From the City of Pines, Benjie Mallari reclaims and retells his youth in the City of Sunsets through illustration-inspired paintings.
BY PAOLO VERGARA
For those coming of age in the dusty, grimy, and congested Manila we know today, it’s hard to imagine what inspired musicians and acts like jazz composer Boy Katindig and modern OPM pioneers Hotdog to write songs like “Manila on My Mind,” an instrumental ballad with a non-traditional structure, and the karaoke staple “Manila.” Today, lyrics like “hinahanap-hanap kita, Manila, ang ingay mong kay sarap sa tenga,” bear some bittersweet, if wistful, longing undertones, walking through a city that looks vastly different from those found in sepia photographs of classy architecture, sunset-conducive beachfronts, and lines and lines of trees and greenery that stretch out well into the environs like Antipolo and Cavite, gradually urbanizing today.
It can be said that, like these musicians, painter Benjie Mallari’s works in today’s context also show us what the Pearl of the Orient really was like. A native of Manila, his oeuvre has come to be known for street scenes of the old city. Art+ gets in touch with the artist (albeit remotely, as it remains unsafe for a chat over coffee), where we jog through time and memory. Even electronically, his typing reveals the energy and passion with which he recalls not only Manila, but his growth as a painter, influenced by his interactions with many creatives.
The Time Traveler
Like many children growing up in the era of komiks, Mallari drew for fun. He started doodling at around four or five years old. The hobby turned into a passion, and he warmly recalls that it was at age seven when he learned how to properly draw figures. His hand steadying and his technique maturing, he considered taking up Architecture as he finished high school. He also recalls the calendars of those days featuring Amorsolo paintings. Looking back now, he realized they played a part in influencing his painting. “Naku! Mahina ka sa math!” his mother half-quipped, and so he took up Fine Arts in the University of the East School of Music and Arts, finishing in 1976. Here, their nine-person batch was one of the pioneers of the course as the school had yet to reach five batches of Fine Arts majors.
During his senior year, he was a working student at a garment factory, drawing Disney characters for children’s clothes. He was making a lot for a college kid in the 70s: 6 pesos a day, with back-and-forth transportation allowance. Disneyland was his Manila. The attractions were do-it-yourself, as he recalls him and his playmates creating their own toys out of sardine and milk cans. He recalls how Quiapo, Rizal Avenue, and Escolta then were marvels that even children could appreciate. The Quiapo Quinta market palabok and halo-halo, which his father would treat them to during paydays, were to Mallari as madeleines were to Proust. This Manila of his childhood is what his works try to capture and convey—a Manila he recalls fondly.
Four years after college, he started working as a graphic artist for the Manila Electric Company, designing brochures, laying out annual reports and in-house magazines, and storyboarding TV commercials. He rarely had time to paint during this period of his life, which lasted until 2003, when he was hired as a visual consultant for the Haribon Foundation. He recalls feeling envious of peers who were able to hold shows and paint for a living. A few times, he was invited to do group shows, the most memorable being one for Binibining Pilipinas, upon the invitation of abstract painter Benjie Cabangis. During these respites from the daily grind, he would file for 3-5 day leaves just to paint. As he neared retirement age, his wife, in the midst of a longtime affair with Baguio city, influenced the couple to build a house there. It wasn’t just retirement that gave him time to focus on painting, but the natural and social climate and environment in the hinterland, once truly sylvan, locale.
Here, he met and befriended musicians like Cynthia Alexander, Eraserheads guitarist Marcus Adoro, and Pepe Smith. Alexander invited him to paint for a Women’s Month exhibit, his first solo show, thus introducing him to the Baguio creative community.
Adoro and Smith performed numbers in his second solo show, becoming fast friends with the painter. Around this time, he was also brushing shoulders and clinking cups and bottles with the likes of BenCab and Kidlat Tahimik, two major influences of his. A regular at creative haunts like Conspiracy, Bliss Café, and the Victor Oteyza Community Art Space, he was slowly becoming a staple of Baguio’s art scene.
Tints and Hints
Aside from those mentioned above, Mallari cites classic komiks artist Nonoy Marcelo, creator of Tisoy, and literati and painter Gilda Cordero-Fernando as inspirations: “mga binibiliban ko nang husto.” His works bear resonances with the street scenes of Antipas Delotavo, as well as the pop art sensibilities of Andy Warhol, especially with regards to color schemes. Music is a major influence for the painter, as suggested by his work titles. It has been said, after all, that art beautifies space, while music beautifies time. It is perhaps this shared immersion in aesthetics for different senses that brings musicians and artists together, not just, but especially, in Baguio. Sometimes he’ll title his works with more contemporary music, to “contrast the old and new.” His subjects are always people, vendors balancing bilao on their heads, office workers and students rushing to beat the clock, jeepneys and kalesa passing each other. The frustrated architect comes out through a secondary emphasis on built heritage: cathedrals, theaters, and rows of Art Deco buildings.
Finally, built heritage also includes the street fashion and vehicles of the period, Americana dancing with baro’t saya, here and there, Sunday’s best, all as Beetles, Buicks, and Cadillacs zip through. His chromatic tints and saturations wink at his more than 20 years of experience as an advertiser, illustrator, and graphic designer. Sometimes, he might add backgrounds; other times, it’s just the people going about their daily lives, walking down and across a single-color background, as if in a dream. Either way, the pedestrians are always looking askance, perhaps remembering a Manila that is no longer there. Asked if he wants to explore other subjects in the future, he shares that he’s content with the corner of the world he’s chosen to recreate and retell. This is, according to him, a Manila where you could trust the cops, where people didn’t mind commuting, where couples and friends strolled through for leisure, and where an actual bayside sunset could be experienced. I have a hunch Mallari isn’t just showing us the past, but also what Manila can and should be.
With additional reporting by Della de Leos.