Art Dubai turns 10 with a history-making exhibit on young and ‘punk’ Philippine art

No major city can really exist today without having a soul,” Fred Sicre says, “without this cultural dialogue which allows for all of the things this planet is sorely missing these days — tolerance, understanding, dialogue.”

A room full of members of the arts and culture press from all over the world are huddled in an air-conditioned tent in the middle of Fort Island, an extension of the Madinet Jumeirah hotel, and Fred Sicre, the managing director of the private equity investor Abraaj Group, is discussing the increasingly important role of the arts and culture in the world, and maybe especially the Middle East. As the second speech in the opening press conference of the 10th edition of Art Dubai, a major cultural event in the city of Dubai but also, increasingly, a significant event in the global art scene, it’s a statement of intent but also a statement of power.

For the last nine years, in the kind of big business-cultural community synergy most cities can only dream of, the Abraaj Group has worked with Art Dubai to make the fair into what it is today — the most global art fair in the world, boasting 94 galleries from 40 countries and 500 exhibiting artists representing 70 nationalities. In turn, Art Dubai has become the leading art fair of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

“The city is now known internationally as a cultural and creative hub… the one stop during the year that really reflects the art world as a world, and as part of a myriad of interconnected centers,” Art Dubai director Antonia Carver says in her speech. “We really feel that Art Dubai has played a very particular role in that shift.”

That shift is apparent in the panel of speakers tasked to open the art fair — including Dubai Culture and Arts Authority director general H.E. Saeed Mohamed Al Nabouda, Sicre, Carver, Abraaj Group Art Prize 2016 curator Nav Haw, Art Dubai Projects 2016 curator Yasmina Reggad, and Global Art Forum commissioner Shumon Basar. Among them are several continents, over a dozen languages, and widely different cultures. But this might be precisely what’s made Art Dubai so compelling over the years. It’s a fair that accounts for all of these nationalities and cultures, without imposing any kind of hierarchy. It has built a reputation on inclusivity.

That shift can also be felt in this year’s Marker, Art Dubai’s curated thematic gallery program. This year, after much deliberation, Art Dubai decided to focus on the Philippines, inviting Manila-based artist, curator, and researcher Ringo Bunoan to curate a special exhibit that highlights Manila’s dynamic, independent art scene. Ringo completes the seven-person panel that opens Art Dubai, providing a unique perspective and an indispensable education on contemporary Philippine art.

“It’s such a great honor for me to curate the very first exhibition of Philippine contemporary art in an international art fair, and also the very first in Dubai and the Middle East — which is home to so many Filipinos,” Ringo says in the press conference. “Everywhere I go here, there’s a Filipino. I feel at home.”

Art Dubai 2016’s Marker exhibition focuses on artist-run spaces from Manila — a specific request from the organizers. In turn, Ringo brought together four exciting, relatively new, artist-run spaces: 98B Collaboratory, Post Gallery, Project 20, and Thousandfold for Marker. “These spaces have long been important in the development of contemporary art in the Philippines,” Ringo explains, “because they allow artists to create works that go against institutional and commercial expectations.”

Antonia explains the decision to focus on the Philippines for this year’s Marker: “The idea (for Maker) was to look at places or regions that have a particular affinity or connection with the UAE and also to look at regions, countries, ideas that perhaps didn’t have the attention they do on an international stage… Many Filipinos live here but we’ve never had any exhibitions in terms of contemporary art. We’re also aware that there’s a very dynamic scene in Manila… We wanted to really look at the new generation coming up, to show something different, artists that maybe people don’t know, and capture a little bit of that energy.”

Antonia Carver was first introduced to Ringo through the work she did at the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. And, as most things go in the 2010s, she reached out to her through email around August 2015, chatted about the idea, and they went from there.

“It was a surprise email,” Ringo says, “and she was talking about Marker and if I was interested to curate the Marker show, and that she was familiar with my work and artist-run spaces.

“They wanted something that is different from what is normally shown at the fair, something that is more experimental, alternative practices. It’s young, it’s edgy, it’s more punk. That’s why I really wanted to do it also. It was a good opportunity to show something else, because we’re not just about painting eh. If you really want a show that will reflect Manila, it cannot be just painting. Ang daming artists who are doing other things.” She saw the show as an opportunity to present a version of Manila that often falls by the wayside in international art stages, where the focus is usually on the gallery system and the occasional record-breaking auction superstar.

“They’re doing something new, something different, something that is not tired and clichéd like what you see out there,” says Ringo. “I’m not interested in those things. I’m interested in this, you know? I’ve seen a thousand and one works like that.

“I did research on artist-run spaces, so it could have been a historical show. But I wanted to focus on really what’s current, yung bago talaga. So all these spaces, they opened within the last five years. It’s time for them.”

The show is also a tribute to Roberto Chabet, Ringo’s teacher, mentor and close friend, but also the father of Philippine conceptual art. “Since the 1970s and until his death three years ago, he strongly and passionately supported young artists and artist-run spaces and alternative art practices in Manila,” she explains. “In the ‘90s, when we were doing (artist-run initiatives like) Big Sky and things like that, that was a totally different time. There were really no galleries. Ayaw nila i-show yung work ng young artists. Gusto nila yung mga sikat lang, madaling mabenta. Nung time namin nakaka-show lang kami dahil kay Sir Chabet eh. Sir Chabet would curate shows and that’s how we all got our break, really through him.”

The show includes a piece by Chabet called “Trap,” an installation from 1994 and 2010 that consists of a large wooden box with a hollow middle full of mirrors — the mirrors on the inside panels of the wooden box, but also small vanity mirrors littering the bottom of the box, becoming a never-ending cycle of reflections that bounce off each other again and again. The piece, shown alongside the work of 15 young and emerging Filipino artists, becomes the logical Point A of the exhibit. From there, the generations that came after come into fore, representing four dynamic artist-run sales currently active in Manila.

“The landscape has changed (since the ‘90s),” Ringo says. “There are so many galleries and they all want to show young artists. But at the same time, they still want something that is easier to sell. It’s still painting, you know? A lot of my contemporaries who were doing installations before, nabalik sa painting. The market is very strong.

“I’m really happy that there are spaces that are new, that are like a counterpoint to these commercial galleries… Okay din naman that artists get to sell — they need to also. They also have to earn a living. But for me kasi, kung yun lang yung purpose mo for doing art, I don’t know. It’s corny. You have to strike a balance somewhere.”

98B Collaboratory

98B was established in 2012 by artist Mark Salvatus and curator and researcher Mayumi Hirano. The first 98B took the phrase “work from home” pretty literally — Salvatus opened up his home in Quezon City to provide a studio and “multi-disciplinary art laboratory” where artists and collaborators from various fields could come together and work on art and design projects together. Later, they were joined by artists Anjo Bolarda, Marika Constantino, and Gabriel Villegas and moved to a small office in the First United Building in Escolta. Since then, 98B has established itself as a multi-disciplinary art laboratory that “seeks to establish a convergence with artists, designers, curators, writers, musicians, film makers, activists, educators, researchers, cultural workers, performers, architects and students together with the general public.”

For Marker, 98B chose to present work by Mark Barretto, Miguel Lope Inumerable, J Pacena, Julius Redillas, Katherine Nuñez and Issay Rodriguez. “The first consideration was practicality, the logistics of things,” 98B’s Marika Constantino explains. “So we thought, hmm, maybe we can bring in videos. We recently launched a new program in 98B that focuses on video art.” They worked with Julius Redillas and Miguel Lope Inumerable, young artists from the 98B team, and J. Pacena II, a constant collaborator, to present video work at Marker.

They also asked Katherine Nuñez and Issay Rodriguez, also members of 98B, to propose an idea for Marker. For their collaboration “In Between the Lines,” Kathy and Issay chose to produce schoolbooks and school paraphernalia through crochet and acrylic epoxy and embroidered cloth with cotton stuffing.

Mark Barretto is another artist who’s familiar to the team — if in an entirely different way. Along with Mark Salvatus, he was one of the founders of the street art group Pilipinas Street Plan. Seeing as Barretto is now residing in the Middle East, it seemed like a good time to touch base. For Marker, Barretto’s medium is spray paint and acrylic on wood panels, a nod to his street art roots.

“It’s in an art fair but the context of Marker is very different,” explains Marika. “It’s really about how we can promote each other not as artists but it’s about the alternative spaces (and how the practice thrives). The artworks are secondary, I think, because in a way they’re representing the practice that we have… Our form of expression is something else. There’s sincerity in the works.”

Post Gallery

Post Gallery is a three-year-old alternative art space managed by artist Lena Cobangbang under Pablo Gallery, now in Fort Bonifacio. True to its roots, Post moved into the space Pablo used to occupy in Cubao Expo in Quezon City. The space differentiates itself through the versatility of its program — while a dynamic program of monthly exhibitions is the focus, they also hold sound and musical performances, informal talks and discussions, thematic parties, and other art events.

Lena calls Marker a “lucky opportunity” for the gallery, mentioning how costly joining art fairs is, especially for an artist-run space like Post. Upon invitation, she saw that there was potential for the opportunity because “there might be recognition for the space and hopefully, there will be more interest in going to the Philippines.” And through that, Post is freed to do more interesting things.

“More than the buying of works — siyempre very much appreciated din yun, kasi okay rin pag may bumibili kasi it expands also the market — if you support artists in that way, we’re able to host more projects that aren’t necessarily strict exhibitions,” she says.

For Marker, Post, upon the recommendation of Ringo, presented work by Jed Escueta and Jayson Oliveria. Jed, who works primarily with photography, presents “1000 Offs” (2016, digital print on sticker paper) of “off” sign ages he shot using a camera phone. “There’s a punk quality to it,” Ringo adds.

Jayson, meanwhile, showed acrylic works on paper. “Jayson is one of those artists who are always trying to push painting,” Ringo says. “When I first met him, abstract yung work niya. Parang he’s always trying to experiment with what you can do with painting. I think that’s still important.”

“Artist-run spaces are like incubators,” Lena says. “It’s supposed to be a space where you can experiment and do work and not be pressured by ‘it has to be sold’ or anything like that… (For the audience) They can see where all of this came about. If they see work from artist-run spaces, maybe they get to anticipate more what they can expect from more established spaces.”

Thousandfold

Thousandfold is the youngest of the artist-run spaces, part of Marker 2016 (this May will be its first anniversary). But what it lacks in chronology, it makes up for in experience.

Spearheaded by artist and photographer Wawi Navarroza, Thousandfold is an active space dedicated to contemporary photography. Operating out of Wawi’s own warehouse space, Thousandfold aims “to provide a platform for the development, production and promotion of photographic works from established and emerging Filipino photographers and artists.”

For Marker 2016, Thousandfold chose to present work by young photographers Czar Kristoff and Gino Javier, video work by Tammy David, a kinetic sculpture by Ian Carlo Jaucian, and work by Wawi herself.

“It was a matter of selecting who’s ready and who has the body of work that we think is solid and could be seen already (on a global stage). Aside from Gino and Czar, who are both photographers, I also considered showing non-photo work, to push the education of visual culture, because photography is part of a larger visual culture.

“For me, the inclusion of my work here is important not because I want to promote my work but to connect this to the generation that came before them. So it’s got this kind of timeline, I guess. But it’s all internally planned. It’s not out there. It’s not the point of it but it’s just to provide continuity a little bit. Also to—with whatever I’ve done with photography, with my work, for people who know my work too—it’s also to look at the new emerging photographers as well. Because after me, MM (Yu), and the rest from that generation, it’s the next one which is Czar, Gino, and other photographers and artists to come using photography. That’s the point of it.”

The photographers who are part of Thousandfold’s Marker 2016 salvo also produced book components to complement their pieces. “They’re launching these hand-made photo books here in Art Dubai,” Wawi explains.

“It’s refreshing to see something that’s a bit more loose, a bit more raw, a bit more colorful, to be visceral about it. For us, there’s also a strong educational component of what an ‘artist-run’ is, because they ask what gallery this is,” she says. “From what I heard, the usual exhibitions of the Philippines have always been a bit traditional. This one is kind of like an update to that. This is what’s happening. And from that on, the conversation will be like the books, asking about Chabet, and the legacy of the artists that followed. It becomes an opener to a bigger conversation of what’s happening now, instead of what we already know.”

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