The Manahan Women Prove That Creativity Starts At Home

Generation after generation, the Manahan women have lived lives steeped in art, discipline, and design.


The art we ascribe to artist, singer, writer, decorator, restoration and conservation specialist, wife, and mother Tats Rejante Manahan is wildly expansive and storied. An original multihyphenate, she has speckled every suit she’s worn with a thorough and deep affinity for creation, collaboration, and continuing education. Tats can’t remember a time in her life that wasn’t tinged with a natural predilection for inventiveness.

“It was natural. The flow was just there,” she says, describing her childhood. Her grandparents were, according to family lore, part of the first batch of students taught by the Thomasites during the American Colonial Period. “My grandmother was a writer too, but the family was Spanish-speaking so her [written] English was so bad! Idioms didn’t exist then,” she laughs, talking about how her grandmother had written the first Philippine play in English, a product of her education with the Thomasites. “By the time I was born, her English had gotten really good, although her language was peppered with English, Bisaya, and Spanish.”

The education was solid enough to have propelled Tats’ grandmother, Jesusa Araullo Brillo, to become the dean at Leyte Normal School in Tacloban. “She had a [propensity] for throwing these extravaganzas,” says Tats with a flourish, demonstrating the flair every elaborate costume had. She recalls the musicality of her grandmother—how it almost sounded like she talked in poetry. Her father, too, shared this deep love for music. “Maybe it was the era… the 19th century was filled with art.” Family get-togethers were always filled with music, painting, and art.

Her grandmother’s verve easily passed on from one generation to the next. “My grandfather insisted that all his children have academic and music degrees.” Tats grew up with a mother who was a doctor, but, like her father, was immersed in the world of music. Her aunts were involved in both the arts and sciences too. “We had a chemist, an opera singer, an educator,” she continues.

“Reading was always natural to me, so I naturally gravitated toward English literature,” Tats recounts. Her affinity for words naturally grew into writing for television. “In the 1980s, there was a lot of conceptual thinking. The format of shows was very different. We worked together with knowledgeable people—Ryan Cayabyab, Celeste Legaspi. It’s funny—I’m not pro-Martial Law, not at all, but I think a lot of good things come out when [artists] are repressed. Creativity grinds itself out. You have to think of [ways] to circumvent it.

“Everything was good—for musicians, for everyone,” she says. There is an ironic sense of nostalgia in Tats’ voice as she recalls this prolific time in the country’s artistic history. “I have not heard anything original since then, by way of musical arrangement or even original music,” she recounts, recalling the proliferation of Original Pilipino Music—a movement first headed by Celeste Legaspi, which Tats was an integral part of as the group’s Marlene Dietrich-inspired torch singer. “Everyone who worked in that period now bemoans the Spotifys of this world. Everything is a cover version… Even Ryan Cayabyab who was the most original— the guy who did all the ‘medley’ forms, that big ‘aahhh’ at the end of a song, he’s now covered.

“Too much liberty can also work against you because you don’t know where to start,” she adds. “With repression, you’re almost forced to dig deeper and sometimes, the best things come out of it. That’s what happened in the mid-70s to the mid- 80s. We were forced to look for other venues. I would say television had some of its best years and I was lucky to have been there. We learned from the interactions with people. Even my husband Johnny did some of his best work [as a television director] then.”

The landscape of television was changing, and with two little daughters to take care of, Tats knew that the schedule was becoming impossible to work with. “I felt I was becoming ‘brain dead’ with my work, and I was getting bored. Juana was born in 1985 and was not even a year old when People Power happened. By 1988, my children were growing up. I didn’t want to just leave them to their yaya. I wanted to be able to say good night to them, read them bedtime stories.”

Tats was spending more time at home with her children. She began to experiment with her space, transforming it inch by inch, employing it as her canvas. “Our house, at that time, was five shades of white. Johnny was very particular about which shade to use. I remember because he was always saying, ‘No, no, no—that’s the wrong white,’” she laughs. “Johnny’s an artist.”

A 'passion' indicates you may like something now but not next time. I like art and design. It's been that way for me, always.

Tats’s foray into home decoration catalyzed her appetite for a different form of art. “I was reading Architectural Digest and found the credits for a certain house,” she recalls. The home that caught her eye employed the revival of finishes, which piqued her interest. Isabel O’Neil’s Studio Workshop was an important movement in the mid-20th century—she was the foremost authority on painted finishes. The home Tats had discovered was tackled by Joanne Day, O’Neil’s protégée.

She did her research—her love of words and books had gone on from fiction to technical literature—and found that Joanne was holding short-term, two-week workshops in San Francisco. “I told Johnny I wanted to go. I just wanted to try it out. When I got there, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” she bursts into laughter. “But I suppose I did well because she asked if I wanted to come back.” For four years, Tats would go back and forth between Manila, San Francisco, and New York, working with Day for six weeks at a time, twice a year, to take on the job training in restoration and painting projects. While home, she was busy with family time, bringing up Juana and Liliana as the ubiquitous PTA-mom who would show up for school meetings in dungarees, covered in paint.

“It went on and on for a couple of years. Before I knew it, it had become a new profession for me,” she says. The actual work started when architect Ramon Antonio paid her a visit at home and noticed their walls. “He asked who did them and I said I did. ‘I didn’t know anybody did that,’ he said. ‘Can you do something for me?’ I said, ‘Sure!” Word got around and Tats, literally, got her hands dirty with surface decoration.

“After about 10 years of that, in 1994, I was getting even more curious about the source of all this revival work,” she says. Tats dug deep into research and found a school in Venice, the European Centre for Training Craftsmen in the Conservation of the Architectural Heritage. “My classmates were all artisans. You can’t even enter the school without at least six years in the field doing artisanal work.”

Tats with her daughters, Juana and Lilianna

Tats eased into the situation because she already spoke Italian, but the work, the commitment, and the treatment of products was unlike any other landscape she’d experienced. “I never handled a trowel before, and here was my German teacher, who did not speak a word of English. He was born in the time of Hitler and was the chief restorer of the part of Buckingham Palace that had burned down.”

Tats got to serious work and was determined to take on the challenge she had immersed herself in. Fresco, lime technology, and all the hands-on work kept Tats busy. Although she was already doing part-time work in restoration and decoration, she didn’t have the qualifications prescribed by the Italian school to do actual fieldwork. “I finally took the master’s program in 2011—the maestro certificate qualifies you for specialization. It gives you the stamp of approval to practice legitimately.”

“I don’t know why restoration stood out for me,” Tats ponders. “I would see my grandfather forever fixing things. His garahe did not have cars, it had things. I see my own garage and it’s true—the cars are all outside. My grandfather was a carpenter. My father also made things. I’m married to somebody who has that [quality] too. Even playtime with our children was about making a volcano, crafting model dinosaurs, working with clay figures.

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘passion,’” she continues, explaining how the transient nature of a fleeting interest is not enough. Tats believes in work that calls for commitment and dedication, without contrivance. “A ‘passion’ indicates you may like something now but not, next time. I like art and design. It’s been that way for me, always.

“We’re never intentional about it,” she continues. “Everything just evolves.”


Juana Mahanan-Yupangco has her days full as a writer, an editor, and a mother of two kids—Jaime and Rosanna. There was never a time in her life that wasn’t immersed, somehow, in the creativity that her parents always inspired. “I would say I took after my mom’s first career,” she says.

The older of Tats’ two girls, Juana was the first to take a shot at art school. “I thought I’d be an artist when I was younger. But when my sister started painting, I saw she was better than me!” she says, bursting into laughter. Her interest in art never dissipated, but instead, changed direction. Like her father, Juana set off for London to study Art History—a mixture, she explains, of art and writing.

“Just for fun, I applied to law school too and got in. When I told my parents, they said, ‘Lawyers are liars—why would you want to do that?’ My dad said, ‘Are you sure you want to be a lawyer? That’s no fun…’” Juana’s light sense of humor filters through the quiet, distinguished tone she carries when talking about art, literature, and everything she grew up with. “My parents encouraged me not to focus solely on art but to always have a liberal arts background; to know about everything—history, the world—so I could write about anything. We were always encouraged to write what we knew and if we knew more, we could write more.

“I felt the influence [of my family] even more, growing up. There was always some historical drama on TV, like I, Claudius, or opera music was always playing.

“I really believe it seeps in—what you grow up with. It’s like osmosis,” she muses. Even Tats’ stint in Venice was complementary to Juana’s studies; the frescoes of England played a part in her dissertation. “I remembered having barrels of lime and all those materials in our backyard, and I saw how my mom came up with her formulas. It felt natural to go that way when coming up with a topic to pursue. It was natural that I understood things after years of being exposed to [what my parents did].” From the pigment trade to 1960s performance art, Juana was well versed in all the art forms her parents engaged in.

Juana’s relationship with her sister, when it comes to art, has certainly grown since the time they were both playing with paint in art school. “I’m her biggest fan. I have everything she’s ever made. I want my house to be filled with her stuff. If I could put into 3D what’s on my mind, it would be her output.

“Her aesthetic is everything we grew up with—things we saw, things we read,” Juana says. The constant collaboration in the Manahan family that was present when the kids were still in school—Tats was helping build wildly elaborate booths for their international days and the kids were dreaming up inventive Halloween costumes; and Johnny was helping create working models of volcanoes—still drives the dynamic today. “Lilianna literally brings her new products to Sunday dinner and asks everyone what they think. ‘You? How much would you pay?’ is the question,” she laughs.

“When I’m doing visual work—shooting a cover, setting up a photo shoot, I ask my dad what he thinks about it. I’ll email him to ask about a location,” she adds. “What I do isn’t so unfamiliar from what he does, it’s just that I’m doing still pictures. All the principles we work with are the same—positive and negative space, proportion, all things I learned from my parents while growing up.”

Today, Juana showers her kids with art inspiration as well. “And she’s doing a better job than us because she knows what she can do better,” Tats comments.

Sisters Juana and Lilianna; and Lilianna with her mother

“It was cool to see what they did,” Juana remembers visiting her parents on-set, seeing directors call the shots, watching the action unfold. “It was only later on when we realized that not everybody had that childhood.” Lucky for the next generation of Manahan kids, art comes with the territory.


“The first thing I started drawing was [based on a book on] prints of flowers,” recalls industrial designer Lilianna. “I showed it to my parents and they said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good.’ Then it kind of went on. I just kept doing it. I got into models of dinosaur skeletons because I liked archaeology, and my dad would help me out. Things got more intricate, and we would build anything three-dimensional.”

Lilianna recalls seeing Juana’s painting exhibit for art classes at Virra Mall and wanting to do that too. Painting class was something that sprung up naturally, because the Manahan family was constantly, continuously surrounded by art and design.

Art was a given by the time she transitioned into college, and with her older sister already in London studying Art History, the city had already been decided for her. “I knew I wasn’t really good at painting and I liked model making, and I’d heard about product design. I did my foundations in art and design in London, then came back,” she continues.

After a short break, Lilianna decided to plant her roots in Manila and continued her bachelor’s degree at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. “Of course, it was really different from studying at Brent, but the experience was something I really enjoyed. I liked that industrial design in UP was a Bachelor of Arts course. We didn’t need to do a lot of engineering math, which I didn’t think I needed to work on design. I liked that our teachers were very hands-on.”

Not unlike her mom and older sister, the one thing Lilianna has to say about having art constantly brewing beneath the surface is, “It always came naturally.”

Post-graduation in 2009, Lilianna took less than a year off to soak in all she’d learned, to go surfing, and to paint. She began work on her ostrich eggs collection (which she later showcased as her first exhibit in 2012), and decided to return to Cebu—where she’d previously taken her summer internship with Kenneth Cobonpue.

“He and my mom did the BMW art cars, and at one of my mom’s events, I went up to him to ask if I could do my OJT with him. When that ended, I asked if I could go back,” she recounts.

“Kenneth’s office provides such an advantage because his factory is right outside. You can check on your samples anytime—things move so much faster than if you had manufactured with another company. It was a good foundation for me, exposing me to how the design world works and how the business side of things works,” she explains. Lilianna keeps in touch with everyone in Cebu, sometimes sending them her products to get the constructive criticism and workshopping that went on while she was working there herself. “You’re always open and vulnerable to a lot of revisions, but that helps you with the design process. You realize you can’t just churn out stuff and be okay with it.”

As Lilianna immerses herself even more in the world of design and running her own business, the future looks bright and she is in no rush. “I don’t want to jump into tradeshows just yet because I want to work on things more. I know it’s going to take time,” she says. Today, the artist busies herself with brass and ceramics, working with manufacturers to help execute her studies.

According to Lilianna, inspiration is never too far away. “I’m around it [art and design] all the time,” she muses. Not unlike her mom and older sister, the one thing Lilianna has to say about having art constantly brewing beneath the surface is, “It always came naturally.”

*This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Town&Country Philippines.

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