By Jeno Pineda
Photos courtesy of Ryan Arbilo
If you told Ryan Arbilo 20 years ago that he would become a famous photographer in France, he would have said you were living a fantasy. And if you told him then that he would be an owner of a contemporary gallery in the city of lights, he would have thought you were out of your mind. But life is full of surprises and some fantasies do become realities. Today, Arbilo owns the Arbilo Gallery on Avenue de Champaubert, a few minutes walk from the iconic Eiffel Tower, and his photographic works have been exhibited with huge success at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in France and at the Yuchengco Museum in the Philippines. He is also currently finishing his latest project—something we think could be his biggest one yet.
Born and raised in Laguna, in the Philippines, Arbilo was separated from his mother at the age of five when she moved to Paris to work as a domestic helper. Left in the care of his father, he didn’t have any wish but to be reunited with his mom and make up for those years as a child without her. At 18, his wish was finally granted and so was his visa. He was, of course, elated. But as soon as he landed in Paris, he knew that starting a life in a new country wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Arbilo soon found himself in unfamiliar territory with different cultures, a foreign environment, and armed only with a limited grasp of the language, which made it even more difficult for him to land a job. He had no choice but to go with his mother to do work on domestic chores. Thanks to his experience working in salons in the Philippines, he was able to augment his income by giving haircuts to his friends and other Filipinos in the city.
With all these new challenges, Arbilo didn’t lose hope. He knew there was an inextinguishable fire inside him that he needed to share with the world—his love of art. He seized every opportunity to develop his craft, soaking himself with whatever kind of art the dark skies of the city poured onto him. In his spare time, Arbilo visited museums and galleries, immersing himself in the works of world-famous artists. An opportunity to visit a museum that featured Richard Avedon’s series of photographs of American miners in the West further fanned that flame in his heart. It propelled him to finally pick up a camera and go on a mission to make art.
Arbilo’s first photography exhibit was called “Chicken Hands,” an ode to Freddie Aguilar’s song, “Isang Kahig, Isang Tuka”, a Filipino phrase that plays with the imagery of how chickens eat. He considered the expression an apt description of the experiences of underpaid overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) around the world who work hard to send their earnings back home to their families. “Chicken Hands” was a powerful series of black-and-white portraits of Filipina domestic workers in Paris, unabashedly showing their tired and gnarled hands, the product of years of hard labor. Anyone with a heart would’ve been moved by the images of these women, worn out by work but proud and dignified, their seated poses showcasing calloused, scarred, and sometimes liver-spotted hands.
It all started when Arbilo showed test shots of his mother and her friends to Sylvana Lorenz, a French art dealer, writer, and communications manager for one of the world’s greatest fashion designers, Pierre Cardin. Lorenz, who was Arbilo’s boss at that time (he was Lorenz’s house cleaner), was moved by and impressed with his works that she encouraged him to produce more. His small project eventually became a full-fledged series. In 2016, “Chicken Hands” was exhibited at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and Arbilo became the first Asian and Filipino to have ever been exhibited at the prestigious museum. During his show’s run, his works shared the spotlight alongside those of the great Herb Ritts.
The successful exhibit earned Arbilo a place in the Parisian art scene. He was featured in different publications and news outlets not only in France but also in the Philippines and even in the UK. In 2017, “Chicken Hands” was flown to the Philippines to be featured at the Yuchengco Museum in Makati, his first time to have his photographs displayed in a gallery in country. It was also Arbilo’s Parisian show that made it possible for him to meet an important figure who would later change his life—Jack Lang, France’s former minister of Culture who offered him a scholarship in Beaux-Arts de Paris, one of the most prestigious Fine Arts schools in France.
Following the success of “Chicken Hands,” Arbilo wanted to share his art with a wider audience and to feature subjects from different parts of Europe. He traveled to Italy to find more domestic helpers to photograph but instead he discovered another important theme in the lives of migrant Filipinos—mixed marriages. “Halo-Halo” is a collection of Arbilo’s signature black-and-white photographs featuring mixed-race families, mostly biracial children and their Filipino mothers and Italian fathers.
“I found a lot of interesting Filipino women in Italy with their unique stories to tell. One of them, for example, Cecilia, came to Italy to pursue her dreams of becoming a nun. However, something came up and she knew her dreams wouldn’t be possible. Instead, she went to a church and prayed: ‘Lord, if I can’t be a nun, just give me a man.’ Lo and behold, just as she was leaving the church, she met Alberto, an Italian man who later on became her husband,” Arbilo fondly narrates.
Arbilo wanted “Halo-Halo” to spread awareness on interracial marriage and how culture plays an important role in the lives of couples from different races and backgrounds, as well as in that of their children. His exhibit had a successful run at the Philippine Consulate General in Milan, the Yuchengco Museum, and the Galerie Depardieu in Nice.
Opening a gallery
After three years of hard work and saving every penny he could, Arbilo finally decided to start his own gallery. The Arbilo Gallery on the 15th arrondissement is home not only to his masterful photographs but also to his sculptures, which show his developing versatility as an artist. He also rents it out to anyone looking for an exhibit space.
Arbilo recognizes his achievements as blessings from God and he always makes sure that he gives back to the community, especially to other Pinoy artists in Paris whose careers need a boost. Through his help, “Kwadro Pintura” was born. A hub located just beside his gallery where up-and-coming talents can put up their paintings and other works of art. But it is not just all about art. The group also does charitable work. At the height of the pandemic, they launched a fundraised called “Pinta Ayuda.” All of the proceeds from artworks sold at the event were donated to elderly Filipinos living in Paris.
Asked what advice he can give to other Filipino artists who want to make a mark in the global art scene, Arbilo replies, “Simple: Just follow your heart and everything will fall into place.”
Arbilo Gallery is situated at 12 Avenue de Champuebuert Paris 75015.
*Contributor Jeno Pineda is a Filipino-Spanish writer based in Marbella, Spain. He recently finished writing his first novel and is currently searching for representation. For more info, see: jenopineda.com. Follow him on Instagram @marbellastyle. Join his advocacy in supporting the Global Filipino community and share his stories.