'The scene is organic and ground-up. The collectors are growing with the artists, and vice versa. There's dialogue, there's interaction. It's not artificially manufactured just for the rich expats to enjoy.'
- Jeremy Santos, a longtime collector of Filipino art
IN a chic restaurant in Manila, the "mother of Indonesian artists" was taking notes. With pen in hand, she scribbled down names of Filipino artists she wanted to commit to memory: "What did you say the artist's name was? Roberto... Cha... Chabet? Spell that for me please... And who's that other one? Arturo... Luz?" The crowd of curators and journalists she was dining with happily obliged with more names.
Melani Setiawan is a physician and an avid collector of Indonesian art for almost 40 years. She's even published a book on Indonesian art history. But like many regional art collectors, she was in Manila last weekend for the four-day Art Fair Philippines, getting a crash course in Filipino art and possibly collecting some works.
The Filipino art market, according to industry buzz, is the hottest South-east Asian art market right now. Several well-known art lovers had flown in to the country's capital city to gaze and gawk at the art by top artists such as Rodel Tapaya, Manuel Ocampo and Jose John Santos.
But the fastest fingers on the chequebooks were the biggest winners as the best artworks flew off the walls within minutes of the fair's opening. In fact, 70 per cent of the displayed works sold within the first hour of the fair - a feat almost unheard of in the international art fair circuit.
Michelle Chan of Singapore's art e-tailer Artloft.co said: "I saw this beautiful work by Mark Salvatus, an emerging Filipino artist. It was only US$600 - cheap by most standards. So I didn't have to think long, I just snapped it up."
Among region's best
Keen observers of South-east Asian art agree that Filipino artists are among the best in the region. They excel at figurative, surreal and abstract paintings, which are popular among art collectors.
Prices, compared to similar quality works in other parts of the world, are relatively low, with good small paintings going for as low as 33,000 pesos (S$934), and mid-sized works by sought-after artists starting at around 200,000 pesos (S$5,666).
Prices for very established names such as Arturo Luz were priced above US$10,000 (S$12,644) - you'll know when the gallerist starts quoting you in US dollars instead of pesos - but there were still many fine artworks to be had below that. As one Singapore collector put it: "It's almost like visiting Affordable Art Fair Singapore, where the works are priced under S$10,000 - except the works here are nicer and the artists are more established."
Though the fair took place in a shopping mall carpark of The Link - yes, a carpark - and you had to take one of two stuffy lifts to get to it, no one seemed to mind; the art was all they cared about.
In fact, several Singaporean who's-who were spotted in the crowd, including avid collector Michael Tay, executive director of The Hour Glass; Hoon Wee Ning, a banker with ING, and Susie Lingham, director of the Singapore Art Museum, a longtime institutional champion of Filipino art.
Singaporean art dealers and gallerists, such as Vera Wijaya of Galerie Sogan & Art, Michelle Chan and Tian Quiyan of e-tailer Artloft.co, and Talenia Phua Gajardo of e-tailer Artling, were also there to look for art as well as artists whom they could promote in Singapore. Interestingly, there were 27 Filipino galleries versus only four foreign galleries. And all four have operations in Singapore - namely, Richard Koh Fine Arts at Helutrans, Taksu at Jalan Merah Saga, and Equator Art Projects and Arndt - both at Gillman Barracks.
Richard Koh of Richard Koh Fine Arts thinks that the Filipino art scene "is the most lively and vibrant art scene among all of South-east Asian countries". His only worry is that the increased attention on the scene has led to prices inching up too quickly. Mr Koh held a strong solo show of works by Canada-based Filipino artist Jay Ticar, featuring images of houses destroyed, upended and reconfigurated. At US$6,000 each, the large paintings were pricier than most works there. But by the end of the fair, several pieces had been bought.
Despite the strong buzz that their art is attracting, most Filipinos remain extremely modest, often referring to it as "a new and emerging scene".
But Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva, editor of Hong Kong-based Pipeline art magazine, thinks otherwise: "I wouldn't label it as 'emerging'. It's actually been around for a long time. It's just been under-the-radar. So most people don't know there's this wealth of talent and practices in this country."
Art historian Louis Ho agrees: "In South-east Asia, the Philippines has the longest and most illustrious art history. Their long exposure to Spanish influences makes a difference to how the art is practised."
The country was colonised by the Spanish from the 16th century to the 19th century. The Spanish friars, who could not speak the local languages, used beautiful images of the Holy Family to spread the Catholic faith. Later, many Filipino artisans were trained to engrave and paint sacred images for the church using European painting techniques.
By the 19th century, art had become more secularised and the first formal art schools were opened by Filipinos. The works gradually began to reflect the sociopolitical concerns of the country, in tandem with the greater sense of national pride growing among its people. As Filipino art grew stronger and more diverse, foreign curators, critics and collectors began paying attention to the scene. More Filipino artists also began showing their works abroad.
In 2011, the painting Grayground by local superstar Ronald Ventura sold for S$1.37 million at a Sotheby's auction, setting the record for a South-east Asian work. It was a tide that lifted all boats, as prices for works by nearly every other established artist also rose.
Christie's, the biggest auction house in the world, has been tracking the progress of the Filipino art scene. Christie's associate specialist Shuyin Yang describes the scene as "growing and revolving rapidly".
At Art Fair Philippines, she organised a series of talks and roundtable that featured illustrious speakers such as artists Geraldine Javier, Benedicto "BenCab" Cabrera and Mark Justiniani. Every talk was filled to overcapacity, with collecting enthusiasts eager to learn more about the scene.
Ms Yang, a Singaporean, says: "We see an increasing number of Filipino collectors who venture abroad to observe the major Asian art fairs and auctions... though their interests are still very much centred around Filipino art. However, they are following international art trends and educating themselves. So we expect a more sophisticated and globally aware collecting audience based in Manila within the very near future, bolstered by the fast-paced local developments such as Art Fair Philippines."
Lessons from Manila
Compared to Singapore, it's notable how the Filipino visual art scene gets next to no funding from its government. The scene has flourished mostly on the strength of the artists, galleries, collectors and other supporters. As Jeremy Santos, a longtime collector, cheekily put it: "The scene is organic and ground-up. The collectors are growing with the artists, and vice versa. There's dialogue, there's interaction. It's not artificially manufactured just for the rich expats to enjoy."
Art Fair Philippines is organised by arts patrons Trickie C Lopa, Lisa Ongpin Periquet and Dindin Araneta. The women rely on private sponsors and the strong community spirit that exists among gallerists, artists and other stakeholders who want to see the Filipino scene thrive. The women declined to reveal the cost of mounting the fair, but said it was "modest".
Despite its modest budget, the fair was a runaway success. It had a hip and casual vibe which, coupled with the strong art that sold like hotcakes, is likely to draw both the serious collectors and casual observers back next year.
"Its primary audience is still the local audience - even though we definitely have a number of Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian collectors flying in, plus a few Western collectors," says Isa Lorenzo, the founder of Silverlens, a prominent Filipino gallery that also has a branch in Gillman Barracks.
"One thing we know is that we don't want art to be enjoyed by just the super rich. That's why we keep the price points affordable... We want to send the message out that everything's just more fun, more real, in the Philippines."
Birgit Zimmermann, director of cutting-edge art gallery 1335Mabini, says she's taken part in numerous art fairs around the world, including Singapore's Art Stage. She says: "At other art fairs, you sense the competition between the galleries, and sometimes people don't really talk to each other. Here, everyone talks to each other and helps each other out. It's so much more inclusive and friendly."
Ms Zimmermann showed the sleek conceptual sculptures of Poklong Anading, who took the makeshift wooden workstations typically found at construction sites and coated them with stainless steel - paying homage to the modest symbol of urban development by making them durable and permanent.
Considering how most popular Filipino works tend towards the figurative and surreal, Anading's works did surprising well. Ms Zimmermann said with pride: "We sold everything - which surprised even us. At first, we thought the works were too conceptual and the market wasn't ready. But no, there are collectors here who want to challenge themselves and move to the next level."
Christie's specialist Ms Yang, who is well-versed in the art scenes across South-east Asia, says it is the enthusiastic collector base in the Philippines that makes the difference: "Manila art receives a huge amount of strong support from local collectors who really take time to familiarise themselves with the artists and thoroughly explore the gallery scene. There is a very strong sense of the collectors, artist and galleries forming a sort of artistic camaraderie to drive the scene forward. And the collectors will turn out in force to support the artists and galleries during international fairs.
"There is also a great deal of interest in young, new artists who are instantly embraced and collected if their works are good, and price points are reasonable.
"Whereas in Singapore, the relationships between collectors, galleries and artists is looser and the support is also less cohesive. Artists need to prove themselves with several shows or institutional support under their belt before collectors step up to acquire their works. It could be that, personality-wise, Singapore collectors are truly more reticent and careful about art acquisitions.
"Having an exciting, locally driven and ground-up art initiative like Art Fair Philippines could perhaps help to invigorate things more for Singapore."
Art Fair Philippines takes place every February. Check out www.artfairphilippines.com for more details