This article originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue 37 (Jan-Feb 2015). The article is republished here as part of #ArtPlusFlashbackFriday project.
Abdulmari Imao – the first Muslim recipient of the Philippine National Artist Award – a sculptor and painter who fused traditional Islamic design with Modernist patterns to result in vivid works that yearn for local color and the dream of a unified nation, died peacefully in his sleep last December 16 at his house in Marikina City. He was 78 years old.
Known for his unique adaptation of traditional Muslim Mindanaon motifs, such as the ukkil (sinuous relief woodcarving tradition found in houses and boats), the naga (sea serpent motif), pako rabong (fern motif), and sarimanok (mythical bird-with-fish figure), Mari, as he was called by friends and family, persevered to unite an innate sense to continue the carving and painting traditions of his Tausug forebears with a more Modern sensibility that created abstracted patterns for sculpture and painting that combines these motifs with Cubism. In addition, Mari was one of few Muslim-Filipino artists who would work on the figurative genre in sculpture, which is often discouraged because of the Koranic strictures against the representation of human figures. In public sculptures like “Sulu Warriors” at the Jolo Capitol grounds or “Antonio Pigafetta” for Cebu City’s Fort San Pedro, Mari represents the heroic qualities of the Filipino or historical figures that instills a public sense of affiliation with the secular state—an attitude that was fostered by his educational experience at the University of the Philippines (UP) at Diliman, where he took up Fine Arts, as well as graduate and post-graduates studies at the University of Kansas, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Columbia University.
Abdulmari Asia Imao was born to an impoverished Tausug couple in Siasi, Sulu on January 14, 1936. Originally surnamed as Allih, after his Arabian forebears which originated from the Medina, Red Sea coast sometime in the 19th Century, Mari was renamed Asia Imao on his mother’s side after his mother consulted an imam when a domestic tragedy left two of his sisters dead. He was then adopted by his maternal uncle, the renowned guerilla and war hero Captain Abdulrahim Imao, under whose roof he would then live and study. Mari finished at the Jolo Central Elementary School and the Sulu Trade School, while working to earn this education by selling icedrops, ginataan, and peanuts in movie houses; working as a stonebreaker for road constructions; and as a stevedore in the Jolo pier.
As a child, Mari would already be drawing on leaves of dapdap and banana, imitating and elaborating the traditional Muslim motifs of the ukkil, naga, and pako rabong. This would be sustained in his high school years at the Sulu Trade School, where he would construct wooden chairs and tables with sculptural details. Mari’s formal introduction to art came in 1954, when a Landing Ship Transport (LST) from Manila arrived at Jolo pier bearing an exhibition of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP). While viewing this travelling exhibit, Mari would meet then-AAP Secretary and painter Tomas Bernardo, who was impressed by the young Tausug’s nascent artistic talents. Bernardo encouraged him to seek his fortunes in Manila, and with only the clothes on his back, Mari returned with Bernardo to Manila, and stayed with him in Tondo to work as his handyman and stretcher.
Mari applied at the UP School of Fine Arts in 1955, and handily passed the entrance exam. Recommended by Professor Dominador Castañeda, Mari approached President Ramon Magsaysay for a pensionado grant as a Moro student as he did not have any money then. Though he did not get the grant that year, his perseverance drew the attention of Magsaysay’s personal secretary Jose Ma. Ansaldo, who paid for his school fees. Through the help of Mr. Ansaldo, who eventually secured his pensionado grant, and donations from other kind teachers and mentors, Mari flourished as a UP student artist under mentors like the classicist Anastacio Caedo and the Modernist Napoleon Abueva, winning the 1956 art exhibition sponsored by the UP-SCA for “Inah Iban Anak” – a Muslim version of the Madonna and Child – and the AAP’s 10th Southeast Asian Art Exhibition and Competition for “Muslim Prayer.” Abdulmari also became an accomplished photographer and staffer of The Philippinensian, UP’s now-defunct annual yearbook.
It is because of this charitable treatment by other Filipinos, regardless of faith, that Mari owes a debt of gratitude to the Philippine state, and he became an active secular sculptor. His education at UP, and subsequently in the United States, also allowed him the intellectual liberalism to pursue the articulation of the human figure in art. To Mari, the human figure represents the pinnacle of achievement of the human race, in one’s ability to face onslaughts and challenges, and emerge victorious. It is because of this admiration of the human spirit that Mari has focused most of his sculpture on national heroes. At the same time, though, his cultural grounding in the sensibilities of Tausug and Moro culture as a whole has not been discarded. Instead, it has allowed him to re-explore and cultivate this aesthetic, coupled with an intellectual rigor, and the experience with Modernism that has since produced a wonderfully Filipino fusion of Western artistic techniques, and Eastern mystical and ornamental design. Alongside wood sculpture and painting, Mari also learned advanced brass-casting, creative sculpture, ceramics, and advanced photo-chemistry.
After returning to the country in 1964, Mari taught at the University of the East College of Fine Arts (then located at the Ramon Magsaysay campus in Santa Mesa, Manila) until 1968. It was here that Mari met the love of his life. Grace de Leon was a campus beauty and Catholic Pampangueña, and despite their different religions, they married in 1967. Grace would subsequently act as Mari’s adviser, confidante, art dealer and business manager, talking to patrons, newspaper editors, and government agencies on behalf of her husband. Receiving the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) Award in 1968, Mari decided to go full-time in sculpture.
Working on the motifs of Muslim Mindanao from the Sixties onward, Abdulmari has achieved renown as the foremost designer of the sarimanok motif, especially during the Seventies. He has integrated the form of the sarimanok and the fish on its beak or claws as integral elements of his paintings and sculpture. He calls these combined compositions the saribong, meaning the fusion of the sarimanok, pako rabong, and Islamic motifs such as the dome and crescent moon. He has also utilized the human figure as a public monumental element in his various sculptures dedicated to local heroes and historical figures, such as “President Elpidio Quirino” in Manila. His more recent mystical treatment of Islamic motifs, particularly in the calligraphic sculptural works called the Allah series starting in 1985, has also brought Abdulmari full circle back his Muslim roots.
Abdulmari Asia Imao is survived by four sons from his marriage with Grace de Leon Imao (who also passed away in 2012): Abdulmari Junior, nicknamed Toym; Jose Mari or Joey; Juan Sajid; and Alkarim or Kim. Toym (who took up Architecture) and Sajid (who took up Studio Arts) are both sculptors, while Joey, an accomplished painter himself, is a US-based dentist, and Kim is an interior design and lifestyle specialist. In addition, Toym is also a filmmaker and actor.