Ramon E.S. Lerma: The Ateneo Art Gallery

Cover of the publication »Contemporary Art and the Museum«

The Ateneo Art Gallery, the first museum of modern Philippine art, traces its roots to the late visual artist and educator Fernando Zobel de Ayala. A scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families, from the years 1959 to 1966, Zobel bequeathed his private collection of artworks by post-war modernists as well as a sizeable trove of original fine prints and drawings by Western masters to the Ateneo de Manila University, a prestigious private Jesuit university located 15 kilometers north of the capital that counts among its alumni the National Hero Jose Rizal, and generations of the country’s ruling classes - the political and economic elite, from Presidents of the Republic to captains of industry.
The collection surveys every art movement in the Philippines since 1950 - from Neo-Realism - a reaction to the conservatism embodied by the dominant school of Fernando Amorsolo - exemplified by the works of Zobel, Arturo Luz, Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi and Ang Kiukok, to the geometric and abstract expressionism of Vicente Oteyza, Lee Aguinaldo and again Zobel. Originally housed in a converted classroom at Bellarmine Hall, the museum moved to the ground floor of the university’s main Rizal Library in 1967 where it has remained since.
It must be recalled that the original vision and mission of the museum reflected Zobel’s desire to support emerging talent – many of whom he became acquainted with through the now defunct Philippine Art Gallery - and to provide a modest study collection for the university.
From 1961 through 2001, under the stewarship of Zobel’s hand-picked curator, his star-pupil in art appreciation, the poet  Emmanuel Torres, the Ateneo’s collection expanded considerably, with important works by pre- and post-war modernists such as Galo Ocampo, Nena Saguil and Diosdado Lorenzo filling gaps in the collection.

Torres likewise threw his support in the late 60s to the early 80s behind the works of the artists who emerged during the regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Known collectively as the Social Realists, the likes of Edgar Talusan Fernandez, Pablo Baen Santos, Renato Habulan, the late Alfredo Manrique and  Jose Tence Ruiz brought propaganda from the underground resistance into the mainstream, their diatribes against repression and the curtailments of basic freedoms often leading to frequent visits by the constabulary and threats of museum closure or the detention of its staff..
Post-EDSA, the Ateneo continued to expand its holdings, its string of acquisitions - all of these donated by alumni, friends of the museum, and artists by invitation -  reflecting the continued trajectory of established art movements, as well as the hybrid tendencies of emergent contemporary artists, among these Lazaro Soriano, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, Anna Fer and Julie Lluch.

With Torres’ retirement in 2001, and my assumption of the new post of Director and Chief Curator of the museum, one of my first acts was to retool the institution’s vision/mission to reflect the richness and diversity of modern and contemporary Philippine art.  It was clear that the time had come for the Ateneo Art Gallery to move away from the traditional concept of the museum as mausoleum, with an immutable permanent collection. Art had already moved beyond the concept of the object in the white cube to find other modalities of expression - from installation, to performance to cyberspace. My first task was to draw my primary audience back, without ignoring the fact that the collection’s significance had now moved beyond the confines of the ivied halls of  university, to a collection of national and international significance. The challenge was to address such a paradigmatic shift, and to respond to an even more daunting challenge - the niggling question of relevance and responsibility inevitably asked of art institutions in developing countries.
In the face of economic strife, even for an institution as well-placed as the Ateneo, the raison d’etre of the Gallery and its sustainability became a matter of contention. It was in this light that I proposed a new vision/mission: the credo behind the Gallery’s expanded exhibition and public programs. While our primary audience remained the students of the University - who could conceivably attend the Ateneo from kindergarten right through to gaining their doctorates – our efforts were also driven by a desire to reach out to a wider audience. In addition to organizing exhibitions based solely on the permanent collection, the museum also organized retrospectives focusing on underrated artists whose works had long languished in storage, and themed shows that brought together works from the Ateneo trove and from elsewhere. We embraced overseas loan exhibitions and initiated an international program called “Engage” that enabled works by significant contemporary artists from overseas to show their works in the Philippines and be exposed to the local art scene through residencies. For six years now, we have been running a lecture program called “ArtSpeak;” and educational modules under the “Artivity” umbrella accompany a number of our exhibitions. With the establishment of an undergraduate fine arts program at the university that includes a course track in arts management, the Gallery has likewise emerged as a student laboratory for research and curatorial practice.
That being said, our most important initiative to date is the annual Ateneo Art Awards, which has become the backbone of our public programs. Established in 2004 to honor the memory of Fernando Zobel whose support for emergent talent strongly influenced the development of art in the Philippines, the Awards seek to encapsulate the catalytic role of the Gallery as a platform for engagement.
Indeed, there is perhaps no other culture in the world more complex than the Philippines, where the personal, familial, regional, national and global coalesce. It is this multifaceted nature that clearly circumscribes contemporary Philippine art practice, imbuing it with a palpable richness and complexity. Little wonder then that local art practitioners - in spite of the myriad challenges that come from working within the context of a society that has by and large struggled to provide them with substantive levels of support -- still continue to brim with promise. This is no truer than in the case of the country's young, emerging talent, whose confidence, technical sophistication and intellectual maturity are reflected in the superlative works that the Ateneo Art Awards seek to recognize annually.
For four years, the Ateneo Art Awards has been formally recognizing the need to encourage young artists to follow their own inclinations in accordance with the times they live in. And how the times have changed! Surveying the museum’s permanent collection, it is clear that each generation inevitably possesses its own sensibility — visual codes, symbols, vocabulary, and aesthetic grammar.  
The theme that we selected for this year’s Awards, “Global/Vernacular,” recognizes and gives credence to the innate qualities that set modern and contemporary Philippine art apart - acknowledging its nuances yet believing that it moves beyond local context to reverberate cross-culturally.
This is the inspiration behind the Ateneo Art Gallery’s initiative to take the Awards beyond the self-contained bubble of the Philippine museum-gallery system, the ether world of critical discussion and the ivied halls of academe and move it into milieus both local and foreign - bringing what we believe to be truly good art to those who would otherwise not have the opportunity to engage with and benefit from such an encounter.
To reaffirm our commitment to this didactic approach, the Gallery, through the Awards, rewards and enables excellence through the expansion of the Ateneo Art Gallery International Studio Residency Grants, the only program of its kind organized by a Philippine cultural institution. 2007 marks the third year of the Ateneo Art Gallery Studio Residency Grant in Australia, to be held for the first time at La Trobe University in Bendigo, as well as the introduction of the Ateneo Art Gallery Studio Residency Grants in Singapore, and in Bandung, Indonesia, to be hosted by Artesan Gallery and Common Room Networks Foundation respectively.
It gives me great pleasure to show you images of the works of those who received the Awards this year, as well as a selection from among the ten others short-listed for the accolade.

In “A Bowtie for John Lyle” (Mag:net ABS-CBN, 4 – 31 July 2006), Lyle Buencamino serves up an earnest account of paternal tangling couched in the languages of music, painting, and appropriated cinematic text. The stark black-and-white, blown-up talking heads in this first solo exhibition pull in viewers to virtually eavesdrop on a layered visual rendering of charged tête-à-têtes between the artist’s composer-father and himself. Woven through with references to a biographical account of a song (the metaphoric bowtie) crafted by the composer for his son, this witty visual jab and simultaneous deference to authority makes for an assembly of works that easily resound with personal memory. “
Wawi Navarroza’s interrogations into the nature and duality of light and shadows, musings on myth and mysticism, and contemplations on [the] Conscious and Unconscious in ”Saturnine: A Collection of Portraits, Creatures, Glass & Shadow” (silverlens gallery, 18 January – 17 February 2007) are coupled with a mature manipulation of the photographic medium. Using monochrome film to capture the images, she goes through the process of altering the negatives using chemicals, creating chaos, disintegration, control and destruction. The act of destruction is part of the moment of creation.
She does not turn her back to photography’s heritage but instead pays homage and embraces its past and connects with its present as she renders her manipulated negatives into the digital format and the final output is printed in digital.
The richly textured and multi-layered images in Navarroza’s photographs, images of “creatures (things created) and anthrophomorphised ideas devised by my imagination,” is a result of Navarroza’s experiments with the photographic process which is for her akin to alchemy – a mixture of chemistry, spirituality, philosophy, psychology, and art, all metamorphose into an array of visually stunning, thought-provoking, and melancholy-inducing images, her “songs of shade.”  
The third recipient of this year’s Awards, MM Yu, challenges the boundaries between artwork and book, gallery and library. In “Thoughts Collected, Recollected” (Finale Art Gallery, 19 April – 9 May 2007), the work – a collection of photographs taken by the artist – is not installed on the walls of the gallery as expected. Rather, the artist has chosen the structure of books on a shelf, encouraging extended contemplation and exploration.
Each hand-made photographic book is thematic. Without, text, the viewer is asked to engage with the images to construct a narrative and meaning. Like sifting through a library one finds books on various subjects like pairings of words and objects, a comical array of visages of people with eyes closed while being shot,  detritus and aestheticized compositions drawn from the urban landscape.  
“Thoughts Collected, Recollected” asks the viewer to probe, to consider, to investigate and to participate in an environment of sheer disquietude.  
Framing stillness and motion, the collision of space and intervention in Raquel de Loyola’s Subsisting Sustenance performance work (7a11D International Festival, Toronto, Canada,
27 October 2006) delivers a sensorial spectacle that leaves viewers shocked and awed. Haunting ululation presages the entry of the artist who, caked in talcum and garbed as the multi-breasted Bagobo goddess Mebuyan, weaves her own melodious yowling into a hair-raising bel canto-style duet.
Overseer of the underworld, its ambiance hearkened to by the darkened room where the artist tosses a dust cloud and cavorts in an abstract expressionist dance, squirting and flinging blood-colored liquid from her bosoms, Mebuyan nurses the souls of deceased infants and children in a realm akin to limbo, weaning them in preparation for the afterlife. Fiercely independent, she burrows into the netherworld and charts a different path from her brother, the god Lumabat whose realm is the sky.
Redolent with allusions to Gaea, de Loyola powerfully portrays the definitive feminist icon. It is also not difficult to see that her creative well-spring draws from the artist’s devotion to mater patria - convulsing in a complete and utter offering of self.  
A fact of everyday life is that people go missing all the time. Sometimes they’re found, and often they’re not. Yasmin Sison’s “missing persons” in “Unmade” (Mag:net Paseo, 9 – 27 May 2006) are still to be found. A possible resurrection awaits them, somewhere, at the end of time perhaps, but not here and now. For the moment, they are present in form but absent in appearance, manifest but not recognizable.
To spontaneously combust is one thing, to be salvaged by the paramilitary another. And then there are people who disappear voluntarily as well, taking on new lives and new names, killing their old selves off. Indeed, there are an infinite number of ways in which to rub out anyone (and/or else to have them rub off on you), and Yasmin Sison’s images are laden with enough ambiguity to cancel out any stories we might otherwise imagine for them.
Her erasures point the way to coping with disappearance itself, to virtual absence as it were, to the places in one’s heart and mind where missing persons’ faces are gone but still reside. At once humorous and terrifying, hers is a world where vanishing is an act chronicled. “Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you.”
Like a Bombix moth that spins a cocoon of silk, or a frugal spinster that collects twine and rolls it into a ball, ever tighter, ever bigger, Mac Valdezco does with society’s detritus in “Small Complete Units” (Avellana Art Gallery, 14 April – 19 May 2007): strips of paper from a printing press, shoelace and cotton string, and cotton tape. Using the hot glue to hold pieces together or the mere force of knotting and tying, Valdezco transgresses the boundaries between craft and art.

The artist admits that she begins with no fixed plan or concept but rather allows the material to speak to her. It is in the interaction between physicality and the artist’s intuitive drive to create that her biomorphic forms arise.  Changing Bodies # 5, for example,  is a dense works of tightly bound shoelaces but hang delicately like a weaver bird’s nest. Hard put to say if her works are art or craft, whether they are sculpture or installation, or how her works can be displayed on a more permanent basis, Valdezco’s works are compelling forms doomed to decay but while they last they arrest the senses.

Articulation and the slur are Jevijoe Vitug’s primary tools in “Capitali-sing” (Finale Art Gallery, 8-27 March 2007). Incredibly, he commits this “slurring” in painting installations of very specific imagery, figurations so painstakingly rendered it’s hard to believe that his is an alter purpose.
That purpose means much to a painter distinct in his brushwork but oblique in his conclusions; an artist who says one thing and conjures something infinitely else; a concept-savvy scholar of folksy doubletalk.
The slur, the smearing of edges, the osmosis between frames, is Vitug’s chosen premise. Day-old chicks embalmed in stone hard resin; mad, beautiful, screaming nymphs painted in lurid detail; stuffed dogs watching television; spooky pentagrams and flags; elemental fire, wind and water – these and other disparate elements vie for our attention, then just as quickly dissolve into a sensurround vista of fearsome scale.
With Vitug, slurring is a dialect in itself. And in between the slurred frames of a cyclical saga are weightless voids the size of moon craters. And in those voids reside much danger and chance. And out of danger and chance has sprung some of the greatest art of the past century.
In the face of such promise, the Ateneo Art Gallery reiterates its commitment to support contemporary Philippine art through a host of other initiatives that relate to the Awards. The recipients of the Ateneo Art Gallery international studio residency grants are given the opportunity to respond to their overseas forays through an annual exhibition at the museum presaging the following year’s round of nominations.
Earlier this year, we also updated the Gallery website (http://gallery.ateneo.edu) to give previous winners and short-listed artists a dedicated page to promote their new projects; while two landmark projects, “Art and Society” which brought together art patrons and artists in a fundraising project to further endow the Awards, and “Power of Art” which enabled artists to court new publics through shop front displays, all contributed to increasing exponentially the high profile the Awards and the Gallery already enjoy.
Looking forward, the Ateneo Art Gallery draws inspiration from forging new linkages, bridging differences, creating opinions, and translating visions - giving a voice to those who seek to shock, awe, provoke and inspire through the universal language of art.

(1) Eileen Legaspi Ramirez, “Lyle Buencamino,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery
(2) Eloisa May Hernandez, “Wawi Navarroza,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery
(3) Vince Alessi, “MM Yu,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery
(4) Ramon E.S. Lerma, “Racquel de Loyola,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery
(5) Cesare A.X. Syjuco, “Yasmin Sison,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery
(6) Rene Javellana, SJ, “Mac Valdezco,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery
(7) Cesare A.X. Syjuco, “Jevijoe Vitug,” in Global/Vernacular, exhibition catalogue, Ateneo Art Gallery


Last update: 07-11-2007 12:22