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[Interview] “Paint and Paint”–How Nikulas Lebajo Continues to be a Successful Artist After 30 Years

After completing his 20th one-man collection, the artist talks about longevity, adaptation and deviation.


N ikulas Lebajo ran away and joined the circus.

This, at least, is what a colleague of mine said upon seeing the recent works of the man who has been a visual artist for more than 30 years. He didn’t mean it literally of course but upon seeing a number of the paintings that make up “Carnival,” his latest collection, the statement made sense.

Lebajo, after all, has been known in recent years for the minimalism achieved through his use of repetition and multiplicity. In the past, he had caught the attention of the public through large portraits of recurring still life objects but he has decided to depart from that with his new works, this visual adventure that treads beyond what he’s been known for.

Defined as his 20th one-man show, “Carnival,” which was launched last March at the Saturday Group Gallery of Shangri-la Plaza, attempts to capture societal idiosyncrasies through the use of figures often associated with its namesake. Elements of his previous outings are still there but instead of taking the spotlight, they almost feel like links reconciling the past with the present.

In “Circus,” for example, he uses a line of identical jars running over the image. But behind their transparent forms are the new elements occupying his frame of mind: a brawny strongman, a contortionist, a trapeze artist—the usual characters of a circus. Together, the image can remind one of the chaos and the differing nuances hiding behind any institution of order and predictability.

Another piece in the collection is “Butterflies.” The centerpiece of this is a woman’s face overrun by other things that typically carry the adjective “pretty”—from flowers to stars to, of course, butterflies. Looking at it, I couldn’t help but wonder what the central figure would look like; how she would capture her onlookers without being covered by this much fluff.

Its thoughts like these that tend to arise from Lebajo’s collection. Incorporating the elements of subversion often characterizing a carnival, he deconstructs the familiar to share his thoughts on the current zeitgeist and invites his audience for a bit of introspection.

This is something he’s been doing for years. With his career officially launching back in 1989 after winning the Grand Prize of the Shell National Painting Competition, Lebajo has been successfully launching one-man shows and winning various competitions. A graduate of Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines, his works have been exhibited in various galleries both here and abroad.

Technique, however, isn’t the only reason for his success. Throughout the years, Lebajo’s capacity to captivate his audience has been the foundation of his renown. And with that in mind, I couldn’t help but think that despite his recent deviation in form, he didn’t run away to join the circus. How can he when he’s been in it for a long time already?

Kendrick Go:  What inspired you to choose a carnival theme for your 20th one-man show? What do carnivals mean to you and what do you hope to achieve with this concept?

Nikulas Lebajo: When I see good images, it motivates me and inspires me to develop it, deconstruct it, analyze it, compose until it becomes the image that I want, to make it more contemporary. Painting is all about composition and how you adapt to technology and changing times.

The masterpieces that I created for “Carnival” [are] all my interpretation on what goes on inside a carnival or circus and nuances it conveys from the onlooker’s perspective.

 KG: Immediately, the first thing a number of people have noticed with this new collection is how much of a deviation it is from your recent works featuring repeated still life objections. Can you tell us more about this deviation? What was the reason behind this shift and what does it mean for your career?

NL: I have been doing figures since 10 years ago (examples, my self-portraits, bookshelf portraits, faces, etc.) I compose my paintings based on what I feel at the moment. You need to explore things and themes and adapt it to what’s happening around you to make it relevant. You need to evolve as an artist.

KG: How long did it take for you to complete all the pieces in this exhibit? What were the challenges you faced in completing them and how did you overcome those challenges?

NL: It took me one year to finish all the collection for the “Carnival” one-man show. The challenges revolved on how you contain and capture those ideas going through your mind, what exactly you want to compose on the canvas until you finally decide on what to paint. Through proper meditation, it helped me a lot to be decisive on what to paint.

KG: One of the key points in discussing your career is your wins in various competitions. What would you say is the secret behind your success in them?

NL: There’s really no secret in my success. I don’t really think about it. Sometimes you fall, then you rise again, you continue to paint. It’s a long career journey, a lifetime. What I’m grateful for is that I have been given the talent and the skills to pursue my love for art. And, until now, I’m doing what I love. And hopefully, be able to impart some inspiration to aspiring artist/painter out there.

 KG: Please tell us more about your younger years. Where were you raised, what was your childhood like and how did this eventually lead you to become the artist that you are today?

NL: During my younger years, I would say that I was both an introvert and an extrovert. Sometimes, I would play outside, then stay inside to paint. When I was in college, I became more [introverted] because I would like to stay at home and just paint. Most of the time, I found myself in the company of my dad (Raul Lebajo, also an artist and a master surrealist) and some friend-artists.

Maybe the environment and [my] bloodlines contributed to the person that I am today. I came from a family of artists. I have been exposed to the works of my father. The talent is innate in me.

KG: You’re now on your 20th one-man exhibit and is very much recognized as a staple in the local art scene but when would you say was your first big break and what was the story behind it?

NL:  I would consider my first break was when I was given the opportunity to exhibit at the very prestigious The Luz Gallery (of National Artist Arturo Luz) after winning the Grand Prize at the Shell National Students Art Competition in 1989. After that, I was thrust into the limelight and has had done numerous exhibitions both solos and group shows here and abroad. I will be forever grateful to Mr. Luz and to my father for the artistic genes.

KG: Given that this is already your 20th one-man exhibit, what would say was the most important thing you learned throughout your professional journey that you’d like to share to younger artists?

NL: Paint and paint. Don’t be disheartened with challenges and criticisms around you. Continue your passion and develop your own style and continue to perfect it in time. Think positive, always. Meditate. An artist is a warrior. Find your support system. Life goes on.

KG: What’s next for you after this exhibit?

NL: We might forge some collaboration with other galleries or might participate again in a national art fair. I will continue to paint and paint, it’s a cycle.

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