This contemporary artist has enough pieces to present in three separate exhibitions, but she is in no hurry. Meanwhile, she is filming a documentary on her husband Elmer Borlongan doing a mural about the Battle of Mactan
If suddenly, all humans were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth, leaving only the work of their hands—their songs, their poems, their architecture, their literature, their sculptures, their films—and some sophisticated alien life form from galaxies far away were to stumble upon them, what would they glean from those expressions of art?
When scrolling through Facebook, I always find myself arrested by the photos the artist Plet Bolipata Borlongan posts of her paintings, to which, taking a breather from her other more dominant artistic pursuits of late, she returned in earnest as the world closed around her as a result of the pandemic, leaving her stuck—and back—in the studio. In many of her most recent works, there is an absorbing face, that of a woman (or women (or women, including a mother and her daughter) whom she would name and yet, in all of them, I often see her or her eye or her view of the world out there that is made up of other people.
This curiosity led me to this conversation with Plet, in which I sought to know more about the artist behind those striking, eye-catching, arresting, haunting faces of many different women.
Sometimes, as the ’90s song “Bittersweet Harmony” by The Verve says, we can be “a million different people from one moment to the next.” Who are the disparate personalities who come together in your paintings to become Plet Bolipata Borlongan?
Loving. Funny. Goody two-shoes. Easygoing. Goal-oriented. Determined. Dreamy. God-fearing. Always trying to solve people’s problems, especially financially. Always ready to be a shoulder to cry on, because people tend to easily open up to me. I always look at the bright side of things.
But also… temperamental. Angry with the world. Afraid of authority. Insecure. Jealous of other people’s accomplishments. Always comparing myself to others.
Do you sometimes feel trapped in this body?
Trapped in this physical body—short, pleasantly plump, big arms, thin hair—I could go on.
How do you escape?
I convince myself that I’m larger than life. My good heart and personality make up for everything! I try to convince myself looks aren’t everything, but I know deep inside, they’re worth something.
If you were given a chance to spend a week in a city of your choice being the weirdest, most unacceptable person you can be, who and where will you be?
I would like to be the type of person who would say anything I would like to say and do anything I could do without holding back, based on religion and morality. Of course, the city would be New York, where nobody cares.
How much of your repressed emotions, your secret longings, your frustrated dreams, your forbidden wishes make their way to your art?
They are in my art. People always describe my work as whimsical even when I’m trying to express the saddest emotion on my canvas. There are eggs everywhere, symbolizing my infertile eggs, but my audience doesn’t get it. Whimsy, whimsy, whimsy is all they can come up with. (There, I’m saying something I shouldn’t.) And clocks, watches because I always feel time is against me. The clock didn’t tick any louder than when we were trying to have a baby. I told Emong (Elmer Borlongan) I had to drag myself out of the rut or I would find myself rotting in the rabbit’s hole. I felt like I carried the guilt with me because there was nothing wrong on Emong’s side. That guilt was quite heavy. I had to forgive myself and convince myself that it wasn’t my fault to be able to find peace within myself. I am comfortable with the fact that this our fate in life.
Which of the world’s most thought-provoking artwork has had the most impact on you as an artist?
Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Everything Manet made. I felt a real connection with his works and when I started to paint—I was self-taught—it was his works that inspired me to work hard, to experiment, to make mistakes. When I saw his works at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, I couldn’t help myself. Tears just overflowed. I just kept crying and crying while I sat on the bench in front of his work, asking myself if I had done everything I had set out to do in my art. Did I waste my time caught up in my married life and being distracted instead of being single and singular in my goal? Did I allow Emong’s rising star and rockstar status in the art scene to push me back further to the shadows? Or are these just excuses or my insecurities, my demons?
‘Art can be both the bane of my existence and my lifeline—the one true thing I can hold on.’
What is the one thing you ache to do that you can’t do because it may be offensive or unwelcome or misunderstood?
Right now, it would be to speak boldly and badly about the Marcos family, especially after my brothers’ musical careers (the Bolipata brothers) thrived under the Marcos dictatorship.
How do you draw the line between what is doable and what is not in terms of morality or ethics or social acceptability?
Like I said, I’m afraid of authority. I am afraid of saying what I shouldn’t be saying so I could say, even in my art, I am tame. I hold back. But at the same time, I believe I’ve shown the real me. Whatever artwork is out there that is mine is from the deepest part of my soul. It is what I find authentic and true in myself. There are no lies there.
What has this pandemic taught you about art, about life, about good and evil?
(I feel like I went to a therapy session after confronting the questions in this interview.) Art can be both the bane of my existence and my lifeline—the one true thing I can hold on. I feel I’ve earned the right to speak my mind in my art because I’ve garnered enough life’s experience to back up my truth.
Even in these pandemic times, I am grateful to have a hubby who loves me, and a loving family who supports and understands me. And like in the retablos a fellow artist asked me to make for her upcoming short film on a theme about what I’m thankful for during these trying times, I do have gratitude in my heart.
I am alive and healthy. I can dance like nobody’s watching me. I can dream of unicorns. And I haven’t lost my sense of taste so I can enjoy my ice cream.
I have enough works to have three separate shows but I don’t want to hurry myself in threshing out my ideas. I’m comfortable back here, creating in the shadows.
Right now, I’m working on my documentary on Elmer Borlongan working on his mural about the Battle of Mactan. A bit amateurish (because I only use my iPhone) but I want the world to know we have a national treasure who will keep our collective history alive and brimming. With hope, the documentary will accompany the work to the National Museum (if they decide to use it) this month.