Ugnayan sa Poblacion by Taverne Gutenberg seeks to harness the power of art in community development.
Text by Toby Martin; Photos by Jovel Lorenzo; Artwork photos by Taverne Gutenburg
Just a few steps away from Makati’s newly gentrified Poblacion hipster joints, in the belly of the ruins of an old house, four artists paint on canvases, in hopes of changing the world. Of the four, French artist Henri Lamy was familiar to me, though slightly different with his hair dreadlocked into spikes and moustache upturned. It had been a few years since we last spoke, and after a few minutes, I learned that the changes were more than superficial. Our previous encounter was an interview for an article on the Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival.
He was commissioned to paint portraits of the performers in his distinct style of using the palette knife that harkened back to the Impressionists. He had been in search of his voice in art, seeking to express himself fully, traveling the world in the process, and soaking in all that he came across so it would find its way to his canvas.
Kids were his greatest influence, particularly those “who had the biggest smiles despite having very little in life, give me the most intense feeling in my heart that I must share.” That feeling has since birthed sweeping change in Henri’s life and career. Together with his wife and partner Maïa d’Aboville, Henri has since established Taverne Gutenberg, an artists’ residency in Lyon, France. Set in a four-storey building, Taverne Gutenberg is a gallery and ten-room artist’s residency, with a bar at the ground floor. The idea of a residency isn’t far from Henri’s own experience early in his career, when he was fostered by the 59 Rivoli residency in central Paris. Maïa proved to be the ideal partner in the venture, as she, together with a strong team of young, passionate people (Guillaume Sénéchal, Mathilde Corbet, Romain Weber and Aurane Comte) helmed the gallery and its business side, growing the establishment into a respected and recognized landmark in their community.
Over the years, Maïa had been searching for means to extend the reach of their residency all the way back to her home in the Philippines. A confluence of opportunity came together to form Ugnayan sa Poblacion, a multi-sector collaboration to harness art towards community development. The objective of Ugnayan sa Poblacion is to provide a venue where art can contribute to community development and, in turn, help in the evolution of the participating artists. It was conceived as a requiting system of growth, allowing art, corporate, and public sectors to continually help each other. This is the idea that brought the four artists and the rest of the Taverne Gutenberg team to The Ruins in the heart of old Makati. The other artists include Chufy (Switzerland), Alexandre Beretta (France-Ireland), and Abdoul K. Seck (Senegal), all based in Lyon. The line-up was chosen by Henri and Maïa in a counterintuitive fashion.
To be clear, the artists were neither selected because of attained success or fame, nor for particular reasons that would seem necessary in an international art outreach, such as conversant English or a populist style. They were selected based on gut feeling—that elusive, inexplicable quality that the couple felt would round out the team.
Henri described it as knowing the right one, while Maïa described the reciprocity they could provide, both learning and teaching at the same time. As such, the selection was narrowed down to artists with innate burgeoning talent that sat on the cusp of ripeness. They are that superhero team, each with their own power, brought together for a mission, yet untested as a team. Abdoul arrived at the Taverne by way of Senegal and its porous border with France. Back home, Abdoul plied his painting skills in the tourist trade, capturing Senegalese postcard scenes on canvas. His father is an acclaimed painter, both in local and international scenes, but the same fortune evaded Abdoul, pushing him to search for opportunity in Italy, then France. He eventually found himself in Lyon and had approached the Taverne for an art residency twice and was twice rebuffed.
On the second instance, he had conveniently forgotten his artwork at the Taverne for a third opportunity to return and claim it and make one more plea. The third time was the proverbial charm. Henri met him for the first time then and was taken by Abdoul’s energy. Exemplified through the figures in his art, Abdoul channels a connected soulfulness. He is Taverne’s first resident artist and has seen much growth in his art since he joined. He and Henri have collaborated on many projects together because of their contrasting yet complementary styles. Amongst all the artists, he felt the most familiarity with the Philippines, claiming that its similarities to Senegal make it easy for him to bridge the gap despite the language barrier. Chufy brings to the collective a distinct architectural style.
Despite a somewhat established and rigid approach, Chufy was open to collaboration and development. His angular lines that would ordinarily suggest obtuse perspectives were joined with less abstract figurative work. And with found discarded wood scrap, Chufy extruded his work into sculpture.
Alex was the last and unexpected addition to the roster. He had chanced upon an ad requesting support for the project and submitted himself as an artist to participate. He insisted, despite the unavailability of another slot for an artist, on offering to pay his way for the opportunity. Henri was impressed by Alex’s persistence and his sense of wonder. Henri noted that Alex was a sponge for the stimuli he was immersed in, every detail noted and filed away. His work during Ugnayan had cameos by Rizal, jeepneys and other Filipino icons as a result.
Henri himself has evolved since that last interview—his desire for self-expression is now tempered with finding purpose for it.
He wants to give back to his greatest source of inspiration, the street children of the world, and in particular, those from his adopted home of Manila and Mindoro. His work reflects a deeper appreciation for Philippine culture through the eyes of its artistic masters. He combines archetypal scenes reminiscent of Amorsolo or Manansala against kaleidoscopic drawn patterns such as those found in traditional fabrics.
He credits the new aesthetic to his increasingly fragmented view of the world as it is split between the West, in which he was raised, and the East, where he has found a new home. He says his growth cannot be one-sided but is inextricable from two sides of the coin. It is with the combination of these four creative forces, curated by Maïa’s sensibilities, that they set upon the Philippines in an attempt to break the barrier that sets art so far apart from the public, to focus attention to causes deemed important. The Ugnayan, or collaboration, happened on many fronts, with established artists, with inexperienced novices, between foreigners and locals. Ugnayan sa Poblacion was made possible through the help and support of Maïa’s parents, Hubert and Araceli d’Aboville, and her sisters, Olivia and Alexandra. Z Hostel was also instrumental in hosting the artists and providing them with accommodations, food, and an art space.
Ugnayan opened with live mural painting at ManilArt, in collaboration with Isobel Francisco, followed by a silent auction, with proceeds going to partner institutions. This was the same framework for Red Light, an exhibit at Pineapple Lab aimed at the plight of women and youths caught up in the sex trade. It was a joint work with Agnes Arellano and Billy Bonnevie, with Henri and Maïa headlining a capoeira-painting performance.
The Ugnayan project went beyond Poblacion on many occasions, to the slums of Tondo for instance, after which I caught up with the artists after a long morning of painting with children from one of the poorest parts of the city. The core of the program is to give free art workshops to street children—for the artists to share and spark a passion for the arts in the children. The impact of the encounter on each of them was unanimous. They were moved by the indomitable spirit of the community. They could not believe how people with so little could still find it in themselves to smile or to share. I could see they were truly moved to their core. Even I, jaded by the daily images of poverty, was affected by their feelings of the experience. They agreed that it would undoubtedly find its way into their art.
Meanwhile, as this was written while the rest of the project was underway, they would conduct more workshops and collaborations between the artists and the public, leading to an art auction of works created by the artists and the children, Ugnayan Art Fest, Henri’s solo exhibition at Qube Gallery, the Ugnayan group exhibition at Alliance Française, and an exhibition of the children’s artworks, created throughout the seven weeks, at Museo Pambata. 80% of the proceeds from the closing exhibition at Museo Pambata will be donated to their five partner foundations (including Project Pearls, Stairway Foundation, Virlanie Foundation, ACAY Missions Philippines) and to the Children’s Museum. It is a way for the Ugnayan team to shed light on the great work these foundations have been doing and to create an ecosystem where everyone can participate, with the artists sharing knowledge, the kids creating, and people with means buying the works.
The whole project would be documented by French photographer Lionel Rault and filmmaker Simon Dubreucq, who intends to put the viewer in the shoes of each of the proponents, following their stories as it unfolds along with the project in a nine-part web series. The intent is to capture the experience, bottle it, and pass it around for as many to imbibe.
Whether the intoxication is the same remains to be seen, but it is certain that, with the documentary, the audience is broadened and impact amplified and extended to places it previously couldn’t reach. Simon is also collaborating with local production company Sine de Oro on a long-form documentary on Ugnayan, set to be screened at Alliance Française in February 2018, in celebration of 70 years of diplomatic relations between France and the Philippines. Such interactions between the international artists and local ones are a significant part of the Ugnayan program. Meetings and studio visits with Filipino artists Leeroy New, Ramon Orlina, Emmanuel Cordova, Billy Bonnevie, Agnes Arellano, Carlos Celdran, Grace Katigbak, and Gus Albor were organized to foster an exchange of ideas in understanding the process of creation from these artists through their encounters.
The team eventually found their rhythm with each other and adjusted to the demanding schedule. They learned from teaching and immersion. Soon their voices spoke in unison, not just amongst themselves, but with the community as well. They were not just selling art, but furthering a cause.
Perhaps in the existential pursuit of art, Taverne Gutenberg has found the nexus of their purpose—to find community where it exists, in the mind’s eye, in the commiserating heart, in social identity or a common goal. Wherever that may be, true art resides.