Last December at Baguio’s art destination VOCAS, or the Victor Oteyza Community Art Space, a decades-old mural very recently given new life was unveiled to the public, except no one knew the artist behind it.
Before this, the artwork had been languishing inside a place once called Sayote Hotel, located in the city’s famous Art Deco jewel, the Bayanihan building—that mecca for locals and tourists in search of segunda mano clothing in the City of Pines. The piece was covered in dirt, soot, and god knows what, vandalized and spat on for sure. And yet despite the beating of time and neglect, it has managed to survive.
Sometime in the past year, Ellen Lao, who owns both mural and Bayanihan, approached the artist Gail Vicente to look into restoring the work, which had just been hanging on the building stairwell for decades. It so happens that Gail had just returned from New York where she studied archiving and art conservation on a grant from the Asian Cultural Council.
The painting’s history is hazy at best. Not even Lao, owner of both the work and the building, knows who made it. Cleaning it up, the owner figured, would be a good first step in finding that out. Ridding it of years of grime might reveal a clue, a signature, maybe an artist’s initials.
The challenge excited Vicente but she admits it was a massive task for a petite human like her, considering the largeness of the canvas. When the work called for it, she would occasionally seek the help of Baguio native and artist Kawayan de Guia’s team of assistants. “The piece was so dirty,” Vicente tells ANCX. “Imagine decades of soot and dust with pests!”
Vicente says she did mostly structural intervention for the artwork—mending tears and holes, strip lining the tacking edges of the canvas for reinforcement, dusting and cleaning the back and front of the work, consolidating paint loss, reducing stains and marks of pen and pencil, and re-stretching the piece onto a new frame. She also had to make sure there were no more pests and molds left.
The cleanup took months, says De Guia, and what it revealed was a depiction of the Cañao, a thanksgiving celebration of the indigenous mountain people of Northern Luzon to their god Kabunyan. A spirited image of men dancing in their G-strings playing gongs. “At first I really didn't think much of it,” the artist recalls in a short essay he wrote about the mural. “For me it looked generic for the type of work done in that era, which we presumed was the ‘50s. But as it lay in my studio, the work grew on me.”
It grew on him enough that the Baguio native finally decided to pick up paint and some brushes, enjoining the help of his partner, the painter Nona Garcia who has been living in Baguio for the past several years. The two started to “intervene” with the mural “by attempting to capture and apply to it the right shades of color where they had faded.”
They also conjured the most appropriate era in their heads while working on the material: that which the multi-talented artist and advertising savant Victor Oteyza, after whom VOCAS is named, would have inhabited during his peak. Oteyza was a member of the 13 Moderns, a group of artists that included Cesar Legaspi, HR Ocampo, and Anita Magsaysay-Ho, who famously broke from the classically trained approach of art making in the country (read: the styles of their mentors Fernando Amorsolo, Fabian Dela Rosa et al).
“It was the ‘40s, everyone smoked cigarettes, jazz played loud, and all the land lay in post-war ruin. This was the world they saw, that of the abstract,” wrote De Guia. “And thus did they depict a reality born of a long and painful war. The lines they painted were bold, raw, and fearless, the colors extremely bright and loud, as if screaming with frantic life and emotion.
“Looking at this newly re-surfaced mural we felt the same cry, that of the proud, uncolonized people of the Cordilleras, here captured in feast, in celebration.”
But even as the artists completed the intervention on the work, the question of who the artist was behind the mural continued to beg for an answer. At first, they figured it was Hugo Yonzon. The work, after all, recalled the style of his mural 500 Years of Philippine History, which was done for the Manila International Fair in 1953, as well as the murals he designed ten years later for the New York World Fair.
The scholar and art critic Dr. Patrick Flores thought the Yonzon assumption highly probable. According to De Guia, Flores pointed out several things that leaned towards this guess. Yonzon was a muralist, and very few artists did large paintings during his time. “Two: he saw the resemblance in the now-barely-there signature, which is really close to impossible to read, located on the right side of the painting,” De Guia recalls in his write up. “Third (and to me, most striking): Yonzon’s trademark raindrop-like drips or lines that he secretly places throughout his works. I only noticed these once I started painting on the work. I wondered whether the blue drips were accidental remnants of a messy paint job at the Bayanihan building.”
A couple of days after De Guia posted the essay on his wall, however, he tells me that the suggestion that the painting was Yonzon’s work has been corrected by the late artist’s son Boboy (Hugo Yonzon died in 1994). The younger Yonzon says in a message that “the treatment of the human figures is not my Dad’s. Hindi mapapakali yun kung ganyan. He may distort some figures when he is in ‘modernist’ mode pero hindi ganito. Defined ang mga limbs.”
The son sounds very sure about the statement, and suggests that it might be his father’s friend, the painter Elmer Abustan, who is actually the painter that De Guia and company might be looking for. Abustan has done a lot of big paintings, he says, even as the latter’s Wikipedia profile might identify the man as a komiks cartoonist from the 1940s to the 1950s, his works having appeared in the pages of Pilipino and Halakhak Komiks.
Will Abustan’s relations one of these days own up to the work found in Bayanihan and now hanging at VOCAS, or deny that it is Mang Elmer’s?
In the meantime, the mural has been given a second lease on life, thanks to the able hands of three formidable artists: Vicente, De Guia and Garcia. What they did to the work can not be called a restoration, De Guia insists. “The process for a proper restoration job would be all too sophisticated and we lack the materials and the know-how for such an operation,” he says. “Rather this was an intervention by Gail Vicente, Nona Garcia, and myself to save and enhance a beautiful work of art and bring it back to its former glory, whether the artist is known or not.”
[Photos courtesy of Kawayan de Guia]