by drawing them. His eyes would be quick to notice how kinetic things were—how “in the moment” they could be—and he would observe such things as a child wearing only half a pair of a tsinelas. And he would draw that child just so—someone playing a game with only one slipper on. He would later on realize that all the drawings he made of these children and other people constituted a “pandemic project” for him. “These drawings became virtually my diary of those COVID-19 days,” he said.
That “pandemic diary” became his exhibition at Shelter Gallery, his first solo show, which opened in May.
The drawings took up most of the space at the gallery—a virtual litter of paper pinned to the walls, and on each of them, a human figure in pen and ink, sometimes fully in black, and sometimes complemented by details in red ink. They tell individual stories of fascinating details. A man in an Asian squat cradling his head in a note of sadness. Another man carrying a baby with the word “Love” emblazoned on the baby’s shirt. Two buskers doing their musical take, one on guitar, and the other on a harp. A boy carrying a heavy sack with the word “Ayuda” printed on it. A pot-bellied bald guy without a shirt smoking a cigarette while in the act of telling a story. And birds. Lots and lots of birds.
Then there were the paintings—essentially oversized versions of these human drawings but less idiosyncratic. As a set, they seem to depict a nuclear family—a woman in a bewildered turn of head, a man stifling a yawn [or a laugh], and a child [or is that a bald old man drinking Tanduay?]—all three caught in very human poses and expressions, done up in muted colors.
Here lies the exquisite evolution of Mr. Labarento’s art: a simplicity in the forms, a clarity in the lines, a minimalism in the details—and what’s more, experimenting with glued-on strings of yarn to bring out those lines, which lend a tantalizing texture to the works. He had earlier experimented with this technique with two works [“Yesterday Tomorrow” and “TIG”] that he contributed to the group show Fast Times, which opened in March also at Shelter Gallery, but the latest works for At the Moment prove to be the major departure—and arrival.
* * *
That Mr. Labarento would land his first solo exhibition in such a thoughtful style, and curated so carefully, is testament to Shelter Gallery’s seriousness in carving out a space for art in a city that has—surprisingly enough—lacked sorely of it until very recently. In its short history, the gallery—which is located at the southern prong of Jose Romero Road in Tabuctubig before it converges with its northern twin to create the highway that leads to Valencia—has already become a haven for Dumaguete’s young artists, and its exhibit openings are parties that have become known for their flair and color.
Its founding is also one for the books, and centers on a young couple: self-proclaimed coffee guy Howard Wong and visual artist Faye Mandi. That diversity of interest—coffee and art—is the very formula that led to Shelter’s existence.
Ms. Mandi—full name Phoebe Marie Mandi—was born and raised in Zamboanga City. She took up Accountancy at the Ateneo for a year, but then realized that what she really wanted to pursue was the arts, and duly transferred to Silliman University where she majored in Painting in 2015. After graduation in 2019, she worked as a freelance graphic artist and designer. Around that time, she met Howard Wong.
Mr. Wong is the proprietor of Coffee Collective. He has Bayawan roots, but was born and raised in Manila where he earned a Pharmacy degree at the University of Santo Tomas. This led him to work in the pharmaceutical industry, but he soon found himself dabbling in real estate, and now, in food and beverage.
Both never expected to be in Dumaguete.
For Ms. Mandi, it was an existential search that led her here. “I was in a very dark place when I moved to Dumaguete,” she says. “But Dumaguete did not fix me. It wasn’t exactly the solution I was hoping for. [But by] my senior year in Fine Arts, I wanted to take control, and I decided that I wanted to change my life. And that I wanted to change it here, in Dumaguete. This was where I wanted to be.” She saw that the city was filled with artists and musicians and writers—and knew the place was special. “I knew it the moment I got here. I felt like I belonged,” she says.
For Mr. Wong, it was a family tragedy that made him move back here from Manila. “Before 2017, I’ve only been here only twice,” he says. “But I had to move back here to help with our family business, because our grocery store in Bayawan burned down. Life here was very different to what I was used to back in Manila. I used to think that life in the province was slow, boring, and stagnant. Not anymore.”
He gave in to his entrepreneurial instincts, and opened Coffee Collective in its original location along Aldecoa Drive—a month before the pandemic. Miraculously, it thrived even after the lockdown—and soon he opened another branch near the Silliman University Medical Center. When he opened what is now the main branch at The Henry Resort in Bantayan, he hired Ms. Mandi to do the art in his café.
Later, when he eventually had to close the first two branches of the café because of pandemic realities, he had at his disposal an extra set of coffee machines he didn’t need to install at The Henry. By then, Ms. Mandi had an idea: why not open a space that would cater to both art and coffee? A gallery with a coffee shop felt like the perfect melding of both their interests.
It was a prospect that invited trepidation, but the pandemic emboldened her. Besides, she had always dreamed of eventually putting up a gallery, perhaps after making a successful run as a visual artist. She thought she could pursue that by exhibiting in Cebu or Manila. “But last year, in 2021, I realized how much I loved Dumaguete,” she says. “We have so many talented artists and a community of people who genuinely appreciate the arts, so why couldn’t Dumaguete be the dream instead? Howard loves coffee, and I love art—so it’s really great to be able create a space that can fit both our passions.”
This was around November 2021 when the idea glimmered.
By December, they found a place that used to be a store for livestock feed—small enough to be manageable, and near enough to downtown to make it accessible. [Robinsons Place Dumaguete is only a stone’s throw away.]
By January 2022, they were ready to open shop and put on their first exhibition.
The show that opened that month was Ripples, a collaborative exhibit by Ms. Mandi and guest artist Hersley-Ven Casero—an accidental pairing that needed to be done because Mr. Casero had just succumbed to COVID-19, and was not in perfect form to do a full solo exhibition. Into that challenge Ms. Mandi went, and the two created several canvasses on site, side by side, in the very same position and under the very same spotlights they were later exhibited. Mr. Casero lent their works figures in whimsical fashion, and Ms. Mandi complementing them with her now trademarked swirls and textures. The centerpiece work, “Tell Me a Story,” is a giant of both size and drive. It occupies an entire wall—perhaps the biggest canvas both artists have ever worked on. And it occupies a worthy conceit—in its depiction of a girl holding a birdcage and surrounded by fish and birds while floating above the ocean, we are invited to connect the dots to make our own narrative, an immersive work that underlines what both artists think about their art: as a medium to tell stories.
Since its opening in January, Shelter has hosted two group shows, and a happening titled Canvas, which invited four local artists—Mr. Casero and Ms. Mandi together with Deadlocks and Cil Flores—to train their brushes and paint on the skin of a live human body, an event cooked up by writer Danielle Spontak. It is with events like this that one can make a claim that the gallery is not just a space for art; it is a vibe.
It is also a place where one’s artistic impulses are encouraged to thrive. In that sense then, the gallery’s name is purposeful. “It is clear to me that environment plays a very important role in growth so I wanted to create a space where artists could feel safe—like they aren’t all alone,” Ms. Mandi explains. “I wanted to give the artists a space where they feel appreciated and encouraged, a place where someone believes in them. It may seem small but I know having someone believe in your art makes all the difference.”
She continues: “The gallery is very artist-friendly and our main priority is providing a location for showcasing art, giving them a space for experimentation and exploration, where they could be themselves and be proud of it.” She makes a point about the gallery as a “joint effort,” even a community project: “Everyone helps out when they can. Right now, it’s not about what it is to me, it’s about what it can be for others. The goal is for the Dumaguete art scene and its artists to be recognized—and the only way we can achieve that is by empowering our artists, supporting them, and giving them the right environment to grow in.”
* * *
In June, the artist Mikoo Cataylo unveiled his solo exhibition Pakigbisog sa Kailaloman at Shelter—an immersive terra cotta display that is at once a wonderland and a warning. In the gallery’s limited exhibition space—the walls painted blue to simulate the depths of the seas—he has created an installation of coral reefs made of clay, standing on real sand. And here and there, he has littered the depiction of this natural landscape with completely unnatural objects [also made of clay]: many rubber slippers and many liquor bottles—both symbolic of the trash we have made of our oceans. But it is not an entirely negative story Mr. Cataylo offers: in his work, he posits that these garbage interlopers are actually being consumed by the living corals themselves to eventually make them become a part of its grand architecture. But that is if they remain living for long.
It is art as environmental statement, nurtured Shelter-style.
And while you’re at it admiring the art work, grab a latte at the hidden café at the back.
I don’t know why I’m suddenly thinking about this, but I remember a writer friend who was flabbergasted when a subject she was interviewing for an article asked for a co-credit in the by-line and a share of whatever fee she’d be paid because, according to the subject, “Those are my words from my interview you’ll be using.” I don’t think my friend even went on to write that article.
Oh, I know: that’s not how writing or journalism works.
Second booster shot, done. Had mine at the Macias Sports Complex, and it was a quiet, quick affair. There was considerably less fanfare [unlike the first vaccination round, with its photo ops and all], and much, much less crowd [unlike the first booster shot last January]. Glad to have done this. I know that COVID-19 is still around in Dumaguete. A friend of mine got it the other week, and found out after doing an antigen test on herself because she was not feeling well and not in the usual way.
It has been a while—two long years of pandemic restrictions, in fact—since we last celebrated Pride Month in Dumaguete. And like a phoenix whose fiery resurrection is done up in all the colors of the spectrum, we’re back! Albeit in more intimate considerations, given protocols we need to follow for the pandemic we are still living in. And when I say, we’re back, I mean this: all I can see right now is a vision of a Dumaguete pedestrian lane done up in all the colors of the rainbow.
Why this vision of a local pedestrian lane in these colors? I was asked this question by local journalist and friend Judy Flores.
I thought about it. And it came to this: Pride Month all over the world has always been about visibility for a very marginalized sector, which continues to suffer prejudice and injustice every day all over the world. Visibility is power. Visibility is a privilege of being seen, and being accepted for who we are. Visibility is a fight since the opposite of that is living in the closet where we have no voice.
Rendering a Dumaguete pedestrian lane in rainbow colors is a very visible way to signify support, especially by the LGU, to the concerns and welfare of its LGBTQ constituents.
Imagine a city street painted in the colors of the rainbow! It will be immediately recognizable, it will probably becoming Instagrammable—and it will be a testament to the city’s pledge to welcome diversity of all kinds and to promote inclusivity, especially with regards sexual orientation or gender identity.
A rainbow pedestrian lane project, which has been done in many progressive cities all over the world (and notably Manila, Mandaue City, and Quezon City in recent years), is a dream. Dumaguete joining their ranks will be significant.
We actually started doing Pride in Dumaguete in 2011, but not on Pride Month! I still remember this well. It was in December, and a bunch of us were invited by the Dumaguete City Health Office to make an LGBTQ contingent for their World AIDS Day parade. We took the invitation, and ran with it—and made our contingent “the first gay pride parade” in Dumaguete City. I remember walking the streets of Dumaguete in that parade, making myself visible for the first time in that capacity. It was tremendous and terrifying all at once—but there was a celebratory feel to that parade in 2011 that will forever remain etched in my best memories. I remember walking along Real Street in the public market area and heading towards Freedom Park, and seeing someone from the top floor of one of those old Art Deco buildings waving a rainbow flag. It was an elderly woman, although we could not see her face. We waved back. Was that her way of saying, “I’m part of this parade, too!” and “I’m making myself visible this way”?
There were a couple more Pride Parades after that, but nothing big and nothing really memorable. I can’t even find pictures of them. One in particular [was that in 2014?] just encircled Silliman campus, starting from the West Quadrangle fronting Silliman Church and ending at the Silliman Ballfield. In 2016, however, we had a bigger one, and this entailed an entire city tour. But it was held in July. In 2017, we had an even bigger one, led by Sol De Castro. But it was held in August.
And for the most part, Pride just meant parades.
In 2018, I volunteered to become the lead coordinator, and I wanted to expand the scope of Pride in Dumaguete to not just be about parades, but be a month of celebrating LGBTQ life with various events, including a drag show, a film screening, several fora on important issues, a poetry reading, an athletic gig, among others. We christened the event—which we hoped to be an annual occurrence actually held on Pride Month—“6200 Pride,” after our zip code.
But there was a personal reason why I volunteered: I was especially moved by an incident that horrified me. A good friend—a very talented dancer—had recently died of AIDS in Dumaguete, and his family was particularly horrible in their treatment of him in his last days—denying to everyone that he had the disease, denying him visitations by friends, and denying him the proper medical care that should have been given to him. I was so furious I decided to make Pride Month 2018 an extensive celebration of the LGBTQ, with particular focus on HIV/AIDS. [We had a seminar, and we offered free testing!—all courtesy of the Silliman University Medical Center and an organization of medical students.]
The last Pride Month we actually celebrated was in 2019, led by Shamah Bulangis. We had no idea it was going to be the last for a good while.
For 2022, coming off the pandemic, we are back and our goal is to highlight the mental health of LGBTQ people. Statistics show that LGQBTQ youth are most vulnerable to depression and suicide because they lack the necessary support they need in dealing with their sexuality, especially in a society that still condemns it. We can’t have more dead gay youths. We can’t have more people suffering from depression and anxiety just because they feel unloved or unwanted. (Or worse, bullied.) This is our focus for this year.
6200 Pride is not really an organization. It is more of an umbrella that coordinates various organizations, and helps facilitate their activities for Pride Month. It has always been a loose movement composed of a ragtag bunch of friends and volunteers who believe in the issues of the LGBTQ community. Under this umbrella organization, we have PETALS Dumaguete, headed by NORSU’s Carlou Bernaldez, which is the LGU-recognized LGBTQ group in Dumaguete. We also have Silliman University’s Illuminates of the Spectra [or iSpec], the school’s latest LGBTQ organization. But 6200 Pride also includes other groups that are allies of the cause. For 2022, an organization called Humanist Alliance Philippines, International [HAPI] is doing their share of Pride Month events—including art exhibits and various talks.
In the meantime, 6200 Pride is pushing—indeed, pushing!—for that rainbow pedestrian lane. We also have a writing contest that invites local LGBTQ to talk about their experiences as queer people. We also have a screening of the films of Jay Altarejos, a forum on civil unions with Jesus Falcis, another forum on mental with Bing Valbuena, a community reading project focusing on Carlo Vergara’s iconic graphic novel Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah, a staged reading of Dean Francis Alfar’s Short Time with YATTA, and a Pride PechaKucha where we will talk—in that unique brand of fast presentation—about drag, about writing queer stories, about coming out [or not], about partying, about queer art, about trans life, and about queerness in Filipino pre-colonial society. [For more information about the schedule of events, please look up 6200 Pride on Facebook.]
It should be a fun June.
I’ve been asked before: what rights are you fighting for in Dumaguete and Negros Oriental? There are so many issues that concern the LGBTQ community in the Philippines, among them the possibility of recognizing civil unions, the management of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the mental health welfare of gay youths, among others. The fight to make things like this happen will be long, but talking about them in the community will be a good start—and this is where Pride Month is essential.
Visibility is all.
People tend to say that the Philippines is more tolerant of its LGBTQ citizens, so why are we still doing Pride? But we still face discrimination in the workplace and in the family, among other things. And often this discrimination is not overt. Trans people, for example, are still being denied the rightful expression of their identity in many functions, like graduation, and are discriminated against in terms of opportunities in the workplace. Pride is about bringing attention to these things, but it is also a celebration of how much we’ve come so far in this fight.
We do get pushbacks when we push the envelope further in the name of acceptance and diversity. Sometimes we ask: are we effective in sending out a clear message? And sometimes we ask: are our own members of the community even hearing us clearly?
The Dumaguete LGBTQ is a very particular community for me when I come to regard the whole thrust of Pride Month—because while we do get active participation by a very middle-class and very young demographic [mostly students and professionals], we are still actually courting the participation of those who are in the other classes, particularly the working class LGBTQ who work in beauty parlors, who do pageants, and others. They have shown some reluctance in joining our cause for so long, and I’ve always wondered why. Is Pride Month too burgis? I want to tell them that our fight benefits them in the long run, and that it is essential to join hands to show solidarity in this clamor for visibility, for our rights, and for our welfare.
In the end, beyond rainbow pedestrian lanes, I envision a Dumaguete that welcomes all to the City of Gentle People, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Because in a world that values diversity of all kinds, it is best to promote inclusivity. This means extending support to efforts, like 6200 Pride and similar activities, that promote the rights and welfare of a very marginalized sector of society who has historically been vulnerable to prejudice.
I’m on the fourth day of my fast. This should have been my sixth, but I broke it because I was so stressed in the second day of my initial run. Afterwards though I told myself: “You’ll only get where you want to go if you have resolve, which means knowing the challenges and the pitfalls but forging ahead anyway.” Doing this for health reasons.
10:27 PM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish, Part 3: From Russia, With Love
Pinspired’s Evgeniya Spiridonova is the other half of Dakong Balay Gallery’s success story—although her contributions to the contemporary Dumaguete arts scene extends far beyond partnering on events in the venue. Hers actually is illustrative of the usual Dumaguete love story: she started out as a langyaw [stranger] like so many Dumagueteños nga na-dagit by the city—and, after settling down to make a life here, is now a vibrant part of the community fabric, helping push the potentials of her adopted city.
We call her Jane.
She was born in small city in Russia. Her father, who was a sound engineer, recognized in his daughter an affinity for the world outside, and so he encouraged her to learn the English language. He was himself an avid travel around the world because of his profession, and he knew the power of knowing a language that everyone understands—and this was key to Jane’s ready embrace of the world.
She would eventually earn a degree in English linguistics, but she knew deep inside that she also wanted to do something creative besides tinkering with language structures. Ien her sophomore year, she made the decision to shift to evening classes so that she could spend the day working. She was already skilled in Photoshop, and found work as a graphic designer for a succession of companies. Including the Russian publishing company Eksmo. It was a career in the Russian corporate world that lasted for ten years.
Eventually, she would find herself working in China, creating packaging for a toy company and occasionally being given the opportunity to design toys herself. The work was fruitful, and lasted for four years—and in the interim, she was developing her skills in illustration, and dreaming of putting up her own design company someday. This pushed her to quit her job in China, and with a friend started her own graphic design company. It didn’t last long, and there were also other mitigating circumstances that made her reassess what she wanted in life. One of these was the death of her father. She flew back to Russia, and in the aftermath of her grief, she devoted herself to her art—experimenting with ink and mixed media, playing with seashells and sound equipment. This would lead to her first solo exhibition in Russia. She knew now that what she really wanted to do was art.
She would find the answer to that calling in the Philippines. She came to the country upon the invitation of the filmmaker and photographer Maxim Vasiliev, who is also Russian. He had been living in the Philippines for eleven years, and when Jane came to visit, he introduced her to Dumaguete City and its environs—the Rizal Boulevard, Casaroro Falls, the Balinsasayao Twin Lakes. “I immediately fell in love with the place,” Jane recalled. “[It was] because of the vibrant green and the blue [I saw everywhere in nature.] I loved the warm weather, and I loved the friendly English-speaking people.” She also loved the ease of the place, the accessibility to everything. Jane also fell in love with Mr. Vasiliev, and that sealed the deal. They married, and she decided to move to Dumaguete—but only later would she discover how much of a trove it was when it came to the arts.
“To be honest, I didn’t see [how deeply artistic Dumaguete was] at first,” she said. “There were not many galleries in the city. I saw artworks displayed mostly in local restaurants and art supply shops.” Only later, when she slowly began meeting local artists, did she realize the potential of Dumaguete as a vibrant artistic hub. She wanted to do something about it. But first, she had to develop a business that could sustain her family—and later on, her dreams of Dumaguete art. That meant establishing Pinspired, which means “Pinoy-inspired.”
“When I came here, I was so inspired by the Philippines that I decided that my next business will be connected with this beautiful country,” she said. “When I was searching for good postcards and art souvenirs to send to my family [back in Russia], I couldn’t find anything [I liked] here.” Jane stumbled on that lack, which gave her the idea of creating postcards herself and try to make a business out of it.
The first postcard she designed was a map of Negros Island. Then this turned into a collection of ten other Philippine islands maps. In 2017, she opened an online shop for her growing inventory. “Our first customers were Philippine post-crossers from online group,” Jane said. “Then we started to sell outside Negros Island, to other [places that catered to tourists].”
Postcards paved the way to her eventual collaboration with other local artists and creatives. “We started to expand our postcard collections, featuring artists like Angelo Delos Santos, Cil Flores, Kat Banay, and others.” The response to these collaborations was electric and positive, and Jane soon realized that this was how she wanted to pursue her business—to showcase the beauty of the localities and their traditions through postcards and collectibles, with art by local artists. “We wanted to achieve recognition among the locals. We wanted to tell about Philippine plants and animals, places, traditions—but in a quirky way,” she said. “We also wanted to satisfy the demand in affordable art, and provide creative gift solutions. At the same time, we really wanted to support local artists.”
This newfound approach to doing Pinspired led to her first art exhibition in Dumaguete in 2019. The show was going to center on something specific, and quirky. And musical.
The ukulele. More specifically: “art” ukulele.
The show, titled Reasons to Love the Philippines, embodied the new approach Pinspired was taking. Jane invited seven local artists—Portia Nemeño, Kevin Cornelia, Kat Banay, Alta Jia, Sarah Jean Ruales, Angelo Delos Santos, and Cil Flores—to do art on locally crafted ukuleles. The result astonished her. “I didn’t expect all of them would be so beautifully done,” she remembered. “Each one was so creative.” They exhibited the art ukuleles first at The Flying Fish Hostel and then at Alima Café—and all of them sold out in a few weeks. The proceeds went to support the Little Children of the Philippines, an orphanage in Dumaguete City. This was a good start.
There were other small exhibits, and then the pandemic hit.
But Jane knew that with every challenge came a corresponding opportunity—and the times were indeed challenging. How do you sell postcards when there are no tourists? How do you sell art souvenirs when there are no exhibits? How do you sell to the other islands when all means of transportation was closed? These were perplexing questions that challenged the new business—and her solution was simple: open a physical shop, even in the midst of the pandemic.
The Pinspired shop at Dakong Balay opened in December 2020—and the rest, including the subsequent exhibits at the new gallery on the second floor, proved to be the saving grace for the business. The company started to take producing art prints seriously, and Pinspired collaborated with more artists, producing many limited edition art prints and launching a program where every sold art print supported the artist directly.
There was another unlikely lifeline: publishing. Specifically, publishing art books. They started by publishing Hersley-Ven Casero’s first book of photography—All in Good Time—which they released in August 2021. It sold out within a month. Then in 2022, they published my children’s book The Great Little Hunter, with art by Mr. Casero—and it sold out within 27 hours. “I never thought we could become a publisher, but actually having art books with local artists reflected Pinspired’s vision,” Jane said. “Before, we were pretty much dependent on tourists, but with such projects as art books and art prints, we now have more recognition among the locals.”
Pinspired will continue to organize and sponsor different exhibits and art events around Dumaguete—this is already part of Jane’s vision. This also means collaborating with more artists and creating more products together, which reflect local traditions, culture, and places in the most artistic and creative way. This also means reaching out further to the community by organizing creative workshops and providing a space where artist and patron can meet. Of course, this means being smart about art as a business as well. “We plan to expand our product line to things which everyone needs, like T-shirts, tote bags, and towels.” All that with local art.
Jane envisions Pinspired to be a chain of shops found all over Philippines, like Papelmeroti, promoting and supporting artists from different parts of the country. “Every part of Philippines is unique,” she said, “and there are so many possibilities weee can give to local artists: from sustainable income to promotion, from introducing them to their customers to providing full time jobs. I hope in the future we will have a creative space where artists from all over the country can come, receive support, showcase their art and vision, and contribute to the local culture.”
Pinspired has started on that road—and not even a pandemic can stop it.
Evgeniya Spiridonova with her current exhibit of NFT art, Meditating Catse, at Salaya Beach Houses in Dauin.
10:16 PM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish, Part 2: An Unlikely Beginning
The story begins in the pandemic and the simplicity of what that entailed: a city in lockdown. For most of 2020, almost nothing stirred. Dumaguete, like most of the world, was in forced hibernation mode. We were trapped in our houses, and we were trapped in the mental haze of an existential prison that made us think of the outside world and of interacting with other people as something to be completely avoided. But some of us made that stasis a fertile ground for application and creativity: we cooked, we baked, we put up small businesses that catered to the paranoia of the pandemic, we tended to plants. We also gave small concerts over live streaming, we pursued our dormant desires for sculpting and dancing, we wrote stories, we painted and drew. All done within the confines of our pandemic bubbles.
And so, while there were no more public concerts and exhibits and readings, Dumaguete artists made art in the privacy of their houses and apartments—to bide the long stretches of time, to slay the encroaching depression, to feel alive. This created a great hunger to share what they made. But for now, they would have to deal with the simple matter of gestating. The first year of the pandemic was not a complete cultural wasteland, however. Some brave souls put up theatrical presentations even with all the COVID-19 protocols they had to follow. In one play I attended sometime in November 2020, there were only about ten people in the audience, not counting the cast and creative crew.
The first instance of this story of flourishing of Dumaguete art amidst the pandemic began as an accident, and not even with an artist. Her name is Amy Jean Concepcion Lee, a management graduate of Silliman University and a native of Tanjay City. Straight out of college in 2014, she began working as a commercial property manager at SL Teves Realty and Development Corporation, and one of the properties she was tasked to manage for the company was Dakong Balay along Rizal Avenue. A heritage house located along Rizal Avenue, Dakong Balay is famously the former residence of the late provincial governor Serafin Lajato Teves and counts among the mansions along the Dumaguete seafront collectively known as the “sugar houses.” After being left vacant for so long, the house was finally restored by the family, and retrofitted to become a commercial venue. [It currently houses Starbucks and Gerry’s Grill.]
Ms. Lee did not even have an inkling about the Dumaguete arts scene. “The term ‘art scene’ in general is alien to me,” she confessed. That is until she met Evgeniya Spiridonova, Jane to friends and the founder of Pinspired Philippines. In February 2020, Ms. Spiridonova inquired about renting a space at Dakong Balay, and in her proposal she mentioned art pieces and exhibitions with local artists. “These were names I’ve never heard of before,” Ms. Lee said. “Being an outsider, I never really saw the possibilities, because I had no clue it existed in the first place. But Jane was opening Pinspired during the holidays [in 2020], so we expected people to come. However, this was also when COVID-19 cases were rising.”
She continued: “I wanted to ensure Jane a successful opening, so I brainstormed [for] the best way to get people to come. I recalled a section of her proposal where she [wanted to hold] an art exhibit featuring local artists, so I figured we’d do something like that. A quaint spot at the second floor of Dakong Balay was at our disposal, so we made use of its vacancy.”
After an exchange of ideas between her and Ms. Spiridonova, they decided to collaborate with local visual artist Hersley-Ven Casero. Dakong Balay Gallery was born, and Mr. Casero would become its founding artist. The show they produced, Organic Magic, opened on January 2021—and proved to be an immediate hit, and a surprise. Was Dumaguete now ready for public exhibitions and similar events? Perhaps not—but Mr. Casero’s show demonstrated a hunger for the arts and culture, something that was denied of everyone for many, many months while the pandemic simmered.
“All these invisible strings tying us together finally untangled, and slowly we unraveled these amazing opportunities along the way,” Ms. Lee said in retrospect. “But still, since I have no experience in handling a gallery, setting the terms and regulations was one of the challenges I faced. Despite the challenges, hearing great feedbacks from the community, receiving guidance from experienced people, and getting the support and trust from my company, inspired me to continue the idea of a gallery in Dakong Balay, with blessings from the corporation.”
After the success of Organic Magic, the three were on “an exhibit high.” Mr. Casero suggested a group show slated for February 2021, which is traditionally the National Arts Month. What came out of this idea was Atoa, another pathbreaking exhibit that introduced further the space to a wider array of artists and art lovers. A month later, it showcased another group show called Introspection, a survey of local abstract art that was probably the best visual arts show in Dumaguete in recent years.
“We were able to gather many local artists to participate,” Ms. Lee recalled. “The unity manifested through that event ignited others, making the local artistic community of Dumaguete come alive. It has been heart-warming to witness Dakong Balay become a bridge of sorts, allowing local artists the avenue to showcase their art, especially during the pandemic—a time we needed connection the most.“
Dakong Balay Gallery effectively became the de facto exhibition space for Dumaguete artists, who were hungry for just this kind of avenue especially during the pandemic. For the longest time, in the old normal, there were only restaurants and hotels—like Café Alima and Flying Fish Hostel—that served as avenues for exhibitions, although they were hardly the ideal. There was also Mariyah Gallery in Bogo, which houses the works of Kitty Taniguchi, Maria Taniguchi, and Danni Sollesta, among others. Over at Silliman University, there were exhibition spaces at the Luce Foyer Gallery and the Silliman Library Gallery, and for a time, when the Ariniego Art Gallery was built in 2017, there was promise of a resurgence of a sustained calendar of art shows. When the university locked down for the pandemic like the rest of the city, these venues—ensconced deep in the middle of the sprawling campus and away from the easy access off city streets—became ghosts, inaccessible to most. Dakong Balay Gallery, situated along the Rizal Boulevard and housed in a magnificent heritage architecture, proved just the opposite: that accessibility and strategic location and that architectural beauty made it the unexpected hub to germinate an artistic resurgence, however unintentional.
“The gallery was initially just a space utilized for Pinspired’s opening show—basically just for marketing purposes,” Ms. Lee admitted. “However, the motive shifted, developed, and morphed into a popular space for the Dumaguete art scene.” Dakong Balay is now space that is well-known among many people, entertaining a constant stream of visitors. Part of its appeal is that admission to Dakong Balay Gallery is free.
But what’s in its future? “Our focus for now is showcasing our local artists,” Ms. Lee said, “but in the future we plan to invite artists from other places and at the same time do exciting collaborations with them. Just as the arts continue to evolve over the years, our exhibitions will have to be more inclusive and innovative.”
10:04 PM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish, Part 1: An Invitation to the Republic
We begin on May 7, a Saturday night. It was the weekend before the national elections, and there was an electric quality to the air that was palpable. You could not tell, in hindsight, what that meant: perhaps anticipation, perhaps nervousness, perhaps hope. For the past few months, when the election season began and then crested, all there was in Dumaguete were talks of politics and the unbelievable incivility the discourse took shape in on social media. But there was no getting away from it; whether we liked it or not, especially in pandemic times, Facebook was virtual community center, occasionally good for humanity, often poisonous. But here we talked and posted information and commiserated and quarreled and unfriended each other—a raucous platform that we clung to like a toxic co-dependency.
It was, nevertheless, also the best way to make information fly the fastest.
For example, it was on Facebook Messenger that, at 6:38 PM on May 7th, we got the ping from Dumaguete visual artist and entrepreneur Babbu Wenceslao, with this notice: “Opening pop-exhibit at El Amigo Art Space tonight 9:30 PM… Drop by if you guys have time.” We were finishing a day’s worth of work and my nth cup of coffee in a Rizal Boulevard café. A pop up exhibit sounded like the perfect way to end the Saturday—and El Amigo was only a stone’s throw away.
The exhibit was Republic, which—according to the artist himself—was a “re-view of past pieces [and] art works” he had done and “publicly shown elsewhere [except in] Dumaguete, before the pandemic.” And indeed, the five pieces that make up this pop exhibition have been shown in Manila for the NCCA Gallery in 2019 and in Hobart for the Australian Ceramic Triennial also in 2019. But Wenceslao had brought them out again on the eve of the election, because he found the pieces somehow relevant to the current discourse—the past informing, even predicting, the present. (As it very well should.) Hence the exhibit’s title—“Republic”—immediately inviting us to see the art as a reflection of the state of the country.
Mr. Wenceslao acknowledges the political bent of the exhibit: “Making an artwork is for the present and the future, but its tactile and intellectual engagement is largely shaped by the past. How we remember and what we make of memory manifest in the means we take in the present. Yet the collective memory of our country is currently in controversy. The narrative of our not so distant history is being reshaped and retold by powerful machineries to re-install and rationalize a corrupt political regime of old.”
He ends his statement with a prescription: “A way to resist this is to remember. To reclaim memory on our own and to retell. To look into the past for archived truths and bring them back to light for more people to use.”
What Mr. Wenceslao has done to reflect this is clear enough in the pieces we see in Republic—both in the elliptical and in the blunt. An untitled work consisting of stoneware shaped like six pieces of fish in a bowl surrounded by actual forks reminds me of how we often analogize the country’s poverty in terms of galunggong. But here, even this so-called poor man’s food proves scant, about to be devoured by too many forks, their pointy ends like talons of constant hunger. This is our country, Mr. Wenceslao says.
The other pieces—“Istambay” [stoneware, epoxy, and wood], “Vulcanizing” [stoneware, epoxy, and LED], and “Living in Shallow Waters” [acrylic on canvas]—are reflections of other societal concerns, especially climate change. But the exhibit’s pièce de résistance is “Botobaboy’s Elechon de Leche,” a slap of a statement in mixed media [wood, resin, fiber, motors, LED, and wires] that could very well be Wenceslao’s reason for releasing these works in the time he has chosen. The work is a specter of the election season: three resin pigs rotating under the titular banner, with one more slogan to underline what was being said: “Cooking since 1972.” You have to be obtuse not to know what that year means, or what “cooking” means, or what the “pigs” mean. Before the elections, the piece made us laugh. After the elections, the piece became a grim rebuke or wake-up call for our complacency. Never again? Not if things have been cooked, like lechon baboy, a long time ago.
What I also like the most about Wenceslao’s exhibition is how it comes to us without any fanfare or build-up—just a simple and unexpected two-line invite via Messenger; and also how large it seems in the complexity of its political statement, even when in reality the show is small—a pop-up in a small gallery in the middle of a small city. The whole thing belies the “bigness” of its final import.
In the larger scheme of things, Mr. Wenceslao’ pop exhibit reminds me of how the Dumaguete arts scene of late—unexpectedly thriving in the midst of the pandemic—straddles that line between simplicity and complexity in the flourishing that it basks in right now.
I have the craziest, most ambitious plans for the Dumaguete cultural scene. In my life as a cultural worker, I’ve accomplished many of those, often to my amazement. But in the past seven years or so, brilliant things I conceived of were inevitably taken over by others [which is a nice way of saying they were “stolen” from me]: a literary festival, a film festival, an art happening, and some others. There were circumstances beyond my control, and I just didn’t want to cause trouble. I didn’t fight back. Didn't believe in confrontation, didn’t believe in airing my laundry for everyone to see. Never even divulged my side to anyone, even my partner. I kept it all inside. This year, somebody else tried to do something similar to an initiative I started and developed — and to my surprise, I am finding myself fighting back. I don’t want to be a doormat anymore.
I used to do this regularly, posting poetry I love every Wednesday, before I decided to take a long social media retreat for the sake of my mental health in the middle of last year. In honor of Pride Month, I'm resurrecting this regular posting. Happy Pride!
With ADHD, the course of action for every single day is never simple especially when you take into consideration the landscape of the mind.
I don't know exactly how to describe it except use an analogy: It's like starting on a walk in the woods, and you are keen on following a particular path. But as you walk—and despite efforts to concentrate on the path you've taken—your legs start to wander without really knowing they're wandering, and suddenly, as if you've just woken up from a reverie, you find yourself in a new path you have no idea you've taken, and you're already far away from your starting point.
Sometimes medication keeps you focused on the initial path you've taken. Sometimes coffee will do. Today, for example. I began my day intent on finishing one thing, and the next thing I knew—thirty minutes later—I found myself doing something else without any inkling how I got here.
Sometimes I find it funny, like today. Being mindful about how our brain works makes dealing with it easier to bear, and you can course-correct. [It's also easier to navigate with a notebook of things-to-do.] And then there's the manic phase: when so many things in your head clamor for attention, and all of them are beautiful ideas. How do you even begin to function? I have no idea, to be honest, but a sense of humor is essential to surviving—and living through—this.