Pain and Paint: The Art of Arel D. Zambarrano


In Praise of All the Breadwinners

Arel D. Zambarrano (b.1985) unwittingly belongs to a growing amalgam of visual artists dwelling deeply into the personal and its inner struggles. Void of any social, historical or grand narratives his works nevertheless unleash the same artistic prowess displaying intrinsic acuity unraveling in multiple layering in perspectives that necessitates the contemporary in art. 

Rendered in deep macabre bordering in seriously surreal, Zambarrano’s first solo exhibition madly haunts. Timbu-ok retraces and scorches back his decade of struggle--as a long continuous visual diary. Every piece is part and parcel of the next piece forming the bigger picture that has marked his short-lived existence. As both an architect and an artist he creatively maximizes the available spaces at the Museo ng Iloilo to his advantage; how the pieces are maneuvered side by side making one appreciate every embedded emotion or the provocative thought captured through time. The gestalt effect is spellbinding: how adversity refreshes us and how we emerged from this painterly furnace defines (redefines) one’s built-in character. In Zambarrano’s case it is the constant rebirth of his artistry that make him a budding master. Every canvas was Zambarrano at his purest form as if the paints are still wet as the pain is still warm when he painted them. His brushstrokes are raw and moving, one can still hear the sound of brushstrokes brought to life.

The Need for Needles
Not for the faint hearted Zambarrano still revels the positive though veering on the somber and to the negative. Fixated with needles as an allegory to life itself, he often compares himself (us included) to the long threads passing through. Born in the coastal town of Banate, the fifth of six siblings, his family was dirt poor that even as he was being conceived in his mother’s womb she wanted to give her up. In fact he was even nourished from boiled rice water to alternate the scarcity of milk just to get by. Zambarrano took it all in without a tear or whine. What did not despair him only made him stronger as he yielded this mortality to his higher artistic purpose.

In The Black Rainbow

In slaying his demons Zambarrano uses these stark shiny pointed metals. By now you may inquire: how could someone so hopeless in life looks forward to living. After being a self-supporting student in college Zambarrano is now a licensed architect and an award winning artist. Using needles in ascending order to his ambitions Unlimited Optimism wants people to carry on whatever life impedes on them. As an artist he feels it is his responsibility to impart brightness in outlook and freshness in attitudes.

By nature people seek their potential, position and protection to survive as the fittest. In the Black Rainbow shows people cascading from this artificiality as we are defined by our titles, pay checks, flashy cars unmindful of that these are just ethereal things. Zambarrano has emptied himself in the form of a skeleton holding his now famous black shoes. The Advent of Stone Headed Wanderers solidifies his big bright vision even without material resources. When he shifted to architecture his eldest sister persuaded him not to pursue as he “does not have wings to fly.” However Zambarrano is as hard as he is committed to spread his imaginary wings to claim his dreams. One has to want their realization badly and be boldly determined in paving the way for them.

As a child he remembers drawing his heroes in the sand while other kids of his age carefree play. Unlike other artists who dabble in endless sketches, Zambarrano initially paints in his head. As raw and fertile as they are, he painstakingly tempers his ideas and concepts, translating them on canvas only when he is done thinking about it. The execution is fastest and the most gratifying process. Often done in glaringly red hues most of his paintings reflect his courage in predicaments and passion in fulfillment. They are captured in a moment of glorifying resolution some toned down but definitely nothing mushy in pastel colors. Such is the reprisal of the enigmatic Homecoming 2 reminiscent of his entry which was recognized in a national art competition four years ago. Zambarrano recalls a client who after 30 years has returned to their hometown for it is his belief that one must die to where one was born. Zambarrano’s brilliance is to situate you in a state where you feel both longing and equanimity diffused in one abstract momentum. Even without people one feels disturbed and usually the spell lasts longer than you left viewing it.

The five pieces in Unhindered Series collectively takes the fear out as life’s biggest illusion. He once was a commencement speaker in his college and he challenged his audience that one may be mortal yet he must take a risk or even jump off a cliff unhindered of the consequences to one’s body. To this day Zambarrano may be scarred but he has remained unscathed.

Shoe Biz

Typical of normal guy of style, these may be just ordinary black canvas shoes. The double a on the side is a giveaway–it was his sign (for art and architecture). The presence of beige straps crisscrossing gives you an inkling that they also stand for adventure. They might be even intended for car racing or cycling as the fit suggests. For Zambarrano practicality outweighs the design. For bargain 25 pesos the materiality costs even more than what the black shoes were intended for. For Zambarrano one has to brace one’s feet for the long haul whatever the ride maybe. As soon as the vendor took them out of the sack, he immediately wore them to the streets.

From an ukay-ukay in Jaro market the black shoes would eventually be immortalized in many of Zambarrano’s canvases. They are living evidence of travails of a typical striving artist. From the muddy alleys of Iloilo to the air-conditioned galleries in Hong Kong, how many artists are bold enough to repeatedly depict them various capacities readily defines Zambarrano’s significance. In fact even these black shoes physically gave up on him. The event was his telling sign that he was ripe enough to exhibit his stories around them.

From Banate he wanted to explore further and study college in the city. However those he thought would take care of him were the ones who even maltreated him. Prodigious Escape was that epiphany of seeing the light and regaining freedom from the cycle of oppression and lack of familial love. The symbolical use of the chain block in uplifting the heavy burden of his sorrow was effective in addressing his relief in being out of the troublesome pit he was wallowing into. 

Uncanny in depiction all is not lost for Zambarrano. Evident In the Garden of Hope ardent chess pieces, pawns may be of the lowest value however they are meant to be sacrificed for one to proceed further in the game. A nocturnal being Zambarrano always waited for dawn as the sunrises before he sleeps. And like the ants seen here brave and hardworking enough to face another day.

Even in the not-so-sunny there is beauty in tragedy. In the Beautiful Rain even the poor should remain dignified and live in excellence as encircled letter shows. Notice how needles morphed as the rain subsides. Zambarrano can be romantic as he was brutal in the most of his works.
Detail of Two Steps Behind
In the installation Two Steps Behind Zambarrano honors the famous black shoes for the last time. Resting on the famous black shoes are both his college diploma from Iloilo Science and Technology University (ISAT-U) and his certificate as a licensed architect from the Professional Regulatory Commission attached to it. Providing the main altar in the exhibition is this testament to his hardship as he stuck more than 5000 needles around these elements. There are as many needles in one’s life; in fact they even come back as cycles. Using resin as his base Zambarrano wanted to pause and freeze this moment of elation. As an artist the defiant act was the most liberating this to do, a gentle reminder to stay grounded and humble and move on with his head up high. Providing a fitting backdrop to this tributes sculpture is The Evidence some 60 portraits of these black shoes on paper mounted on two sets of plywood.
Having practiced both as an architect and as a painter Zambarrano has developed a multi-disciplinary perspective to his art pieces in imparting cutting his messages across. In fact he even uses it to debunk its very essence.
Contemporary artist Alain Hablo specially did Zambarrano’s portrait for On the Ground (Highest Level). One of Iloilo’s proudest son in the visual arts, Hablo has been looked up to by Zambarrano and his generation of artists. He is much of an inspiration as an influence for Zambarrano. Overcoming his destitution epitomized by life-size pawns impressed upon his image like a reminder the successful you become the more humble one must be. 
Two Steps Behind and The Evidence
Meanwhile Timbu-ok tackles the same humility but in reverse: soar up high towards a higher ground but not the sky. Thirty kites denoting his existence are attached to red nylon strings which are firmly planted on the ground. Ilonggo word meaning soaring high, timbu-ok values humility above all; that despite life’s unexpected twists and bumpy turns one who eschews pride and keeps his feet on the ground is always exalted.

Choosing to stay in Iloilo Zambarrano’s art practice goes beyond the usual norm and against the tide situated in the imperial art centers. His art may not be festive as Dinagyang or commercial enough to be the celebrated in art fairs and bids in local auctions but being an Ilonggo artist has already contented him in his bigger canvas--art of his life. He is just warming up.


Jan Calleja Strikes Back


The first thing one would notice in a Jan Calleja piece is how he brilliantly does it. Functioning more like a mechanic Calleja is your postmodern craftsman. One that is grounded in the everyday using unique visual language versed in contemporary meaning. He appropriates model cars, airplanes, guns and even other toys by deconstructing them out of context and renewing their shelf lives or what is termed as scratched-built.

In Jan Solo II Calleja resumes further this promising yet uncharted terrain of toy-themed sculptures. Part of that bigger canopy in urban street art and culture, each piece has a story to tell. Ostentatious yet naïve, their peculiarities draw out connections to geographical displacements, historical recurrences and larger psychological social systems.

With a degree in visual communications at the University of the Philippines Calleja acquired a distinct aesthetic taste that would be his prowess to execute his big bright bold ideas. To thoroughly comprehend his brilliance one must take a mental journey with him, travelling to places so distant we may not initially see a way back. When we do return to the gallery however we can marvel at the fact that he has somehow succeeded in distilling the whole experience into the physical object. Fathoming deep as mindscapes he brings us back to the materiality we began looking long and hard at.

His pieces somehow present us with problem and a solution. Harnessing time and space in challenging our understanding of the various layers of his process, Calleja strikes back and often emerges triumphant and unscathed.

Inspired by Star Wars he watched as kid two Walkers are simulated into his signature use of the Volkswagen 1964 kombi. For Calleja it is that classic back-of-the head recall of its rear that he favors and could not be replicated by any metal conduit. Often significant to Calleja is how the viewer draws the thin line of duality in perception that as he is reminded of that classic 60s family van yet now converted into All Terrain All Scout Walkers. The AT-AS has legs as primary method of locomotion in a military operation. Designs for such walkers were utilized by the Galactic Empire some say were inspired by the use of animal cavalry from ancient civilizations.

The All Terrain series are some of the best examples of walkers. Such that AT-AT Walker (All Terrain Armored Transport) that four-legged vehicle used by the imperial forces would emanate from a Land Rover by adding four long legs reminiscent of their function in the film series.

Another Volkswagen foray is constructed into Tie Fighter. The elegance of the Volkswagen is favorably reprised and impresses him all over again. The car company should hire him for his long exemplary promotions.

Meanwhile Calleja’s Tie interceptor would emanate from the mini cooper. Sourcing from the Tie Fighter this dagger shaped airborne machine was the symbol of the imperial fleet. They carried aboard Star Destroyers and battle stations. They were single pilot vehicles made for fast paced dog fights with Rebel X-wings and other star fighters.

Fascinated by the survival tales of World War 1, Calleja paid tribute to these recurring memories with the two rebel x-wing fighters. Born from FokerDR1 Triplane and Scout SE5 that were used as weapons of destruction, Calleja adapted them into less violent yet simulated mode.

Calleja’s first foray in cars was with Formula 1 series back in where he upgrade by installing both the driver with the speeding machines. In a previous essay, the word toy as play was exercised. The element of play offers a deeper meaning when referred to how Calleja maneuvers his mechanical antics into physical fruition. The Land Speeder from Mercedes 300 SL series comes to mind.

To appreciate Calleja as an aesthete one should reflect the thwarting of his design as it stretches beyond one’s retinal pleasure. With his bare hands it is both science and art. His belief that all shapes have been made because industrial use, if one can imagine then one can build. It is only a matter of finding the perfect combination for the situation at hand. 

The possibilities are infinite in a galaxy not far away.  

Jan Solo II is ongoing at the Art Portal 2/F Eastwest Bank BGP Complex 2, Mc Arthur Hi-way, Matina, Davao City.


MADE Proudly: The Ballad of Teves, Bunag and Tan


Consider it like a socio-civic duty, one should not miss the annual painting exhibition of the Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) every September. Not out of curiosity but with a dedication that comes with responsible citizenship. With sign of the times as its anchor theme, MADE serves as a crash course not only of the emerging styles of Philippine contemporary art but of the current affairs of our country or after viewing the recent winning paintings, rather my sad republic.

True to its commitment of recognizing the best among artists 35 years and below MADE has kept this promise in acknowledging the relevant art of the young for more than 30 years now. Inviting myself on every occasion in the last five offing I noticed more students winning the coveted prizes than amateur artists who do not have a solo show, as its rules apply. Some winners are even in their late teens while they are still in college. And gauging from the winning paintings of recent years the more the Philippine situation gets worse the more beautiful art is being churned out. Is it that bad for our own good?
In the Land of Forsaken Promises by Don Bryan Bunag

In the water-based category Don Bryan Bunag is all of 22 years but already has the sensibilities of an old battered soul. Every thing one would want in a pretty picture is perfectly present in Bunag’s wining piece Into the Land of Forsaken Promises, only its gloomier bordering on starkness. For Bunag, hope is a young girl freely playing in the expanse of a field. However prettiness may yet be the last long look this winning piece evokes. With moving white clouds, the melancholic child whose hair is being blown away does not even look at you in the eyes. Is it shyness from the truth? Is it surrendering from desolation? Her constant replication annoys us even more. Bunag has brought a fresh perspective of our tired longing for change. 

Yet Bunag does not end there. He goes further by splicing up the canvas. What he has painstakingly done so so many days he distorts it in minutes. Talk about masochist tendencies. What seems to be like grass are actually fine thin slits coming from his slashing of blades. Sometimes the more concealed or decoded one’s images are the more its message implicitly impresses upon what the artist explicitly intended to the viewer. 

What may be sordidly fantasy to Bunag is blatant realism to Bryan Teves. In fact it is of the hyper-kind that his main image almost emerges out of the canvas.
The distance from where he is based in Sta. Catalina in Ilocos Sur provides Teves with a clearer perspective of composing an image worthy of emulation. Simplicity over-laden with values won for this one. How Teves warmly wraps that blanket of emotion around a dual image of a reversal of role is astoundingly executed. The blanket properly enveloped all the emotions that come with being happy at birth and being desperate in desolation in reverse.

Sakbibi ng Galak at Tagumpay by Bryan Teves
In Sakbibi ng Galak at Tagumpay, Teves portrays in an Asian way of composing things, a yin-and-yang approach to living. In previous works he likes to double his subjects or in this case, in reverse as seamless as can be. Against a freshly-green background Teves does well by this exacting love of family and the cycle of life we unavoidably exposed to.

Once in a while abstraction finds its sordid place in the representational laden art competition like MADE. “I” by Andrew Tan is replete with characters one is familiar with in the metropolis. Breathing the carbon air of the city one gets numbed like Tan while surviving in the daily urban mosh pit we are constantly rolling into. In taking the Clement Greenberg challenge as mentioned the catalogue essay by Cid Reyes, at a glance I see a lot of flesh undertones of the bigger overview. Much like a whole being is consumed by the cosmopolitan disease we have been informally and contagiously exposed to.
I by Andrew tan

Given its relevance to the art community, MADE still is the rites of passage for most of artists practicing in the Philippines. The names of its products alone could double the word count of this blog entry. Without even words, its roster of winning artworks can tell the true story of our people. It is hope that one day all these will be displayed in a proper venue for everyone to marvel at and be appreciated. What many lack in material things we make up in talent in fine bold artistry. For it is only through imagination that we can envision and build a country. MADE was made for that as we collectively continue our stories of survival one day at a time.


Orley Ypon: When Realism Still Matters


Flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented.
                                               Willem de Kooning

Bidlisiw (sun rays in Visayan) may yet be an appropriate title for a first solo exhibition of a painter whose artistic sunlight has highly basked us for more than 15 years now. Realists like Cebu-based Ypon have often been taken down for being too literal in expressing their paints on canvases that they are often been relegated to the just confines of a commodified art. In Bidlisiw, Ypon escapes from this strangle laying claim as probably the last heir to this great tradition in Philippine figurative painting.     

It was from a water buffalo plowing in the mud in the ricefields of Toledo that Ypon first conceptualized Ahon. In fact his first Ahon painting won for him 2nd place at GSIS National Painting Competition. Another Ahon-inspired piece The Searchers would eventually win for Ypon the Art Renewal Residency in New York a few years after.

Compared to the first ones this current Ahon series has matured further and aesthetically expanded creating more movement and depth. Maybe in a less formal manner (some are even laughing at the satire they are into) but more forceful in his rendition, Ypon’s images show more vulnerability in prowess representing our collective struggle for that so-called genuine emancipation. Although they outwit, outdo and outscore one another as the fittest survive, certain individuals corrupt the community spirit for personal greed and selfish interests.

Ypon laments: Tayo yung nasa putikan, gusto natin makaahon. Dapat malampasan ang krisis. Tumitibay tayo sa bawat  trahedyang napagdadaanan. As a painter di ka pwedeng hindi masaktan. Di ka dapat matakot. Dapat harapin mo dahil yun din magpapatibay sa’yo. Yung wisdom mo dito papasok.

The nature of Ypon’s brushstrokes almost reaches fever pitch that the people throw mud at each other including the viewer looking in. Enclosed in a gallery enclave the viewer may even take a step back as splashes of mud come off the canvas and might just stain him. They are ethereal in actuality, ephemeral in posterity. The way an Ypon piece makes you feel in being part of the Philippine quagmire that as you squint in his toiling figures one witnesses a realism that is seldom replete these days. This comes at a time when much of art being produced is emotion-ridden feng shui-enthused or arguably auction bound. As the in-your-face-bodies have often been celebrated in nudes, portraits, and anatomical fixtures the validity of Ypon’s figures does not hark on the usual celebration of the physical skin and bountiful muscles but how the prowess of collective bodies can portray a people wallowing too long and too deep in a marsh, a political entanglement of their own making. A lieu of how brute and superficial we can almost be. How Ypon combined them in sequential and consequential movement with an enduring and endearing light that warmly embraces them are indices of that long arduous practice of his true craftsmanship.

Tall Toledo Tales

If one were are to paint the life of Orley Ypon it will be an impressionist painting he is now known for. He was always trying to capture the movement, the drama of the moment that came his way.

The second in a brood of eight, Ypon has always dreamed of being an artist. He would envy illustrations from the sari sari store komiks or characters on wall calendars of his hometown Toledo in Cebu.

He says: I have to credit also my parents who unlike other parents did have faith and courage in their children to have a career in the arts. Some parents will not have their sons to be artists. Ako, walo kami but they trusted me.

Toledo, however, will be too small for Ypon’s eagerness to learn art. At 17, he took his chance to go to Manila responding to a newspaper ad for production artists in a crafts shop for export.

The experience will prove to have a double purpose. As he was coloring baskets, he was learning the process of mixing colors and drawing in detail. With much fire in his belly, he rose from being an apprentice to be the head of production staff. Perfectionist as he is, he relied on his doing sample works that would be sent to investors abroad interested in his company’s products.

After a few years of working however the call to be an artist heeded more intensely. What little amount he saved in working he invested in his dream of becoming a painter. He quit work and went back to Cebu. Taking up Architecture at the Cebu Institute of Technology, he heeded upon the advice of some artist-friends as having a fall back for an artist if he was an architect. Ypon, however, found the subjects too technical for his fancy. He was just too eager to paint he took up fine arts at UP Cebu to have the proper academic training in art. Here he mastered the rudiments that would guide him where is today.

Ypon had always been a realist in life as well as in art. He emphasizes: Gusto ko kasi realism para madaling maintindihan ng lahat. Parang may sense ka sa tao. Hindi biro ang realism kasi you have to consider many things like technique, depth, color, and most importantly composition. You have to be an observer, kaya mahalaga lahat ng experience ko dahil I have to feel my work when I’m painting.

The cost of being a fine arts student was too much to carry. Upon the invitation from a relative he went to Davao and immerses himself with the rich and diverse culture the province had to offer. It was here that he tasted his first win, in a mural contest. A social realist by nature, Ypon painted what was around him like the many refugees that were prevalent there.

He later joined an on-the-spot painting in Carcar when he came back to Cebu. Earning him confidence from this, he learned there was a new contest for students in ArtPetron, he enrolled in Casa Gorordo Museum and in a week’s time painted what would be his masterpiece, Ober-Ober.

Ober-Ober, 2001
The story of Ober-ober is a tale worth re-telling. The popular slipper game, the topic of his painting, was played everyday by young boys just outside his tiny studio in Toledo where he painted daily.

What makes this painting so special is how Ypon instead of rolling up his canvas, he chose to hand carry it and endure a 21-hour boat ride from Toledo to Manila.

In the book Brushstrokes from the Heart: The First Five Years of ArtPetron, author and art critic Alice Guillermo commented that Ober-Ober for its “strong sense of humanity and fellow-feeling for the masa or children of common people. Ypon seems to intimately know them well. Even the light that underlines their contours is not harsh but is kind and insightful.”

It is this same bright rays of the sun that National Artist Napoleon Abueva, chair of the board of judges, to “he has Fernando Amorsolo’s light.”

Light on Water, Later on Mud

Ypon mentions that his happiest moments is when he is with water. He has lots of fond childhood memories at sea. He remembers he would tag along with his grandfather who was a fisherman in the morning and be enthralled by the colors of the sky and the sea. It was in this that he wanted his paintings to have movement. It is no surprise that most of Ypon’s works have water as background or revolves around it.

Ypon dreams that “someday to paint masterpieces like Juan Luna and Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo those large works like Spoliarium with themes dealing with history. I want to make a statement about the Philippines.”

Truly the light in Ypon’s paintings continues to shine in the high noon of his life. 

Bidlisiw by Orley Ypon is ongoing at Altro Mondo in Greenbelt 5.


Jared Yokte: The Artist as Contrarian


The recent third solo exhibition At the Rear There is Something Contrary by Jared Yokte is one long loud sermon. His distinct unskinned images haunt us in our thoughts even after the pieces have been taken down from the walls of blanc Gallery. Mind you it is not exactly a solitary preach by a priest, pastor or what have you. More inclined to that night the adolescent you went home beyond curfew time and your parents were stubbornly waiting as you opened the house lights. Yes this exhibit is that bad that it is so good. Worse, it alters your mindset in looking at contemporary paintings these days.

At the Rear There is Something Contrary

Having been born and bred in Davao City, educated in Vigan and now based in Tarlac Yokte sizzles as the quintessential artist to finely execute these epiphanies. Having been exposed to different variants of local culture from southern to northern Philippines Yokte has somehow imbibed and could comment on that customary sense of we got used to yet not supposedly believing in.

His interiors as backdrops are from his humble abode reflect the kind of exuberant yet bland society we have ever since existed. Not invited guests rather we are like peeping neighbors to one's private tableau as everything happens indoors. It is at home where much of what we know happens even the greater war is waged here—the family.

Theory of Nonsense 1
Our elders inculcate in us that success emanates in being affluent more so if one is working abroad. One gets educated to prepare for the day he boards a ship or a plane to cross to the greener pastures. As clannish as we can be, we look after siblings after us, forced to fend for their schooling, whereas we tend to neglect even our own personal happiness. These stereo-type myths have bothered and even disturbed the peace in Yokte's sensibilities. Even superstitious beliefs, superfluous as they are, are discussed within this realm. Concepts like sukob, pagpag, pasma or sleeping while your hair is wet could make you go blind or crazy. Yokte proposes not in anger but even better he gracefully throws back at you his actuation in his linear and painterly strokes combined. The title piece, At the Rear There is Something Contrary, sees us involved in every movement as his images compose themselves and somewhat paused on canvas. They circle in round formation as the cycle called life rotates.

Theory of Nonsense 2
Theory of Nonsense Series symbolically implodes deeper this thesis in Yokte’s pieces. Composition is Yokte’s stronger elements as he is a master in harmonizing his hues. Personages lie afloat living in the quagmire we deserve. We, the viewer should not be enticed in these time-drawn myths. Inverted umbrellas reveal the reverse reasoning as we are attuned to. Resulting into the kind of broken dreams we are forced by circumstance to accept these false fatuity. As in these paintings, it is as grim as the night that has befallen and an even darker interior void of light. Yokte maybe an animal lover as it seems but these domestic creatures are no different from the kind of beings we have become, or been relegated to.

There is poetry in rendering his cast of characters. A headless man may seem a wounded negation of people eaten by the kind of heartlessness that emanates from our concurrence to what we thought all along as truth. Have we become the kind of children our parents have warned us to be? Only artists like Yokte can create such dormant scenes that feed on life’s imperfections done beautifully. As he investigates into our human condition what he unravels like secrets to a code yields our               uniqueness as it is ironically present in all of us.

When the Cat Fell Out

When the Cat Fell Out debunks that what we chose to blindly submit. Black cats represent impending bad luck whereas a cat can just be born black. Maybe Yokte’s works are even the bigger contrary to what is evidently contemporary art—white canvases featuring personalities as smiling farmers, mother and child, even coy fish on the pond. The presence of black mud-like paint is not to blot the picture but a pun right smack as intended. Being in Tarlac provides his with a vantage point--a way of seeing. He is far yet inside the art scene. Even he can be his own sordid critic.


One can however never get over viewing a Yokte piece. One is unmindful of the time as he was doing them. The gestalt effect that his canvases are bigger than what and how his symbolism applies. At a glance, macabre as it is, each is like rich thick moist chocolate cake with sprinkles for everyone to partake. Such as Counterpole which is a continuing reminder of the ups and downs of life reminiscent of the circus act as in his last show, Mabulaklaking Angkan. Compared to this present crop, whatever these pieces lack in humor accessibility and accessories Yokte made up with much bravura and immensely finer craft--more mature brushstrokes and a serious take on our contemporary culture. I would not be surprised if these solitary creatures will be ready to come closer and bite back at us in his next show. 


Looking Through His Lens Clearly: The Photography of Wig Tysmans


Despite of the emergence of digital camera, photography in the Philippines still develops into a very blurred picture and has yet to evolve from its commercial roots into an art form it was meant to be more than a hundred years ago. The lack of exhibitions dedicated to it and even the absence of a National Artist given to photography is proof enough despite the many who have blazed the trail by reinventing the art form, some even brought honor to the country by exhibiting abroad. Photography is still relegated as just “one of those subjects” under visual arts.

Herwig “Wig” Tysmans has been at the forefront in this struggle in turning the lens and clearing Philippine photography’s focus having been one of the country’s top portraitists and commercial photographers in the last 40 years or so.

Unlike other master lensmen, Wig had artistry in his Belgian and Ilocano roots. His grandfather is a known painter in Belgium. He had a writer for a father and a mother who was engaged in a shell handicraft business in Zamboanga City which exported its products to some parts of the world. The Tysmans eventually moved to Manila in 1961 when they closed the business.

The young Tysmans would discover his love affair with the camera at 15 years of age in 1971 during his final year in high school in Dumaguete while being involved with the school yearbook project. With a borrowed Olympus PenF camera, he was among those who took photos of his batch mates to be featured in the said annual publication.

On that same year, a field trip to Baguio will eventually make him comeback and stay longer. The cool climate, rich culture and warm hospitality of its people made him fell in love with this city of pines. He convinced his parents to allow him to enroll there after his high school graduation. With the influx of foreign tourists Baguio was a visual feast and fertile ground for his creativity, thus, plant his artistic roots of this city planned by the Americans. Unable to find a fine arts degree in any of the educational institutions there, Wig enrolled in the closest course possible, architecture at St. Louis University.

It was in this period that his love for photography brought back and fully bloomed. Together with four other Engineering and Commerce friends who became his friends, they formed a sort of photography cooperative in the campus. For a cost P25, they would photograph people and blow it up 20 x 24 inches size.

“We were into business because we wanted to buy our own equipments,” Wig reminisces, “we made more than a hundred blow-ups, we made good money.” A Nikon F with a 50 mm lens was his first gift to himself from his initial earnings. In time his friends became more interested in their courses while Wig took frequent and longer trips to the darkroom. Word of their good work spread fast and St. Louis became too small for their immense passion. In fact local newspapers relied on whatever he and his photographer friends would give them to end up in their pages. Converting his extra bathroom into a bigger dark room, Wig went full time after college.

Wig had a well-rounded background in laying the groundwork of his artistry. Among his early jobs also included documentary work doing publications in the countryside, some magazine assignments, and a stringer for Associated Press for three months World Chess Championships between Korchnoi and Karpov in Baguio.

Out on his own in 1976, Wig started doing portraits of old people who migrated to Baguio before World War II. Since he had access to them, he was able to convince them for a photograph them among them were Robert Fox, Mr. and Mrs. Chan of the Old Pagoda, and the Ifugao Lam-ang who wore G-string to Congress. From 1977 to the early 1980s, he was building up a series of portraits for his future one man show.

Santi Bose
Writer Eric Caruncho in an article, “Wig 
became part of an emerging art scene that included fellow photographers Tommy Hafalla and Mannix Santos, filmmakers Boy Yñiguez and Kidlat Tahimik, and painters BenCab, Santi Bose and Roberto Villanueva. His early influences were painters: modernists such as Roberto Chabet and Lee Aguinaldo whose works exhibited a zen-like simplicity and straightforwardness that Tysmans sought to emulate in his photographs.”

Wig reflects: “Malaki ang influence ng Baguio. Iba ang culture sa Baguio kasi yung mga artists magkakalapit studios or nasa cafes. Unique in a sense is that we were all respected artists in group but we were opinionated. You could hang out and discuss ideas which hindi mo magagawa sa Manila. The environment itself was conducive to the arts as it was rich in indigenous culture, the Cordilleras. Plus there was a constant influx of tourists, thus, we would get a taste of Europe and America and have access to their photography. We could also go to Camp John Hay Library and see photos.”

In 1981, in a chance meeting with Gilda Cordero-Fernando he was able to be introduced to Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala. Through Don Jaime’s help, Wig was finally able to organize a group show for the Baguio Photographers Group at the Ayala Museum. He eventually showed his portraits for his first one-man show also at the Ayala Museum later in 1984. This same show would later tour in other consulates and the Philippine embassy in the US such as San Francisco, Chicago and Washington showing the same images, his manager and curator was now National Artists Arturo Luz.

By this time, there was no stopping the boundless energy of Wig. His next show was bigger and better with 90 portraits of writers and artists, some even in the nude at Goethe Institute in Quezon City. With the overwhelming acceptance, commercial work easily came in.

“Fashion photography was the closest thing to portraiture which I really like. It was the only direction for me – merging of my angst as an artist and limelight of the fashion scene. Press photographers lang gumagawa ng fashion photography nun. Sila lang yung may access sa newspapers, Sunday magazine and Lifestyle sections. Through my fashion work I ended up doing major portraiture. Subsequently since show biz is related to fashion, that followed too. Book photography came in as well.” Wig adds.
                                                                      One Light Source

“The hallmarks of a Tysmans photograph are his minute attention to detail and a flawless technical sheen. Through his mastery of the subtleties of lighting, the photographer manipulates light and shadow to throw one or more particular features in bold relief while keeping others intriguingly swathed in various shades of light and dark. Through his mastery of darkroom technique, these qualities are brought out and enhanced in the final, museum-quality print,” wrote Caruncho.

Early on Wig admits his influences were all foreigners such as the portraits of Richard Avedon and Eugene Smith who was a war correspondent. He clarifies though that he does finer versions in his attempt to be different.

Wig stresses: “For example Irving Penn, when I shot Sinaunang Habi book he was my influence, I even brought my back drop with me while shooting ethno-linguistic communities as how Penn did when he was shooting the Indian tribes in Peru and in the Andes, pero syempre iba yung approach.”

Equally lauded as his portraits are his nudes. “I like it because it is the most basic, wala kang dadamitan. Walang mag-didictate but I will have to catch the character of the person. I have a way of making him relax with me and capture his soul. That’s why I favor artists as subjects because they are willing as they trust me,” emphasizes Wig who is known for his signature borders which came from his Hasselblad bracketing and his having a one light source.

Of late he has done collaborative work for people in other disciplines. For example with Antonio Garcia, florist, “Ako nagpapalabas ng form, Ilalagay niya yung elements like flowers and chili. Sometimes the drive is not for an exhibition but more of an exercise. Depending on the magnitude, the body of works could in the long run be for a show.” Nearing the landmark age of 60, he is planning to do another show of portraits but this time with more of people of our time and many of them new personalities.

Sili King
Wide Opening

Susan Sontag writes in her famous essay On Photography: “Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all objects that make up and thicken the environment we recognize as “modern. Photographs really are captured and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—therefore, like power.”  

For Wig a good photograph should tickle your imagination when one views it. One gives you wonder, doubt and amazement at how the image was done not that we want to analyze it, for sometimes the photo speaks for itself. He adds “the really nice photographs are the ones that you retain after a week, a month, a year you still remember them. These are the types of photographs that become iconic.”

Wig’s aesthetic sense leans towards the stark and macabre. “If the image is dark, I sometimes wonder why he did it because it is that was the situation or is it because he wanted to portray something to establish a mood? As a photographer you will have to know the intention.”

“When digital photography came out ten years ago hindi ko feel,” Wig further explains, “Some of my friends, kahit 3 mega pix bumili sila. It cost a lot of money. At a time kaya naman ng film then drumscan in Hong Kong. Purist ako just for a little more, this will I get. Bangko Sentral’s Ginto book was my first venture into digital. Somehow I was convinced I could shoot something reflective like the BSP gold collection.”

Recently a clothing line featured Wig’s infrared photographs he did of popular spots Baguio Cathedral, Camp John Hay and Session Road in Baguio in the late 70s to early 80s. It was only Wig who had access to infrared film then which makes these photos more significant. Since infrared gives one an ethereal somewhat fleeting feel, quite apt since much of these scenes have changed or even gone forever. Baguio will always be beautiful for Wig: This is where I was energized and discovered my talent for photography, a medium for me to express myself.”