The father of Philippine Environmental Surrealism opens up the gates to his natural realm of wonder and mystery.
Text by Mara Fabella. Photos by Jovel Lorenzo.
For all the dreamlike imagery of his works, Raul Lebajo remains an artist rooted in his environment. He emerged into the Philippine art scene at a time when his contemporaries were working mostly within the bounds of Social Realism. Yet Lebajo, ever an artist to follow his own intuition, tread the path from abstraction towards his own unique brand of Philippine Surrealism, interpreting his natural surroundings in both lyrical and curious ways. He helped popularize this genre of painting that had, at the time, mostly been widespread in the West. Since then, Lebajo has been labeled a pioneer of Environmental Surrealism. Decades into his prolific career, the artist is ready to delve even deeper into his enigmatic and fantastical inner world.
Lebajo was born in 1941 and hails from Tacloban City. He studied Art Studies at the University of the East in 1965 before completing his BFA at Philippine Women’s University in 1969. Lebajo quickly found success as a growing artist, having won the coveted first place prize at the 1968 Shell National Student Art Competition. His first solo show followed in 1971 at the Solidaridad Galleries. At this point, the artist’s works were still steeped in pure abstraction.
Lebajo’s works have graced multiple galleries around the country, making him a household name in the field of Philippine art. Among these venues are Leon Gallery, Galleria Duemila, Galerie Joaquin, Altro Mondo Creative Space, and ArtistSpace at the Ayala Museum. His long career has been just as fruitful outside of the country. In 1989, he was awarded a grant by the Illinois Art Council Agency in collaboration with the National Endowment of the Arts in the US. He also had the opportunity to represent the Philippines in the Beaux Arts – Art in the World exhibit in Paris in 1998. His works have been featured in the US, Switzerland, Germany, Malaysia, Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong. He was featured on the cover of Asian Art News in 1994 and was among the prestigious group of artists included in Pinggot Zulueta’s Filipino Artists in their Studios. His works have been written about by the likes of renowned critics Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Leonidas Benesa. Most recently, the late Alice Guillermo wrote an entire book on Lebajo titled Enter His World in 2018.
Raul Lebajo’s art is as playful and mysterious as it is quietly introspective. Surrealism, by its definition, is one of the most unconstrained genres in the arts, and finding one’s distinct iconography within it is no easy feat. Lebajo begins by taking inspiration from his natural environment. Vast landscapes, plants, still lifes, animals—the artist takes these familiar visuals and reinvents them in ways that allow viewers to experience the mundane in a new, inquisitive light. In Guillermo’s words, “The ordinary objects of our environment are no longer taken for granted but are perceived anew, our sense of form and design awakened and made acute.” Lebajo treads the line between the familiar and the unfamiliar, inviting viewers to reexamine the way they perceive their own environments.
Lebajo’s visuals evoke those of noted Surrealists like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Yves Tanguy. His early landscape works recall Dali’s barren deserts. They retain enough environmental anchors to give us a sense of the space depicted, but Lebajo incorporates different kinds of forms, some perhaps recognizable, others totally alien, to turn his imagery into uncanny snapshots straight from the most indecipherable dreams. Whether it’s twisting forms that float across the sky, pathways that lead to uknown destinations, or unbalanced proportions that warp all sense of scale, Lebajo has a true grasp of scenic visuals that inspire awe and curiosity. And yet despite his meticulous and ambitious renderings, Lebajo claims he paints simply what he sees and feels, showing just how intuitive his manner of Surrealism is at its core.
Discernible in the artist’s works is his love for gardening and plants. His flora paintings illustrate his eye for intricate biological detail while still playing within the realm of whimsy. His earlier paintings depicting plant life once again evoke the refined renderings of Dali or Magritte, down to the small kernels on corn-like stalks, to the elegant detailing on curling multi-colored leaves. In these works, Lebajo would usually depict his foreground subjects with a keen amount of detail while his expansive backgrounds would be painted more stylistically, as if these imaginary plants of his were suspended in illusory voids. His later plant works around the 2000s ventured deeper into these stylistic mannerisms, emphasizing the artist’s grasp of expressive and varied brushwork. Lebajo would usually go into many of these works without a preparatory sketch, allowing instead the spontaneity of his strokes to influence the evolution of his forms. These paintings conveyed a more decorative aura compared to the stiller compositions of his early landscapes. With titles like “Sacred Tree,” “Birdsnest,” and “Fortune Plant,” Lebajo’s flora paintings are vibrant surreal narratives of otherworldly plant life that communicate his expressive admiration for his natural surroundings.
Additionally, Lebajo has works that span multiple other genres and subject matters, each exhibiting the adaptability of his Surrealist tendencies. His still life works resemble abstract compositions in the way his objects are not placed against a standard setting, but against dynamic backgrounds of pure textured color. These works embody the lonely melancholy of Magritte but with a more vibrant sensibility for color and form. His other nature-inspired paintings feature vaguely familiar organic forms resembling plants, seeds, fruits, but reconfigured into fantastical organisms floating in hypnotizing voids of color. Some of his 2000s nature pieces abandon his earlier detailed aesthetic altogether and turn into amorphous masses of color that almost fuse into one another. This manipulation of form also translated to sculptural works made out of sturdy fiberglass and resin, yet appearing pliable with their looping, flexible formations.
His graphite and pen-and-ink sketches of animals are simple in form yet rendered with detailed, tightly packed scribbles that make the very skins of his creatures move, as if they were teeming with micro life. Lebajo’s portrait series take on a more internal, introspective tone, pondering on the relationship between humankind and nature. Here, Lebajo uses the human face as a symbol on a more primal level, stripping it of any context or inclination. He chooses instead to show the intimacy of the spiritual, cosmic unity. Musing on this, Guillermo writes, “And if we are not always aware of this in our everyday mundane existence, the artist reminds us that such correspondence crystallizes in another realm, a platonic universe of the imagination where the seemingly disparate come together and where unlikely encounters are realized.”
Nowadays, the artist thrives in his current studio and abode, Lebajo Art Farm, located in Alfonso, Cavite. The Lebajo family settled on the plot of land after years of searching for the right space to take root. After finding the area, he went on to design the farm with his sons and fellow artists, Gio and Nikulas Lebajo. The main studio loft is spacious enough to fit many of Lebajo’s largest works. On the first floor is the viewing space, where visitors can sit down and eat while viewing an array of the artist’s works, ranging from his older pieces to newer ones he made as late as last year. Lebajo’s studio is on the second floor, right next to the window where he has a view overlooking his garden. Lebajo Art Farm is, first and foremost, a studio and a home, but the family is hoping to one day turn it into a vacation spot and a haven for artists. Apart from the main studio, the farm has enough natural space for art activities and even more interior viewing spaces. And quite importantly for Lebajo himself, there is enough space for him to tend to his gardening, just as much as he does his art. Lebajo’s farm adds to the growing community of artists and art destinations establishing themselves south of the metro that are slowly decentralizing the experience of local art.
Decades since his career’s early beginnings, Lebajo still continues to envision new imagery, inspired by the liberty of living on a farm. He has inspired many artists working in the genre of Environmental Surrealism today. And yet when asked who his own artistic inspirations are, Lebajo looks to the zealous street artists who create regardless of whether they have a large audience or not. Similarly, Lebajo remains steadfast in his work, his natural, distraction-free environment stimulating him to keep producing artworks, often working on rows of multiple pieces at a time. What sets Raul Lebajo’s art apart from his contemporaries and Surrealist predecessors is an inherent love for nature. Lebajo is not just concerned with depicting the natural world, but interpreting it to his fancy. Departing from Surrealist narratives centered on more existentialist ideas, he instead uses his unique way of rendering the environment as a tribute to nature and mankind’s multifaceted relationship with it. His works are simultaneously layered with symbolic meaning while being personal expressions of his animated imagination.