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Mindanao Art: Five Years of Mainstreaming Art in Mindanao

Last year, Mindanao Art (MinArt for short)—one of the largest art fairs in the Philippines, and the largest in the southern territory of Mindanao—celebrated its fifth year. It has transformed the cultural landscape in the island, and, with its advocacy-heavy tendencies contrasting sharply with the more commercial character of most other art fairs in the Philippines, has also become a major occasion in the national arts scene. 

I’ve been privileged to be part of the fair as an organiser, writer, and, eventually, participating artist for all but one of its iterations, and I’ve seen it evolve from a regional art fair to a national and international event.  

We look back on Mindanao Art’s past five years, and see what’s in store for it up ahead. 

2019: Traversing the River of Creativity 

The first edition of Mindanao Art (2019) in Davao City’s GMall. All images courtesy of Lawig Diwa Foundation Inc. unless otherwise stated.

The first iteration of the fair was held in GMall, one of the biggest shopping malls in Davao City (Mindanao’s major urban centre), with a complementary Art Talk Session in the Philippine Women’s College (PWC) of Davao. 

The fair was the brainchild of artist Kublai Millan, who worked with other artists from all over the island to make the fair a reality. Although Mindanao has had many local art fairs over the years, Mindanao Art was the largest and most inclusive, with more artists from more regions of the island than ever before taking part (a pre-eminence it has maintained in its five years of existence).    

The first year’s theme drew from the fact that to get to the fair from PWC, one had to cross the Davao River, one of the country’s biggest rivers. This first edition also set the tone for what would be the fair’s project for the succeeding years: to make art accessible in Mindanao. Arts in the island—and indeed in the country—had long been a predominantly exclusive matter, with artists, collectors, and academics forming a community largely detached from the rest of the public. Held in a mall, the first fair was free to enter (in contrast to most art fairs in other parts of the country, which sell tickets for admission.) Foot traffic in the mall, and thus the fair, numbered in the thousands. The Art Talk session was also intended to offer a platform for discussing the realities of Mindanao’s art scene. 

2020: Living Art in a New Landscape

Mindanao Art 2020 at Davao City’s Malayan Colleges of Mindanao.

The fair was so successful in its first year that there was clamour from artists in Mindanao for a second iteration, with sponsors including the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) allocating funds. 

The Pandemic brought with it lockdowns and stay-at-home policies in Mindanao, which posed serious challenges to organising the fair. But, as was the trend around the world, the lockdowns also called attention to how important art was to life, with stakeholders ranging from local artists to the NCCA determined to keep the art scene going.  Mindanao’s COVID policies also happened to be less stringent than the rest of the country, so it was in prime position to start something. 

And so, Mindanao Art pursued hybrid arrangements and opened in 2020 as the first major art event in the Philippines since the pandemic and the lockdowns began. A limited on-site exhibit at Davao City’s Malayan Colleges of Mindanao (MCM) was complemented by a series of Virtual Museums designed by visionary architect Jon Traya, who had also designed the MCM building that held the on-site exhibit. 

The fair’s theme was “Living Art in a New Landscape,” acknowledging both the changing realities brought about by the pandemic and the need for artists to make art authentic to their lived experiences.

This iteration of the fair asked serious questions, hinted at in the first edition, that would become recurring questions for the arts community and public: How can artists make art that is relevant to the lives of ordinary people? How rooted is our art in the land where it comes from? Where is Mindanao art in the national and global landscape?

Being the first major art event in the Philippines since the pandemic, MinArt was followed by other art fairs across the country opening up and pursuing similar hybrid arrangements despite the lockdowns.

2021: Art in Between: Mindanao Art in Liminal Space

The whole Poblacion Market Central building served as a venue for Mindanao Art in 2021.

Lockdown policies continued to ease the following year, and by late 2021 most establishments had reopened for crowds. The pandemic was ending in Mindanao. 

This became an opportunity for Mindanao Art to once again return to the full on-site nature of its first year. Poblacion Market Central, a commercial establishment in Davao, offered its whole newly constructed, three-storey building as a venue. 

Mindanao Art 2021 opened to a crowd of thousands hungry for art events. The year’s fair had the theme “Art in Between,” acknowledging the liminal state the art scene and the Mindanao public were in given the pandemic’s still lingering effects. While introspecting about uncertainty, the fair also continued the previous year’s project of pursuing new directions for the island’s art: a collaboration with Davao’s fashion designers led to a fashion show of haute couture pieces inspired by Mindanawon artworks.   

2022: Aligned and Interconnected 

The Club at Northtown in Davao City hosted 2022’s Mindanao Art.

The fair’s fourth iteration in 2022 was held at the Club at Northtown, an exclusive resort and event centre in a more suburban part of Davao.

That year’s theme, “Aligned and Interconnected,” reiterated the questions of preceding years about the relationship between artist and community. The fair encouraged artists to explore the possibilities of art beyond the merely ornamental, with perhaps the most eloquent articulation being Stella Estremera’s conceptual art piece Healing Hearts Bears. Featuring teddy bears crocheted by women in prison as a source of livelihood, with some bears given to children with cancer, the work exemplified how the arts could make tangible impacts in various communities.

Stella Estremera’s Healing Hearts Bears were made by women in prison.

2022’s MinArt was also Mindanao’s first ticketed art fair, and enjoyed its first international coverage with my feature on it for Plural.

2023: Art in Glitch: Resonating and Reverberating

Vic Dumaguing’s art installation at the Fountain Court of SM Lanang in Davao City for Mindanao Art 2023.

Last year’s edition of the fair was the most provocative to date. Moving to SM Lanang (Mindanao’s biggest mall) and going back to free admission, the fair was curated around the theme of “Art in Glitch: Resonating and Reverberating.” With a series of publicity videos and a press conference for local newspapers, last year’s fair was the most explicit in its message, and this message proved controversial: that there was a disconnect—a “glitch”—between the Philippine art scene, which had come to focus primarily on the ornamental and commercial sides of art making, and the general public starved for art that introspects and discourses. Pointing out this “glitch” between art and local realities, the fair also invited artists to make the best of it by using this disconnect as inspiration for their art.

The Takos Project, my conceptual art installation which saw me sell cans of ancestral soil. I was able to raise over twelve thousand pesos (SGD 286) for the tribe from whose ancestral domain I took the soil. (Image by author.)

As critique and commentary on the commodification of art, my own conceptual art piece, The Takos Project, saw me selling cans of soil taken from the ancestral domains of indigenous people, who have had a long history of suffering from displacement and encroachment. I made no income from the cans sold: half the sales went to the Obo Monuvu people from my hometown of Kidapawan City, while the other half went to Monovu artist Zhejie Manibog, who painted the cans and the mural for the art installation.

Davao—The Art Capital of Mindanao

All five iterations of Mindanao Art have been held in Davao City, and this has had the effect of solidifying the city’s position as Mindanao’s centre for the arts. Davao is already the island’s centre of economic activity and higher education institutions, and the fair has added another layer by making it the go-to place in the island to buy, sell, enjoy, and study art. 

The soil paintings of the Talaandig, an indigenous community in the province of Bukidnon. Mindanao Art has always sought to represent as many regions of Mndanao as possible.

But the organisers of Mindanao Art are conscious of the perils of concentrating activity and opportunities in one location. Mindanao as a whole, Davao included, is victim to what is called “Manila Imperialism” (much of the economic and cultural opportunities in the Philippines are concentrated in Manila). So, to be careful not to bring about a similar “Davao Imperialism” in the arts, Kublai Millan and the organising team ensure fair geographic representation in the fair, offering free slots to groups from each province in Mindanao. (In most art fairs in the Philippines, galleries have to pay thousands in pesos for exhibition slots, which is prohibitively expensive for many Mindanao art groups.) The team also goes around the island to conduct free art mentorship activities. 

There are other emerging creative cities in Mindanao—Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, Iligan, Butuan, and Zamboanga, just to name a few—and one of the hopes of the Mindanao Art organisers is that these places mature enough to be able to host a fair of MinArt’s calibre (as a member of the team myself, that is certainly my hope for my hometown of Kidapawan). One particular city, Tagum, is starting to show potential, with its numbers of both artists and collectors increasing. A major art event in Tagum is a strong possibility in the near future. 

Art Enters Mainstream Mindanao

During the opening of Mindanao Art 2023.

Another lasting impact the fair is starting to have on the island is making art more popular to a wider audience. Until recently, the Mindanao public has not been particularly interested in the arts. The small and intimate art community has been largely limited to a closed group of artists, academics, and a few collectors. A big factor in this has been the lack of opportunities for the public to experience artworks.

Mindanao Art, however, has not only offered a chance to see many works of art from a diverse array of artists, but has also rolled out aggressive publicity. The result is that in five years, art is finally starting to occupy a place in Mindanawon public life, and not only in Davao: more towns and cities across the island have organised small art events in their city centres, and galleries are starting to see more visitors and foot traffic from outside the specialist art community. Starting with just four regions and 10 galleries in its fourth year, the fair’s participation has gone up to six regions in 2023, with 33 galleries and art groups participating.  

My conceptual art piece ‘Di Palupig’ (literally ‘will not be outdone’) for the 2023 fair, both a tongue-in-cheek response to Maurizio Catellan and a critique of Davao social climbing. The Mindanao public was not familiar with Catellan’s ‘Comedy,’ so it retained the novelty of the artwork to which it pays homage. (Image by author.)

The hope is that the public’s growing interest introduces more people in Mindanao to the world of contemporary art, creating future art appreciators, buyers, or perhaps even artists. Additionally, the MinArt organisers hope that art starts playing a bigger role in shaping how the island and its people understand themselves. 

What’s In Store

Tagum City Artist Elviz Goloran sold affordable artworks (just over a thousand pesos, or SGD 36) at the Visayas Art Fair in Cebu, joining other artists of Davao’s Gallery Down South.

As it strengthens the place of art in Mindanawon public life, the team behind Mindanao Art is also busy building a bigger presence for the island’s artists beyond its shores. After their participation in this year’s fair, artists from Davao’s Gallery Down South joined the Visayas Art Fair in Cebu, selling out and making a splash in their first year.

The organisers hope that the fair itself will slowly influence other fairs in the country to become more than just opportunities to sell artworks. In the coming years, the team will play an active role in championing the call for a national strategy for culture, the arts, and heritage (the Philippines currently does not have one), and for a bigger place for these in the pursuit of nation building and national development. Just as it is bringing art into the lives of Mindanawons, MinArt hopes to help bring it into the lives of other Filipinos. 

Mindanao Art is not simply an occasion to sell paintings and sculptures. It is increasingly becoming an art process of its own, with the whole of Mindanao emerging as its artwork in progress. 


Find out more about Mindanao Art through the official site or Facebook page.

Header image: Mindanao Art 2023.

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