THE demise on December 16 of the National Artist for Visual Arts Abdulmari Asia Imao diminished not only our country’s art and culture scene. It also removed and an example of a good Muslim who, unlike some of his co-religionists, abjure being Filipino.
Dr. Imao, “Mari” to his friends and colleagues, will always be fondly remembered by art lovers and fellow artists themselves from both the Muslim and Christian communities.
Although Dr. Imao’s works and motifs are deeply rooted in his Muslim heritage, he also embraced a healthy relationship and respectful dialogue with other faiths. His wife, the late Grace Bondoc De Leon was a devout Catholic, and their strong inter-faith relationship is reflected in his paintings and sculptures and the attitude of his children toward art and society.
A native of Sulu, he created works that popularized and instilled in the Filipino consciousness the indigenous ukkil, sarimanok and naga motifs. Besides being a sculptor and painter, Dr. Imao was also a photographer, ceramist, documentary film maker, cultural researcher, writer, and articulator of Philippine Muslim art and culture.
While he exhibited the skills of a gifted individual, Dr. Imao boasted of impressive academic credentials.
He studied at the College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines, where he was mentored by National Artists Guillermo Tolentino and Napoleon Abueva. He received a Schmidt and Fulbright Scholarship for graduate studies at the Kansas University in the United States. He also received two year-long fellowships at the Rhode Island School of Design and Columbia University in New York. He was the first Asian recipient of the much-coveted New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) fellowship grant to study in Europe.
Upon his return in the Philippines, he taught Fine Arts at the University of the East. He also did several photo-journalistic and scholarly research work about the peoples of Mindanao. He studied and promoted indigenous brass casting techniques, and crafted several public art and historical installations around the country.
Among Dr. Imao’s works are large-scale sculptures and monuments of Muslim and regional heroes and leaders gracing selected sites from Batanes to Tawi-tawi.
Dr. Imao’s remains will be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a fitting tribute for a Filipino worthy to be called an icon, and one who is worth emulating.
In this age where the Internet is engulfing the Filipino youth with Westernized culture and even corrupting the country’s culture and moral values, Dr. Imao’s works can help younger Filipinos discover the richness and uniqueness of Philippine history and culture. More importantly, Dr. Imao’s legacy shows how Muslim culture and history is part of the unique Filipino identity, which sadly, much of the youth are not aware of or have absolutely no knowledge about.
Thus it would be an injustice to Dr. Imao that his legacy will not be made known to more Filipinos, especially the youth.
Like the great painter and hero Juan Luna, Dr. Imao has numerous works that are not only fit for viewing in national museums but also are worthy of mention and study in the textbooks for both high school and college students.