Rebuilding society through art

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Throughout history, art has always played a role in people’s lives, especially after a wreckage, a war or a crisis.

Art was often a response to war, to document the horrors of modern warfare and its aftermath, as we saw in Europe when art flourished after World War I. Some works were born in reaction to the carnage, including avant-garde experimentation; others simply documented the times through the traditional, classic approach.

And then there’s post-war rebuilding and reconstruction using art.

We’ve read stories from The Guardian, for instance, of how in postwar Warsaw in 1945, residents turned to the paintings of Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto, who created paintings of Warsaw’s buildings and squares some 200 years earlier, as a guide to help transform the city from the wreckage and rubble.

It was no different in the Philippines after World War II – there was a lot of reconstruction and rebuilding through art and architecture to bring people’s lives back to normal.

“The Philippines was flattened during the war. We lost museums, etc.,” Jaime Ponce de Leon, director of Leon Gallery, tells me in a recent chat.

Fast forward to 2023, and here we are two years after the global health pandemic that upended our lives.

COVID-19 wasn’t about bombs falling on our homes or cities, which we could run away from. It was more than that. It was a virulent invisible virus that was always chasing us, destroying so many parts of our lives and our society.

Now, two years later, people are again turning to art, perhaps as a way to sort of rebuild lives or to remember what was lost and what remains.

A record-smashing art auction

This is perhaps the reason why Leon Gallery broke records with its recent Asian Cultural Council Auction held in partnership with the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) Philippines Foundation Inc.

Held last Feb. 18, it was Leon Gallery’s first main auction of the year and it saw the return of some of the biggest collectors in the Philippines.

In a span of just a few hours, multimillion-peso art pieces changed hands.

Jaime attributes this stronger desire for art to a rebuilding of sorts after the pandemic, with a lot of collectors seeking to expand or complete their respective collections after COVID-19.

Or perhaps, buyers and collectors simply turned to art again as a reminder of the good life that seemed elusive during the last two years.

What is clear, says Jaime, is that Philippine society now has more serious collectors and art enthusiasts who are more willing than ever to spend on art.

Maybe it’s because of all that unspent money during the pandemic.

“The auction was a clear indication that there’s very strong appreciation for quality art. It also tells you that buyers are discerning now. They know what they are buying,” says Jaime, beaming with pride.

For instance, Jose Joya’s 1979 work, Love Rite, from the collection of businesswoman Alice Eduardo of Sta. Elena Construction and Development Corp. came in at P59.6 million, doubling its starting price of P24 million.

And then there’’s the ‘Queen of Philippine Auctions,’ Anita Magsaysay-Ho, who made a grand comeback with her 1957 Philippine Art Gallery (PAG) painting titled Fruit Market, which clocked in at a titanic, record-breaking price of P86.4 million, quadrupling its starting price of P22 million.

Elmer Borlongan’s poignant work titled Moving Forward (Pasulong) set a new stellar record for a work by the artist, hitting the P14-million mark. It was a fitting celebration for Borlongan, who had just returned to the country from his debut Parisian show in November last year, says Jaime.

ACC Philippines president Maribel Ongpin described the auction as “mind-blowing,” noting that it benefitted more grantees than expected.

“We would like to thank the Leon Gallery for this year’s exciting and mind-blowing auction, which will benefit more ACC grantees than usual,” says Ongpin.

Since its foundation in 1963, over 300 Filipino artists have been given fellowship grants that enabled them to expand their creative horizons and benefit from their exposure to numerous cultures.

Particularly, since the Leon Gallery and ACC Philippines’ partnership began in 2015, which went on to become an opening salvo for the new year, 41 Filipino artists have been sent on grants abroad.

ArtFair Philippines

And then there’s the highly-successful Art Fair Philippines 2023.

The Ayala-backed art fair returned to The Link Carpark in Makati last month after two years of being held virtually, just in time to celebrate a decade of staging the event.

I was there the whole time and I saw just how huge the crowd was. It seemed that everyone was hungry to see some serious art after two years of uncertainty.

Art Fair Philippines founders Dindin Araneta, Lisa Ongpin-Periquet and Trickie Lopa have reasons to pop the champagne for a successful show.

To me, the success of ArtFair Philippines comes from the fact that it gave Filipino artists the platform to showcase their work. Many of our artists practically lost their means of living when the pandemic hit.

Moving forward, I hope to see more Filipinos create, see and appreciate more art; that art would help make society more inclusive and that it doesn’t add to this country’s stark income inequality.

Art, as we all know, has the power to unlock higher forms of thinking, to educate people and to free our minds. I’d like to see more of that – for art, our artists and the local art scene to help rebuild our society after the pandemic, reconnect us to each other and remind us of what needs to be done.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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