Arts & Culture

Elmer Borlongan Celebrates 25 Years Painting the Pulse of the City

In Elmer Borlongan, we see the benefits of reliability and consistency, and how the art that it makes can sometimes be as great or even greater than work that comes out of chaos.
IMAGE JOSEPH PASCUAL
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Henri Matisse doesn’t want me here.

At least that’s what I’m getting from the dog—named after the influential French artist—when I enter the gate of the Marikina home shared by artists Elmer Borlongan and Plet Bolipata Borlongan.

“Henri Matisse, why do you hate me?” I ask the dog, a handsome mix of mongrel and Labrador, as he barks at me and blocks the path to the house.

A possible explanation: “Henri is just Henri without the Matisse,” Elmer tells me later. Apparently, I’ve been getting the dog’s name wrong.

By the time I sit down in the Borlongans’ living room—a room with colorful patterns and textures like a Plet sculpture, and where a glorious 1990s painting by Elmer of a vendor hawking a bootleg Jimi Hendrix cassette holds court—Henri has seemingly warmed up to me. Realizing I’m a friend not a foe, and perhaps sensing my preternatural fear of dogs, the dog sits up beside me and allows me to pet him.

If Henri was a little restless, you have to forgive him. Until a year and a half ago, he roamed the wide open spaces of the Borlongans’ Zambales home, three hours away from Manila, where they’ve been living for the better part of the last 15 years.


The couple moved to a sprawling property, Plet’s family’s ancestral home, in 2002, when the urban activity that once inspired Elmer’s work—a signature of his ’90s and early ’00s ouvre—had become a distraction to their process.

When they moved, their Zambales home didn’t have cable TV or internet, which took some adjustment for the city boy who had grown up on the busy street of Nuevo de Pebrero in Mandaluyong. He recalls how he would see jeeps, tricycles, the themes and subject matter of his work, as soon as he stepped out of his home. “Pag labas mo nandun yung nagbebenta ng taho, ice cream. Nakakatuwa yung street nayun. Kahit hindi ka umalis dun marami nang inspiration.”

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"Hindi Lang Pang Pamilya, Pang Towing Pa," oil on canvas, 2005, by Elmer Borlongan, from the Julius Babao collection.

It was a difficult adjustment but a necessary one. With no distractions, the Borlongans were able to commit to routines. Eventually, Elmer’s work began to veer away from urban life and take an interest in the rural.

If Elmer used to work deep into the night, the only time in city life you can feel alone with your thoughts, in Zambales, he would wake up at 6 a.m., walk the dog soon after, have breakfast at 7 a.m., start painting at 8 or 9 a.m., work until a lunch break at noon, and then continue working until 5 or 6 p.m.—as systematic and routine as a nine-to-five can be.

The Borlongans have found themselves back in the city because of two major retrospectives on Elmer’s work this year. In January, “Elmer Bolongan: An Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary,” a retrospective featuring significant works through the years curated by Ambeth Ocampo, opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The show is an indispensable survey of his work from his college days in the mid-’80s, to his time in social realist groups like Artista ng Bayan and Salingpusa soon after, to finding his style in the mid-’90s, to his eventual emergence as one of the most important artists of his generation.


On February 18, a retrospective featuring his personal collection of his works on paper opens at the Ateneo Art Gallery. Titled “Elmer Borlongan Draws The Line,” the show focuses on a crucial part of the artist’s process—his sketching and doodling. Elmer says when he isn’t painting, he is drawing. He brings a sketchbook with him wherever he goes, and he draws in it every day. “Pure expression, eh. It’s spontaneous and it’s what I’m going through in the moment.”

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In March, an auction at the Peninsula Manila featuring his and Plet’s work will close a busy first quarter for the couple. The Marikina house’s lease, right on schedule, ends in March, marking two years since they moved back to the city to have a base while working on the retrospectives.


"Puppet Master," oil on canvas, 2005, from the Paulino and Hetty Que collection.

Over the last two years, by working on the perspectives, Elmer has had an active hand in how his work is going to be remembered—a luxury not afforded to every artist. He’s been able to work with the thrust. He works with found objects: scrap wood, metal, glass.

“Self-taught lang, yung exposure lang niya sa travels niya. Pag may free time siya sa work [trips abroad], pumupunta siya sa museums, may interest rin talaga sa art,” says Elmer.

He suggests I look for “Pasky Borlongan” on Facebook and he begins to tell me about how his father got the nickname “Pasky” after the “rock star chess champ” Boris Spassky. Later, I realize Elmer got his nickname, Emongsky, from his father.


What the young Elmer also got from his father was the clear picture of an adult who had structure and work ethic, who was a solid, dependable presence to his family and his work—qualities that have served Elmer well throughout his career. Qualities that have allowed him to amass the body of work he’s been able to.

We usually romanticize disorder when we talk about our artists, how drama, passion, and even self-destruction can become fuel for the creation of great art. Sometimes, we even forgive our monsters, for the sake of great art.

But in Elmer, we see the benefits of reliability and consistency, of slow, steady, and good—and how the art that makes can stand beside, or even surpass, the work that comes out of chaos. “There’s this word I wrote down in my sketchbook in 2011,” he tells me. “‘Kaizen’—it’s Japanese for continuous improvement. This has been my guiding principle since I started doing art.”

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"Pagahon," oil on canvas, 2011, from the Louie and Liza Bate collection

“I think it also helps that we lived on a farm,” says Plet. “We lived far away from where it was all happening, far away from the hype. [On the farm,] you don’t think of what’s happened in your life. You just think, every day I go to my studio and paint, not ‘Where am I on the totem pole of all these artists?’

“We were sort of not into that from the get-go,” she continues. “And even when the auction houses came to us, that was not the goal… When you enter your studio, you’re not thinking of money. That will change the entire ball game, if you decide that that’s what you want to do.

“Money will change everything. As it is, we’re comfortable. We’re okay,” she says. “As it is, we can survive, we can paint so when you enter our studio, it’s not, how much is this? Our mindset was a great body of work,” she says.

Plet grew up in a family of artists. Her brothers, known as the Bolipata Brothers—Jed, a pianist, Chino, a cellist and Coke, a violinist—were musical prodigies.

Plet says that growing up with her brothers made her recognize talent, which is what she saw in Elmer.

“I know what talent is, how to nurture that kind of talent— you can’t treat it like an everyday thing that he can paint,” she says. “He can paint great things. That’s the difference about finding a prodigy—which I think he was. Coming from a family of prodigies, I think I understood what it was and what it would entail, me being a wife and also being a painter. It would take one really walking ahead, and one walking behind.

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“It requires you to really kind of have to stop your life for a little bit, to nurture it. Like with my brothers, my mom and my dad, their lives stopped,” she says. “There has to be someone who will give up something for that.”

The retrospectives in 2018 are about the progression and evolution of the artist Elmer Borlongan’s body of work and also about Elmer Borlongan, his father’s son, who was able to live the artist’s life his father had relegated to his Sundays. But in ways he’s told us and ways we’ll never know, the retrospectives are also a tribute to love and Plet Bolipata, an artist in her own right but also a woman who took a step back at certain points to make sure her partner’s genius would flourish.

Elmer says in their first year of marriage, he and Plet lived in a one-room apartment. They ate, slept, ate, and painted all in one room. Water would only run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and their toilet didn’t have a flush mechanism— they would have to wash it out with water.

Kung iba siguro yung napangasawa ko, siguro na-pressure ako to get a regular nine-to-five job kasi hindi stable. Kung iba siguro yun, prinessure ako na, ‘Uy, maging Sunday painter ka na lang. Gawin mo na lang hobby yan.’ Iba si Plet,” he says. “Sabi niya, ‘Emong, kahit na munggo at tuyo lang kainin natin.Iba si Plet.”

*This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Town&Country.

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