Three Esteemed Artists, One Giant Painting on the Philippines' History and Future
“Confused and confusing,” is how Lean Alejandro described the period after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, “where everything is falling apart, and everything is touch and go.” On September 19, 1987, the charismatic and influential student leader and activist was murdered at the age of 27.
In a chaotic period characterized by coup attempts and street protests, a generation of Filipinos came of age and attempted to find their place in a time where nothing was certain.
It was Alejandro’s death that prompted a similar awakening in Elmer Borlongan, Emmanuel Garibay, and Mark Justiniani—today, three of contemporary Philippine art's premier names but in 1987, just young artists getting their start.
From left: Elmer Borlongan, Emmanuel Garibay, and Mark Justiniani
The three met each other as members of ABAY—Artista ng Bayan, a group of young artists who used their talents collectively—in murals, interactions, collaborations—to call attention to the time’s important issues. They joined the group separately but found each other there. “Kay Lean, dun ko naisip sumali, dun ko naisip ma-involve,” Justiniani says.
“Nung nasa art school kami, ang thinking lang namin ay very Western-oriented and yung iniisip lang namin was about art,” Borlongan says. “Individually, nagkaroon ng questions… Gusto mo hanapin yung art with a social purpose. Saan ba pwede gamitin yung art maliban sa gallery system?”
And through the years, they’ve remained close collaborators—as they’ve grown individually, they’ve also grown together and in the same direction.
“It’s not easy to reach a level where you can actually work together,” Garibay says. “Hindi madali sa artists yun eh, especially painters, it’s a very individual process.” But in almost three decades of collaboration, they have found a groove that’s allowed them to push each other to their respective limits and create important, lasting work.
“It’s like a jazz band,” Borlongan says. “In terms of form and content, whatever ideas maisip nilang dalawa, walang masyadong handicap. Immediately, dahil nga dun sa technical capacity—pen and ink, watercolor, oil—mabilis nag-mamaterialize yung form. Siyempre 'pag nakasama mo rin sila, you also get inspired. Gusto mo rin labas yung galing mo kasi maiiwanan ka.”
In the same way that Alejandro’s death roused three young artists to go beyond themselves and start creating work that spoke of bigger things, the three men—older, wiser, and in their current status as three of the most respected artists of their generation—are once again coming together to make art that speaks of our national condition. This time, they’re one of Art Fair Philippines 2017’s special exhibitions, as part of CANVAS Gallery.
A collaboration between Elmer Borlongan, Emmanuel Garibay, and Mark Justiniani
When you visit The Link for the annual Art Fair Philippines, expect a large-scale painting on canvas, about seven feet by 27 feet on the theme of our nation’s journey. “Where are we headed? Where are we going as people?” Justiniani asks.
“After 30 years, iniisip mo, bakit parang napaka-cyclical ng patterns?” Garibay says. “You have a new leader, you have high expectations, it doesn’t work—and then someone comes and there’s always an issue that would destabilize the administration... And then there’s another round of expectations—paulit-ulit. In other words, do you commit yourself again to the same process? Is it asking for a different response?”
“Part of our efforts, at this point, is a realization that art is more permanent than contemporary political issues,” Garibay says. “It may be reflective of contemporary situations but it’s going to go beyond that time.”