By Franchesca Lesaca
During the press conference for the Mindanao Art Fair, Exhibit and Conference (MindanaoArt), Vim Nadera – award-winning poet and writer, and former director of the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) – posed a rhetorical question to everyone gathered: “Where is Mindanao in Philippine art?”
This sentiment is precisely the reason why MindanaoArt was organized in the first place. To the outsider, not much is known about the Mindanao art scene, and it may be lacking in development compared to creative industries in Manila and the Visayas, which have relatively advanced. Perhaps Mindanao seems inaccessible to collectors because it is far from Manila, the center of the Philippine art scene. Mindanao’s diversified culture and people provide fertile ground for inspiration, but few artists are discovered and able to thrive here. The rich heritage and vibrant culture of the region has been overshadowed by conflicts in recent history, which have raised security concerns.
MindanaoArt is the first attempt to gather the region’s artists, galleries, and art spaces in one place. The Fair’s theme, “Traversing the River of Creativity,” refers to the origins of life, as rivers have long been instrumental to the development of civilizations as a catalyst for growth and progress. MindanaoArt intends to stimulate a sustainable and profitable art industry and generate a thriving environment for artists to create and earn from their work.
MindanaoArt combines an art fair and conference. It is designed to help artists in Mindanao gain exposure and learn the ropes through interactions with fellow artists, art professionals, collectors, and gallerists from Manila and other parts of the country. By the same token, visitors from Manila are introduced to members of the local art community.
A LONGED-FOR DREAM
A project of Lawig-Diwa Inc. ‒ a Davao based arts and culture organization – planning was led by artist Rey Mudjahid “Kublai” P. Millan and journalist Stella Estremera. MindanaoArt was inspired by the Visayan Islands Visual Arts Exhibit Conference (VIVA EXCON) where Millan was invited as a resource speaker last November 2016, and ManilArt where he was the featured artist in 2017.
Millan was amazed by the scale and scope of both VIVA EXCON and ManilArt, and he dreamed of doing a similar event in Mindanao. “But how do I even start? It was impossible,” he said.
Millan sought guidance from VIVA EXCON co-founder Charlie Co and artist Manny Garibay, who helped him conceptualize the project. Millan hosted Co and Garibay in Davao, along with several artists they brought in from Manila and Bacolod. He humbly requested them to give a talk to advise Lawig-Diwa on how they can organize MindanaoArt. These were the beginning steps, and the rest is history.
MindanaoArt 2019 was made possible through a grant from the National Committee on Art Galleries under the National Commission on Culture and the Arts. The first-ever Mindanao Art Fair was held at the Atrium of Gaisano Mall of Davao from 4-6 October 2019.
The Fair’s main exhibit featured 67 artists from 10 galleries and art groups from all over the region. Participating galleries included Bintana Art Gallery, Tabula Rasa, Piguras Davao, Art Portal Gallery for Contemporary Art, Datu Bago, Gallery Café, and Gallery Down South.
Participating regional groups included the Talaandig Soil Artists from Bukidnon led by Waway Saway, Ateneo de Zamboanga University’s Gallery of the Peninsula and the Archipelago, Capitol University’s Museum of Th ree Cultures in Cagayan de Oro, and Likha-Caraga Inc. from Butuan City.
Conference sessions were held at the Philippine Women’s College of Davao RSM Event Center on October 5. Artists and art professionals were invited to participate in panel discussions that delved into a variety of curated topics.
Vim Nadera gave the keynote speech—a primer on the contributions of Mindanao to Philippine art and culture. The first panel on “Artists Building Audience” kicked off with Atty. Elba Cruz’s introduction to curating art. Atty. Cruz is a curator certified by the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. Next, sculptor and PHSA professor Gerry Leonardo talked about the value of art education.
The second panel on “Artist Curating the Self” focused on the individual practices of Leeroy New (art installation), Dominic Rubio (painting history), and Rosalie Zerrudo (community healing through artistic self-expression).
The third and last panel on the “Business of Art” featured artists Riel Hilario and Pope Dalisay, who respectively talked about the benefits of applying for artist residencies and joining art competitions. Galerie Joaquin’s Jack Teotico shared insights on art marketing, while Melissa Yeung-Yap of Got Heart Foundation discussed art as a social enterprise.
The conference was Millan’s initiative; it was not covered by the grant. But for him, it is the “heart and soul” of MindanaoArt. “Imagine if we bring these talks to each and every student, art practitioner, and teacher, to every corner of Mindanao,” he said. It would help improve Mindanao art and expand the artists’ knowledge of the industry.
Millan aims to send video documentation of the conference to schools and communities all over Mindanao. Videos of the talks are currently on view on the Mindanao Art Facebook page. “That is the vision, to uplift our fellow artists in Mindanao,” said Millan. At the same time, he encourages them to keep the “Mindanao touch” that distinguishes their art from the rest of the world.
Aside from attending MindanaoArt, conference speakers and members of the media, including Art+, were toured around Davao to learn more about the art scene.
DAVAO CITY NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL
Hours before the opening of MindanaoArt, we witnessed the inauguration of Davao City National High School’s (DCNHS) Datu Bago Gallery Cafe. A students’ laboratory and entrepreneurial endeavor, the café and gallery is run by senior high students from the Arts and Design, Technical-Vocational-Livelihood, Accountancy, Business and Management tracks. They are the cooks and wait staff, exhibiting artists, café and gallery managers. Even the carpentry work to refurbish the space and build chairs and tables was done by students. They were mentored by DCNHS art advisor Jeff Bangot, Kublai Millan, and Lawig-Diwa Inc. Millan hopes that the model of a student-run establishment started in DCNHS will be adopted in other schools in the Philippines.
We also gazed at a stunning mural called “Lullabyes for Peace,” which adorns the perimeter fence of DCNHS. In the summer of 2018, Millan and Bangot, with the help of street artist Archie Oclos, organized a mural project participated in by DCNHS art students, alumni and teachers. The collaborative activity instilled in the students a sense of pride and ownership towards their school and environment, and encouraged them to remember their ancestors, Mindanao’s indigenous people.
MUSEUM OF ART MINDANAO
Millan dreams of opening the Museum of Art Mindanao in the future. We visited the museum’s site in Calinan, Davao where construction is underway. Integrated with the building are fantastic linear sculptures of the Philippine eagle and durian fruit alongside Millan’s sculptures depicting harvest, roots, and fl owers. A public art installation shows the faces of the Muslim, Christian and Lumad around the word ‘Kalipay,’ signifying that happiness is borne out of unity amongst diverse people.
The future museum will be a repository for Mindanao’s history, culture, art, and indigenous wisdom, based on four pillars: Learning, Healing, Creativity, and Spirituality. Much research has been done and the architectural plans are set, but a major hurdle is the lack of funding. “The vision is so big,” said Millan. “But imagine if this is realized; it can be a good thing.”
Mindanao Art Satellite Exhibits were held in the month of October. These included Lupa at Art Portal Gallery for Contemporary Art; Sidlak at Datu Bago Gallery Cafe; Living and Leaving at Tabula Rasa; the exhibit Lakbay sa Panaginip and theatrical play Isahan at Dalawahan at Morning Light Art Gallery & Shop; Pink October by all-women artist group BaiHinang at Waterfront Insular Hotel Davao; and Putong Hibla Kultura Filipina at Mindanao Folk Arts Museum.
We checked out the exhibit at Morning Light and met gallery owner Miyen Lim, who added a new gallery space to her art supplies shop to give young artists a venue to exhibit their works. The student exhibition at Morning Light was curated by Rob Tañedo, a professor from Philippine Women’s College, who is dedicated to teaching students about visual and performing arts. We also met Alfred Galvez, a Manila-based artist who opened Art Portal in Davao five years ago to help the art scene flourish. The galleries here support each other, said Galvez, because it then sustains the art industry.
During our last night in Davao, Millan and his wife Maan Chua welcomed friends and guests to their home for a fellowship dinner. We enjoyed a colorful celebration of Mindanao music, dance and culture, with exciting live music performances by Waway Saway and the Talaandig Tribe Band, Maan Chua, Gauss Obenza, and Bayang Barrios, as well as Mindanao folk dance numbers. Towards the end of the program, there was an auction of a Talaandig soil painting, in support of the construction of a community gallery for the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon.
As we witnessed this festive gathering, we caught a glimpse of that vibrant and joyous Mindanao spirit and realized that Mindanao has always been present in Philippine art. You only have to open your eyes to see it.
Despite war and conflict, Mindanao is blessed in many ways. “The soil is so rich, nature is bountiful, you won’t go hungry. You’ll see the difference of our celebrations from that all over the country. While others pray for good harvest, we offer thanksgiving. That’s why our art, dances, and performances are happy and colorful,” said Millan.
When we caught up with Millan after MindanaoArt’s gala night and conference, he talked about areas of improvement for the fair, plans for next year’s conference, and the goal of building community galleries all over Mindanao. You could see the wheels turning in his head.
With having to juggle so many projects, we asked Millan: “What makes it worth it?” He answered, “I’ve already given myself up to the universe. I said, ‘Use me.’ It’s a spiritual thing. It’s not a job; it’s already my vocation. Every waking hour is dedicated to this.”
Images courtesy of Lawig-Diwa Inc. Additional Photos by Franchesca Lesaca.