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

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

entry arrow6:31 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.

[To be continued…]

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