Research Log | Visit to Manila

While the Asia Art Archive has succeeded in building a comprehensive collection for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan over the past three years, material from a number of South East Asian countries has been difficult to come by. This arises out of a combination of insufficient printed material being produced in the region, geographical limitations, lack of centralised resource centres and, of course, language.

While language may not be an issue when considering the Philippines, as a large percentage of Filipinos have an excellent command of the English language, it has been difficult for the team at the AAA to locate critical texts, periodicals or printed material. I hoped to initiate the expansion of our collection for the Philippines with a 3 day trip to Manila.

Day One:
Upon arriving in Manila I headed directly to Big Sky Mind to meet with one of the founders and current director, Ringo Bunoan. Big Sky Mind, an alternative artist-initiated space, was set up in 1999 in a cafe-cum-gallery setting. One year ago it moved to its current location in Quezon City and changed its focus to residency programmes. Big Sky Mind is currently able to accommodate up to 6 artists a year offering studio space and housing. The first exhibition of works created by the artists currently in residence, Ronald Anading, Lena Cobangbang, Louie Cordero, Jayson Oliveria, and MM Yu was opening on the Saturday 12th June (see AAA World Events "The Big Sky Mind Annual 1" for more details.) There future plans include solo exhibitions of the artists in residence, as well as building up a resource centre for artists they show.

Next stop was Green Papaya Art Projects, where I was met by the two directors, Norberto Roldan (aka Pee Wee) and Manuel Chaves, who over a refreshing glass of Calamansi juice, gave me a brief background to the space. Situated in a renovated garage of a condominium in vicinity of the University of the Philippines (UP is one the foremost universities for studying art in the Philippines), Green Papaya sets itself apart from a purely commercial gallery with the projects and initiatives they are involved in. The space is used for exhibitions, design, concerts and dance. Green Papaya also has a comprehensive internal archive of projects, exhibitions and artists they are involved with or organise.

Pee Wee recommended I visit the Vargas and Ateneo Museum as I was already in the University district. I thought this was a good idea as Manila is not a city that one can easily drive back and forth. Traffic is an accepted fact and trips must be planned carefully depending on the day of the week and time of the day.

The Vargas museum was my first introduction to the phenomena of private museums in Manila established by wealthy families or individuals. The museum is named after Jorge B. Vargas (1890-1980) who was the country¡¦s first Executive Secretary during the Commonwealth period. Opened in 1987, the museum houses both his personal memorabilia to include family portraits, stamps and coins, as well as his art collection of oil paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sculptures ranging from 1880s to 1960s. On view are works by renowned 19th century artists Lorenzo Guerrero, Simon Flores, Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, although upon my visit there were a number of empty wall spaces due to renovation. Works of later artists such as Armonsolo, Fabian dela Rosa, Juan Arellano, Diosdado Lorenzo and Victorio Edades are also included, which are the core of artists that make up an number of important collections in the Philippines. The museum also has a library and archives of Vargas' personal papers, and a collection of rare Filipiniana documents, papers, books, journals, photographs, scrapbooks and magazines from the 19th to 20th century.

The constrast of the Ateneo Art Gallery in Ateneo University to the Vargas Museum is considerable; the former having recently been renovated and appointed with a new and young curator, Ramon Lerma, after 40 years of one 'rule'. During my visit the nucleus of the collection of modern and contemporary art was on show. The collection currently holds approximately 600 paintings, sculptures, drawing and prints. Lerma explained that the museum began with the donation of a large collection of works by Zorbel, an artist and collector, who taught at the museum in the 1950s, and is the only museum in the Philippines to include in its' collection modern Western masters such as Picasso. While the museum does not have an acquisition fund, which I discovered seems to be the case for most of the museums in Manila, works are donated annually by the Board. The next exhibition, one of 4-5 held annually, will be the inauguration of an art prize in conjunction with HSBC. The museum organises a number of educational programmes as one of the members of a consortium together with the Lopez and Ayala museums, and is thinking of new ways to get a wider audience into the space as the university is private and one of the most exclusive in the Philippines.

Day Two:
I met with Sid Gomez Hildawa (AAA advisor and Director of Visual, Literary and Media Departments of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines) and scholar, Dr. Patrick Flores for an early lunch after a quick visit to the Metropolitan Museum, which was showing a mixed group of exhibitions ranging from Philippine national dress designs to Russian icon paintings to their permanent collections of early Filipino gold jewellery.

Patrick kindly took me for a tour around the Cultural Centre complex, where I was given a glimpse into the remnants of the absolute power of the Marcos Regime (1965-1986). The entire complex built on reclaimed land was the vision of Imelda Marcos, who believed that building cultural icons was vital for showing the world how far the Philippines had come. On the way to the Government Services Insurance System (GSIS), Patrick pointed out a deserted hotel and structure built for the purpose of a beauty contest and, most chilling of all, a large, monolithic, ghost of a building; the Manila Film Centre. Abandoned and structurally unstable after an earthquake, it is said to be haunted after hundreds of workers were buried in quick cement when the basement collapsed during construction. Under the orders of Imelda Marcos, the workers were not dug out as this would have held up completion of the building. It is in effect one mass grave.

I was surprised to find a large collection of modern work at the GSIS, not an organisation one would normally associate with art. Eric Babar Zerrudo, Director of the Culture Facilities Office, explained that the president of the agency began the collection in the mid-70's with Ocampo and Armonsolo, a direction that was encouraged under the Marcos regime for many government organisations. During a tour of the exhibition space and collections, I was privy to lay eyes on Juan Luna's controversial "Parisian Life" which was purchased in a HK auction in 2002 for HK$6,674,100 by the GSIS and currently hangs in a shrine of room dedicated to this one work.

Back at the Cultural Centre, after a visit to their impressive video documentation room, Patrick took me to see the first in a five part exhibition series he curated of artists, Manuel Ocampo and Roberto Feleo, to identify certain aspects and categories of the Filipino sense system embodied by contemporary art and demonstrated at the same time in Filipino folk and popular expression.

Shortly after, a symposium for an exhibition opening that evening commenced for the 15th anniversary show of the Kasibulan, a women's artist group. The curator of the show Flaudette May Datuin, who teaches in the art department of the UP, introduced the works of the 59 artists who produced works around the theme of "reclaiming power" and "rallying around the ancient priestess." Issues of the visibility of women artists working and centre/periphery were discussed intensely throughout the afternoon. During the opening of the exhibition I bumped into artists Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, whose Jeepney work was shown in the Venice Biennale 2003, and Alfredo Esquillo, who I met at John Batten gallery in Hong Kong. Judy Freya Sibayan, who I had not seen since the MoMA workshop organised by AAA and HK Arts Centre in 2002, met me at the exhibition and kindly took me for dinner in the young and vibrant area of Malati, during which we deliberated issues of archiving and the situation of contemporary Filipino art.

Third Day:
I headed to the Lopez Memorial Museum in the morning which is located on the ground floor of an office building. The Lopez Memorial Museum was founded on the 13 February 1960 by Don Eugenio Lopez to allow students and scholars access to his personal collection of rare Filipiniana books, manuscripts, maps, archeological artefacts and fine art. The highlights of the collection include works by Filipino masters Juan Luna y Novicio, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and Fernando Amorsolo, as well as 14th and 15th century artefacts, letters written by Jose Rizal and over 16,000 Filipinania titles, some dating back to the early 17th century.

After paying the entrance fee, I was escorted by one of the docents around the small but impressive museum, and enjoyed her introduction to the highlights of the collection.

The museum's engagement with contemporary art could be seen in the exhibition, 'Wild Imagination: The Grotesque Illustrated,' which aims to relate the story of how we visualise our physical selves and those of others. Works by artists such as Juan Arellano, Danilo Dalena, Jose Joya, Vicente Manansala, Elmer Borlongan and Jayson Olivera, both from the museum's collection and on loan, were an indication of the museum's development of its collections for contemporary art.

My final stop on the way to the airport was Hiraya Gallery to meet with DiDi Dee, who established the gallery in 1980 to promote young Filipino artists. One of the longest established commercial galleries in Manila, Hiraya, for many years, was one of the few venues offering a space for showing contemporary more experimental art.

As the car weaved its way in and out of the Friday traffic, I realised that this would be the first in many research trips to the Philippines. Three days has only just scrapped the ice tip.

Big Sky Mind: Email:
Green Papaya Art Projects: (t) (632) 927 3187 Email:
Vargas Museum: Email:
Ateneo Art Gallery, Ateneo University (t) (632) 426 6488 Email:
Juan Luna's "Parisian Life": (
The Lopez Memorial Museum: Tel/fax no.s :631 2417/449
Hiraya Gallery:



Claire HSU, 徐文玠

Tue, 1 Jun 2004

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