How the longest-running art fair in the country used the challenges of 2020 to evolve.While the public remains discouraged from physically attending mass gatherings, an art fair to be held this December might end up engaging a crowd larger than the assemblies it encountered in past.
I’m referring to ManilART, the oldest event of its kind in the Philippines. To be held from the 9th to the 13th at the SMX Convention Center of SM Aura Premier, it will once again bring together the stakeholders of the local art scene to form a sizeable exhibition. This year, it will feature works championed by at least 23 galleries, and among its headliners are pieces created by internationally celebrated names. Unlike the past versions of this event, however, this iteration of ManilART will have at least one distinction: it will have an online equivalent.
“We’ve exploited the use of a digital platform for a wider reach,” said Tessa Rayos del Sol, the event’s exhibit director. And because of this, the fair will have several new features. For starters, its website will have a 360-degree view of the actual show. There will also be a clickable catalog that will serve as a viewing room representing each gallery participating. Meanwhile, the educational activities often conducted by the fair will be migrated online, live via Facebook.
It is an unusual presentation for ManilART. Previously, the fair preferred to mostly showcase works in traditional onsite fashion. But, 2020 hasn’t exactly been a year for traditions. If anything, it’s been a year encouraging people to break away from them. And this is a reality that the local art scene has been forced to adapt to.Since the earlier months of 2020, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been disrupting life in the Philippines because of its high infection rate and its capacity to cause an array of fatal complications. To curb its quick spread, the national government implemented a mix of movement restrictions and lockdown measures that forced various sectors to operate at a limited capacity. For galleries, this meant fewer people going out to view exhibits, online migration, or limited shows. For artists, fewer venues to promote their works. And then there are the economic challenges that resulted from the aforementioned pandemic responses. At their wake were massive layoffs, recessionary measures, and realities endangering the general public’s capacity to support the nonessentials. All things considered, various sectors have been struggling and the art scene is among them.
“At the early onset of the pandemic, a lot of artists have run out of supplies to work,” said Danny Rayos Del Sol, a curator for ManilART. “It has also affected the artists emotionally.”
Hermes Alegre can attest to this. Born in Daet, Camarines Norte, the man has built a decorated career recognized both locally and abroad. His paintings, often depicting the women of the country, have made him a well-known figure in art circles. That being said, even he feels anxious over the current state of things.
“Covid 19 has a big effect on everybody,” he said via email. “It’s hard to plan and sort things out for the reason that everybody was unaware and unprepared [for] this outbreak. There’s a big difference in my life as a painter before and during the pandemic.” Also affected was Ed Coronel, a self-taught visual artist and a recent winner of the American Arts Awards. “I suppose no one is exempted from the anxiety brought by this pandemic,” he said. So, naturally, gallery owners also have their thoughts on the matter. Agnes Romero, for one, suffered her fair share of stress. She is the owner Renaissance Art Gallery in SM Megamall and, ever since the start of the pandemic, she has felt a level of uncertainty concerning her business.
“Personally, COVID-19 has made me anxious and fearful not only for myself but for my whole family and community,” she said. “Anxious because the gallery had to stay closed for some time. The concern about the gallery staff was addressed earliest. The concern about the gallery sales and income was left unattended because COVID-19 was already a pandemic [when they arose.]”
Fear, uncertainty, anxiety—having interviewed a number of people in the midst of this global health crisis, I’ve had numerous run-ins with those weighed down by them in 2020. It’s easy to see why Time Magazine designated it as “the worst year ever.” It’s also easy to understand why, as early as March, Lebron James was already calling for it to be “canceled.” It’s a year of adversity. But even in the midst of it, I’ve encountered those who openly step up to its challenge; people who would say such things as “adversity breeds creativity.” And indeed it does; the art scene itself continues to prove that.A couple of months ago, director Alco Guerrero wrote to this publication about the challenges characterizing this difficult year. He addressed it from the perspective of a creative, and while he minced no words about the hardships of the present, he would occasionally employ a more optimistic tone when speaking of the future.
“Creators and artists have been talking, meeting, trying to initiate something, performing online [during the pandemic,]” he shared. “Believe me, soon enough scores of modern masterpieces of art will start sprouting up from everywhere.”
This appears likely. Throughout history, art has always been a response to the human condition. When supporters of the Duterte administration—at the face of public criticism—sought to blame the people for the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines, the artists of the country were among the first to respond resoundingly, unleashing a range of music, words and visuals to counteract such proclamations. When calamities struck parts of the country—from the eruptions of the Taal Volcano earlier this year to the storms that hit just recently—artists got involved as well, calling for better responses from the government. They were also among the ones who sought to deliver aid through fundraising measures or direct contributions while urging the public to vote wiser in the next elections. And now, as this year comes to a close, there is still much to be said. And, even in the midst of a health crisis, there are venues where they can be said.
ManilART seeks to be part of the conversation. With the theme “ManilART 2020 Vision for a Future Reimagined,” the event seeks to look forward and define our direction from here on out. It is a challenge and among those who acknowledge this is Amy Loste, the president of the Bonafide Art Galleries Organization, Inc, a body partly responsible for the exhibition.
“While most may think that the last thing people would have in these unusual times is clarity about the future, on the contrary,” she said. “Artists, visionaries and madmen (often identifying with any or all of these categories) see it as an opportunity to reimagine the future.”
And for this year’s fair, there are a number of big names out to share their own perspectives. Fittingly, at the top of the list is the world renowned Rene Robles. He is the father of the assertionism movement which empowers artists to interject themselves into their subjects and find deeper meanings in that which can be deemed commonplace. Among his works to be shown exhibit assertionism in pastel.
“He will also showcase his 3D works featuring Philippine social scenes,” said Tess Rayos del Sol. These include happenings within the Fiesta of the Nazarene of Quiapo and images set near Intramuros’ old buildings.
Alegre will also be sharing his works. After saying that the pandemic wasn’t able to stifle his artistic pursuits completely, he stated that he will be showcasing his own celebration of nature. His works will reimagine the future by looking back.
“Paradiso [the name of the exhibit] reflects my memories from the past,” he shared. “I stayed in Los Banos, Laguna in 1995 where I got to interact with nature and immerse myself in the midst of a botanical garden. I get all my inspiration from the exotic flora and fauna of Laguna’s ecosystem. In this era, where technology is far more important than anything else, this direction of my painting symbolizes beauty, nature, hope and fantasy of flora and fauna.”
And then there’s Coronel. He continued to work during the long lockdown phase imposed by the government earlier this year. He even theorized that the pandemic may have done some good for the art community as it forced artists to stay in one place and focus on their work. Having said this, he shared that for this version of ManilART, he will be exhibiting his pieces through the support of Gallery Nine.
“I will be showing recent 6 pieces of oil on canvas,” he said. The first is entitled “Diversity,” which was a first place winner in the 2020 American Arts Awards under the Pop Art category. He will also be including other works like “Fruit Vendor (1 and 2),” “Parol Vendors sa Granada Bridge, San Juan” and “Tinapa (1 and 2.)
In spite of the challenges it faced, Renaissance will also be involved this year, reaffirming its commitments to the community.
“Renaissance is serious in continuing to support and present abstract art since it is a form that most people have difficulty understanding and appreciating,” said Romero. She added, however, that it wasn’t easy to uphold this given the current situation.
“Putting up a show for ManilART 2020 has caused a lot of anxiety for the exhibitors as well as the artists since the times are unpredictable,” she said. “Communicating with the organizers and the artists proved to be very important in the decision to be involved in ManilART 2020. Assurances from both ManilART and the artists made us comfortable and confident to participate this year.” And, the organizers did move in an attempt to inspire such confidence.
Established in 2009 by the National Commission of Culture and the Arts, ManilART has long been an endeavor to document the evolution of visual arts in the country. Now, in its 12th year, it aims to fulfill its duty not just through the showcase of works from various galleries but also through the creation of a platform more suited to the times. Aside from its online endeavors which seek to share the show with those who cannot be physically present, it also implemented ways to ensure the safety of those who will be there.
“The imposition of protocols for safety really made the groundwork for ManilART more challenging,” said Tess Rayos del Sol. “For this, we partnered with Safepass to give a semblance of safety to the visitors of the art trade fair. The maximum number of people allowed at a certain point in time necessitates the implementation of a timed entry and pre-registration of people coming in.”
That being said, the highlight is still the rise of its online version—a newfangled form forced upon it by the demands of the times.
“The typically slow adaptation of the conservative art sector to the digital platform has been made necessary with the pandemic,” said Loste. “In fact, it is an opportunity to transition to the digital age. With this maiden edition of ManilART online, the fair shall continue to develop this avenue for engagement in the coming years, expanding its reach onsite and online.”
In other words, ManilART is doing more than adapt to the times. It is evolving. Like artists using hardships to empower their works, the organizers of this event used the realities of the current pandemic to modernize its operation. In doing so, it lived up to its theme, persisting and providing what may very well be a vision of the future.