Arts & Culture

Mark Higgins Showcases His Art Next to Artifacts in a 'Warehouse' at the Ayala Museum

Higgins gives us a glimpse into pre-Hispanic history.
IMAGE PAU GUEVARRA
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Artist Mark Lewis Higgins is giving us a visual history lesson by way of his first exhibition in 12 years, entitled “Gold In Our Veins.” This foray back into the art scene is nothing short of a grand welcome with the generous help of the Ayala Museum. Assuming the role of artist-as-curator, Higgins is collaborating with Gino Gonzales in building a floor-to-ceiling 1930s-style Chinese warehouse inside the Ayala Museum in time for the exhibit’s opening on February 21. 

The "warehouse" will house around 30 paintings by Higgins alongside the very artifacts that inspired each piece. In a rare event, the museum is displaying valuable items from its collection of Philippine archaeological gold, indigenous textiles, and costumes, and Chinese and Southeast Asian trade ware ceramics, especially for the three month-exhibition.

Starring alongside these items are Higgins’s paintings, which focus on what he calls “imagined anthropologies.” Inspired by the research he had done in writing his two books, he thoroughly investigated the Philippines’ pre-Hispanic history and visualized what it meant to be a Filipino at that time.

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"Almuhit," made with gouache, chalk pastel, acrylic, and 23.5 karat gold leaf on paper, mounted with hand-woven Indian cotton ikat and Shantung silk.

“I found it inspiring and decided it was about time that I painted something that I not only thought of as Southeast Asian art but also what would I consider as Philippine art,” he says. “It’s not always about planting rice, the Virgin Mary, politics, and poverty. There are other things about [our history] that people don’t seem to be aware of or don’t seem to be exploring enough.”

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Artist and educator Mark Lewis Higgins, the son of legendary fashion designer Salvacion Lim Higgins

We met with Higgins at his studio, which was akin to stepping into another time or dimension—it was filled with antiques purchased from his travels, a library of books that he’s read cover to cover, and relics so well-preserved that you would never have guessed their age. Among his collection of books is a copy of the Boxer Codex, a manuscript on what Filipinos looked like when Europeans first arrived on Philippine shores. This was one of his sources of inspiration for the new collection.

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Inside Mark Higgins's studio in Makati

Apart from a plethora of books, he was also inspired by his travels around the Asian region. “It’s [characterized by] this bright color palette—if you travel to Thailand, you see these bright orchid pinks and apple greens,” he says. There’s also the shock of red in indigenous textiles. The artist toyed around with the fact that the pre-Hispanic Philippines was a melting pot of cultures—influenced by countries like China and India via places like Java. “I just threw it all into the paintings,” he admits, “It’s not really a conscious message, it’s just a celebration of all things around us.”

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"Angkatan" made with gouache, chalk pastel, acrylic, 23.5 karat gold leaf, Japanese tinted silver leaf on charcoal paper, handmade paper, and Chinese silk


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"Caiumana" was made with gouache, chalk pastel, 23.5 karat gold leaf, and variegated metal leaf on Chinese silk and displayed with Shantung silk and T'nalak.


"Devata" was made with gouache, chalk pastel, 23.5 karat gold leaf, variegated metal leaf, and Japanese tinted silver leaf on paper, and mounted with Cambodian silk ikat and Indian silk brocade.

For this collection, Higgins revisited what he called “flat paintings” that consisted of “old-fashioned drawing and painting.” In truth, there isn’t anything “flat” about his work, which consists of meticulously painted portraits bordered by vibrant textiles, which, at that moment, were enclosed in wooden frames hung on bright green walls.

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"Kausheya" was made with gouache, chalk pastel, 23.5 karat gold leaf, variegated metal leaf, and Japanese tinted silver leaf on paper, and mounted with Chinese rayon brocade and Indian silk brocade


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"Prabhajjana" and "Vidya" were made from gouache, chalk pastel, 23.5 karat gold leaf, variegated metal leaf, and Japanese tinted silver leaf on paper, and mounted on handwoven Indian silk and ikat and Chinese rayon brocade, respectively.


"Afy?n" was made from gouache, chalk pastel, 23.5 karat gold leaf, and variegated metal leaf on paper; mounted on handwoven T'nalak and Indian silk brocade


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"Pararaton" was made from gouache, chalk pastel, 23.5 karat gold leaf, variegated metal leaf, and Japanese tinted silver leaf on paper and Egyptian papyrus; mounted with Thai silk and handwoven Indian silk ikat

Higgins is an unofficial archivist of Philippine history. His body of work over the last decade has spanned the century-long history of the terno in Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs to reimagining the pre-colonial manner of dressing for the 2016 Ballet Philippines production of The Firebird. And who could ever forget the timeline of Philippine fashion he and his sister Sandy documented in SLIM: Salvacion Lim Higgins, which served as a tribute to their mother, a legendary fashion designer. 

Higgins has dedicated the past decade to running his mother’s school, Slim’s Fashion and Arts School in Makati. In the course of his work as an educator, he’s encountered many young adults who needed to be educated further on Philippine history before the Spaniards colonized our country. Armed with a deep fascination for history, he firmly believes in the saying: “If you understand the past, it helps you understand the present, and possibly a bit of the future.” 

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To better understand Higgins’s art style today, we need to take a look back at his past. He began his career as an artist abroad. His works were displayed in galleries around New York, Hong Kong, and London, among other places. He began producing flat paintings at the beginning of his career as an artist but the 9/11 tragedy pushed him to dig deeper. The next collection explored sacred symbols and religions of different cultures in the form of three-dimensional icons. He experimented with 25-karat gold leaf plates and semi-precious stones and gems, giving his work an embossed element. “The concept of an icon, especially a religious one, is that the item is valuable itself,” he says, “even the frames were sterling silver.” 


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He moved on to bas-reliefs, still using stones and gems but with an evolved technique. 

Higgins considers his work as an artist coming full circle with his mother’s career, whom he admired so deeply. “Salvacion Lim began as a painter and evolved into a fashion designer,” he shares. Before he stepped behind the canvas, Higgins was a fashion designer himself. “It is from her that I learned how clothing and textile could form just as powerful a narrative as any other artistic medium.”


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This next era of Higgins’ art brings that narrative closer to home. On the surface, there are the vibrant fabrics and patterns that tell a visual history, but beneath that is a story that connects us to what could have been our roots. “Indeed, it is homage to all of our ancestries—particularly to ones so deeply rooted in our DNA and of which many Filipinos have never been aware of,” Higgins writes in his artist's statement, “Far beyond the limits and borders of what become countries or nations, we are all maps of our ancestors.”

Gold in Our Veins will be on exhibit on the Ground Floor of the Ayala Museum, Greenbelt 5, Makati, from February 21 to May 26, 2019.

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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Features Editor
Hannah is originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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