A collective memory of Roberto Chabet

Lian Ladia (The Philippine Star) - May 6, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - In the past days since the passing of Roberto Chabet (Roberto Chabet Rodriguez), 76, widely acknowledged as the Father of Conceptual Art in the Philippines, social network sites are flooded with photos, and thoughts of gratitude and remembrance from the people he has touched in the community of contemporary art in Southeast Asia.

On Facebook, artist Patricia Perez Eustaquio writes, “To the remarkable sir who taught us as students to doubt ourselves, then as artists to be fearless, thank you. Thank you, Sir.” Artist and educator Katti Sta Ana posts, “I will always consider you my mentor. You who made me believe in my art, whose comments I kept, imprinted in the memory of each work. Rest in peace, passionate teacher.”

Chabet’s wake at Arlington Memorial Chapel was visited in groups by batches of classes he has mentored as a teacher at the University of the Philippines (UP), Fine Art Department within his 31-year tenure (1971-2002). He also taught at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in his earlier career, and later on held art classes and workshops at artist-run spaces Surrounded by Water, Big Sky Mind and Future Prospects in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Goodbye, Angel Flores Jr. aka Roberto Chabet. A teacher’s legacy is what we hold within. Saludo!” wrote Karen Ocampo Flores, former director of Visual Arts at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), on Facebook. Keiye Miranda, artist and one of the founding members of Surrounded By Water writes, “To Sir Chabet, this is for you… Thank you for all your support to SBW! We love you, sir! Rest in peace…”

Chabet, is lovingly referred to as “Sir” by his students, which also spread within the international circuit, due to a year-long retrospective organized collectively by his students headed by contemporary artist, Ringo Bunoan.

In 2007 through Asia Art Archive, Bunoan was able to digitize a landmark feat in contemporary art in Southeast Asia. In an article Bunoan wrote in 2011 about the archival process, she shares, “Within a year, we were able to gather over 8,000 documents and digitized them, and made copies for AAA and the Lopez Memorial Museum. Many of the materials came from Chabet, but many were also sourced from his friends, students, galleries he worked with, collectors, museums, and other institutions. They included photographs, slides, clippings, notes about his works, letters, and material about the numerous exhibitions he curated of other artists.”

The Chabet Archive digitized over 8,000 documents covering 50 years work of Chabet. Through a collective feat from his students and supporters, an unwritten section of Philippine contemporary art was opened for access.

Before 2007, Chabet was unknown to the global art network but had a strong and direct following of contemporary artists, (his former students) in Manila. Very little was written about him, and to his students, it seemed like he was overlooked by history. In an article Bunoan wrote titled, “Chabet: A Collective Memory,” she shares, “Perhaps it is because Chabet’s works go against common notions or definitions of Philippine art. They have always been seen as Western, elitist and too cerebral for many. Resistant to any form of institutionalization, he doesn’t give any public statements, turns down interviews, and prefers his works to stand alone without any explanations. This ‘refusal to speak’ has led to further confusion, and has even been interpreted as a form of snobbery or arrogance. Though I see it more as a strategic way of distancing oneself from the operations of the art world, which always finds a way to co-opt alternative practices.”

In an article for ArtAsiaPacific published in November 2009, Swiss writer Marlyne Sahakian explains that, “Chabet did not teach his students how or what to paint, but instead invited them to explore their own forms of meaning and expression. He became a father figure to many who are now among the more established and innovative multimedia artists, such as Nilo Ilarde and Poklong Anading. Through his multifaceted work, Chabet’s vision of inclusive conceptualism has left a lasting impression on a new generation of Filipino artists.”

In 2011, people found it unbelievable that Chabet was having his first international show in Singapore titled “To Be Continued.” The exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore was remarkable and exposed Chabet’s influence to international curators and artists. A year-long retrospective was prepared by King Kong Art Projects, month after month from commercial galleries in Hong Kong, Osage Kwun Tong and Osage Soho, to Manila Galleries like West, Mag:net, Mo_Space, Galleria Duemila and institutions like ICA Lasalle Singapore, UP Corredor Gallery, Ateneo De Manila, Lopez Museum, and finally ending at the CCP.

With the title “To Be Continued,” it seems — being true to contemporary art — Chabet advocates the idea of not defining the end or the beginning, considering all things in flux. His practice was indeed defined with the “conceptual,” making use of everyday and found material to break rigid formalisms. He puts importance on the commonplace, using materials such as hollow blocks, plywood, stale bread, found objects, house paints, and finds comfort in discussing his immediate environment, in a spatial and philosophical manner.

He was, first and foremost an architecture graduate from UST. He was also the initiator of the Thirteen Artist Award, initially created to identify artists who took the “chance and risk to restructure, re-strengthen, and renew art making and art thinking…” In latter years, it became a measure to determine the rising contemporary artists of the nation. As founding director of the CCP (1967-1970), he established the center as a prime venue for artist experimentation and collaboration.

Chabet’s earlier years as an artist included being a founder of seminal artist-run space Shop 6 in the ’70s which he founded during martial law after his resignation from CCP. Shop 6 operated experimental exhibitions, installations, constructions and environments with colleagues Joe Bautista, Joy Dayrit, Rodolfo Gan, Yolanda Laudico, Fernando Modesto, Boy Perez, Danny Dalena, Nap Jamir, Julie Lluch, Red Mansueto, Berna Perez, Alan Rivera, Eva Toledo, and Nestor Vinluan.

During the same time, the construction of a fictional character, Angel Flores, was an elaborate tale which consumed Manila’s popular culturati having features in late night television, abstract art exhibitions, print galleries in Makati and an inclusion to a CCP retrospective in 1979. In reality, it was a character constructed by Roberto Chabet, Benjamin Bautista and Ramon Katigbak.

Up until Chabet’s last days, he used the pseudonym “Angel Flores Jr.” in his Multiply and Facebook accounts, posting significant exhibitions and artworks for all of his 1,500 friends to share and make references of. He was consciously aware of the DIY capabilities of social media and self-organization. On Facebook, artist Hanny Pettyjohn writes, “Angel Flores Jr., thank you for everything. The least of which was turning Facebook into something of substance, the most of which is probably immeasurable.”

Not only did Roberto Chabet collaborate with modernists Fernando Zobel, Lee Aguinaldo, Danny Dalena or conceptual painters like Nestor Vinluan or Gerry Tan, he also influenced the works of Filipino artists known in the international art scene such as Ringo Bunoan, Nona Garcia, Norberto Roldan, Louie Cordero, Mariano Ching, Yasmin Sison, Poklong Anading.

Roberto Chabet died last Tuesday, April 30, of cardiac arrest at the UERM Hospital in Sta. Mesa Manila. He is survived by an elder sister, Carmen Mesina, and a younger sister, Milagros Garcia, and the thousands of students, and contemporary artists whom he has touched and who mourn the significant loss.

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Lian Ladia is an independent curator and art writer based in Quezon City.

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