ManilArt 2021 and the unspoken frustrations—and hopes—of artists

Published October 23, 2021, 8:15 PM

by Pao Vergara

Is this year’s first major physically-held art show a hint at a return to normalcy?

Images Noel Pabalate

EGG-CITING INSTALLMENT Danny Rayos Del Sol and his ostrich egg art on wooden ship sculpture

If the previous year was one of disruption and attempts to build new systems, 2021 appears to be the year of attempts to normalize and live within those systems.
This applies especially to the art world.

One is probably familiar with buzzwords in lifestyle articles brimming with muted if sincere optimism regarding the innovations of virtual galleries and how artists and gallerists are not just adjusting, not just adapting, but also thriving in the new normal.

To an extent, word on the street—or in this case, the SMC Convention Center—confirms this.
Through chikka with exhibitors at the 13th iteration of the National Commission of Culture and Arts-sponsored (NCCA) show, I heard that the commissioning of art pieces was a parallel affair with the rise of plant-titos and plant-titas and home improvement, “home buddy” enthusiasts.

The same green-thumbing and DIY-upscaling circles would often ask themselves which art pieces rounded out their home and gardening projects, and if one tito managed to get a work by a certain artist, trust that a tita in the Zoom call would soon approach that same artist.

ODD SHAPES AND SIZES Aquaria & Terraria section of the exhibit

I have yet to access empirical data on the numbers, but it can be said with confidence that this connected movement of plant-raising, furniture-making, and art-hunting home buddies surely took note of ManilArt’s being the first major local art fair being held physically this year, which run this weekend.

If anything, the number of works marked as sold on opening day hints at this enthusiasm. The convention built on practices established last year, like holding satellite provincial exhibits. This year saw more partnerships with exhibition spaces outside of Metro Manila, in the process spotlighting local artists from south, central, and eastern Luzon and as well as Davao. This time around, support came from not just private galleries in these regions but from local governments as well.

Outside of the art world, however, a recent ManilArt edition may be remembered for a certain painting by a certain television celebrity whose subject matter and execution started interesting conversations.

AYUDA, mixed media artwork by Mel Sabariza

When asked about ManilArt’s vetting process, Danny Rayos Del Sol, a participating artist and the head of the National Committee on Art Galleries of the NCCA, reveals that it’s not artists, but galleries, that are vetted. Galleries submit concepts and proposals, together with a roster of artists who’ll participate.

For many up-and-coming artists as well as those returning from hiatuses, ManilArt has been the platform for wider reach and a comeback announcement. In essence, a gallery plays the role not just of tastemaker but also intermediary and organizer of an artist’s career.

ManilArt exhibit director Tess Rayos del Sol compares the role of galleries to e-commerce shops, where these are vetted on the quality of their service, customer communication, and whether or not the actual merchandise quality matches the photos.

Sometimes, the painting’s photo looks better than the painting, sometimes, it’s the opposite.
While this won’t affect established artists with mature technique, this is an additional hurdle for relatively unknown creators. “That is why you need the galleries,” says Tess.

ONTO THE BOAT Danny Rayos Del Sol explaining his artwork to exhibit guests

One province-based artist admits surprise at the trust of buyers amid the pandemic, marveling at the willingness to wire modestly large sums of money even without having made face-to-face contact with the creator or piece. Having started his practice in the ’80s, he marvels at this change of procedure.

Among the participating galleries, this effort to spotlight their creatives and maintain the trust of art appreciators and collectors manifests best onsite rather than online.

Picture an Orlina sculpture under an LCD flashing a digital version of the same work. Collectors are encouraged to take both the physical piece and the digital work home in a bundle.

Many times through the show, the photographer and I wondered how to best capture and communicate the spirit of a piece, and sometimes, not just that but the placement of a group of works in a specific lighting and background, vis-à-vis other works placed in contrasting atmospheres.

ART BIG-WIGS From left: Rev. Fr. Francis Ongkingco; Danny Rayos del Sol, NCAG Head and ManilART curator; John Pallasigue, collector, friends of ManilART; Atty. Amy Loste, founder , president of ManilART; and Tess Rayos del Sol, Art Fair director

Were we doing justice to the artists and the gallerists?

Step to left, no, take the photo from here, highlight the texture, the way it reaches out of the canvas like a stalactite from a cave ceiling. How wide should the shot be? We need to highlight how these monochromes contrast and complement the splashes of color all around it.

Sharing this anecdote with a group of gallery runners and art journalists, they in turn shared what they couldn’t reveal in their websites and writings—that these frustrations always accompanied the launch of a virtual exhibit, and that for the journalists, this has always been the perennial challenge of their profession made even more trying by the pandemic.

SCRIPTURE ON MIXED MEDIA Sculpture collection of Bumbo Villanueva

ManilArt 2021 also features Nonfungible Token (NFT) art as well as “phygital” works: picture an Orlina sculpture under an LCD flashing a digital version of the same work. Collectors are encouraged to take both the physical piece and the digital work home in a bundle.

Currently, debates are raging on whether NFTs are a legitimate art medium or a scam (isn’t it easy to pirate? To copy-paste and all? Why spend so much?) as well as the offline impacts of the energy-consumption of NFTs, potentially exacerbating man-made climate change.

All these questions then find themselves tangled with older questions such as: Is art an indictment or affirmation of the status quo? A liberator or tokenization of the marginalized? An enabler of exclusion or a road to community? Who is art for?

BEYOND REGIONAL, BEYOND PHYSICAL Several artists both exhibitors and consumers alike were present in the art fair

As innovation responds to uncertainty, the art world continues last year’s train of creating and normalizing new systems all while welcoming this return to what makes it so fun—the tactile aspects of a visual medium. While acknowledging the legitimate concerns surrounding NFTs, ManilArt 2021 nonetheless welcomes all new media in the spirit of giving things a chance.

Danny ponders, “What will an artist do when stranded on an island without their paint and brushes? The sand and palm trees will become their media.”Book your tickets or start a virtual tour through