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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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Saturday, July 02, 2022

entry arrow6:42 AM | In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 6: The Joy is in the Process

It is Thursday, the 2nd of June, and Vince Lopez has not slept.

He has not slept fitfully in the past two or three months, and more so in recent days, because of work. There is work to be done in the daylight hours as he sets about preparing for the opening of the new MUGNA Gallery and the exhibit that comes with that fact. And then, when night falls, there’s work to be done with his regular job as a data and systems engineer for a major entertainment company back in the U.S.—remote work, for sure, but the pressure and the workload remain the same. He has learned to contend with the deft juggling of both, but right now, rest feels like a luxury he can barely afford. There’s so much work to be done.

Still, to the observant eye, he looks unflustered by all of these—although one can spy a hint of a tiredness around the eyes, which even he admits to having: “When Saturday comes and goes,” Mr. Lopez says, “I’ll be getting a three-hour massage.”

By Saturday, he means 4 June 2022—the scheduled opening of MUGNA Gallery, arguably the first of its kind to exist in ages in Dumaguete, although technically speaking it is situated in Bong-ao, Valencia, just right outside the poblacion, along the Jose E. Romero Road that connects Dumaguete to its hilly neighbor in the mountainous west.

Together with his husband George Kuhn, a retired American Airlines pilot, Mr. Lopez has set about this almost herculean task of finding exhibition space to celebrate local artists, and the buzz in town has been tremendous. Everyone wants to see how MUGNA Gallery comes to be, in a mixture of celebration and curiosity. Everyone is also eager to see Jana Jumalon-Alano’s first solo exhibition in many years. [Disclosure: I curated her first solo show, Everything About This Girl, for the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council in 2015.] And the local art world—including artists and patrons from as far away as Bacolod and Cebu—are trooping in to celebrate and to examine, clearly a respite for everyone from pandemic anxieties and isolation.

“It’s tiring, of course, this whole business of opening a gallery and throwing a party for everyone—but I’m actually enjoying the process,” Mr. Lopez says.

It must feel like a new adventure for him, a New Yorker by way of Manila, who never imagined himself becoming a gallerist. Mr. Lopez comes from a family of bankers and accountants, and given that, his choice of a career—his interest growing up was in computer science—proved an anomaly. He studied at the De La Salle University, and later on, attended the University of Santo Tomas, where he earned a degree in electronics and communications engineering. When he was eight, his mother relocated to the U.S., and he stayed behind with his father and one of his brothers to finish his schooling.

“But America has always been the dream,” he admits. And so, when the opportunity came for him to migrate as well, he took it. This was right after college, when he turned 22. It was not a hard change because he was already looking forward to it—although admittedly the hardest part of the move was leaving his friends, who had become his family in Manila, behind. “The good part was my reunion with family,” he says. His mother lived in Queens, New York—and the diversity of its neighborhoods [composed of many Latinos and Filipinos] somehow made him feel at home.

He took his new American life as an adventure, replete with challenges he willed himself to conquer slowly and with determination—a personality trait that would define for the most part his career, and later his life as a gallerist in Dumaguete. Even though he had gone to the U.S. before on regular holidays, this time around he knew things would be a bit different, because this was now about an opportunity to build a life. “It was not entirely easy, because I did not have the work experience I needed to start that life, so it was hard for me to find a job,” he says. He started as a clerk, then began climbing the corporate ladder for a few years.

But he soon left the corporate world to pursue a passion: photography. He decided to study it full time, and then practiced it for a couple of years. The advent of digital photography, however, sideswiped him; he did not find the transition easy. He decided to go back to corporate work.

By then Mr. Lopez had amassed a wide experience in data management, and he landed a job at a popular entertainment conglomerate in 2012, eventually becoming its systems architect. The conglomerate was spinning off one of its companies, and they took him in to design their technology workflow and data flow. He found himself enjoying the business, especially given that the company was part of the entertainment industry—and he found its challenges very dynamic and creative.

This creativity in the work satisfied him: he knew he had always gravitated towards it. Aside from his brief foray into photography, his artistic side involved an abiding love of gallery and museum hunting, which became one of his favorite hobbies in New York. His workplace was just a fifteen-minute walk to the Chelsea Galleries, and he’d find himself seeing its various collections and exhibits during his lunch break. It was a passion that he shared with Mr. Kuhn. They loved art. For them, going to museums and galleries was an escape from the humdrum, almost a necessity.

And then, after his retirement as pilot, Mr. Kuhn made the decision to live in Negros Oriental. He soon found a place in Valencia—and for the next ten years, Vince would find himself coming over to Dumaguete regularly to visit his husband on extended vacations, although New York was still home and workplace. The visits became longer and more regular—until finally Mr. Lopez himself made the decision to move to Dumaguete as well.

They now live in Sagbang in the foothills of Valencia, in a sprawling property that has a fantastic view overlooking Dumaguete and the sea beyond. “I love it there. I chose to live there because it’s quiet peaceful,” he says. “And the view is breathtaking, and it is away from the hustle and bustle of Dumaguete and far away from the chaos and intense energy of New York.” Plus the couple now keeps a handful of dogs, and adopted beautiful stray cat named Tiger.

The house in Sagbang, and the property that surrounds it, remains a work in progress—and by design. “We realized that the construction and landscaping work we were doing was helping find work in the immediate community, helping local people in their livelihood,” Mr. Lopez says. “But this is not charity, I must say. We’re also getting good work out of it.”

It’s a local way of doing things that he has come to appreciate, because it provides a stark contrast to doing work in the U.S. “There, everything is in black-and-white, pure business, pure transaction,” he says. “Here, every project we undertake seems to be about building things together—even building a community, helping each other in many levels.” [It is that idea of community he responds to the most, and which has led to his newest project.]

Mr. Lopez has come to love Dumaguete, which for him is a “modernized probinsya.” The city has been a nice surprise. “It is a weird blend of country and city, a place in between,” he says—and says that its charms are incomparable to many other cities in the Philippines. He heard before of Dumaguete’s famous art scene—but it was not quite apparent to him in the beginning. There was his timing. He had only settled for good in Dumaguete just as the pandemic hit, and that reputed “thriving cultural scene” went largely missing or transferred to Zoom.

Once in a while, before COVID-19 made the world lock down, he would visit Subida in Valencia to shop for souvenirs to take back to the U.S., and that was when he met the artist Jana Jumalon. He discovered her paintings on the second floor of a shop, and the magnificence of her work surprised him. He bought one of her older paintings. Then he began getting introduced by Ms. Alano to other local artists—among them, Hersley-Ven Casero and Iris Tirambulo-Armogenia. For Mr. Lopez, he found the new conversations he was having with local artists interesting and eye-opening. “For me, there is no better way to observe how an art community evolves other than through the eyes of its artists, and through their works,” he says.

He was introduced to their works, which he appreciated—but whenever he’d ask them where he could find more of their art, he was dismayed to know there were virtually no galleries in town that showcased them. Mariyah Gallery, yes. The Ariniego, yes. Restaurants, yes. But each one had peculiarities that made them as art spaces somewhat challenging.

The kernel of an idea started forming.

“There was just so much talent around. And George and I felt that talent was deserving of being given a spotlight through a dedicated exhibition space,” Mr. Lopez says. “We felt the need. And we were also excited about sharing the experience of the community, and supporting the local artists. That was the inspiration. If we did not see the potential, or see the talent that existed, creating a gallery would have been farthest from our minds.”

And then the pandemic hit, and the idea was subsequently abandoned while most people—the Lopez-Kuhn couple included—lived the next two years in isolation like the rest of the world. But the world stopping did not stop them from supporting artists who needed their help, and that was when they realized that the pandemic was also instrumental in making them return to the idea of creating a gallery. “Maybe it was the energy we felt. Good energy. The fire within the local artists became much stronger because of the pandemic. There was an explosion, a need to create,” Mr. Lopez says. Responding to that energy, they retrieved their business plan. By November 2021, things started rolling for sure.

They started with the name: “Mugna” seemed like the best bet. They wanted a Bisaya word, and a meaningful word that was also easy to the ear of the international art market they wanted to penetrate. “Using a meaningful word from the local language allows a potential audience to learn a new word and also the meaning of it—and then promotes the place where it’s coming from.” He actually started with “Mugna-on,” but liked its abbreviated version. He also liked that mugna meant “creativity.” I also quickly reminded him that mugna also meant “to start,” or “to rush into the challenge of creating and doing,” as in: “Mag-mugna ‘ta!”

Finding the space was the easy part. The space had always been there. They were already renting, for some years, the unit in a building, which fronted the Uypitching property in Valencia. In fact, they made it their residence while they were building their house in Sagbang. When their house was completed, they turned the Bong-ao unit into a storage place.

“The way it was laid out, I always felt the unit would work as a gallery,” Mr. Lopez says. “But the logistics of renovating the space was a bigger undertaking. We had to remove beams from the walls to go for a seamless look.” There were myriad challenges as well, like lighting up the space appropriate for exhibiting art, and for that they consulted a lighting engineer. This was one among many stories Mr. Lopez had about sourcing materials and equipment as well, but they found local partners who worked hard to find what he needed. “I was very hands-on, because I really wanted a proper set-up for the pieces we were going to exhibit,” he says.

Mr. Lopez is also hands-on with the path he wants the gallery to take. Starting with the exhibitions, he wants to position MUGNA as a gallery of consequence, putting a spotlight on local artists at least for 2022. Then shortly after that, MUGNA will undertake programs and workshops to bring in the larger community, to allow groups within that community to take part in the exhibitions, and to take part in the creation of art. The mural outside the exhibition space is the first project in that community program--a work of bayanihan effort by selected artists in the community. “Murals challenge the notion that walls are merely functional,” Mr. Lopez says. “Walls become platforms for the imagination and can raise the conversation on community values.”

In the future, MUGNA Gallery will start bringing in artists from outside Negros Oriental or even the Philippines. It will take part in national and international art fairs. It will continue to do workshops and other artistic programs—including opening their Sagbang property as a potential retreat and residency for artists.

Mr. Lopez and Mr. Kuhn know there will be challenges. They love art, but they also know they are not business people entrenched the art world, and this is completely new territory for them. “But it’s our passion that drives us, and in a way, that’s an advantage,” Mr. Lopez says. “Because we are not doing this based on the norms of the business, or based on what is expected. We’re doing this the way we want to do it. Still, the challenges remain. Setting up a business like this, you have to know the best practices. But we’re figuring it out, and we do have good support, from friends primarily, here and in the U.S.”

The challenge is considerable, but that does not perturb Mr. Lopez.

“I’m actually not scared about where this could go,” he admits. “I’m very realistic about things. This could go up, or this could go down.” For him, however, the effort is the clincher: “What’s most important for us is that we try. Because even if it doesn’t work out, we’ve gotten so much out of it already—just the whole experience of this, and the people that we’ve worked with. Our mission already started even way before MUGNA opened its doors: we enjoy supporting artists, and we appreciate the give-and-take. And so we are here to enjoy the process.”

That enjoyment of the process is quite palpable in the way Mr. Lopez has curated Ms. Alano’s exhibition—which is done in beautiful simplicity, chosen with a nose for personal and national history, edited with flair to a few specific pieces [and also proves remarkable for what it leaves out], and arranged with respect to the evolutions of Ms. Alano’s work as an artist.

Tierra Quemada, which has extended its run until July 10, essentially showcases Ms. Alano’s prowess as a sculptor and ceramic artist—and for that we get an exhibit that is incredibly tactile in their power, and moving for their significations, which can only be thoroughly gleaned if viewers look closer, and in some cases, feel more intently with their hands. It is an exhibit that intends—given its title [which means “scorched earth”]—to burn you with the anger of its story.

There are assorted sculptures and ceramic pieces that make up the exhibit, but the two main pieces that feels most immediate are the towering works titled “Fortress” and “Fuego”—the first one a work in papier-mâché and found objects which Ms. Alana first exhibited in 2014 for the 13th VIVA ExCon Biennale of the Visayan Islands, and the second one of a more recent vintage that mirrors the height, the images, and the stylistic ambition of the first, but this time made of clay. Between them, you have almost a decade of Ms. Alano’s work and evolution as an artist—in a sense making this exhibit a kind of a retrospective, except that it has cannily omitted the paintings from the artist’s oeuvre.

I have always found “Fortress” such a compelling work ever since I set eyes on it in 2015. Part of what makes it compelling is the story behind it, given Ms. Alano’s roots as a Zamboangueño. After the siege of Zamboanga in 2013, which saw many houses burned to the ground, Ms. Alano went to the site of the conflagration and started gathering objects from it—and assembled them into this tragic watch tower which, according to Stephanie Frondoso in her copy for the exhibit catalogue, is a symbol “intended to illuminate tragedies that occurred and act as a space for memories of what has been lost.” There are small windows in it that invite you to look closer, but the things we behold in them and around them are kind of tricky, because they denote nostalgia, but they also denote destruction.

With “Fuego,” Ms. Alano streamlines everything by turning the tower of mementos of the 2015 work into a demonstrable towering inferno—a clay blaze on top of several clay boxes stacked on each other, imprinted with almost hieroglyphic swirls and shapes that recall, in a way that invites rethinking, the found objects from “Fortress.” The artist means the work to be an exorcism of sorts.

That Ms. Alano’s work has provided the birthing pieces inaugurating MUGNA Gallery as an artistic space feels very much like a collaboration of the highest order, and one that informs the other in significant ways. MUGNA has given a local artist her due after years of showcasing extraordinary work in various group exhibitions, and the artist has given the gallery an imprint of significance—that it is a place that recognizes fantastic talent, and will strive hard to showcase that talent in the best way possible, in the most exacting of processes.

It is a process of the most joyful kind. [To be continued…]

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