“His figures are un-anatomical, his work more evocative than literal. Aside from these we think De Guzman is recording some metaphysical insights by means of his personal mythology," written by then Cultural Center of the Philippines Director Raymundo Albano on Gomburza Martyrs (1971) by Jaime De Guzman (b.1942) which prominently hangs on the second floor of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Building.
It was in Pasinaya, the CCP Open Arts Festival in 2015 that Billy Bagtas first caught attention to this visual masterpiece which was De Guzman’s artistic ode to the three Filipino priests who inspired Jose Rizal to write the El Filibusterismo. For close to an hour Bagtas was enthralled and unmindful of his friends who were with him--intently stared at the mural which features a distortion of the three priests as martyrs done in feverish brushstrokes and emotive colors.
Bagtas was immediately transformed by Gomburza Martyrs as these Filipino clergy ignited the clamor for Philippine revolution during the 19th century. And every chance Bagtas gets to visit the CCP he would never fail to see the De Guzman mural like a venerated image with religious devotion.
From the Gomburza Martyrs Bagtas would learn and gain the confidence that paintings can be dark both in theme and in composition; that one can include one’s anger, doubts, dreams with the surreal historical and bespoke myths and legends as Jaime De Guzman proved it can be done in black and red. In his first solo exhibition God Bless Our Home Bagtas introduces us to his beloved family and provides a tell-all tale of the inner workings of their Caloocan household.
|Luha at Pangil|
In the Name of the Father
Our story starts off fresh in a bakery in Orion, Bataan where Bagtas’ parents, Crisanto and Cory met. Cory was working there when Crisanto chance upon her and introduced himself. He then asked her employer if she could go out with him on her next availability. Cory is seven years older than Crisanto but the age did not matter and soon they were an inseparable couple.
Soon Crisanto would accept an offer to work in Saudi Arabia for their common future. By the time he finished with his working contract he went home and married Cory and eventually settled down.
Crisanto, being a natural tinker and works well in a junkshop, is the one Bagtas thinks he owes his creativity to, imbibing his meticulous attention to detail. Crisanto’s biological genes however may be his only contribution to their blood relations. Deep within him is a man exuding with false machismo. He was once a philandering husband leaving his family for another woman. Being ghoulish and full of deceit, Bagtas paints him as is with protruding horns and hanging pangs in Bukal ng Buhay, Tatlong Sungay. Despite Crisanto’s shortcomings, this painting occupies the biggest exhibiting space not only in the gallery but in Bagtas’ heart in his honor. Their ongoing relationship is one wrought in love-hate. Bagtas remains to be a true Christian and as a dutiful son, Bagtas still accords him with the greatest respect.
In Aso Krus Bagtas even strikes a pun intended only for him as he calls to attention Crisanto’s four unruly dogs who furiously roams around the house during the day. They even spread their litter everywhere. No wonder Bagtas sees his father as being a dog himself later on.
In Luha at Pangil Bagtas is elegiac as he hopes his father will still humble himself and repent for his past sins not only as a husband and father but as a mortal being. As tears freely flow, one day he will weep, ask forgiveness and maybe be proud of what Bagtas has already accomplished as a visual artist.
And of the Son
The Bagtases are a brood of three children with Bagtas being the middle child. They are your typical Filipino family barely surviving their daily struggle with the economics of life in the suburbs of Caloocan. In fact they were once saddled and lived in a former pig pen with only curtains as decoration.
Cryam is Bagtas’s elder brother and one he is closest with. In Panalangin ng Laman Bagtas believes that he will find heavenly favor and be converted from his earthly ways as his stigmata suggests. Last April, during the intense lockdown, Cryam’s girlfriend suffered a miscarriage. This fortuitous event has affected the whole family and overwhelmed Bagtas who was already preparing for his show. He timely marked the sad milestone in Anghel Gabay (Bulaklak) mourning for the baby’s passing as Buchokoy (his name) was already two months in his brother’s girlfriend’s womb as evident in Anghel Gabay (Kaluluwa).
|Anghel Gabay (Kaluluwa)|
When Bagtas become Born Again Christian his works became darker yet he introduced other colors particularly violet and pink signifying acceptance as a leap of faith. He will often use them to mean it is done and a gentle reminder to remember them only in memory. Such is Tao (Alaala) where he immortalizes his dearly departed nephew and never to relive the pain again.
And of the Holy Spirit
Yvonne is Bagtas’ youngest sibling. She was adopted from an aunt who almost sold her because they lived in dire poverty and could no longer support her. Yvonne was adopted by Bagtas’s parents and treated her as their own. She is the first to be renewed as a Born Again Christian. One day, when Bagtas was so distraught and needed help after a failed suicide attempt, it was Yvonne that he reached out. Bagtas pleaded her to bring him to the Lord.
Two years ago, 18 year-old Yvonne got pregnant by her boyfriend. Sa Pagiyak at Pagtanggap captures that moment when the family found out her delicate condition. Garbed in white Yvonne gets emotional as Cory in her floral aura anguish with her. Succeeding this scene is Apoy at Dugo where Yvonne and her baby Ishang have already strengthened their bond as mother and daughter. In Salitang Dumurog sa Sariling Puso Bagtas reminds Yvonne’s boyfriend to keep his promise to marry her and provide for their better future.
|Apoy at Dugo|
Before Bagtas was saved by the Lord in 2017, he was experiencing many pains both physical and emotional in nature. He had a recurring ache on the chest and lower abdomen. In fact during his graduation with a Fine Arts degree from EARIST he almost could not muster himself on stage and collect his diploma. Because of its recurring presence, he had to beg off being in the first batch of the Tuklas Program of Eskinita Art Gallery to be mentored by Alfredo Esquillo and Renato Habulan.
Since he became a Born Again he was relieved of whatever negative he was constantly feeling. He also summed up that practicing kindness will always make you feel light and happy. Another installation is Trono ng Awa which is about conquering pride and let mercy rule our bare existence. In Di Purong Tinik Bagtas pays homage to the epitome of mercy, his mother, Cory. She exemplifies stability in Bagtas’s life, the calm before (and even after) every storm of their lives.
Expect Bagtas to unapologetically explore the defining mood to a certain sentimentality to his own self-portraits. In Wasak Loob he is at his lowest depression being heart-broken. It is as raw as done in spontaneous strokes. He was badly hurting from a girl who just took him for a romantic spin. He thought she loved him--to think she was of the same faith as he is.
Espiritu ng Hayop reflects his softer side as a cat lover. As a young boy he will often bring home stray cats from the streets. Often fascinated with their eyes and fur, he is always surrounded by their feline comfort while painting and even when asleep beside them.
For Bagtas one has to trust the Lord and He will make everything beautiful in His time. Then maybe his family will finally come and see themselves in his paintings. In the end, home is where the art is.