Art has always been more than just aesthetics in Mindanao, the Philippines’ southern territory.
And for the past four years Mindanao Art (MinArt) – one of Southeast Asia’s most highly anticipated art fairs – has showcased that, by exhibiting artworks that are intimately tied to the communities they come from.
Held in Davao City, MinArt sees dozens of galleries from all over Mindanao exhibit paintings, sculptures, and art installations by hundreds of artists. This year’s fair is bigger than ever, with satellite activities in different parts of the country, such as Cavite in the country’s north.
This year, MinArt’s theme is Aligned and Interconnected, which encourages participating artists to reflect on how their artworks are both informed by and have an impact on their communities. We take a look at some artworks demonstrating this, with works which jump out of their frames and showcase the artists’ lives and cultures.
Art as Grieving
Art takes the form of tribute and prayer in Modern Mebuyan, a series of mixed media paintings that come from a collaboration between artist couple Kublai Millan and Maan Chua. Chua’s Ahungan – an award-winning accessory that has become popular in Davao fashion – is mounted on Millan’s colourful paintings of women.
They are reimagined as breasts and represent Mebuyan, the goddess of the underworld in the indigenous Tagabawa culture. The couple recently lost their baby Kalipay, and the collaboration is part of their grieving process. Mebuyan is depicted as having many breasts because she is believed to breastfeed the souls of deceased babies in the underworld.
Art as Healing
The processes behind some artworks also involve healing.
One exhibition is that of the Deanna Sipaco Foundation, a private organisation which offers art workshops to people with learning disabilities as a form of therapy. Artists from the Foundation have been taking part in the fair since 2020, with their paintings often being bestsellers.
But the most prominent demonstration is the Healing Hearts Bear, an art installation of a giant bear that serves as the fair’s centrepiece. It consists of hundreds of knitted teddy bears made by prisoners from the Davao City Jail. Each bear will later be given to child cancer patients from the Children’s Cancer Institute of Southern Philippines Medical Centre.
Art as Local Discourse
Other artworks in the fair stand out because they are part of larger conversations about specific communities in Mindanao.
Jag Bueno’s Virtual, a series of Bas Relief paintings in fibreglass-reinforced resin, subtly confronts the question of how relevant traditional cultural communities remain in modern, post-colonial Philippines. People from the Lumad cultures – the indigenous cultures in Mindanao – are provocatively depicted wearing virtual reality headsets, begging the question of how (or if) Mindanao’s traditions will adapt to technological advancement.
From my own hometown of Kidapawan City is Aljon de Jose’s Born this Way. With its depiction of two men embracing and its allusion to Lady Gaga’s deliberate gay anthem, this painting suggests an LGBTQ relationship — especially since Kidapawan still struggles to accept alternative gender and sexual identities.
The painting also has strong undertones of mental health struggles, with the figures offering one another emotional support. The message this sends – that there is a need to offer others affirmation and support – is very timely in light of the recent series of suicides among young people in Kidapawan.
Born this Way is just one of many paintings in the fair which confronts subject matter often avoided in Mindanao art, which has a tradition of emphasising ornamentation.
Challenging Mindanao’s Conservativeness
Another powerful example is Bryan Cabrera’s oil painting Poisoning. The highly symbolic piece depicts a model who has struggled with drug addiction; a serious problem in Mindanao which rarely appears in art. Common ornamental plants, which happen to be toxic, circle around her, reflecting the model ‘poisoning’ herself.
Elsewhere, Aldwin Pilipil of General Santos City offers a tantalising look into the urban decadence of Mindanao in his eye-catching mixed media piece Unique (Nightmode). On painted blocks of wood, we get a voyeur-like peek into the cityscape, getting glimpses of sex and vice.
But sex as subject matter takes a most prominent role in The Red Room, a booth in the fair featuring some of the most provocative artworks to come out of Mindanao in years. To watch out for are Bogz Flores’ irreverent and graphic drawings in pen and ink.
The Red Room features works by Patikan Mindanao, a network of tattoo artists who are venturing into the visual arts. They had a mini live show during the fair’s opening night gala, with models walking on stage to display their tattoos. The inclusion of tattoos in art is a controversial subject in post-colonial Philippines, which continues to struggle to embrace its pre-colonial tattooing traditions.
Celebrating Unique Mediums
Still, other artworks stand out for their remarkable use of unique mediums, proving that art can be about the material as well as the execution.
This is best demonstrated in the booth of the Talaandig Soil Painters, who have exhibited at MinArt since its first iteration in 2019. An ethnic group indigenous to the Mindanao province of Bukidnon, the Talaandig are some of the most culturally innovative in the country.
Soil painting – in which they use earth from their ancestral domain – is becoming a new tradition for the tribe. This also serves as a viable livelihood, with ornamental pieces being some of the best-selling in the fair.
The celebration of natural mediums is also shared by Mindanao Settler artists like Jong Tangiday, who is known for using found wood in his sculptures. On exhibit this year are some of the biggest iterations of his Anting Anting series.
Here, he creates figures from the driftwood or scrap wood he finds and adorns them with Anting Anting, Settler talismans used by the violent armed militias that once ravaged Mindanao in the 1970s and 1980s.
Art inspired by fiction and craft
But where the theme, Aligned and Interconnected is highlighted the most is in artworks that cross genres and mediums, where artists respond to other art forms.
Tagum City painter Pinta de Baryo demonstrates this with ‘reverse Ekphrasis’ in his colourfully symbolic and surreal interpretation of the award-winning short story Tsuru.
Written by the acclaimed fictionist and historian Macario Tiu, the story is about an unlikely friendship between a Japanese soldier and a local woman and her baby daughter during the Second World War. Tiu also hails from Tagum, making the painting a distinctly Tagum work of art.
The whole fair is also full of artworks that reappropriate traditional crafts, specifically textiles. Three artists stand out for this. There’s Tanya Gaisano Lee, who, for the first time, includes the traditional abaca fabric of the Tagabawa culture called Inabal in her highly ornamental acrylic paintings. In Banig, Iligan artist Anna Leah Sanson uses woven palm leaf mats for her abstract expressionist works.
Finally, there’s Joel Geolamen, whose painting from his Habilin series depicts mountain ranges covered in traditional textiles. In this case, he uses the Landap, an embroidered cotton and silk cloth by the Meranaw people.
Resonating with reality
Many of this year’s artworks live up to the fair’s theme. They are not just ornamental pieces of décor or modes of expression by the artists, they also seek to communicate, respond to realities, and in the process, become relevant to their communities.
This continues the fair’s themes from the past two years (Living Art and Art in Between), which sought to interrogate the role of art in Mindanao beyond mere display. It is very exciting to imagine what next year’s fair has in store!
Mindanao Art takes place at The Club at Northtown, Cabantian Davao City, Philippines until 5 November 2022. Click here to learn more.