In the mid-‘50s up to the ‘70s, Manila’s Ermita District, particularly Mabini Street, was the source of cheap paintings for simple upper working class and lower-upper class Filipino folk who just wanted to decorate their homes.
Nevertheless, the work of the Mabini artists also became popular with American, British and Australian tourists who came by the thousands on American President Liners and the grand ships of P&O-Orient Lines.
Among the most successful Mabini artists was Salvador Cabrera, whose day job was as a layout artist and cartoonist at The Manila Times. Few people know that the late Badong Cabrera was the elder brother of National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Cabrera.
Since their sales to tourists and locals slumped in the 1970s, self-taught Mabini artists have been trying to erase the negative image that then and until now surrounds their paintings found in malls and shops as “commercialized” and “cheap non-art.” Unluckily for them, the local art enthusiasts have already set the standards of authenticity and prestige to “fine art” being sold at staggering six figures in prestigious exhibitions.
But Germany-based Transwing Art Gallery has spent 16 years to expose Mabini artists to art-lovers in Europe where they have been warmly received and appreciated.
Filipina owner Jane Hartung developed Transwing, which was at first just a consulting company for cultural and trade relations between the Philippines and Germany, into a major exhibitor of Filipino art and culture in Europe.
Several Mabini artists came into Jane’s Transwing circle when her German husband, Klaus Hartung, wrote the book Revisiting ‘Mabini Art’ with Filipino co-author Oliver Quingco 2nd.
“We mainly want to bring out more artworks to Europe and to the United States by artists that are not so much recognized in the Philippines. Like the Mabini artists. I mean you [artists]have to spend to produce, so you must sell,” Klaus said in an interview while he and Jane were preparing their participation for the second year participation in the “ManilArt 2014” exhibition at SM Aura, in Taguig.
Art enthusiast Klaus believes that “the main key [in this endeavor]is that not every artist who did not study is not producing good paintings.” Meagerly taught and self-taught Mabini artists should not be disqualified from competitions or major exhibitions.
Through the Hartungs’ help, Mabini artists are able to participate in international exhibitions. The artists’ reputation in the art world grows. This would, everyone hopes, end the art lovers’ dilemma about buying Mabini art.
“The only problem is that the artists that are working today in Mabini, the majority of them, are really [capable]people copying artworks of other [well known]artists or using their own artworks and signing these with fake names because that’s what they do for a living. You can buy an artwork for P2,000, but that is not how Mabini artists are usually considered,” he said.
“If you talk today about Mabini, everybody thinks Mabini artists are only copying artworks but it is not true,” he added.
‘Revisiting Mabini art’
Nick Joaquin once wrote that to understand history, one must study culture. Art as part of culture is therefore an effective tool to study different epochs of Philippine culture. If one could only search through its controversial history, Mabini art once stood proud to be an elegant representation of authentic Filipino art.
Before their reputation diminished into third generation copyists, Mabini artists produced original artworks reflecting Philippine life that delighted the average buyers and curious tourists of the post-war era.
The book Revisiting ‘Mabini Art’ includes excerpts from an M.A. thesis, Mabini Art: History, Practice and Aesthetics, by Pearl Tan from the University of the Philippines-Diliman published in 1992. According Pearl Tan, Manila hadn’t heard of Mabini art until artists opened their shop along Mabini Street in Ermita, Manila after World War II.
In the 1950s and 1960s, first-generation Mabini artists enjoyed the “art boom” in Ermita where artworks were sold locally and exported to decorate homes, hotels, and office buildings. From 1950s to 1970s, tourists needed “cheap and fast souvenirs” who sometimes ordered commission works for pleasure of seeing them hanging only on their walls. The first generation painted for the market a combination of two or more themes centered mostly on landscape, still life, genre, portrait and nudes.
When the judges of the 1965 art exhibit-competition held by Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) favored the Victorio Edades-led “modernists,” the “conservatives” that used their idol Fernando Amorsolo’s “realism” held sidewalk exhibition to protest at now UN Avenue. This protest led to the formation of Academy of Filipino Artists (AFA) that popularized sidewalk exhibitions in Ermita serving average art buyers. Later on, it became The Mabini Artists’ Association (MAA) after some of its members permanently put up their own studios on Mabini Street. These were certainly not the firsts. The Fernando Amorsolo “conservatives” became the Mabini artists.
After the disbandment of AFA, the second-generation Mabini artists suffered setbacks as the “elitists” those who came to be called the educated “Makati artists” took over reputable art galleries and major exhibitions in the country and abroad. Until now, Mabini artists find it hard to compete for attention due the popularity of “fine art.”
Having an Art degree became the standard to be called a “legitimate artist.” So, the self-taught Mabini artists formed MAA to be identified in a distinct niche in Philippine art.
The second generation, according to Tan, “became more eclectic, drawing on their predecessor’s repertoire” as well as the works of non-Mabini artists. Subjects such as human interest and wildlife were added later on to the artworks of the third generation artists affected by the “commercialized art” dogma.
Transwing Art Gallery is the only gallery in Germany that adopted Philippine art, particularly works by self-taught Mabini artists of Manila. It has collection of almost 500 paintings by self-taught Mabini artists, as well as nationally recognized artists.
“Some of our artworks are already in Germany. Half of the collection of Paco Gorospe and of our National Artists are already in Germany. But 95 percent are self-taught artists who live in Mabini,” Klaus said.
Transwing exhibited paintings of Mabini artists around Europe and in the Philippines as well. Recently, paintings of Mabini artists were featured in an exhibition on the theme “Landscapes,” which opened on October 1, running through November 30 in Darmstadt, Germany.
In the Philippines, the gallery held its latest exhibition of Rafael Arenillo Cusi’s and Gorospe’s paintings on September 2 at the German Club-Manila in Makati City. Since October 16 and through November 30, Gorospe’s paintings will be on exhibit at the GSIS Museum, Pasay City.
“The Philippines’ Mabini Artists, creators who did not study does not mean automatically that they don’t have a qualification to be artists,” Hartung said.
“We check artworks from artists that are just self-taught artists. So we are just doing the other way around. We support those outstanding ones related to Mabini,” he added.
At the recently concluded ManilArt 2014, Transwing Art Gallery (Booth B4) was represented by self-taught artists Emmanuel Nim (“Mother and Child,” 260×45 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2013), Eduard Perreras (“Promise to God,” 48×36 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2013), Gorospe (“A Barrio Belle,” 90×60 cm, oil on canvass, undated), and “Popoy” Cusi who creates underwater and floral themes such as the Flora I (25 cm x 28 cm, 2014)
Hartung related, “They could choose where they want to exhibit their works once again. There is an art fair in Germany and we will take some of these paintings with us as well as huge amounts of collection in Germany that were exhibited there.
“We work together but I’m not exclusively finding art for gallery, that’s what makes us different. That’s the main reason why the other galleries have commissioned works. Our artists can choose,” he added.
From the second day of ManilArt 2014, Klaus said Transwing Art Gallery sold more than six Mabini Art paintings that shows the return of local art community’s faith in the so-called “cheap art.”
“Just some private persons came here to the fair. I think five to six different customers. We are slowly picking up the pieces because we are slowly recognized as well,” he said.
However, Klaus maintained that it will take time for Mabini artists to find the attention they get in international exhibits. He admitted that unlike in Germany, the Philippines has a small art audience. These are composed mostly of the elites who still embrace the prestige of fine art in exclusive exhibits.
“People have more important and personal things to do. If I don’t know what to eat tomorrow, my personal problems cannot wait,” he said.
“As I said before there is still a critical view of artists who did not study in art schools. The old art scene in the Philippines always requires some qualifications like a Fine Arts degree,” he added.
For Siddhartha Perez, curator of the Lopez Museum and Library, the fault is in the public education curriculum which is supposedly providing proper art criticism. Without appreciating the aesthetics and history of art, Filipinos will naturally go for random fine art priced at six figures being sold in grand exhibitions.
“It’s just more of the economic system of the site. Who validates the art? Of course if you’re in a famous commercial gallery, you get famous on that circle. We should stop thinking of artists as romantic figures,” she added.
In a resentful tone, the late Gorospe said it more straightforwardly than Hartung and Perez did. In an excerpt of the 1974 interview by Gilbert Luis Centina 3rd published in Revisiting ‘Mabini Art’, the second-generation Mabini artist said that the elite artists chosen to represent the Philippines are actually the ones who copies foreign works.
“They despise us from the [Mabini] Ermita school because, they say, we commercialize our paintings. They invite their writer-friends to give them more publicity. Who is really commercializing art?”