Philippine Art: Contexts of the Contemporary


Patrick D Flores and Carlos Quijon, Jr.

Ginoe, Kabit Sabit
All images courtesy of the artists and writers

The history of contemporary Philippine art traverses a vibrant terrain of artistic practices that delicately and urgently mediate the modernity of art history, institutions, exhibition-making, and the expansive activity of curatorial work. It performs this range of gestures to speak to and intervene in the ever-changing political milieu and the vast ecology, as well as ethnicity, of the archipelago.

The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), which opened in September 1969, is an important institution in this history. The CCP was founded during the term of President Ferdinand Marcos, with the First Lady Imelda Marcos securing the funds for its construction and serving as its first chairperson. Its mandate was to promote national cultural expression and to “cultivate and enhance public interest in, and appreciation of, distinctive Philippine arts in various fields.” Other institutions of culture during this time were the Design Center of the Philippines (DCP), founded in 1973, the Museum of Philippine Art (MOPA), and the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (MET), the latter two instituted in 1976. The artist Arturo Luz concurrently directed these institutions, with his eponymous gallery practically managing the MOPA.

The CCP was a venue for modern and international art and helped cultivate ideas of contemporary conceptualist and performance art. The practice of Raymundo Albano, curator of various spaces within the Center from 1970/1 until his death in 1985, is important in the development of curatorial discourse and practice in the Philippines. During his term, he conceptualized the idea of Developmental Art, which for him was a “powerful curatorial stance” inspired by “government projects for fast implementation.” Albano’s provocations inspired a rethinking of the nature of the art work: its form, cultural lineage, relationship with the audience, and ability to absorb the desire for distinction and identity. His initiative Art of the Regions, which presented the works of Junyee, Genera Banzon, and Santiago Bose is exemplary. Apart from these initiations, Albano also inaugurated the CCP Annual, a presentation of representative works of the year; and oversaw the publications Philippine Art Supplement, a bi-monthly art journal that ran from 1980 to 1982, and the three-issue magazine Marks, with Johnny Manahan.

In 1981, Junyee organized the project Los Baños Siteworks. It was an exhibition held in a three-hectare “halfway ground between the mountain and the city.” For this platform, the region is imagined as a site and a sensibility away from the conventions of the typical gallery exhibition: “By utilizing nature’s raw materials as medium, the relationship between the art object and its surroundings are fused further into one cohesive whole.” The trope of region was a way of shifting the ecology of contemporary art exhibition, now “no longer confined within the boundary of gallery walls.” As Junyee describes the works in the exhibition: “Like extensions of nature, the works sprouted from the ground, floated in the air, surrounded an area, dangled from branches in random arrangement around the exhibition site.”

Outside the Center, “social realism” developed in response to an increasingly authoritarian political milieu under the auspices of the developmentalist regime of Marcos. The term was explicated by critic Alice Guillermo who describes it as “not as a particular style but a commonly shared sociopolitical orientation which espouses the cause of society’s exploited and oppressed classes and their aspiration for change.” According to her, social realism was “rooted as it is in a commitment to social ideals within a dynamic conception of history, social realism in the visual arts grew out of the politicized Filipino consciousness.” The latter was forged by the Philippine revolution against Spain in 1896 and the continuing struggles against all oppressive systems. Guillermo argues that social realism in the Philippines “stresses the choice of contemporary subject matter drawn from the conditions and events of one’s time,” and “is essentially based on a keen awareness of conflict.” Whereas realism may be construed as a merely stylistic term, social realism is a “shared point of view which seeks to expose or lay bare the true conditions of Philippine society.” The work of the collective Kaisahan (Solidarity, 1975-6) whose members included painters Papo de Asis, Pablo Baen Santos, Orlando Castillo, Jose Cuaresma, Neil Doloricon, Edgar Talusan Fernandez, Charles Funk, Renato Habulan, Albert Jimenez, Al Manrique, Jose Tence Ruiz, and later joined by Vin Toledo, became emblematic of this tendency.

  • Sungdu-an

The quicksilver practice of the wunderkind David Medalla flourished during this milieu, albeit in an idiosyncratic vein. He was a homo ludens, provocateur, poet, and a prominent figure in modern and contemporary art in the Philippines and elsewhere who worked on kinetic, installative, participatory art, and other actions that do not neatly fall into accepted categories. During the opening of the CCP in 1969, he led a blitzkrieg demonstration that protested against what he saw as the Center’s philistinism. Caught by a cop securing the grand opening, Medalla was escorted outside, and when asked if he had the necessary permit to protest, he handed over his invitation, from the First Lady Imelda Marcos no less, and invoked his right to unfurl his art work—a cartolina on which was hand-painted: “A BAS LA MYSTIFICATION! DOWN WITH THE PHILISTINES!”

The government of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos was deposed in 1986 by way of the EDSA People Power uprising. With the uprising came a renewed democratic impetus that skewed the priorities of institutions ensconced by the Marcoses. From being a venue for international travelling exhibitions, the MET focused on Filipino art. The CCP started to exhibit works of social realist artists, which could not be hosted in the 1970s. The DCP was absorbed by the Department of Trade and Industry. The administration of the MOPA was debated upon by organizations in a series of meetings revolving around the anxiety of what it takes for a post-Marcos institution to be democratic. In the end, it was discovered that the site of MOPA was not owned by the Philippine national government and that the institution itself did not have funds to continue its operations; ultimately, it was shuttered.

The democratic impulse, alongside its myriad mystification from a resurgent pre-Marcos oligarchy, informed artistic practices and shaped ecologies of participation during this period. Artist collectives were formed as part of the renewed sense of democratized practice. Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan (Women in the Arts in an Emerging Consciousness, KASIBULAN) was founded in 1987 by visual artists Ida Bugayong, Julie Lluch Dalena, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Brenda Fajardo, and Anna Fer. It was inspired by a consultation conference on Women Development organized by the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW). At the heart of the organization was the goal to surface a “collective consciousness of Filipino women from which new image and identity can emerge and transformation can begin by giving a sense of power and empowerment” by creating “network[s] with women artists regionally, nationally, and internationally.” This collective consciousness presents itself in “her visual language, her sensibility, and artistic excellence” and in “symbolism, imagery, values, and beliefs of women’s personal and collective transformation” and in an interest in “crafts that are the traditional domain of women—tribal, indigenous, or folk, as an alternative effort to the inescapable influence of Western modernism.”  Besides such aspiration, the group also endeavored to “assist women’s groups in resolving women issues that have long hindered the socio-economic and cultural growth of Filipino women.” The membership was “open to all women in the arts—visual, literary, and performing artists including art historians, educators, and critics who demonstrate a willingness to work for the sisterhood’s goals.” From monthly fora, to exhibitions, to publications, the KASIBULAN fostered a community of women artists, conscious of the issues of gender and the potentials of feminist struggle if the consciousness veered towards it.

In the 1990s, discourses around regionality gained exceptional traction, especially with the help of CCP’s Outreach and Exchange Program and the establishment of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 1992.  The NCCA was the “the overall policy making, coordinating, and grants giving agency for the preservation, development and promotion of Philippine arts and culture.” The mandate of the CCP’s Outreach and Exchange Program and NCCA ensured support for initiatives and projects outside Manila such as the Baguio Arts Festival (BAF), inaugurated in 1989, the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) founded in 1990, and the national travelling exhibition Sungdu-an (Confluence) that ran from 1996 to 2009. All three platforms convened artists from the regions and helped consolidate regional public spheres through exhibitions and meetings. The BAF, initiated by the Baguio Arts Guild, was instrumental in giving space for the arts and culture of the Cordillera region, north of Manila. The VIVA ExCon, helmed by members of the artistic collective Black Artists of Asia based in Negros Occidental, allowed for the cultivation of an inter-island connection among the provinces in the Visayas. Sungdu-an became an important step in the consideration of national art across archipelagic contexts through a curatorium based in the regions. Both VIVA ExCon and the Sungdu-an explored the potential of travelling as a method for artistic and curatorial practice in the Philippines and challenged notions of the “national” along axes of regions and the archipelagic condition. Today, the energy of artists, through their own volitions and the support of the market and the state, can be felt across the islands in the country, no longer confined to the center that is Manila, and freed from gospel of the prophets of international art. The belabored question of being Filipino has been displaced across the more productive notion of locality, one that is worldly and yet rooted. In many ways, the binary has been unmasked as a false choice and that the Philippine experience cannot sustain the premise. 

Alongside these more national considerations of region, international imaginaries of regionalisms also proliferated in the 1990s through exhibitionary and museological efforts. Important in this regard are the initiatives of the Asia Pacific Triennale (APT) organized by the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane that begun in 1993; the founding of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in 1996; and the pioneering collection and exhibitionary undertakings of the Fukuoka Art Museum (FAM) in Japan starting in 1979 and which became the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (FAAM) in 1999. These three institutional initiatives offered a dynamic understanding of region-formation and regionality, prospecting the varied coordinates of the Asia-Pacific in APT, Southeast Asia in SAM, and Asia in FAM/FAAM.

  • Jocson, Princess Parade

The Fukuoka Art Museum pioneered in the exhibitionary efforts to present art from Asia. It inaugurated the Asian Art Show in 1979, one of the first exhibition platforms to present Asian art on a transregional scale. After the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum was established, the Asian Art Show transformed into the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale which held its first edition in 1999. FAM also initiated the exhibition series Asian Art Today Fukuoka Annual featuring single-artist presentations, which included in its roster Roberto Feleo (Philippines, 1988), He Duo Ling (China, 1988), Tan Chinkuan (Malaysia, 1990), Tang Daw Wu (Singapore, 1991), Rasheed Araeen (Pakistan, 1993), Durva Mistry (India, 1994), Mokoh (Indonesia, 1995), Kim Young-Jin (South Korea, 1995), and Han Thi Pham (Vietnam, 1997). It also played an important role in the exhibition of art from Southeast Asia with exhibitions such as Tradition, Source of Inspiration (co-presented with the ASEAN Culture Center, 1990), New Art from Southeast Asia (1992), and Birth of Modern Art in Southeast Asia (1997).

For its part, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) was the brainchild of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and was established in 1993. APT presented an exhibition, a film program, projects for children’s art, and a public program that gathered artists all over Asia for talks and workshops. Exceptional in APT’s trajectory was its focus on contemporary art from Asia, the Pacific, and Australia. Their programming was sustained by acquisition and commissioning of new works. It cultivated research and publication and actively offered residencies and training programs for artists and museum professionals in the Asia-Pacific region through the Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art (ACAPA).

Finally, the SAM came to the scene in 1996, guided by the acquisition, annotation, and exhibition of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. It helped condense a regional imagination of art in Southeast Asia and was influential in its historicization and discursive formation. Moreover, it forged the status of Singapore as an important location for regional contemporary art.

While institutional projects thrived in the 1990s, the late 1990s and the early 2000s saw the proliferation of independent and artist-run spaces, presaging the horizontal, peer-to-peer scenarios in the years to come. These spaces threw sharp light on forms of gathering and participating in the artistic landscape poised to be different from, if not critical of, the scale and the economy of institutional programs. Earlier examples include Shop 6, founded by a group of artists led by artist and inaugural CCP curator Roberto Chabet in the 1970s, as well as The Pinaglabanan Art Galleries run by the artist Agnes Arellano and her partner British writer Michael Addams in the 1980s. These spaces were usually privately funded or existed with the support of private foundations. Some remarkable examples were Third Space, which was an exhibition and performance space founded by artist and filmmaker Yason Banal in Quezon City in 1998; Surrounded by Water in Angono, Rizal, put together by artist Wire Tuazon in the same year and which later became a collective of artists including  Jonathan Ching, Mariano Ching, Lena Cobangbang, Louie Cordero, Cristina Dy, Eduardo Enriquez, Geraldine Javier, Keiye Miranda, Mike Muñoz, and Yasmin Sison; and big sky mind, conceived by artists Ringo Bunoan, Katya Guererro, and Riza Manalo in Manila in 1999. One of the longest-running alternative art spaces, Green Papaya Art Projects, emerged in 2000. Built up by artist Norberto Roldan (who was also one of the founding members of the collective Black Artists in Asia) and dancer and choreographer Donna Miranda, Green Papaya was “an independent initiative that supports and organizes actions and propositions that explore tactical approaches to the production, dissemination, research, and presentation of contemporary art in various and cross-disciplinary fields. It continues to provide a platform for intellectual exchange, sharing of information and resources, and artistic and practical collaborations among local and international artists and art communities.” 

  • Tong

  • Tong

These histories shape the trajectory of contemporary Philippine art in the 2010s and onwards. With the development of exhibitionary discourses within institutions and beyond it through independent art spaces, the figure and agency of the curator signified the intelligence that became necessary in navigating the complex networks and economies these historical developments referenced. The curatorial agency was borne out of the self-reflexivity cultivated in ideas of contemporary artistic production and history within or against the discourses of the institutional, the independent, and the commercial. 

Crucial in this development was the Curatorial Development Workshops (CDW), a platform for curatorial education and training that was initiated by the Japan Foundation, Manila and the University of the Philippine Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center in 2009. The CDW provided “a platform for interaction among young curators, their peers, and established practitioners in the field.” From an open call, a selection of emergent curators would be invited to present exhibition proposals in a workshop setting, with professional curators sharing about their practices and projects. The first iterations of the workshops gave one of the participants a chance to work as an intern curator in a Japanese institution under the JENESYS (Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youth) program and was given the space and guidance to realize their proposed exhibitions at the Vargas Museum. In 2017, the exhibition Almost There was held at the Vargas Museum alongside smaller scale exhibitions organized by chosen workshop participants across different venues in Southeast Asia.

The 2010s also saw novel imaginations and platforms of exhibition-making and the making public of art. In 2013, the Art Fair Philippines was launched. It was a large-scale platform for exhibiting and selling modern and contemporary visual art in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It also helped expand the audience for local visual art and, in its more recent iterations, helped push questions of accessibility and the publics of art. The career of artist Ronald Ventura is symptomatic of how artistic agency relates to the market, without necessarily being overwhelmed by its demands. Ventura’s works continue to mobilize more traditional techniques alongside a sensibility keen on spectacle and seriality. Ventura once held the record of the highest selling artist in Southeast Asia when his large canvas painting Grayground sold for more than 8 million HKD at the 2011 Sotheby’s auction. In May 2021, his work Party Animal sold at the Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art Evening Sale for 19 million HKD, 16 times its estimate. This said, artists have set up their own spaces, with residency and mentorship programs, attuned to the vicinities and constituencies around them. And the primary and secondary markets have been hectic, evidenced in numerous fairs, auction houses, and galleries. In all this, the quality of Philippine contemporary art may be described as consistent across persuasions, whether it be realist painting or conceptualist installation, postcolonial intermedia or printmaking, or research-based projects linked to photography, moving image, sound, action, or archive.  

The year 2015 saw the participation of the Philippines at the Venice Art Biennale after more than 50 years. In 2015, Patrick D. Flores curated the exhibition Tie A String Around the World. The pavilion presented the works of National Artists Manuel Conde and Carlos Francisco and artists Jose Tence Ruiz and Manny Montelibano, probing technologies of conquest and worldmaking and their resonances in the contemporary contestations of territory in the South China Sea. The succeeding year also saw the participation of the Philippines in the Venice Architecture Biennale with the exhibition Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City which looked at the architectural and urban history of Manila throughout the years curated by Leandro Locsin, Jr., Sudarshan Khadka, and JP dela Cruz.

  • Rasmussen

  • Rasmussen

Alongside these developments were equally compelling tendencies of practice that mediated contemporary contexts of production and reception of art and the potent possibilities in the areas of collaboration, intervention, and participation in artistic environments in the most expansive sense. The practice of Nathalie Dagmang has ventured into these considerations. As a student of anthropology and visual artist, she is interested in the interfacing of contemporary conditions of human experience, from ecological disaster-prone communities to the experiences of migrant workers, with the artistic process harnessed as a way to prompt conversations around social engagement. For her work Dito sa May Ilog ng Tumana (2016) she looks at the urban community of Baranggay Tumana that is situated along the Marikina river. In her ethnographic project, she investigates how the relationship between the site and the community becomes mutually transformative: the residential settlements continuously change the topography of the river, and the river becomes inextricable with how daily life is imagined both as quotidian landscape and as a site in constant risk of inundation due to tropical typhoons. Dagmang also took part in “Curating Development,” a program based in the United Kingdom and funded by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Working with curators and anthropologists, she initiated workshops and community-based art activities with the Filipino migrant workers based in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong and conceived exhibitions that looked at the contributions of migrant labor to the Philippine imagination.

The cogent relations between activism and performance are fleshed out in the practice of Boyet de Mesa, who also convenes the annual Solidarity In Performance Art Festival (SIPAF), an artist-organized project that promotes cultural exchange, solidarity, and peace through performance festivals that started in 2015. Artist Eisa Jocson’s practice discerns this same interventive potential in performance in her works that look at feminized and queer migrant labor, such as in the work Princess Studies (2017-) and The Filipino Superwoman Band (2019), with Franchesca Casauay, Bunny Cadag, Cath Go, and Teresa Barrozo. This performative agency likewise inspires the practice of artist and architect Isola Tong whose works interrogate urban space and development and notions of wildlife within the framework of transgender politics and ecosystems. Finally, it is through performance that the romanticization of the diasporic experience is refused without disavowing its intimacies and prospects: the practice of Noel de Leon who is based in London and co-directs Batubalani Art Projects takes interest in how objects survive and index traces of historical conflicts and circulations of both people and things. Meanwhile, the practice of Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen who is based in Copenhagen devises performances that propose simultaneously ludic and critical ways of struggling with the tenacious demands of “identity” and “culture” and their situatedness and displacements. 

This keenness on the options in participation and more horizontal logics of practice finds exceptional articulation in Load na Dito, a mobile research and artistic project founded in 2016 by artist Mark Salvatus and curator Mayumi Hirano. It foregrounds the critical and creative possibilities that inhere in collective and interactive action of making, presenting, and curating art. In 2019, Load na Dito proposed Kabit at Sabit, a multi-modal and multi-site exhibition that involved practitioners from all over the archipelago. From the Filipino words for connect or install and inspired by the Pahiyas Festival in Lucban, Quezon, the hometown of Salvatus, the curatorial project invited practitioners to create artistic projects that investigated installation as a technology of display. Each practitioner was asked to choose a façade in which they attached or installed objects, transforming the site into an exhibitionary space where art meets its public—both incidental and intentional.
In these tendencies and trajectories of practice and institutional history, Philippine contemporary art demonstrates an acute discernment of persistent and current concerns, one that shapes the lively intellects of engaged artists and continually expands the effects of their intuitions.

  • Abuga-a, Kabit Sabit

  • Quinto, Kabit Sabit

About the Writers

Patrick D Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. He is the Director of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network. He was one of the curators of Under Construction: New Dimensions of Asian Art in 2001-2003 and the Gwangju Biennale (Position Papers) in 2008. He was a Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1999. Among his publications are Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art (1999); Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia (2008); Art After War: 1948-1969 (2015); and Raymundo Albano: Texts (2017). He was a Guest Scholar of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2014. He was the Artistic Director of Singapore Biennale 2019 and is the Curator of the Taiwan Pavilion for Venice Biennale in 2022.

  • Patrick D Flores

Carlos Quijon, Jr. is a critic and curator based in Manila. He is a fellow of the research platform Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA), convened by the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories project. He writes exhibition reviews for Artforum and Frieze. His essays are part of the books Writing Presently (Philippine Contemporary Art Network, 2019) and From a History of Exhibitions Towards a Future of Exhibition-Making (Sternberg Press, 2019). He has published in MoMA’s post (US), Queer Southeast Asia, ArtReview Asia (Singapore), Art Monthly (UK), Asia Art Archive's Ideas (HK), and Trans Asia Photography Review (US), among others. He curated Courses of Action in Hong Kong in 2019, co-curated Minor Infelicities in Seoul in 2020, and In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asia Affinities during a Cold War in Singapore in 2021. 

  • Carlos Quijon, Jr.