Philippine Art Across the Islands: Mindanao

When the Zamboanga del Norte Federation of Visual Artists (ZANFEVA), a confederation of four art groups in Dipolog City and Sindangan with a combined membership of more than 50 artists, opened its inaugural exhibit in October 2006 at the Provincial Art Gallery located at the second floor of the province’s Convention and Exhibition Center, it signaled a new dynamism and voice for the visual artists in the Zamboanga Peninsula. But the event was hardly noticed by the general public who were busy preparing for the city’s fiesta. The artistic voices were muffled by an almost inexistent media. In fact, the only coverage it got in the local weekly paper was in the art and culture column of Don Gurrea, the ZANFEVA president.

The rest of Mindanao is not as fortunate.

No other province or city in Mindanao has its own art gallery that local artists can count on as exhibition venue-with a gallery manager and watcher to boot. Koronadal has a provincial museum that sometimes serves as gallery for sporadic exhibits by its local artists. Most museums that sometimes function as venues for occasional art exhibits are school-based: Xavier University, Bukidnon State College, Mindanao State University in Marawi, and Philippine Women’s College.

Davao City has the most number of practicing visual artists and art groups. Having the biggest economy in Mindanao, it also has the most number of privately-owned galleries and artist-run spaces. The absence of commercial galleries where artists can exhibit their works has necessitated the emergence of artist-run spaces in Iligan, Pagadian, General Santos, Zamboanga, Dipolog, Camiguin, and Cagayan de Oro. For the most part, however, art exhibits are held in alternative spaces like malls, hotel lobbies, and restaurants.

Most exhibits are not curated. Neither are they professionally promoted in the media. Audience is mobilized largely by word-of-mouth and personal networks. Expectedly, these hardly get covered by the press, much less featured as an art event or, even rarer, get critically reviewed.

Not that there is much local media to work with in the first place. There is only one local paper with a Mindanao-wide circulation, the Mindanao Goldstar Daily, where art and culture articles are published in the opinion-editorial section. The only website devoted to Mindanao news,, is updated weekly and has an art and culture section. Sunstar issues daily from Davao and Cagayan de Oro. Other papers are weeklies and have limited city or province-wide circulation.

There is no acknowledged art critic in Mindanao. Among Mindanao art writers, only Tita Lacambra Ayala has a sustained writing practice on Mindanao visual arts. Her Road Map Series, a catalog of visual and literary artists in Mindanao, has spanned a period of 25 years, effectively chronicling the changing artistic landscape of Southern Mindanao. As Ayala is based in Davao City, her Road Map Series has mainly featured artists from Davao City although other artists from Camiguin, General Santos, and other places have been included in some issues. With a Palanca Award pedigree, Ayala’s art writing reads like poetry – sharing the heart and soul of the artists and the works rather than subjecting them solely to art critical reading.

The painter, Don Gurrea, has maintained his art and culture column in Dipolog City for the past two years. I had maintained a syndicated art and culture column in two Mindanao dailies and one Mindanao website for three years – now defunct since I transferred to Manila in 2005. Other visual artists who have written on Mindanao visual arts in local or national papers include Abe Garcia, Philip Somozo, Willy Arsena, Ivan Macarambon, Chico Barreto, and, just recently, Kelly Ramos-Palaganas. The absence of art writers leaves them no choice but to write about the event they are engaged in if they want it to be publicized and publicly documented for posterity. Visual art practitioners like National Artist Abdulmari Imao and Abraham Sakili (who is also an academic) have also written about Mindanao art. Art writing has come few and far between maybe because the writers would rather create art than write about it.

Many Mindanao-based writers who have covered Mindanao art and culture in general and occasionally featured the visual arts include Lina Sagaral-Reyes, Ameta Suarez­-Taguchi, Terry Betonio, Mozart Pastrano, and Christine Godinez-Ortega.

As most writers are art practitioners themselves, a sense of camaraderie and shared experience in the small Mindanao art world encourages non-confrontational commentary rather than critical discourse in print. This same intimacy promotes a critical discourse that is immediate and personal – a kind of “organic criticism” that is sensitive, constructive, relational, and even collaborative. Feedback is in real time and often inputted in the work. This is radically different from the “Western model” emphasizing individual creative genius, which is revealed during an exhibition where critics can respond to “after the fact.” The Panit-Bukog (Skin-Bones) Mindanao Traveling Art Exhibit saw “organic criticism” in action when artists peer-reviewed concepts, studies, and art works in participatory curatorship. The articles by artists-writers that publicly documented the event were consequently informed writings that could not have taken on the posture of objective criticality nor detached readings. Yet the non-confrontational stand might have in a way muffled necessary critiques.

Non-Mindanawon art critics and writers have written about Mindanao art. But the lack of grounding in the realities of art making in Mindanao, a result of the physical and social distance of Mindanao from the rest of the country, is often revealed in critically-framed but context-thin writing. Contemporary art in Mindanao has shown the ability to inconveniently defy persistent stereotypes.

Should Mindanao artists care if they are written about or not? No, if they are happy in pure artistic creation; yes, if they want to make their presence felt and assert their role as transformative agents of society. Mindanao art writing matters as much as ever – not to play cheerleaders to a fragmented community, but to articulate, celebrate and sometimes question the artistic landscape of Mindanao. More importantly, Mindanao art writing is essential in engaging artists and communities in making meaning of contemporary realities in Mindanao and the world where it belongs… and sharing these meanings in unmuffled voices.

First Published: 18.07.2007 on Kakiseni

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