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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, July 28, 2022

entry arrow11:22 PM | In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 8: Two Artists

It is not like art-making in Dumaguete has only now began to stir.

The thread of this series on Dumaguete art has always been about how it has thrived, despite the raging pandemic that continues to bedevil and challenge us to this day. The series has followed the string of openings of local galleries that found remarkable footing in the pandemic, and which have now come to shape how much Dumaguete makes, appreciates, and consumes art.

Young Dumaguete artists are coming into their own with astonishing fervency, more in control of the direction they want their art to take—making crucial professional stakes that, upon close scrutiny, were often brought about by realizations they have made about themselves during the lockdown.

Exhibits and performances outside of the academic ghetto, which used to control our cultural calendar, have now become staple fare for culture-hungry Dumagueteños, with new avenues opening up to replace the shuttered spaces the city’s universities used to provide. This is a seismic development, truth to tell.

And new cultural rituals are now being fostered among the locals: gallery-hopping, for example, has suddenly become a “thing,” even my 89-year-old mother is now doing it, much to my surprise and delight when I found about it.

Suddenly, our younger cohorts of visual artists—who have driven this surge, more or less—are now becoming more well-known locally, and gaining traction in terms of recognition nationally, earning not just plaudits but also patrons. This is important.

But for every Hersley-Ven Casero, Xteve Abanto, Jomir Tabudlong, Alta Jia, Iris Tirambulo, Totem Yap Saa, Flomil Rey Labarento, Gerabelle Rea, Faye Mandi, Deadlocks, Paul Benzi Florendo, Mikoo Cataylo, Sara Jean Ruales, Rianne Salvarita, Dan Dvran, and Cil Flores who are now revolutionizing local art not just with the flair of their vision but also the energy of their youth, we also have the Dumaguete visual artists who have come before them, many of whom continue to make great work, and who must be acknowledged.

The OGs of Dumaguete and Oriental Negrense visual arts across several generations—counting among them Albert Faurot [†], Jose Laspiñas [†], Paul Pfeiffer, Kristoffer Ardeña, Maria Taniguchi, Edmund Bendijo, Brenda Fajardo, Sharon Dadang, Babbu Wenceslao, Danni Sollesta, Francisco Villanueva, Hemrod Duran, Jana Jumalon, Razcel Jan Salvarita, Michael Teves, Mark Valenzuela, Susan Canoy, Jutze Pamate, Muffet Dolar Villegas [†], Kennedy Rubias [†], and Kitty Taniguchi—were instrumental in putting Dumaguete on the art map. They made the city the incubator of [and inspiration for] their art at the start of their careers, and many would later go on to make names for themselves in the national and international art world. They paved the way, so to speak. This meant many things: [1] defining [and redefining] what was “local” art, [2] founding [and sometimes detonating] artistic organizations and collaborations [and refining along the way what made for a “Dumaguete art community”], and [3] exploring various avenues of artistic execution and exhibition—mapping the successes and the failures along the way which became, more or less, the current template on which the contemporary art scene has finally developed.

This essay aims to explore the now and the then in that regard, to present two artists culled from these two sets of cohorts of Dumaguete art—Cristina Taniguchi and Cil Flores—to mark their generational differences and similarities, to note the convergences, and to find out how exactly how Dumaguete art has developed over the years in the light of the lives of two local artists.

* * *

Cil Flores is 28 years old, and the world is still all exciting possibilities—even if sometimes the doubts can still sting. On Facebook, she recently posted a screenshot of a quote, which served as a reminder: “Stop ignoring when your talents have been validated in multiple spaces. It’s not a gimmick, it’s not luck, it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. You are good at this thing. The proof is there. Accept it and act accordingly.” The quote had been culled from musician and writer Kaya Nova, and Cil annotated it with sad emojis.

The self-doubt is understandable—all artists worth their salt have lingering bouts of imposter syndrome—but as of the moment, Ms. Flores really has no cause for concern. Of late, she has been invited to become a participating artist for the Modern and Contemporary Art Festival (MoCAF), a new art festival in Manila that aims for a measure of dynamism in its curation, “to reflect the fast-developing modern and contemporary art scene in the Philippines.” She has been part of various group exhibitions since devoting fully to her art in 2018 as well—and has found herself becoming prolific in the pandemic, establishing relationships with patrons who now collect her art.

That has always been the dream, ever since she was young, although it never became apparent until the last four years. “I started drawing when I was in kindergarten,” she told me. “My sister and I did doodles a lot, and we’d make comic strips of the cartoons and anime we’d see on TV.” That love for doodling, for being creative, didn’t stop in childhood: “I continued drawing on cheap sketchbooks in high school and college, but I never saw art as a career option for me. I was sort of bound to pursue my psychology degree after graduating from college.” But then, a realization: “I somehow made a decision to pursue the path of becoming a professional artist.”

That path started in 2018, with pen and ink on paper as her main medium. It is a path that has only really begun—and to observe Cil Flores now is to see an artist slowly coming into her own, slowly maturing into her craft, slowly finding her voice and her style. It is exciting to take stock of what she has done so far, and to feel the great art that has yet to come. For one thing, she knows her influences—Filipino urban street artists such as SYN, Yeo Kaa, Froilan Calayag, Mister Sasquatch, and TRNZ, to name a few Manila-based artists, as well as international artists like Kim Jung Gi and Lauren Tsai. “I guess I could describe my art style as close to pop and street art, and I usually feature subjects like roots- and rock-like details, in bright red and yellow colors,” she said. “I don’t consider myself as a professional artist yet—just an emerging one. But I want be known as the artist who has passion and grit.”

She has a character she keeps depicting in her works of late—the avatar, if you will, of what she wants to express given her experiences and feelings. Its name is Clae. “Through Clae, I’ve been producing paintings, illustrations, and drawings that feature feelings and situations like hope, grief, frustration, letting go, healing, and even addiction,” she said.

One such piece featuring Clae is a painting titled “Today’s Best,” her entry for this year’s Graphika Manila art book, and the art work that marks the first appearance of this original character. “The work portrays hope in the form of a tiny spark amidst the anxiety, the bad days, the depressive episodes, the days when I feel like giving up. But no matter how tiny the spark is, it is still enough to motivate me to continue living, to keep making art, and to chase my dreams,” Ms. Flores said. “This is why this piece is very personal to me, and why it perfectly describes me as an artist who is determined and passionate about art, despite the struggles.”

What she ultimately hopes to achieve with her is the ability to connect with people. “That’s one of my main goals. If my art means a lot to people, and if I can somehow connect with them and give them inspiration or just simply produce art about situations which they can relate to, then that for me is success,” she said. “I’ve been receiving messages from aspiring creative—and even regular people—who tell me how my art means so much to them because it inspires them, and I have never felt so fulfilled.”

She usually stays up late at night to work as a part-time marketing VA. “But when I’m done working, I proceed to paint, to draw, or to do digital art, until 4 or 5 AM,” she said. “I paint or do art at night because it is the most peaceful time of my day for me. Then I wake up around noontime, have lunch, and proceed to do art again in the afternoon. I usually spend my afternoons doing brainstorming on new ideas for future art pieces. Sometimes I do art studies on paper, or digitally. Sometimes I watch videos of artist interviews.”

She surprised herself by becoming very productive during the pandemic. “I stayed home most of the time,” she remembered. “Although I had an 8-to-5 remote job back then, I was still able to make both traditional and digital art pieces. The quarantine and pandemic anxiety took a toll on me, but the art provided me with comfort. It was basically my refuge, my escape. I remembered making a digital artwork for Graphika Manila titled ‘Pandemic Blues,’ which portrayed what everyone was feeling and doing during the coronavirus crisis.”

What she hopes to do in the immediate future is to help lead the growth of street/urban/pop art in Dumaguete. “I’m also working on extending my reach outside of Dumaguete since I have goals to exhibit in galleries outside the city, especially in top galleries around Luzon.” To her surprise, she had recently received opportunities to exhibit in Manila this year. “That gave me hope, that it was entirely possible for a self-taught young artist from the province like me to gain traction in the Metro art scene. That’s why I’m motivated to work more on my art and my growth as an artist so I can be able to achieve those goals.”

Cil Flores, young artist on the verge.

* * *

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Cristina Taniguchi, the artist that has very much defined how we have known Dumaguete art for years and years. She has become its veritable synonym, and the art gallery she established has been the city’s solitary light in art exhibitions, more or less, for two decades. But a quick look at her story, especially her beginnings, reveals similarities to Cil Flores’ journey of becoming.

“It’s in my spirit. My direction has always been geared towards something creative,” Cristina Sollesta Taniguchi, Kitty to friends, once remarked in a 2013 interview, when she was asked to define the very start of her artistic journey. The creative spark she spoke of had always been inclined to the literary and the visual even in childhood, primarily as a means to establish camaraderie with others. “When I was little,” she would later tell me, “I used to entertain my cousins in Manila with stories and line drawings.”

Art as story.

That was the impulse. And she would carry that impulse further from her childhood in Manila, where she was born in 1952, to Dumaguete where she would grow up.

“In elementary school and in high school, I was always chosen as the class artist,” Ms. Taniguchi recalled. “In college, I won first prize in an on-the-spot painting contest, and after college, I started exhibiting my art works with my brother. I had my first solo show in Manila in the 1990s. This was how I started my artistic career.”

But to expand that nutshell of an artistic beginning, we need to know that the first instance of national recognition she received as a visual artist was an honorable mention she garnered at the 1994 Philip Morris Philippine Art Awards. She would continue participating in the competition in the next few years, and in 2000 and 2003, her works were declared finalists. Meanwhile, she enrolled at Silliman University, finishing her bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication in 1978 and her MA in English Literature in 1985. She wanted to tell stories by writing. She was also a faculty member at Silliman’s Department of English, Literature, and Creative Writing from 1984 to 1989. And then, after an exhibit with her brother Danni Sollesta at the Silliman Library in 1989, she realized this was what she really wanted to focus on—a career in the visual arts.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, she was becoming known in the national art scene for her paintings of luminous women surrounded by totems of mythological beings—sphinxes, angels, winged rams—mixed in with cheetahs and lions and flamingos. You could see traces of Chagall and Kahlo here and there, but the signature is most definitely and uniquely Cristina Taniguchi. Asked what particular piece by her defined her best as an artist, she said: ”Every piece of art that I produced is relevant to me. These are products of different times and periods in my art making, and each moment and effort I have dedicated to the finishing of each piece has its own narrative to tell, as well as theoretical knowledge to digest.”

“I began to take my art-making seriously as a career in the 1990s,” Ms. Taniguchi continued. ”I was intrigued by the new art concepts that were popping up at that time, things like neo-conceptualism and neo-expressionism.” She began to take note of the works of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and began to study their approaches to art-making. Around her, local artists were subscribing to tenets of feminism and social realism, which also influenced her—“but I was also looking for my own personal kind of aesthetics and approach to art making,” she said. “From the very beginning, I knew that my art would be based on the concept of personal mythology. I was, and still I am, interested in the fundamentals of human existence and the universality of human life, more especially with regards the status quo of women.”

She began exhibiting in solo shows, including ones at the De La Salle University and at the Ayala Museum in Makati. Still, she could not entirely turn away from her literary beginnings. In 2002, she became a special fellow for poetry at the famous Dumaguete National Writers Workshop [now the Silliman University National Writers Workshop], especially handpicked by the late Edith L. Tiempo. [Two of her poems from that workshop, “I Went to Tokyo to Know Its Crows” and “Blue Space for the Crows Painted White,” were later published in 2006 in the now defunct the Philippines Free Press.] Those poems were also accompanied by artworks she made depicting crows, but the experience also made her realize that her creative force now primarily involved holding paintbrushes and clay, more than the pen. The need to tell stories now occupied primarily the visual.

Together with her daughter Maria Taniguchi, she was invited to do an exhibition for the centennial celebration of Silliman University in 2001, which became Pag-usbong Kalangitan. That same year, she exhibited Who Owns Women’s Bodies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In 2005, she was invited to her first international show, as an exhibit participant at the 2nd Beijing International Art Biennale Exhibit at the Millennium Center in Beijing, China—a feat she would repeat in the next two years. In 2010, she was one of the participating artists for The Sculpture Creative Camp at the 11th Asian Arts International Festival in Beijing, China. In 2012, she joined the 5th Luxor International Painting Symposium in Egypt.

Through it all, Dumaguete was home, her preferred base. “This place is my artistic nest,” she said. “I’ve produced most of my works in Dumaguete, and there’s no denying that this place has a lot of bearing in the making of my art. This place provides me the cosmic space and the time for the making of my art—this is where I digest everything.”

“Digesting” means staying put at Mariyah Gallery [a working gallery in Bogo that she established in 1992], dividing her days between doing domestic work in the morning and her art in the afternoon, and then “take care of matters pertaining to the gallery mostly in the evenings.”

Mariyah Gallery began on a lark—carved out of an existing house that sits on 7,000 square meters of property in the western fringe of Dumaguete City. It started out as a complement to a small restaurant she designed to be an alternative culinary experience from the eating establishments that dotted the Rizal Boulevard at that time. “Some good friends in Cebu City assisted me in putting up the place, from mere idea into materialization. The restaurant was honestly a bit out of the way—but the art gallery was really my main prerogative. I was already deep into the arts the year we opened the restaurant/gallery, and my aim was to see art and culture moving in the city when practically there was nothing happening at all.”

She realized even then, especially with the lack of a proper art scene in Dumaguete, the challenges involved in sustaining the venture. “It was hard to operate an art gallery in a place where the art market had not yet fully developed. This was a real challenge. I knew that the gallery couldn’t survive without other financial sources—but to be honest, I was not so concerned about that,” she admitted. “It was enough that I was able to make good use of the little space that we have. Even today, I feel the same.”

The specific challenges she faced in 1992 are the reasons why Mariyah Gallery does not have a regular monthly changing exhibition to this day. “Mariyah Gallery is not really a commercial gallery,” Ms. Taniguchi said. “Every time we organize art events with exhibitions, we have to shell out huge amounts for the expenses.” These are resources they do not readily have, so they have learned to do things in their own particular ways: “Over the years the gallery has undertaken many art and cultural activities, with partners. For example, we are advocates of terracotta art, so the gallery initiated—with the assistance and partnership of the Dumaguete City LGU—the first and second terracotta art festivals in 2006 and 2007, which landed full coverage in a national newspaper, a boon to city tourism.” The gallery has also served as conduit for other cultural organizations. In May 2008, for example, it collaborated with the Filipino Heritage Foundation to host the nationwide closing ceremony of the National Heritage Month.

“What Mariyah Gallery is,” Ms. Taniguchi continued, “is a working art gallery. What I mean is, our prime objective is not to show and sell. We partner with other organizations to move culture, and to undertake things for the sake of art alone. One very important event that we worked on was the Visayas Visual Artists Exhibit and Conference, or ViVA-ExCon. This was in 1992, and ViVA ExCon was still in its infancy. The event we initiated was actually just a small program of activities for Visayan artists, and our participation in it was just incidental—but it was good. Mariyah Gallery was able to open its space to wider horizons in the arts, and we were able get to know many of the significant art personalities in the Visayas, as well as from other parts of the country. To my mind, this event was instrumental in forging the present connectivity among artists in the Visayas specifically. Mariyah Gallery has historically grown with ViVA ExCon. The second ViVA-ExCon, held in Dumaguete in 1994, was the deciding point for the event to continue and mature—and we were a huge part in that undertaking.”

The pandemic was not disruptive in the flow she had already established in her daily routine as a working artist. “Except for the cancellation of some trips related to art activities and limited movement for the gallery, art life went—goes—on,” she admitted. “I was able to produce work that showed my response to the pandemic, as well as to some adverse events in our country, like the eruption of Taal in 2020.”

Mariyah Gallery, too, is surviving the pandemic. “We were able to hold two art exhibits in 2020 at the height of the pandemic,” Ms. Taniguchi said. “And in 2022, the gallery started welcoming visitors again, but limiting entry to around five people at a time. In 2021 we were able send works to Cebu to participate in the First Visayas Art Fair at Montebello Hotel. We were also able to participate in the online art sales of Art in the Park.” And Mariyah Gallery will continue to hold art activities, she said. Its art residency program will soon open again, with one Manila artist scheduled to take up residence soon; a preview art exhibit is already in the works.

And what of the future of her vocation?

“I am in the summit of my life,” Ms. Taniguchi said. “I don’t think about the future of my art anymore. It is just natural for me to do art every day, since it has become my way of life and career. The matter of the future of my art—I leave that to time. My art undergoes evolution as life goes on.”

[To be continued…]

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