Save 20% off! Join our newsletter and get 20% off right away!

What is Filipino art? Part 3 : Manila as Centre of Filipino Art

Essay by Tom Mchail

The work of Oscar Villamiel, another large installation titled Payatas , a large scale beautification project drive pushed by imelda Marcos, in effort to establish Manila as a tourist destination.

The project included the planting of arbor and shade trees and erected white concrete walls to screen out the eyesore of shanty communities along major thoroughfares. Strategically placed whitewashed walls conveniently hiding from sight poverty are symbolic of the regime’s inhumanity and an overall failure for Marcosian modernity to correctly address issues of poverty.

The project meant that as many as sixty thousand squatters were forcefully evicted and was further consolidated by a ruthless new presidential decree promulgated in 1975, which made squatting a criminal offense subject to imprisonment. s installation, he created the work from refurbished dolls heads found in the Manila landfill where it is estimated as many as 200 000 individuals currently live.

Also known Smokey Mountain, it has been in operation now for over 40 years. These are the communities that have been directly effected by Marcosian policies and pushed to the fringes of society. The work is subsequently highly critical of Philippines policies towards poverty and appears incredibly dark, though the inclusion of small drawing to the lost child at its centre acts as the artist’s hope.              

Moving beyond the clearly significant aesthetic role that these institutions have played, there has been little writing that has critically considered prominence of institutions and their role in propping up artists through prizes and curatorial influence. Gina Fairly called into question the curatorial organization of Manila’s art scene, “there is no university program offered in curatorial studies in the Philippines”. 

  Because these kind of programs do not exists, exhibition spaces are chiefly run through other artists (such as Manuel Ocampo’s MO_space) or curators arriving from out side the country .

The result is two fold and presents Philippines artists with two options. The first is that artists are required to rely on large international exhibitions, represented in this essay by the Asian Pacific Triennial in Australia or The Singapore Biennial more regionally.

The other route is through the various prizes and awards that exist domestically that remain run through the CCP. ‘The National Artist’ for example is an award given to Philippine artists that have contributed to the development of Philippines art and Ben Cab (Benedicto Cabrera) is a previous winner.

He is an artists that had spent a great deal of his career in London, where had traveled to escape the grips of martial law during the 1960s according to an interview with the New York Times in 2005,  as well as to live with his British wife . He says that “when i first arrived in London i was more involved with the trends of Europe”,  but as his work developed he became more concerned with the whole “Filipiniana thing” [9]. He is referring here to a commentary on the past and the temptation for the modern Filipino to the lure of modern trappings. His works centers around influence and impact of colonization to the Filipino experience [10] 

Take the work (on previous page), Brown Brothers Burden (1972) which plays on the notion of the ‘white mans burden’. The white, faceless man literally weighs down his little brown brothers. This work would likely have been included in a large exhibition of Ben Cab’s work that was held at the CCP in 1973, which identifies BenCab’s as an artist that found success through the CCP as an institution, despite his personal reservations about the Marcos’[11]. Moving forward 15 years, Dancing at the Rock Session (1987), deals with similar a subject matter, employing the blue jeans that were ever-present in American pop culture through figures like James Dean as a symbol of Western indulgence and temptation.  

The assumption for many (not least myself) is that when governments act unconstitutional, or act with autonomous action (The “City of Man” project) artists are frequently the ones to speak out against them. Furthermore, despite his reputation, BenCab appears to have made few paintings, with the exception of image to the left, that directly address the Marcos government. The People power revolution, also known as the EDSA revolution or the Yellow revolution occurred in 1986 [12]. Yellow Confetti, painted the year prior as the artist returned to Manila seemingly anticipated the revolution and identifies Cabrera with the movement. Yet, this work appears to be an outlier, and much of his work has steered away from directly addressing martial law.


 It is certainly conceivable that BenCab would not have found the success that he, had had he done so. Artists stood to gain directly from the flood of capital that was brought to the Philippines with the construction large hotels and casinos and the patronage provided by the elite who got rich from them. This development was perhaps more successful than anything in establishing a  strong ‘Philippine’ Art Market, rather than a market in ‘South East Asia’ [13]. The argument to be made here is that the operation of art prizes through these institutions and the lack of curatorial opportunities via academia allowed the Marco’s to directly or indirectly pick and choose the artists they wished. The combination of the two views resulted in an overheated Manila art market in the 1980s, “under this regime, Philippine art and culture derived legitimacy both from an ancient past and from participation in the Western/Cosmopolitan global present”[14].  Most telling is the response to a recent work by Mideo Cruz at the Cultural centre of the Philippines. The public reacted very badly to the work, entitled Poleteismo (2011) which defaced the image of Jesus Christ. Significantly it was shamed publicly by Imelda Marcos herself, who was present for the opening night.[15]. 

Wang Zineng, writes that “Auctions sales serve to serve as some of the most telling barometers of the nature and strength of an art Market” and this too can be used as a mode of analysis [16]. If we were to look at BenCab’s work he would be considered strong, being perhaps the most in demand Filipino artist today. Zineng’s paper certainly looks favorably on the growth of the Southeast asian market in more recent years, but suggests the investment, funding and a great deal of the curatorial decisions are coming from external regions with notable sales coming from Christie’s in Hong Kong, 2002 and Sotheby’s in Singapore[17]. This also tells a story of the drastic change that occurs for artists with the end of the Marcos regime in 1986. We can identify 2 key changes to the Philippines art world and market as a direct response. The first we have already alluded to; the market itself had moved. Patronage had gone and with it the ability, for the immediate future, to make and self artwork in Manila. This also means the increased significance of large international exhibitions. Gina Fairly writes:

“An important idea was set in the Filipino psyche at this point: That art could transcend national boundaries and yet be intoned with a distinct national identity… voiced through large-scale international exhibitions… the Philippines became the darling of this circuit”

Secondly, and by extension from the first point, we see an explosion of gritty, urban and experimental spaces opening in Manila [19].  Whilst curators for such large events were observing Philippine art under one ‘cartographic sign-system’, Filipino artists were operating under an entirely different one equally reliant on memory, access and agenda [20]. It was a decade in which the alternative space became a popular choice and, from the momentum of the people power revolution, a psyche of ground-roots empowerment permeated the scene and art [21]. To Gina Fairley, it is perhaps this tenacity of the nous that remains one of the core foundations to contemporary Philippine art [22]. Based on the prior points The artists here notedly including the ‘non-painters’ of the 1990s, as explored by Cherubin A. Quizon and the contemporary installation and photography works, built for the Bienalle circuit and international art fairs as outlined by Gina Fairly


Returning to Gina Fairley’s definition of Philippine art, she references some thing that is consistently Filipino in the art made amongst Filipino artists, yet after analyzing the area the definition by Cid Reyes becomes more appealing, “A Filipino artist will inevitably produce a Filipino painting, it cannot be otherwise” [24][25]. What is so appealing about this definition is that it preempts the efforts of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to force through a process of social reengineering and cultural development under the artistic maxim of ‘The True, the good and the beautiful’. In the regionalized globalized art market the writer does face the quandary of cultural difference as a key methodology of analysis [26]. Without wishing to hide from this methodology, this essay aimed to approach art in the Philippines by considering the unique cultural experience that martial law under the Ferdinand Macros regime presents to artists and how the art world has represented and responded to this history. This essay hopes to have achieved this through 3 frames of analysis. On a domestic level, the Marcos regime has created a clear an undeniable shift towards Manila as centre of the Philippines art world. This was first achieved by the establishment of large cultural institutions, such as the cultural centre of the Philippines or the National arts centre by Imelda Marcos. This was consolidated with the establishment of casinos and hotels that produced the patronage necessary for a truly modern and thriving contemporary art market. A final stage, with the end of the regime, meant the rise of experimental spaces throughout the city. On a regional level, The Philippines had faced an isolated cultural problem between a south-east asian geography and historical ies to the Spanish and by association the shared colonial experience of Latin America [27]. The Marcos regime further isolated it whilst seemingly never handling this dialogue appropriately in it’s aspirations for modernity. This is perhaps why the figure of BenCab is so celebrated and entrenched. Yet, with the collapse of the regime, the Philippines art world found its place within it’s regional context, and subsequently we see contemporary philippines artists today working chiefly with the galleries of regional neighbors. This is due in part to the financial success of philippines lots in large auctions houses of Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Finally, on an international level the Philippines are placed once again as “south-east asian” rather specifically Philippine. Visiting curators, for exhibitions such as the GOMA’s Asian Pacific Trienialle approach artists that work with the respective dialogues of this distinction.