The old Junquera St., named after the turn of the century governor who built it, would later be known as Cebu’s “red light district”. To old timers it was called “Hongkong” or “HK” and to my friends in the local newspaper outfit located across Barangay Kamagayan, where Junquera belongs, it was simply called “Planet K.”

During my college days, when I used to live in a boarding house nearby, I would often haunt the place to have dinner at the smoky barbecue stalls. At that time, the students in my university did not have qualms sharing the table with the pimps and whores. It was even hard to tell which is which when the students were not in uniform.

In fact, our own student paper once ran an interview with two schoolmates working part time as bar girls after school. We titled the piece “Prostituition” and it became an overnight sensation in the campus.

When I worked in a real newspaper, I sometimes joined my friends hang out at Planet K after office hours to have a beer or two.  I would later see their own recollections about the place expressed in poetry or fiction in not a few literary anthologies.

These days, the neon lights have dimmed a little bit and fewer pimps are seen in the streets approaching potential customers among the late night commuters.  Kamagayan itself went through some kind of renewal. It is now known for its eco-waste management system and community gardening. In recent years, the place has seen the rise of new apartments and commercial buildings advertising more wholesome trades like banking, fastfood, and internet.

The latter is perhaps the main reason why the flesh trade in Junquera is no longer as lucrative as before. Perhaps, even the girls there now go to Junquera’s internet cafes to sell themselves directly to clients who now come from all over the world. At least in the information superhighway, there is no need for a middle man.

From the façade of its buildings, Planet K looks cleaner and more decent now. But the old shortcuts to Colon through the narrow alleys in the slum are still there, serving as memory lane. It still brings back the sights and smell of the proverbial Hongkong in Cebu.

The same attempt to translate memories of a place into a visual experience seems to be the idea behind “HK by Night”, the latest solo exhibition of the artist Vidal “Ondo” Alcoseba, Jr., which runs from August 5-16 at the 856 G Gallery, at A.S. Fortuna St.

I have known the artist only very recently but it is clear that he has intimate knowledge of his subject in this show. It was in a meeting with artists who belong to the yoga group Ananda Marga that I first met Ondo. After the meeting, we had vegetarian burgers and Persian tea in a restaurant in IT Park. It was in the conversations with him and our vegan friends that I learned that he used to be one of the pioneering members of the group back in the 70s.

Like most artists who belonged to the hippie generation, Ondo became a true bohemian as he studied fine arts in UP Cebu, where he became a student of Martino Abellana. Ondo now only has fond recollections of the Cebuano master, whom he describes as a “full” person (“Puno kaayo to siyang tawhana.”). Full of ideas is probably an understatement, noting the sense of awe Ondo had for his teacher.

Yet it’s hard to detect the influence of Abellana on Ondo’s work in this exhibit. The late Maestro was more known for his Amorsoloesque landscapes and portraits while Ondo presents us with a series of abstractions.

Of course, Abellana was known to have briefly tried his hand in a few abstract paintings, but the project would be quickly abandoned for the more convenient style. Still Ondo recalls endless conversation about Picasso with the master, as he would apply reflexeology on the ailing master’s feet (I can’t help the Biblical allusion) during his visits to him in Carcar.

I could see hints of Picasso in Ondo’s skillful use of Cubist techniques, his affinity for collage, use of texts, and simulated textures. The vignettes of a place and all the intimate memories that go with them are all transformed into an explosion of colors, contrasting lines, and overlapping textures that bring me back to Picasso’s own pioneering cubist painting of prostitutes in a red light district in Barcelona, “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.”

Whether intended or not, Ondo has made his own tribute to Picasso, whom he learned to love, perhaps through another mentor, Martino Abellana. In this sense, the show pays tribute to the two masters.

Two Saturdays ago, I had to rush writing my article for this column to catch a van that would take a group of journalists to Aloguinsan, the town known for its mangrove river eco-tour program.

But it was not the prospect of once again going on a baroto cruise along a river and spotting a wide variety of bird species hidden in the mangrove forests that made me want to return to this sleepy town. I have tried that adventure in my previous visits.

This time, we were invited to the launching of the town’s organic farm, the usual familiarity tour that included a food trip—a lunch consisting of local cuisine, mostly food made from the farm’s fresh produce.

In other words, it was simply the prospect of having a good lunch in a farm setting that made me want to go. In fact, I was at the rendezvous an hour too early. Two more hours later, we were at the venue, entering a covered walk that is actually made of trellises full of crawling passion fruit vines. It was a grand entrance that leads to the farm’s restaurant, the old and unfinished municipal building.

There we were serenaded by villagers to a round of harana as we were ushered in to the tables for the merienda cena, which turned out to be a feast with the usual lechon, kaldereta, dinuguan, and pancit.

But what attracted me more were the home-grown dwarf cucumber salad, binignit with taro balls, and the local breads and pastries baked in pugon: the native silvaro or bread made with tuba, the camote cake and doughnut, and the squash cookies. Each of them was a perfect match for the iced ginger tea and the lemon grass tea served by ladies in traditional clothing.

But you can’t get these wives of fishermen wrong for they too had more than a makeover. To prepare them for the farm’s restaurant business, they went through food preparation and fine dining basics under teachers in local culinary schools and an American chef from Phuket, Thailand.

And as always, we couldn’t resist asking Mayor Cynthia Moreno to let us bring some of the baked delights home for next day’s breakfast coffee. The lovely mayor, a good cook herself, indulged us and even added a pack of fresh otap from her own bakeshop.

The farm’s restaurant, which has old capiz windows and white walls decorated by framed woodcuts and glass paintings made by children during our last art workshop in the town, strangely sits beside a piggery that is still nearing completion.

But the farmers are so confident the pigs in the next building will not smell at all. They plan to feed the animals with kangkong planted around the area and devise a way of covering manure using rice husks that easily turn filth into odorless loam.

Speaking of soil, we also inspected the farm’s compost pits, which used worms to hasten the decomposition of organic wastes regularly supplied by the town’s garbage disposal unit. The garbage goes into a series of pits, the last of which contains loose odorless topsoil with tiny worms acting as fertilizing agents.

They sold bags of this garden soil along with organically-grown vegetables and fruits at the display stall next to the restaurant. Along with evergreen avocadoes, Jalapeño chilies, cucumbers and other veggies, I bought a bag of this soil, enriched with worms, for my small, makeshift compost pit at home.

And so that’s all I got from a daytrip to a green farm: fresh veggies, baked delights, and a bag of worms.

Contrary to the modern stereotype, a lot of pioneering scientists were actually priests. The Jesuit missionaries, for example, earned enemies from even among their peers in the Catholic Church for insisting on modern science as a way of demonstrating the faith.

In fact, while Galileo was being forced to recant for his view that the earth merely moves along with other planets around the sun, the Jesuit missionaries in China were actually teaching this “heresy” along with other scientific theories to the curious Chinese.

One of the pioneers in this Jesuit mission into China was Mateo Ricci, a native of Macerata, Italy. Ricci entered the Middle Kingdom through the Portuguese colony of Macau. He then worked his way into the Mainland, learning as much from the ways of its inhabitants.

He quickly learned to speak and write in Chinese and used this knowledge to study the works of Confucius and other Chinese thinkers. Ricci tried to convince his new friends that much of Christian faith is already embedded in their own beliefs, such as the idea of a “Lord in Heaven,” sainthood, and the possibility of dead ancestors interceding for the living.

At the same time, Ricci also taught them Western mathematics, astronomy, logic, and geography. He tried to convince the Chinese that the world is actually much larger that they thought, by making a historic drawing of the world map on rice paper.

“The work of evangelization, of making Christians, should be carried on both in Peking and in the provinces… following the methods of pacific penetration and cultural adaptation,” Ricci said. “Europeanism is to be shunned. Contact with Europeans, specifically with the Portugese in Maca, should be reduced to a minimum.”

“Strive to make good Christians rather than multitudes of indifferent Christians. Eventually when we have a goodly number of Christians, then perhaps it would not be impossible to present some memorial to the Emperor asking that the right of Christians to practice their religion be accorded, inasmuch as is not contrary to the laws of China. Our Lord will make known and discover to us little by little the appropriate means for bringing about in this matter His holy will.”

To commemorate the fourth centenary of Matteo Ricci, the Sacred Heart Parish opened last Thursday a unique exhibit entitled “Wise Man from the West” at the church’s newly-renovated Alternative Contemporary Art Studio (a gallery that doubles as garage).

Rather than display the usual collection of enlarged photocopies and computer printouts of pictures and texts pertaining to the subject, the exhibit curator Fr. Jason Dy, S.J., an artist himself, commissioned a few Cebuano artists to make their own reproductions of old engravings, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and maps that trace the life of the Italian humanist in ancient China.

The result is an interesting dialogue between local artists and those in ancient Europe and China, with the Cebuanos trying to reinterpret the latter’s works. Having to copy from miniature pictures, which themselves had been reproduced many times, the artists were left to embellish some details unwittingly making the work a kind of deconstruction.

Take for instance, the wooden icons by the Cebuano sculptor Roberto Gonzales, which were supposed to be copies of religious statues found in Ricci’s own hometown. Created hurriedly during the time when he had to rush his daughter to the hospital for dengue fever, the works actually look more like they were carved by a 17th century native Cebuano carver than someone from Macerata. The series thus becomes a contemporary fusion of Italian and Cebuano folk styles.

A pair of large ink portraits done on rice paper by John Dinglasa looks convincingly new, except that they were signed with a technical pen and not with carved stone or wooden “chops” inscribed with the artist’s name. A close inspection also shows that the artist had repeated his strokes perhaps surprised that the rice paper, which blots so easily, requires single definitive stroke of the brush.

The drawings of maps and Ricci’s scientific instruments were also rendered in the same technical pens that lack the varied strokes of a quill or nib pen. The texts, rendered in modern sans serif, give away the works’ true provenance. But they too shows the free hand of today’s artist repeating the task once assigned to a Medieval monk or scribe—that is, to pay homage to the ancients by reproducing their work, albeit with a few touches of their own.

Aware that his work is not totally his own, the artist accepts that he is merely a participant in an evolving collective work whose end is all for the glory of God. As in the ancient times, copies of the work travel to distant places, making the whole process of reproduction more multi-cultural or—yes—universal.

Former classmates customarily hold reunions to recall the good old days. There’s the usual grand alumni homecoming hosted regularly by the school. Some batches take a long time to get together in a formal reunion. Others do it yearly.

But there’s one class of students that does not only hold yearly reunions, it also gets together weekly and keep tabs on each other daily through an e-group. It is the pioneering batch of students in the Cebuano Heritage Studies program of the Department of History graduate division of the University of San Carlos.

Right after graduation, the students formed themselves into a study group that would meet weekly to read each other’s paper. This was suggested by one of their professors, Dr. Resil Mojares during an al fresco dinner hosted by him at the lawn of his house.

Dr. Mojares wanted the graduates to continue doing research on Cebuano heritage even as they go back to their day job, which ranges from managing a call center or a national lottery office to overseeing a parish or community-based eco-tourism program.

In this way, they become part-time local historians or champions of local heritage. In the absence of such an organization of heritage advocates here in Cebu, the group can lead the local movement.

The next step was to find a good name. A lot of names were brought up, most of them in Cebuano. But another professor, Dr. Erlinda Alburo of the Cebuano Studies Center (the group’s main sponsor aside from the USC Department of History), came up with one that stuck: Hambin.

Hambin is short for the Cebuano words Hamiling Binilin. Translated in English, it means “cherished heritage.” But the shortened Hambin itself also means “cherish” or “to cherish”. It is thus an apt and beautiful name that only a poet like Dr. Alburo could give.

No longer nameless, the next step was to avoid being homeless. The group then agrees to designate the newly-opened Cathedral Museum as the regular venue for the weekend lectures since Monsignor Carlito Puno, one of the members, was in charge there.

The museum, a fully restored old convent, has a courtyard ideal for holding merienda or cocktails after the lectures. If I remember it right, Hambin’s first anniversary dinner was held there.

In fact, I have lots of other fond memories with this group, having been assigned to handle the subject Cebuano Visual Arts in the graduate certificate course. As it turned out, I would learn more from the exchanges, as some of them are already quite experts in their chosen fields of interest and in certain areas of art. I even had to apologize at the start that I was not inclined at historical trivia.

Wont to teaching undergrads, my encounter with a class of professionals, some of whom have doctoral degrees to their names, actually proved easier as I would not have to bother simplifying terms all the time.

We could all then just relax and turn the classroom into a café chit-chat. And yes, we did try going to a real coffee shop once with those in the other tables barely noticing that a grad school class was being held there.

But even when we were in our assigned classroom the students would help to loosen up the ambience by taking turns to bring light snacks or, occasionally, a full dinner.

More like a classmate, I would join them to sit in their other classes, such as those by Dr. Alburo and Dr. Mojares, whose books I read. It was such a free ride.

I guess everyone in that short program had a good time. At the end of the semester, I am just glad to have earned more friends whose names and bylines I would see later on in the local papers featuring their work in heritage conservation.

The group itself would earn its name for its role in making research in local history and heritage accessible to ordinary people. Hambin lectures are generally well attended and it’s amazing how diverse are the people they are able to gather: aside from the usual students, even tour guides and eskrimadors have been to a Hambin lecture at one time or another.

The group celebrates its third anniversary today, with the usual lecture at the Cathedral Museum. I heard they are going to swear in honorary members today. That shows that Hambin is growing strong. Congratulations.

WHAT’S THE BIG deal with wang-wang? If you think illegal use of sirens on private vehicles is already abuse of power, you should go to Mindanao, where politicians go around escorted by armed men in jeeps and armored personnel carrier.

The soldiers raiding the mansions of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao even caught one of these armored personnel carriers, practically a tank, in the garage. It’s hard to imagine the armed forces losing a whole tank to a private citizen.

But who would dare stop the Ampatuan convoy? On the contrary, it is they who would not hesitate to stop, with the help of machine guns, any convoy they don’t like.

So would they use a wang-wang? Probably not. Gunfire would be enough warning for anyone not to stand in the way.

During the years following Martial Law, the mayor in our small city in Mindanao never left home without his own convoy lead by an armored personnel carrier. Even his kid who loved to bike with his friends around downtown was always trailed by a jeepload of armed bodyguards.

The boys didn’t have wang-wang on their bikes but they had something else equally noisy: a boombox attached to a sidecar of a banana bike. They would play breakdancing music as they showed off stunts on their BMX in the middle of the street.

Those of us, lesser mortals who also rode BMX bikes, would quickly clear the street at the approach of this noisy gang. It is as if the little prince on his royal steed was passing by and everyone had to take to the sides and bow to him.

That boy grew up to become a mayor himself in one island municipality, where he was notorious for terrorizing his constituents with an assault rifle. He lost in the last elections for obvious reasons.

The truth is, anyone given some privilege or power has to grapple with the temptation not to abuse it. And not too many of us are strong enough to resist it. And it’s not just the wang-wang, it’s any other gadget or object we use to flaunt our privilege or—worse—intimidate others.

I heard even lawyers and barangay councilors use unauthorized privilege plates bearing their titles on their vehicles. Perhaps, if Noynoy did not stop it, barangay tanods who have long been using vests printed “pulis” and journalists who have long marked their private vehicles “media” would start putting their own special plates or wang-wang.

I have to admit having my share of VIP treatment. While working as a photographer for a tourism brochure in Surigao del Norte, I went island hopping with the tourism officer and her staff to see the most beautiful spots the province has to offer.

In one island municipality that we visited, we asked locals, who earlier had received us with garlands and a sumptuous lunch, to help us climb their highest mountain, hoping to catch a view of the Surigao Straight, said to be the scene of the worst naval battle in World War II.

They suggested that we take a van to go up as it would be a long steep climb. The mountain, which used to be home to tarsiers, flying lemurs, and other rare species, is now completely bald due to illegal logging and quarrying. Trucks hauling logs and other heavy equipment reach the top through a dirt road. So we imagined it would be an easy climb.

After just a few minutes of waiting, the mayor’s men came with the white van: the town’s only ambulance.

So we took the borrowed vehicle meant for life-and-death emergencies, just to see the view from the mountain top. The scene was breathtaking from up there, but I couldn’t wait to go down thinking somebody barely breathing had to be rushed to the hospital.

We didn’t use the vehicle’s wang-wang as the road was desolate. Still, it was all for the sake of our vanity which was worse than a VIP plate.

Originally published in the author’s column “Crosshatching” in Cebu Daily News, 11 July 2010, p.12.

FOR MOST PEOPLE, abstract art is either highbrow or a high way robbery. Why, they ask, should a painting be too expensive when it looks like a kindergarten project?

In fact, that’s how people felt a few decades ago, when abstraction was the trend in the global art scene. The modern painting, which deliberately avoided the depiction of anything recognizable in favor of pure play with colors, line, texture, and shape, was suddenly in demand as it harmonized with the new architecture that likewise consisted of sleek lines, basic colors and shapes.

Even furniture looked too bare or stripped down. Sofas and cabinets were mere boxes. Vases were plain cylinders and teapots were unadorned cones. Yet, admittedly, it’s simplicity that made them striking.

Similarly, painting too went into a process of simplification, or rather subtraction, as it tried to rid itself of everything borrowed: the sculptural sense of depth and volume, the theatrical representation of people, the underlying moral or social implication, etc. It’s painting in its purest state, like coffee sans frou-frou.

Thus, at the core of abstract art is really the desire to reconnect with that part of us which is pleased by pure form, or how the visual elements go together all by themselves, without necessarily expressing some concept or meaning.

In this sense, you don’t actually need to overanalyze an abstract painting. No need to check the catalog essay for cultural or social annotations. You don’t even need to know the artist and his life story to understand his work. Save for the signature, the abstract artist actually makes no explicit self-references.

Instead, the work aims to generate a feeling that is immediate and fundamental, as it appeals to a common deep down sensibility. The experience is comparable to how we enjoy music: we derive immediate pleasure as the mind follows the patterns of sound being played. The delight is instantly universal.

Abstract art then is meant for everyone. As in music without lyrics, the visual form does not come with a story or sermon. You simply enjoy them for their own sake. If the painting strikes a chord, that’s it. It’s that easy.

In spite of this, abstract art remains unpopular here in Cebu. Perhaps part of that is due to the fact that it is rather a latecomer in the local art scene. Unlike in Manila, which had a dynamic modernist movement that date back to the 1920s, Cebu had few early practitioners. There was the late Fr. Virgilio Yap who did daring abstract painting that predated Vatican II’s endorsement of modern art as potentially spiritual.

But in the 70s and the 80s, just when artists elsewhere were abandoning abstraction, Cebu saw the flourishing of younger abstractionists struggling their way through the more predominant academic school of Martino Abellana (Interestingly, the late Maestro himself listened to avant garde composer John Cage and actually tried his hand in a few abstract “experiments”).

Artists like Edgar Mojares, Tito Cuevas and Javy Villacin, all coming from the still fledgling fine arts program of UP Cebu, exhibited works that differed from the usual landscapes, figure, and still life paintings that would match any room with Victorian décor.

But abstract art never really went out of style. Just as architecture soon got over its pop, regionalistic, and deconstructionist moments, contemporary art too has started to revert to pure form. The rise of the so-called Remodernism, which aimed once again to reclaim the timelessness and spirituality of art, attests to this.

One finds this seeming u-turn in the work of some local artists like Sio Montera, who came back from his graduate studies in UP Diliman with quite an extensive portfolio of abstract art.

Montera, Cuevas, and Villacin are featured in an ongoing exhibit celebrating local abstract art at 856 G Gallery along A. S. Fortuna street in Mandaue City. The newly renovated gallery, now more spacious, well-lit and painted black and white, actually enhances the power of the paintings.

It takes years of learning and practice to become a really good abstract artist. Although it is also true that that the wiser one gets the more child-like he becomes. The artist realizes that inhibition is the greatest obstacle in art, and he envies the child who unhesitatingly creates art straight from imagination.

So, there’s a grain of truth in the kindergarten stuff. Most grown-ups don’t notice the value of what the kids are doing. But for the artist, it’s a source of piracy.

Originally published in the author’s column Crosshatching in Cebu Daily News, 4 July 2010, page 10.

FIRST IT WAS running. The sport became so popular that even journalists not covering the sports beat started joining fun runs and writing about them in their columns or blogs. Bewitched by the sorcery of running, some of them formed Ungo, a group of nocturnal runners from different media outfits.

At the prodding of my friend Max, the Ungo founder who himself became a convert after running helped him recover from diabetes to become a 42K marathoner, I tried joining weekend fun runs with my wife.

It was a downshift from bike commuting, which had been my chosen form of exercise. While many of my friends join marathons on a weekend, I preferred biking along coastal roads. I thought you get to cover more distances, see more scenery, as you do your footwork on a pair of pedals.

But Max convinced me by his theory that those of us who have been weakened by the conveniences of modern life needed to go back to our natural strength, that of the barefoot hunter always chasing his prey in jungle terrain.

I could see how he himself looked much stronger and happier than before. He even sold his car and started jogging to work. He became the best example of his cause.

But in our last meeting, Max proudly told me that he and his wife (also a writer and runner) have just acquired folding bikes. They are, in fact, among the increasing number of journalists and media workers who now alternate running with biking.

They join the general bandwagon among commuters who turn to biking, taking advantage of the recent influx of cheap surplus bicycles, mostly traditional shopping bikes and foldables from Japan.

For less than P2000, I heard you can already buy one of these ukay-ukay bikes in good running condition. Or, with proper repainting and refitting, you can make your officemates drool by coming to work in a cool two-wheeler. You might come a bit sweating but that also hints you have endurance and stamina.

In fact, I see more and more people riding these surplus bikes these days, overtaking cars and jeepneys during rush hours. Even weekend mountain bikers are getting a foldy for occasional commute to the office. Stimulating trials is already a good start as biking—like running—is addictive.

Max told me that more and more bikers are joining their Friday night runs. It’s already a big step, he says, for the local pedestrianization movement. People should see why it makes more sense to just leave behind their metal cage at the garage and start walking or biking.

Ironically, in more developed countries, local governments make it a policy to discourage driving. Authorities impose heavy taxes on car users, construct road obstacles (like a lot of humps), and close streets deliberately to frustrate motorists into giving up driving altogether and start using the subway or a bicycle instead.

Bike lanes and bike racks are installed everywhere to make it easy for cyclists to go around the city with their bikes, which by the way are considered pedestrian vehicles (i.e., you can walk your bike to anywhere with pedestrian access).

In Cebu, it looks like we are still starting to get there. The ideal system integrating train and bikes is still a long way, but politicians are at least debating the issue. A local candidate for city councilor even used an army of cyclists as mobile campaigners in the last elections.

Still, most companies, institutions, and even schools, have yet to see why they save more parking space and promote healthy lifestyle among workers and students by urging them to bike. In the University of San Carlos, for example, students don’t only find it cumbersome to bike in their uniform, they fear they might not be allowed entry by security guards who, although most of them bike to work, still find it strange that students or faculty do the same (I guess I’m still the only teacher who regularly come to campus on a bicycle).

I also find it hard to find a safe place to leave my bike at the malls. They encourage eco-shopping by urging people to use reusable tote instead of plastic bags yet they forget to install bike racks for the same green grocer who would gladly come in a bike fitted with a basket.

But that might soon change as today Ayala Center is hosting a three-day bike festival that culminates with an early morning “Bike Out”, a 16-kilometer ride around the city. Previous activities were a bike exhibit, a BMX breakdance showdown, and bike clinics held at the mall.

So, I hope to see you there today at the bike marathon. And, if you don’t have a bike yet, try running.

LAST FRIDAY’S FEAST of the Sacred Heart at the Jesuit-run church named after it went on with the usual activities: masses, procession, and a big fiesta dinner for the parishioners and guests. But there was something else happening this year –a commemorative art exhibit.

Yet art this is nothing surprising anymore for the parishioners. Since Fr. Jason Dy, S.J, himself an artist connected with the Ateneo Art Gallery, was assigned at the Sacred Heart Parish, churchgoers have been witnessing how their church have increasingly been surrounded by art.

Fr. Jason himself enlivened spaces in the church—a landmark of early modern church architecture—with his own art installations, including the Stations of the Cross consisting of abstract sculptures made from cement, barbed wire, electric cable, and other junk materials.

This left many parishioners bewildered at how the works came to suggest the stages of Christ’s Passion, more accustomed that they were to the tradition of religious art as a kind of visual aid to the faithful.

In another work called “Woven Heart”, the Jesuit artist hung pieces of puso (rice cooked in palm weave wrapping) in a cross pattern from a metal trellis on the arched ceiling of a chapel.  Puso, the poor man’s packed lunch etymologically associated with “heart”, is given new meaning in the artwork’s site context, the place dedicated to the Catholic narrative of the Sagrado Corazon.

Then early this year, Fr. Jason converted the church’s garage into an art gallery-cum-studio. Since it opened, the Garaje, as the alternative art space is unofficially called, has already hosted exhibitions of local artists who easily found home in the unassuming character of the place. Fr. Jason’s own little office became an accidental art storage for works exhibited in the past, those lined up for next shows, and the priest’s own collection.

Our own group PatikSugbu has held two printmaking workshops there. We also took part in the art fair held at the Sacred Heart Parish multipurpose hall as part of the recent “Gabii sa Kabilin”, the yearly night tour of the city’s museums and other heritage sites.

And so it was only natural that artists would return the favor by participating in the exhibit for the parish fiesta. Entitled “The Heart and the Sacred” the exhibit “explores the contemporary engagement of the human heart and the heart of God.” It runs at the Sacred Heart Center until June 19. Then it will be moved to the church’s Alternative Art Space (the Garaje) until July 3.

The exhibit features the works of Fred Galan, Sio Montera, Palmy Pe-Tudtud, Jeffrey Sisican, Kimsoy Yap, Arlene Villaver, Chicoy Romualdez, Ceasar Castillo, Arseno Abella, Darby Alcoseba, Tony Alcoseba, Ritchie Quijano, Tito Cuevas, Celso Pepito, Tony Vidal, Jose Marie Picornell, Fr. Jason Dy, S.J, and yours truly.

The group itself reflects the parish’s embrace of diversity in artistic expression; the works range from neo-Baroque portraits of Christ to conceptualist installations (Fr. Jason’s installation of puso pieces suspended from a huge crown of thorns on the ceiling of the Sacred Heart Center lobby.).

But more than diversity of style, the participants also came from different religious background (or perhaps, even the lack of it). Some were evangelical Christians who traditionally were opposed to religious iconography. Another was a former yoga practitioner. Others were either non-practicing Catholics or plain agnostics.

Still, beyond the surface narrative, the works commonly hint a desire to understand why and how beauty often leads the artist to even greater mysteries, among them the unfathomable ambiguities and the true source of human passion. Indeed, through art, the heart yearns for the sacred.

FOR THIS YEAR’S celebration of Philippine Independence Day, a group of Filipinos in Indiana in the United States is hosting an exhibit of works by Filipino artists, mostly from Cebu and Cagayan de Oro City.

Billed “Indio Indy: Art Across the Seas,” the show had its soft opening and pre-selling at Strangebrew Café, a watering hole for artists in Greenwood, Indiana, in May 7 (May 8 in the Philippines). Through its official Facebook event page, the artists in the Philippines were able to chat with organizers and art collectors.  The exhibit was then moved to the Indianapolis Public Library for the June 12 celebrations.

All this was made possible through the efforts of Floranne “Ploi” Pagdalian, my former teacher in the University of San Carlos Department of Fine Arts and boss in Badlis Design Studio. Ploi now lives in Greenwood with her kids and American husband. She continues to teach art to kids in that part of the American Midwest.

The two of us and another Badlis alumnus, Ivan Macarambon, had a reunion of sorts in Facebook. Originally from Iligan City, Ivan now works fulltime as an artist in Cagayan de Oro.

It was from keeping tabs of each other’s activities relating to art that Ploi was inspired to come up with the idea of a show in the States by a group of Filipino artists. The plan was to help sell the works by the artists to the American art market. If a work failed to sell, it will be shipped back to the artist.

She then got us to help her organize and curate the exhibit. Since sending paintings from the Philippines can be costly, I suggested featuring paper works that can be packed in a parcel or small box. Ploi liked the idea and I immediately called a meeting with my friends in our printmaking group PatikSugbu (then called Tinta) and explained the theme: “Progress”.

“We wanted to tell the message that due to our independence we grew stronger in our Filipino spirit and progressed to become the nation that we are today,” Ploi explained in an email.

The following artists from Cebu were then assembled: Nomar Miano, Koki Olario-Miano, Florence Cinco, Geraldine Ocampo, Josua Cabrera, Melver Mercado, Palmy Tudtud-Pe, Jeffrey Sisican, Jojo Sagayno, Jay Jore, Patricia Zosa, and the Tito Cuevas, who is PatikSugbu’s adviser. Joining Ivan from Cagayan de Oro is the artist-writer Kelly Ramos-Palaganas, who was my co-fellow in the Cultural Center of the Philippines Summer Art Workshop. She helped publicize the Indiana show through her column in a newspaper in Mindanao.

In just about a couple of months, each of us produced at least a pair of artworks as our contribution to the show. This consisted of fine prints and drawings in assorted styles but mostly of modern and contemporary bent.

The works were then collated, wrapped in plastic, and packed to a small FedEx carton box. In less than a week, Ploi announced through Facebook that the works had arrived. At the preview party, Ploi happily posted on Facebook that the Filipino jazz player Manny de la Rosa “fills the air with cool jazz tunes.”

Local artistHolly Combs also dropped by to see works by kindred spirits in the Philippines. But most of the audience at Strange Brew Cafe were habitués and members of the Filipino community in Indiana. In the online interaction, some of them turned out to have known some of the artists or were connected through relatives and common friends.

It shows once again that indeed it’s a small world, too small in fact for artists across the seas not to make more exchanges like this in the future.

YOU DON’T GIVE fish to the poor. You teach them to fish. But what to do with a group of fishermen? Teach their kids art.

That is what we did last weekend in the sleepy town of Aloguinsan. We gave art lessons to children of the fisherfolk who have helped themselves quite well already.

With the help of local authorities and their consultant, Boboi Costas, who flew in all the way from New Zealand to start the town’s ecotourism program, villagers in Bojo have formed a cooperative that took care of a rich river and mangrove ecosystem that is home to endangered birds.

Today, the fisherfolk has a choice to skip fishing as they take turns to guide tourists in a boat ride along the river that snakes its way through mangrove forests and pours out to the sea between Cebu and Negros.

But Boboi was not to be contented with an ordinary paddler taking guests out on a river cruise. He wanted them to be an all-around eco-tour guide: part bird scientist, part local historian, and part cultural entertainer. In other words, turn a fisherman into a Ren Man.

Last year, he brought in a group of bird experts, history professors, and cultural workers to train the villagers in bird watching and teach them to appreciate their own rich heritage. Thus today, guests are surprised to find that their guide can point them to a bird and give its scientific name, narrate stories of how the river proved crucial to the survival of their grandparents during World War II, sing an ancient harana or serenade, and demonstrate some weave-work.

And to complete this program of alternative learning for the community, Boboi invited us and other artists from Manila to train the children some crafts. For three days, the kids took turns to learn painting on glass plates and discarded bottles; turn old newspapers and magazines into fashion accessories; and make woodcut and rubbercut prints.

I chose the latter as the focus of my workshop, thinking printmaking is the ideal medium for community-based art. The young artists learn basic carving and drawing at the same time, skills that they may use in other forms of art or craft, like sculpture or furniture-making.

Printmaking also allows them to reproduce and sell limited editions of their work, thus providing them not only with a medium of artistic expression but a livelihood as well.

Indeed, they had their first taste of how lucrative community art can be when properly displayed or marketed. After the workshops, the works were gathered, framed and displayed inside the newly-restored Baluarte or ruins of the Spanish watchtower on the hill that is now turned into a heritage park.

Art enthusiasts and journalists from Cebu City were invited to the silent auction of the works. The guests were delighted to find that they were not just buying artworks by poor but talented kids, they were helping the community as well, as part of the proceeds go to fund welfare and eco-tour projects.

Before the auction closed, some artworks were sold including my own demo woodcut print and a stained-glass triptych my 13-year old daughter made with the kids at the glass painting workshop. The children happily handed over their work to the collectors who asked the little artists to pose with them for a souvenir photo.

The next day, when we had returned to Cebu City, Boboi proudly reported that the works continued to sell as the exhibit was moved to the community museum. He said that the summer workshops have helped create “a culture of art appreciation” among the people in Aloguinsan.

Then last Friday, the works were transported to the art fair held at the Sacred Heart Parish here in Cebu City in time for this year’s celebration of “Gabii sa Kabilin”, a nighttime heritage tour. Busloads of tourists and heritage enthusiasts went to see the art fair, barely noticing that the works displayed in the Aloguinsan booth, which competed with those by professional groups of artists, were actually done by children.

When I left the art fair to bring home my own works, I was told that two more prints by kids were sold.  Inspired by this early success, Boboi plans to organize the kids to put up their own art fair, a whole street lined up by young local artists displaying their work, for the next “Kinsan Festival”, the yearly festival named after the town’s endemic rock fish.

He also plans to teach villagers how to use the Internet for marketing. Now that’s what you call casting a different net.

October 2016
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