Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chronicles of an Accidental Friendship

by Raul Agner
(photo of Bobi borrowed from philvisualarts blog)

My accidental visit to an art gallery in Manila twenty-five years ago exemplifies the old saw that everything happens for a reason. It started off a friendship with a person that would be enriching especially for me, resulting in art-related pursuits that would be advantageous to others as well. After our first meeting, I gradually learned that he was playing an important, self-defined curatorial role in the incipient stages of post-Imeldific Philippine art.

Accidental Friendship
While attending a Museology symposium at the National Library on October 3, 1984, I spent the lunch break looking around Mabini St. for cheap frames for my small drawings. At U.N. Ave., I chanced upon a shop with a glass storefront whose attraction was hard to resist because the paintings inside looked freshly familiar. I had no clue then that I was at the doorstep of Hiraya Gallery. Before leaving Tacloban the previous day, I had been reading an article in Focus magazine about an upcoming artist named Renato Habulan. Noticing that the paintings visible through the glass were the same as the photos in the article, I got excited and decided to go in. My eyes feasted on everything they could set their sights on, even as I sensed that somebody was watching my visual exploration through a gap between a suspended display panel and the wall.
That guy later introduced himself as Bobi Valenzuela who, as I was about to leave, asked me to sign the guestbook. He also offered me coffee. I didn’t know what to say but any probinsyano would certainly feel important and welcome if extended this friendly gesture especially in a very impersonal place like Manila. With a hesitant yes, I found myself sipping coffee at the mezzanine. Moreover, I met the artist himself who was responsible for the moving works downstairs. Still clear in my memory is the sight of Habulan, a social realist artist, shedding a tear as he lamented the prevailing social conditions. These people, I thought, must be serious about art and life.

Back in Leyte, I wrote Bobi to thank him for his hospitality. In two days, he wrote back to say he was glad to have met me, reiterating an invitation that I drop by Hiraya every time I happened to be in Manila. That initial exchange of letters became a groundbreaking step for our regular, almost weekly, communication until the advent of e-mail and cellphones made it obsolete.
In his letters, Bobi shared his ideas about art, his work as art curator, updates on the Manila art scene, the artists who mattered, and even some characters he found hard to deal with. In return, I wrote about my museum job, my attempts at artmaking, the local art scene and artists, and culture in general. He always emphasized that art should go beyond a show of artistic skill; he disliked the done-to-death Madonna and Child. More importantly, it should have something important to say, a sensitivity to realities that affect country or community.

Projects, Events
Our friendship, our letter writing, led to many things that would not have happened had I not decided to step inside Hiraya Gallery that fateful day in October.
In 1991, Bobi and Manny Chaves accepted my invitation to redesign the Divine Word university Museum in Tacloban which I curated then. From a drab repository of artifacts, they transformed it into a more visitor-friendly place that employed the local colourful banig as design motif. We agreed to name the whole permanent exhibit “Sungdu-an: A Confluence of Leyte-Samar Culture,” the Waray word meaning ‘meeting point of two rivers or confluence.’ I believe it was through Bobi’s suggestion that the word was used as title for the group show of visual artists from all over the country initiated by the NCCA-Committee on Visual Arts in the late ‘90s. Incidentally, Archie Zabala, a member of my hometown’s art group, qualified as Eastern Visayas’ representative to the “Sungdu-an 3: Making the Local” exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2004.

More Activities
Through Bobi, upcoming artist Alwin Reamillo came to Palo, Leyte in 1994 to conduct an installation art workshop for the Atitipalo Art Group. It was an important learning experience for the members as it exposed them to the alternative possibilities and purposes of creating art. Ironically, Bobi, a non-Visayan, connected us to the other Visayan artists in Bacolod so that in 1994, the Atitipalo was able to join the 3rd Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference in Dumaguete. From that first attendance, the other artists from Eastern Visayas were able to network with the VIVA EXCON and regularly attend the succeeding gatherings. The high point of this inter-island networking was when the Leyte artists played host to the 6th VIVA EXCON in 2000 in Tacloban, with Bobi serving as exhibition curator.
Another workshop was made available to young artists in our area again through Bobi’s efforts. Noel Cuizon and Emong Borlongan conducted a Basic Drawing and Paper Sculpture Workshop in 1995 accompanied by Bobi and Ditas Samson of the CCP.
The first local group show of the Atitipalo was in 1996 in our hometown, largely through the encouragement of Bobi. In the same year, Bobi invited me to contribute to Ang De Latang Pinoy, a collaborative exhibit at the Hiraya Gallery. In 2002, I held my first show of drawings at the Drawing Room in Makati, a humble achievement and a somewhat late-blooming output of my long letter-writing-based “art education” with Bobi.

Bobi chose to work behind the scenes. In one letter, he wrote that his favourite line was “the tragedy of being public like a frog,” from Susan Sontag. What really mattered was that the work was carried out as envisioned. Bobi’s contributions to art in my part of the archipelago may not be known to many but then he was never after quantity. The few who understood his message continue to make art along the path that he delineated.
Bobi became my kumpare, godfather to my second daughter, in 1996. The last time I saw him was on March 20, 2008 when together with my wife and two daughters, I visited him in his BF Paranaque home. In a few months, he would finally leave for the great beyond.
A stack of his letters sits quietly at home in Tacloban, a testament to our friendship that started as a chance meeting but, because it bore so many fruits, makes me believe that it had to happen for that reason.


Letters to the Philippines said...

Well that is a good accidental friendship, Imagine, even both of you are far to each other you can still communicate by means of letter. I'm glad about it coz for me it's really hard to communicate with someone who's miles away from you.


RenatoRHabulan said...

Mr Abner, good morning. I chanced upon your blog and I read about the accidental friendship at Hiraya Gallery. It made me remember those days as a young struggling fiery artist. I thank you that you wrote about it because it confirmed to me that being passionate about love for one's country cannot be just a phase in your life. To date, the passion is still there.

I just finished my "Takatak" show last March-April, 2009. I have a show, "Ala-Prima," works on palette knife at Crucible Gallery, SM Mega A. It will open on July 14 at 6p.m. I hope you can visit when you are in Manila. It would be nice to see and talk to you again.

r. agner said...

renato, thanks for your comment. i always hear and read about you and your exhibits in the papers. i'll really try to attend your july show. more power to your art!