Tourists and locals alike were surprised by a reinvigorated downtown Iloilo during the festivities of the annual Dinagyang Festival last week, as the creativity and grit of the locale’s young artists spilled out from the city’s numerous galleries and art spaces and onto the streets. f f
Some 12 pieces of public art were finished in time for the much-anticipated Dinagyang weekend, as crowds headed to Iloilo City Proper to marvel and enjoy the levity and merriment of the yearly festival. Part of the burgeoning city’s public art initiative, the ongoing project involves a hundred or so young Ilonggo artists, given the platform and means for worthwhile free expression. All of their mammoth art pieces took inspiration from Iloilo’s rich narrative and culture, rooted on a visual language uniquely Ilonggo.
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Championed by Iloilo City mayor Jerry Treñas and veteran Ilonggo artist Rock Drilon, much of the work began in early January, aiming to complete its first phase of public art pieces before the third Sunday of the month, in time for the heavy influx of revelers and tourists coming for the Dinagyang celebrations. One local even remarked on social media: “It’s another reason to fall in love with Iloilo…. Sa tanan nga panahon, ikaw ang palanggaon. (For all times, I will love you.)”
Budding ‘Art Capital’
A patron and staunch supporter of the arts, Mayor Treñas was spurred to undertake the large-scale public art endeavor after a visit from decorated social realist painter Emmanuel “Manny” Garibay late last year. The artist toured Iloilo City in October to grace the opening of the Omriel Art Gallery in Mandurriao district. Garibay urged the city official — both in private and during a short address in the art space’s opening program — to bank on Iloilo City’s potential as a ripe public art destination.
“Part of my personal dream for the city is to make Iloilo an art capital,” Treñas said recently. “A few weeks after I assumed office, I met [a handful of] Ilonggo artists and asked help on how to make [this] dream possible. That is why we have a number of public art murals all over the city [now]. And these murals are not only simple paintings… our history as Ilonggos is embedded in each of these paintings.”
The mayor is a known lover of the arts — his penthouse office at the Iloilo City Hall has become a gallery of sorts for his robust collection of Ilonggo and contemporary Filipino masterworks.
The mayor is hands-on in helping curate a masterplan for public art in Iloilo City in collaboration with Drilon, the artist behind the former Mag:net Gallery in Quezon City. Drilon has become a lynchpin of the Iloilo art community since relocating back to his hometown of coastal Dumangas in 2012 — becoming a foremost champion and catalyst in carving out a space for Iloilo’s artists in the city, as well being a biking advocate and a generous mentor to fledgling Ilonggo painters.
This public art endeavor is seen to eventually pave the way for this “City of Love” to be officially named one of UNESCO’s premier “Creative Cities,” joining the likes of Baguio and Cebu in the Philippines. “Our vision is to transform the city into a giant gallery [of sorts] dedicated to Ilonggo art,” Drilon told ANCX. “Aside from inspiring the Ilonggos by coming up with these murals and public art pieces, it’s really about empowering local artists and encouraging them to come together and exchange ideas. Through collaboration and cooperation, the synergy will hopefully lead to something much bigger.”
‘Giving Life To Blank Walls’
“Us, Iloilo’s young artists, are blessed to have this opportunity to express ourselves to the public,” artist and muralist Ronn Bulahan related to ANCX. A muralist since 2013, Bulahan was part of the first team of artists that worked on the inaugural wall painting completed under Treñas’ public art initiative, unveiled along Iloilo’s dedicated bike lane in Sambag, Jaro late last year. Since then, the fledgling painter has gone on to become the lead artist for the design and reinvention of the Drilon Bridge along Muelle Loney, Iloilo City Proper.
With a 10-man team of largely students from the Fine Arts program of the University of San Agustin, Bulahan has adorned the 500-meter bridge with animated viscera inspired by his own signature style of colorful abstraction.
The other pieces of public art are scattered in scenic locations all around downtown Iloilo City: Among them homages to Ilonggo heroes, nods to Visayan mythology, and murals that pay tribute to the vibrant city’s rich history as a trading hub since the turn of the last century.
A bulk of the murals are emblazoned on walls that dot Mulley Looney’s road, tracing the path of the Iloilo River. At corner Solis Street, a piece by Manila-based Archie Oclos — known for his artwork rooted on empowering the country’s indigenous peoples — faces a mural by Ilongga artist Margaux Blas. Oclos has chosen to depict a portrait of one of the elder binukots of the Panay Bukidnon tribe, while Blas culls inspiration from her Filipino-Chinese heritage and filters it through her distinctive pop art aesthetic.
“The mural is a prosperity piece, a tribute not only to the Ilonggo-Chinese community of downtown Iloilo, but also to all the hard working Ilonggos,” Blas explained. The Chinese deity of prosperity Caishen figures predominantly in the artwork, surrounded by other Sino-inspired imagery auspicious to the community’s culture, among them dragons and gold ingots. “Fortune Favors the Brave” aims to highlight Iloilo’s large tsinoy community, integral to the local trade and business of the city.
Further along the avenue, the Artivism Iloilo advocacy group (their name a portmanteau of art and activism), led by Marrz Capanang and Kristine Buenavista, weaves the narrative of the fierce bakunawa — the Visayan serpent god of the underworld and swallower of moons —with the heroism of Theresa Magbanua, who’s been dubbed the Visayan Joan of Arc. Just a stone’s throw away is Kristoffer George Brasileño’s larger than life illustration of Ilonggo national hero Graciano Lopez Jaena, literary icon and founder of the La Solidaridad. The Red Table artist group, led by Jason Delgado, contributed the “smile train” mural, a light-hearted homage to the Philippine Railway Company route that used to operate along Mulley Loney in the early to mid-1900s.
Elsewhere in the city, along a phase of the Iloilo River Esplanade near the Jalandoni Bridge, are the works of portrait artist Kinno Florentino in collaboration with fellow University of San Agustin graduates Kat Malazarte and Carren Evangelista. Florentino recognizes a few of his fellow young Ilonggo artists — most of whom also involved in other mural projects around the city — with headshots dedicated to their youth and tenacity.
The public art bug doesn’t seem to have limited itself to just Iloilo City Proper alone. In December last year, governor Arthur "Toto" Defensor, Jr. inaugurated a bas relief mural and sculptural piece in front of the Iloilo Provincial Capitol along Bonifacio Drive. The impressive masterwork culls from Iloilo’s rich iconography, incorporating among others the Barter of Panay, the olden burial mask of precolonial Oton, Iloilo, and the last stand of Ilonggo war hero and revolutionary General Martin Delgado. It also references the province’s integral industries: sugar, agriculture, and fisheries, as well as the landmarks Miag-ao Church and the historical San Joaquin Campo Santo. The work was spearheaded by architects Victor Jacinto, Ryan Angelo Braga, Kenneth Torre, and Jorge Cadiao Jr. with sculptors Albert Pampliega and Margarette Pampliega.
Meanwhile, in October last year, mayor Suzette Alquisada of Tigbauan, Iloilo commissioned homegrown artists Jzy Tilos and Juan Dela Cruz to create a bas relief mural to commemorate the 21st celebration of the Adlaw sang Tigbauan. Running along the façade of the town’s municipal gym in the town plaza, the mammoth “One Tigbauan” piece celebrates the town’s history and role in the history of Iloilo Province as a center of faith and a war outpost during the American era.
In Barotac Viejo, with the support of the municipality's mayor Nielo Tupas, Artivism Iloilo mounted “Marka Merkado” — an initiative that sought to empower local market vendors and small entrepreneurs through art. The program culminated with the painting of a handful of murals that pay tribute to the town’s humble artisans inside theBarotac Viejo Public Market complex.
Though younger than its counterparts in its neighboring islands and regions, Iloilo City's tight-knit community of artists has thrived and grown these past couple of years largely due to the infectious electricity and creativity of its fledgling artists. With more pieces of Ilonggo-led public art in the pipeline — from murals to sculptures to monuments — it looks like the city’s artists and creatives are really the ones changing the city’s landscape.