MANILA, Philippines - Negros-based artist Nunelucio Alvarado, who is known for his social realist works, has two items in his must-do list in 2012. First, he wants to revisit 20 black and white drawings that he exhibited in a show entitled "Lust" 10 years ago at the Big & Small Art Co., at Mandaluyong City's SM.
The other item is to look for the families of displaced fishermen from Negros who are now living in Manila's slum areas. The coastal people of Negros are the most endangered of his favourite characters on canvas.
The "lust" pieces include "Makadiyos, Makatao (The Godly and the Humanist)," which shows a man and a woman in dog-style sex, his depiction of sex for power and not for love; "Papa Sam," a well dressed foreigner seated before a dinner of steak and wine, with a small doll-like woman perched on his left shoulder, refers to US post colonialism, a favorite theme of social-realist artists in the Philippines; "Samonay" a tall woman with a bayonet stuck into her private organ, in reference to sexually violated women overseas workers in Japan; "Papikup," depicts a big woman with open belly, her entrails about to be consumed by a snake that rises up from the teeth of a man's face that is horizontally placed on the foreground, the artist's elegy for prostitutes; "Estudyante" has two bodies, one shapely, the other in shapeless school uniform; her one leg has a high-heeled shoe, the other in bobby sox, her handbag has a photo of a nude woman, the artist's depiction of the innocent vamp who earns money as a prostitute to pay for her school tuition; "Tulo" depicts a man with sexually transmitted disease, Alvarado's moral piece for sexual transgressions.
"Lust" as a social comment
"I'll make bigger pieces of my "Lust" series. Originally on 9" x 12" drawing sheets, they will be on 4 x 5 feet canvases. Kukulayan ko sila ng mga dark colors. In 2012, I'll leave Sagay (Negros) and finish these art works in Manila, the center of political power," says Alvarado. His aim is to stretch the sexually graphic visuals of "lust" for them to gain clearer political (or spiritual) statements.
Developing his "lust" pieces into an essay on vice and virtue, or to portray modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah in the Philippines in order to raise social issue by not depicting clash of class struggle on canvas will make Alvarado a firm believer of the notion that social volcano originates from man's own hellish acts, the ramifications of which begin in the bedroom. It might seem a curious approach, but Alvarado's production for this project should make a case for it.
When Alvarado made his psychologically-driven "lust" pieces in 2002, he was also bent on making clear, objective and unmistakable progressive social comments, on mural-sized canvases, about class struggle of the poor and the rich. He has populated his colourful canvases with portraits of sugar cane workers, factory workers, merchants and fishermen in Negros.
Looking for lost fisherfolks of Negros in Manila's slum areas
Talking about the lost coastal people of Negros, Alvarado vows, "Hahanapin ko sila saan man sila napadpad. They are now in squatter areas in Manila. For several years, binigyan sila ng boundary sa dagat ng Negros, pero hindi nila kaya ang lumayo at makipag-compete. Maraming sumuko sa pangingisda. As a result, rich consigners who also own hotels have monopolized the fishing industry in my hometown in Negros," he laments.
Alvarado started edifying the fisherfolks since early 2000. Portraits of fisherfolks were a major part of "Himbis" (scales), a show at Galerie Anna at SM on EDSA in 2010. "Pinakita ko silang nangingisda, namimingwit, nagdadaing,"says Alvarado.
Alvarado is expected to fill his future canvases of fisherfolks with images of pain and suffering - and also of perseverance - of the lost fishermen he will find in Manila's harsh earth-bound life. How to paint his arduous search and the surprising things he will see, is a difficult and challenging theme to handle and translate into images for the less verbal and one dimensional visual art.
For a long time, Alvarado never left behind the social volcano of Negros. Now, his search for the hot and untouchable embers of class struggle (of people from Negros) in Manila, is a journey that could deepen his philosophy of aesthetics.
"I am always based in Sagay where my studio is near the sea. Sometimes I intermittently stay in Manila for one or two years. I rent a place to be by myself and to paint (the concepts that I have developed in my studio, by the sea, in Sagay)," he says. His incessant interaction with the characters he has depicted on canvas, a method he has done since he decided to be a social realist in the late '70s, will help him push through with his new project in 2012.
Interactive creative process
Alvarado is not new in stimulating a sharp palette for the argumentative and dialectical social realist art. Like a journalist, he wants to smell the scene and taste the blood of pain on site. But unlike a parachuting documentarist, he stays longer for the pain to touch his heart and sear his mind. Unlike an anthropologist, he takes in the colors of other lives, breathe them in to a point of dying only to shake them off on canvas, and perhaps cry in the process until he gets a ferment of understanding and deep love for the side he picks from life's eternal ring of struggle.
Talking about his interactive creative process, Alvarado says, "To produce art works on sugar cane farmers, I used to live with sugar planters in different haciendas in Negros."
For six months, Alvarado stayed in a farm owned by Benjie Rodriguez in La Carlota, south Negros and produced art works on men and women sugarcane workers that comprised "Kaupod" (Companion), an art exhibit at Manila's Hiraya Gallery in 1981. He also stayed six months at Hacienda Margarita in Victorias, north Negros, then managed by Arom Sorbito, and produced artworks on women sugarcane farmers, which he presented in a show entitled "Kababayehan sa Uma", at Quezon City's Heritage Art center in 1982.
Since the late '70s, Alvarado has continued portraying stolid-looking, inscrutable, gigantic, muscular and persevering farmers, fishermen and merchants in Negros, a veritable social volcano where rich hacienderos and other powerful sectors, a minority, control 90 percent of the economy. In his canvases where the colors clash as they interact in a sea of possibilities (and they also appear as interesting as rainbows), Alvarado has always placed towering figures of the oppressed at the center stage while their oppressors leer and lurk like mighty animals, at the background.
Struggle-fatigue or class struggle in praise of co existence
It is easy to assess that Alvarado has already reached struggle-fatigue, or has morphed class-struggle on canvas as praise for co-existence, in at least two shows: "Minoro" (Pople in the Community), a project of Galerie Anna at SM's Art Centre in Mandaluying last November 2011; and "Arkabala" (Tax for Flea Market Merchants) at the AyalaMuseum in Makati in 2009.
Defending "Minoro" and his depiction of placid and accepting workers, Alvarado says, "My art works are laughing on the outside, but crying in the inside." He has tried to suppress the so-called poor's pain because, "Damang dama ko and sense of life ng mga tao sa community."
In Arkabala, Alvarado has almost obliterated the evil tax collector by presenting suggestions and not graphic depiction of their animalistic nature.
"Uso sa Negros ang tiangge. A stall in a flea market is not just a space, but a life for merchants. They keep paying taxes, but they do not get anything good in return, like a clean, safe and secure setting," Alvarado complains. But his point in portraying tax collectors who do not give anything in return as animals (with broken teeth) in the "Arkabala" show is, says Alvarado, to portray the oppressed class in a stage of fruition and overcoming their slavery.
"For me, the poor and the oppressed have the courage to stand still; the will and energy to live on despite the decadence, oppression, problems and the presence of animals (and tax collectors) around them," he explains. Prophesying a timely and historical overcoming of the lower class, he says, should not nullify the value of his art.
Art, a colorful teach-in for change
Art-making for Alvarado has always been a colourful and heartfelt teach-in. "Ang pagpipinta hindi lang para sa pera o sa pogi points. May obligasyon ang artist na gumawa ng makabuluhang singing, ang kanyang sining," he lectures.
Justifying four decades of dedication to committed art, and developing his very own expressionistic and powerful forms, Alvarado says, "If I haven't painted the wrong things (that are happening in my country), then nothing will change. While I am alive, I will keep on painting the inequities that I see in my society. I will not stop doing that. I truly hope that my art can help bring about changes."
Alvarado's way of art
The sources of his inspiration are the sources of his strength. "I work early from four to five in the morning until lunch. I usually take a siesta, sa duyan. At night, I don't work. I go out, eat, drink, chat, sing or dance with people in the community. Talking with them is very important for me. I don't just look at them or take photos of them," he says of his life as an artist.
Assessing the works of his hands, heart and mind, Alvarado boasts, "My images are relevant to what is happening in my country - the way I have perceived them. Objectively, they are made in the Philippines."
Reacting to criticism that his style of making towering figures of the oppressed and placing their heads near the top edge of his canvas that seem to damage his favoured class, Alvarado says, "May pasan-pasan ang mga trabahador ko. The ceiling on the head of the workers in my paintings is a symbolic composition. It's a symbol of the limitations imposed on them, na parang nasabihan sila, hanggang dyan ka na lang, nakakahon ka na lang."
Compressing his powerful portraits of poor people with other elements seems to cage them in and not give them a sense of space or liberation. Noting this, Alvarado says, "Gusto ko puno ng tao at iba't ibang elemento ang canvas ko. Gusto ko siksikan sila, or compressed. Otherwise, I'm not happy with my work."
This is also culturally and empirically influenced. "Punong puno ang mga bahay ng mga taong pinupuntahan ko sa community. Iniipon-ipon nila ang mga bagay-bagay sa bahay nila. That is our culture, too. Asians believe that there should be no vacant space in their house, otherwise it will become the nest of bad spirits," he says.
The hard-edged angle and stolid nature of his characters on canvas give them power, not mute resignation, insists Alvarado. "Some critics say my figures are sharp-angled and severe, they don't dance and move, the way the peasants are depicted by Fernando Amorsolo and Botong Francisco. I think their works are not depicting the Asian form," he says.
His mural-sized canvases for little people are clues to his true feelings for the characters he has been depicting for more than 40 years. "My big canvases are symbolic of what I feel about the working class. They work hard. They are exposed to sunlight. They are robust."
Last struggle on canvas, looking for true Negros
Is Alvarado's creative journey bringing him deeper into nuances of purity, of symbolically eradicating evil from good, to see not only himself, the powerful and the oppressed, but the true Negros, the beloved heart of his art, for others to see the deep colors of the origin of its origins?
"In the past, Negros was a forested heaven, or Panilungan (a deep shelter) for everyone. Walang tao sa bundok. The original settlers were black people. They were driven up to the mountains when the Malays came. They hid higher when the Spaniards came; when other foreign business entered Negros, when planters established sugar plantations, when the lowlanders lorded over all of Negros lower areas," narrates Alvarado.
He knows that in a multi-colored pallete, the color white is spread last on canvas for it to remain white because when all colors are mixed, they turn black. How Alvarado will make an allegorical portrait of Negros is worth waiting for.