Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala: Zen and now
Q & A - Q & A by Philip Cu-Unjieng () - December 16, 2001 - 12:00am
For more than 25 years, the corporate exploits of Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala have been well documented in the business pages of our broadsheets. The magisterial manner in which he directed Ayala Corporation, the Bank of the Philippine Islands, Ayala Land and the other companies in the family conglomerate their-envied positions, is proof positive of his deserved status as a "captain of Philippine industry."

Upon reaching the age of 60, Don Jaime effectively turned over the day-to-day management to his sons and professionals, retaining chairmanship. While this side of Don Jaime precedes him, it’s a completely different picture I have of him.

When I was studying in England in the mid-’70s, there would be instances when I would spend weekends or Easter breaks at the Philippine Embassy – thanks to the friendship that existed between my parents and Tito Jaime and Tita Bea. Then Philippine Ambassador to the Court of St. James and accredited to the Scandinavian countries, Don Jaime would raise the entertainment level of dinners at 9 Palace Green with impromptu impersonations of personalities we had seen in the theater or on television. Ever ready with a joke, quip or anecdote, Don Jaime was my first exposure to the erudite raconteur. While tears of mirth streamed down our cheeks, Tita Bea would admonish him to desist so we could eat the food on the table.

There’s an irony in all this. Throughout his corporate career, Don Jaime has been considered reserved, dignified and relatively shy – especially at cocktails (which he abhors). He is all that. But like an irrepressible child, there’s another facet of him that’s more spontaneous, even frivolous, yet seldom seen. And then, there’s the right-side-of-the-brain part of him that has found in photography, a way to express his creative and artistic side.

With a new exhibit entitled Zobel and Zen, that runs till the end of the month at the Artspace Glorietta, Don Jaime agreed to this tete-a-tete, when I nagged him after attending a special preview held on the day prior to the formal opening. It’s well worth a visit as it’s not your traditional photo exhibit, but a curious amalgam of photographs and graphic design, all carefully chosen, "collaged" and executed by Don Jaime himself.

What we have in the following pages is pure Don Jaime – talking about his sons, discussing the process of creating his art. Here, we extoll the virtues of the best and most politically opinionated road-map reader in the world.

Philippine STAR: I'm curious – how active are you still in the corporate world?

Don Jaime Zobel De Ayala:
In the corporate world, I’m the chairman. But the chairmanship is almost an honorary degree. Because Ayala has a very strong family face, we communicate a lot. My two sons constantly keep me up to date with everything that happens. They make it a point to brief me on everything that has to do with policy, and that is really my goal as chairman of BPI and Ayala Corp. The day-to-day management is left to them, so that allows me to leave in May and come back in October.

Some people say that being chairman of a corporation is much like being the Queen of England. You’re there for the ceremony and pomp, but you don’t play an active role.

(Laughs) So it is. Jaime and Fernando love to joke that I’m there for my golden handshake. Surprisingly, and I don’t want this to be construed as self-serving, but the team of Jaime, Fernando and myself have that balance of age, and hopefully, wisdom. And it comes off... they bring up things and I can tell them so and so based on the little bit of experience I have. They may or may not follow. I give them the freedom. They take advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have veto power. We have a very strong synergy. What is wonderful about it is we respect each other’s ideas.

I hear, though, that you still cast a long shadow. That a lot of what they do, they have you in mind.

(Smiles with mischief) Not by force. They are sons of their father, let’s put it that way. But I give credit first to Jaime Augusto for our foray into telecommunications, because telecommunications is the industry of our future. And Fernando, while primarily involved with Ayala Land, has also initiated areas of business which were not there before. Sometimes, it’s simply saying I have been there, and this is what happened to me. Or my gut feel tells me that this is what can work.

On things like the Purefoods sale, you still have a major say?

Yes. Purefoods is a perfect example. San Miguel sent overtures and Purefoods is a very profitable company. But it did not quite fit in our corporate thrust which was electronics, telecommunications, financial services, etc. So for me, emotionally it was a very hard step to make. Even for Jaime, because when Jaime came back from business school, his first job was at Purefoods. He went to Gen. Santos and put up the canning factory himself. But you know, business has to be the priority of business. It was very difficult for me because, of course, you had the basketball team. As a matter of fact, yesterday we gave long-awaited awards to Alvin Patrimonio and Rey Evangelista to thank them for having represented us over the years.

So you no longer plan to participate in the PBA –the Ayala Group, I mean.

No. I tried to get the Purefoods team absorbed by Globe. But they just couldn’t fit them in because the request came late in their corporate year. They already have their thrusts with regards to exposure, public relations and all that. I tried, but I didn’t want to impose.

Because you're not as actively involved in the corporate side, do you feel that there’s a need for a daily regimen, a sort of routine in your life?

Personal life? I spend six months in Europe. When I do that, I simply switch off from the corporate side of things. But if something important comes up, they call me.

What do you do when you're abroad? How do you spend the time?

I relax (smiles wistfully). I spend most of the time in London. London is the place where I really change. The intellectual part of me takes over. Concerts, galleries, reading, traveling in the countryside. Bea is a wonderful map reader.

She’s never brought you to the wrong place?

(Raises his eyebrows and smiles) She never fails. She’s fantastic. And she loves looking. She says, "You know, we have to see this house, we have to see this garden." And then, of course, it's London in May and June – the fairs, galleries. In July, we go down to the south of Spain, to Sotogrande. I see my brother. My mother passed away last year. So I only have a brother and a sister. We tend our gardens, which are beautiful. And then we go back to London, and we make trips to Madrid. But this is not necessarily the city that I like most. I’m uncomfortable there. This despite the fact that it’s where I grew up. All my studies were done there, from age 12 to 18. Before Harvard, it was Madrid. London is a much more the civilized city.

How did you first get involved in photography, and what keeps it fresh for you?

Photography took place over drawing. I like to draw, but I like to draw very loosely, mostly cartoons. I spot things that I illustrate, but never on a serious basis, although I took classes in the Philippines early on. And then I took watercolor classes. But photography always attracted me because it’s a medium in which you could get an instant response, rather than brush and canvas which you need to create over time. In the beginning it was just straight photography, then I focused on black and white. My turning point was when I joined the Camera Club. I had just come back from London –1975 to 1976. There I was interacting with professionals and amateurs. That gave me a chance to really weigh my work. In photography, if they didn’t like what you did, you’d rate a zero. It was highly competitive although I’ve shied away from the competition aspect lately.

Over the last couple of years, though, you’ve consciously avoided doing portraiture.

Looking back at my work in portraiture, I’m not really satisfied. It was kind of very standard, very basic.

I spoke once with Chester Ong who specializes in architectural photography. He said he was too shy to be truly effective in portraiture. He could never really create rapport with the subject. But I don’t think you could say that you’re too shy.

You have a point there. Let me see how I can express this... I am always one step behind in using the person for my own purposes. I couldn’t do it. Like, let’s say a person with a lampshade over his head (laughs), I couldn’t do that because I’m much too sensitive towards the person, and I’d never want to create a situation where the person is a subject matter beyond being himself/herself. So for that matter, I have never been able to do photojournalism, because that means getting very much into the life of a person who may be in a terrible state. In getting there, let’s say I’m going to photograph hunger, people will criticize me. They’ll say there’s no angst in the photo. It’s squeaky clean. I resent that. I resent that because there’s room for everything. And I have always said that my photography is salon photography. There’s Richard Avedon, who’s one of my role models, he tried to do that. He succeeded with portraits. When he was tired of the models, he moved to compositional photographs, inanimate objects. But I personally don’t like this body of his work. So why would I do something that I, first of all, am not good at? But going back to your question, it is true. I am like Chester, two steps removed, and I just cannot interfere in a person’s life. Therefore, if I try to do that, I won’t succeed. Because what I take is the shell of the person and I don’t get into the soul. When my Uncle Fernando (the artist) talked about my portraits, he said quite honestly that they lacked personality. They’re gorgeous people, but there was nothing.

Some purists would complain that this exhibit has as much to do with computer technology and graphic design as with photography per se. Would you consider that fair?

No (gets a bit riled up). It's totally unfair because what you see here is a by-product of something that I do with my own hands. The reason you see it here is because I put it in print form. When you cut paper and you take a photograph and you put them together, the result has a very short life span. What I wanted to do is to print it in a medium that is a little bit more sophisticated – that’s where the Iris print comes in which is watercolor based, and to do that, you have to really process it. But everything that you see here is done by me, with my own hands. I have taken the photographs, I have done the backgrounds by dyeing different Japanese papers. I have all the originals, and what I’m simply doing is preparing it for framing through the digital process.

And then there’s the Zen element in the exhibit. This is something some Japanese photographers would consider their exclusive domain. How is your interpretation tempered by your being Filipino, Catholic and so on?

(Calms down and laughs sheepishly
) You’re absolutely correct (smiles naughtily). I see this like a Japanese going to Spain, taking in the castanets and bullfights, and saying he’s doing a Spanish exhibit. I had been very hesitant to call it Zobel and Zen. As a matter of fact, somebody said, "Sino ba si Zen?"(We all laugh.) I said Zen is a philosophy, not a girl! But for starters, I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese art. Arturo Luz said it very nicely and very candidly. I asked him: "Arturo, do you really think this is a Zen exhibit?" And he said, "You know, Zen has no particular structure. It is what you feel inside that is Zen."

And what is Zen, really? Well, it aims towards simplicity. You can have so many ingredients there that qualify for Zen and you categorize it as Zen against something else (he approaches one specific photo). Yesterday, a woman was telling me that this is organized chaos Zen, meaning to say that all of the background is very sedate, yet there’s this section which is chaotic. So she said it’s a combination of a period of transition between one thing and the other. The result is an artistic photograph which we could call Zen. But there is chaos in it, which perhaps is not quite Zen.

And you showed the woman to the door.

(Bellyache laugh
) No. As a matter of fact, she should have told me that before. She had great insights, and she was putting things in my mind that I've never thought about. Which brings me to the next question – do I really think these things through? And I say yes and no. Yes, because I have it unconsciously or subconsciously, when I do it. But I don’t really close my eyes and say "flower against black background." I go through the process of creation. The parallel would be my Uncle Fernando. They say his abstract paintings are so abstract. It’s just a little blotch and out comes a painting. And he’d say, "That’s where you’re wrong! What you see in this painting is a process of many, many, many trials – if that’s the word – that have gone through watercolors, through little sketches, through my going to the site and doing an abstraction of a river and a mountain and a tree. And all these just come in little notations. And then when I’m ready and I’ve got everything organized in my mind, I go and do what you now see before you. The process may have taken six months."

Zen is also about harmony and symmetry. What you’re saying is that a lot of what you’re doing is intuitive.

I would say 60 percent intuitive. The rest is something that’s just there. For instance, Arturo walks in and he says, "I see a lot of Gustavo Torner," who’s a Spanish thinker, an artist, a contemporary of Fernando. And it’s absolutely true, I’ve seen a lot of his work. Fernando’s and Gustavo’s work are very different, yet they’re closely associated. Let’s face it, every single artist is influenced by other artists. But the end result is something which is very unique. I observe a lot, I look at everything from the perspective of everything that can be photographed, or put in a collage.

What book is on your night table?

The last book written by James Hamilton-Patterson, which is called Loving Monsters. It’s a fascinating book, an autobiography. It is a story of a man, a writer who lives in Tuscany. He meets an Englishman who tells him he wants to do a biography on him. What’s fascinating is that I may be right or I may be wrong, but I think the two characters are just one person – the writer. He has the ability to assign roles to each character. It’s set in 1936, with the backdrop of the Suez Canal. It's fascinating, more than anything, for its prose. The author has total command of the English language.

I’m also reading these books in Spanish. It’s by a contemporary philosopher called Jose Antonio Marina. The first book is called The Jungle of Language. It’s a fascinating analysis of how language evolves throughout the years, what it is used for, the nuances of language and the fact that you and I are right now conversing and that we are talking a mile a minute and exchanging ideas, not realizing that we’re choosing words as we talk. One particular description can be spoken, yet it can be understood in different ways. As a result, it’s made me terribly conscious of my choice of words (laughs). The second book is called The Fight For Human Dignity. The third one is an annex to the first one. What he was trying to do was create a dictionary of words, and what they really mean. He found himself totally fascinated by the introduction that he did a whole book on it. So he calls it the introduction to the first book.

Do you still find time for theater and cinema?

I go to the cinema more often theater. Somehow, I’m not crazy about seeing Oscar Wilde, Pinoy-style.

Because you have the luxury of being able to see it in London?

Maybe so.

Do you prefer local films over Hollywood or other foreign films?

I do make it a point to go to select Filipino films. For instance, I go to Laurice Guillen’s films, Chito Roño’s, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s. And surprisingly, I can understand 90 percent of the dialogue. For instance, Tanging Yaman, I missed a lot. But I tried to get a bit of the feedback on the background of the film, so that I can concentrate on the theme and everything. I’m fascinated. My guilty pleasure which helps me with Filipino are the soaps on Channel 2.

You like watching bad films as well?

Bad films? Not really.

Jaime Augusto once said he loves watching all kinds of films, whether they’re good or bad. He’s riveted. He has to watch them till the end.

He’s not telling the truth (laughs). If he’s not interested in what we’re showing on Sunday, he doesn’t show up. Jaime is a very exclusive film critic. He’s very deep. So tell him not to bluff his way.

You were talking earlier on about Jaime Augusto and Fernando. What do you see of yourself in your two sons, respectively?

(Gets very involved and careful
) I’m very interested in saying what I want to say. But please be careful when you write it because I want to make a very clear statement, as it’s something I’ve been dying to say. (Pauses) I definitely see an extension of myself, in both, yet in completely different areas. I see myself in both of them. And this is fascinating, and I will say somewhat sad for me, and I’ll qualify that. It’s a great sense of pride to see myself reflected in the two. Yet, I'm a little bit envious that what I had wanted to do, they’re doing. And I didn’t have the chance at that age to indulge as I had to do other things. Jaime, for instance, is highly intellectual. He’s well-read, he grasps situations very well, which he, in turn, expresses and plays around with. Fernando has a very extreme and very refined, artistic sense. He has concentrated on Asian art. My God, he is very good! I find that I am 16 steps behind, and I see in them what I would have liked to be. So it’s a sense of pride, and at the same time, I wish I had had the knowledge that Jaime has, for instance, in computers. Jaime had insisted that I draw using the computer, for which he has brought in some incredible hardware. And he said, "Dad, with your artistic talent, you must learn how to draw with the computer." Now, I’m having fits wondering if I will succeed. I can tell you one month from now whether I’ve thrown the damn thing away or sent it back to him. We shall see (laughs). But you see, the computer is an extension of myself. Jaime draws away on the computer and says he wishes he had my artistic talent. As his Dad, I wish I had his knowledge of computers.

Now Fernando has a tremendous sense of Asian art. He’s read about it. He knows if it’s good or bad. Now the instinct is there for me, but I don’t have his knowledge. So I see myself more in my two sons than my daughters, although I see a little bit of me in my daughters.

Which one has your sense of humor? (Don Jaime seems stumped) Neither?

You see, you must understand that Jaime has taken his corporate persona very seriously. So has Fernando. It’s so, they take every precaution to be taken seriously at their age. So they don’t want to be caught, sort of telling jokes and all that. First of all, it’s not in their nature. They’re reserved people, they’re quiet and they’re private. They’re not ready with a joke as I am. My daughter Sofia, on the other hand, is just one big joke. She’s constantly got a new one up her sleeve. But you know, we all laugh a lot. When Jaime goes to a movie, if it’s a comedy, sometimes you wonder who’s laughing so hard – and it’s him. And I see that perhaps it’s actually a release from all the constraints he has put on himself.

Do you dine out a lot?

Very little. Food is not one of my priorities. I like to rise very early, by 5, and I’m out as early as I can. I hate cocktails and socializing. If you ask me, the day you came over, the day before the formal opening of the exhibit, that is my idea of socializing. Having friends over, so you can talk the same language. You have writing, you have cinema, you have other photographers represented, that's just so much more my scene.

Who do you consider your close circle of friends? Do you have a different set for different interests?

None whatsoever. That is something I never really had. I did not have a barkada, and I think it was a product of the war. We spent the last two years of the war in Batangas. There, I had of course, a barkada or friends, but it was restricted to that time of my life. The moment I came back to Manila, my father brought me to Europe. I stayed with relatives and I did my studies there. And when I came back, it was straight to business and Ayala. There were business associates, but not really friends.

But you picked up a few along the way, or do you just have different people for different areas of interest?

No, because my life has been so diverse, what with the business life and the artistic life. You know, I have always been fighting the duality of "Am I an artist in the business world or a businessman dabbling as an artist?" I have stopped asking myself that question. I am me, and I think I am confident from that kind of approach in anything that I do.

Is it hard to reconcile both? Do you repress one or the other?

You probably feel the same way. I mean, where did your late foray into writing come from? I don’t regret it, I have no regrets. Not only that, my business life has been very fulfilling, because I’ve accomplished things. In my own way, I think I’ve done a good job. But frankly, I’m much more comfortable now with what I do. I'm very happy. And I still have so much. I’m blessed because I can put one foot in one world and the other foot in the other world. So, there’s always excitement.

I recently interviewed Inno Sotto and he said that in the last 15 years, the Philippines has been "flirting with mediocrity" in terms of culture, fashion, journalism. So much has been tinged by commercialism and marked by the ordinary, and yet extolled in the newspapers because of the lack of anything else to write about or talk about. Do you agree?

Let me put it this way. When I was quite young, I used to dabble a lot in theater. I love theater. But theater here was in English. I’d sit, listen and something would be missing. This was until I saw my first Tagalog play. I said the answer is language. In English, they were thinking of something and they were translating; they were memorizing their lines. But the moment you give Filipino artists the chance to express themselves in the vernacular, the whole thing takes off. Same thing with style and everything. We were obsessed. We were obsessed by copying the best and the worst. Now, open any newspaper and watch and see how things are changing. Look at the book Tropical Living, and you see all of a sudden that the Filipino has turned Asian. Not necessarily Filipino, but Asian. What you see is admirable. Now, I don’t think you always get the best, although that’s what the Filipino is all about. He gets colonized by the West, has the ability to grasp whatever they have, and that’s the Pinoy style. That’s what Pinoy pop culture is all about. That’s where Filipinos are the best.

Now, we once had the period that everything had to be boogie-woogie and, like I said, for a hundred years we’ve been searching. And we were obsessed with that. We want to be either American, or, although we always criticize them, the Kastilaloys. Let’s face it. To this day, there’s the obssession to be "white" or mestizo. No! We should be proud of our Malay origins. As a matter of fact, that is one of the great successes of the Filipino worker. Precisely because he is a Filipino worker, he has all these qualities that none of the other Asians have.

Bea seems to be more in the public eye via her political convictions. Do you encourage this or do you consciously take a backseat? (He laughs and nods at the same time.)

Yes, because she’s very good at it. Not so much the political convictions. First of all, I think she’s very civic-minded, and she has opinions that I, 100 percent, agree with. I give her all the opportunities to do what she wants. I back her up. She’s an extension of myself. Once again, I feel she’s done the right thing, and she certainly has a mind of her own. If someone is doing something very right, why give your opinion? I mean, it's OK that I do it, but she’s done very well. Frankly, I think she’s really the soul of the family in that respect.

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