Entering Mark Higgins’ studio is like arriving in a different world that feels ancient and modern and at the same time. It’s decorated with a mix of refurbished vintage furniture and décor, alongside antiques and artifacts set off by a Shanghai Tang palette of bright yellow in the foyer, lime green in the living-dining area, and imperial red in a room anchored by a Chinese opium bed. The artist himself, an impeccably groomed, stylish wisp of a man with delicate, classic features that betray his mixed ancestry, is an intimidating presence that seemed to have emerged from another time and place.
“My father is British-Irish, and my mother [the late couture designer Salvacion “Slim” Higgins] is the usual mix of Filipino-Spanish blah blah blah,” says Mark of his lineage, which also explains the elegant, hybrid accent that sounds part English with faint traces of an American twang care of the artist’s years at the International School in Manila.
Mark’s inclination towards histories is apparent in his personal space as well as his practice as a painter, with geographies as the central spine of his body of work. Just like the environments he has created, the artist’s works evoke a mix of the old and the new expressed through his own visual vocabulary.
This coming February 21, Mark is set to open his second solo show at the Ayala Museum. Titled Gold in Our Veins, it is an unprecedented Ayala Museum exhibition with acclaimed scenographer Gino Gonzales collaborating with the artist to recreate a 1930s Chinese bodega where Mark’s paintings will be staged, accompanied by artifacts from the museum’s permanent collections. The idea is to provide context for the show’s theme inspired by the myths, histories and objects of Southeast Asia during the 1300s to around 1550, or the period, according to Mark, “just before, or soon after chroniclers such as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Antonio Pigafetta arrived in this region.”
The exhibition is a celebration of our ancient past, and also a cheeky rebuttal of what the artist decries as the “misconception that we were savages” before the arrival of the conquistadors.” After researching for the show, Mark arrived at the conclusion that our ancestors, or at least the noblesse that the early Western explorers encountered, were really crazy-rich Asians; Old World sophisticates who Mark describes as “global” way before the advent of air travel and the net. For Gold in Our Veins, the artist depicts the ancient, privileged dandies and mavens dressed in layers of silk, bejeweled, and surrounded by a heady mix of mysterious random forms and verses, as if adrift in the haze of an opiate dream.
What am I gonna do as a painter?
DV: I always thought your background was in design. But you actually studied Fine Arts and segued into fashion. Was that because of your mom, who was a pillar of Philippine couture?
MH: No, not so much because of that. I studied Fine Arts, but I thought, what am I gonna do as a painter?
MH: Yeah . . . and so, I guess fashion is more sensible. So I did that.
DV : So you’ve been painting on the side, and showed your works in Manila as well as abroad. But you’ve not been very active, it seems, the past couple of years.
MH: I’ve always been painting all my life. But then there was a long hiatus when I stopped for twelve years actually. I ended up working on the SLIM book [Salvacion Lim Higgins], and my sister and I took over the school [Slim’s School of Fashion and Arts, founded by Mark’s mother]. Gino also talked me into helping him with the Terno book. So, the years just passed.
DV: When did you start to paint again?
MH: Even when I was working with Gino for the Terno book I was already starting to paint again. It was only in the past year or year-and-a-half when I said I’ll make tuloy-tuloy the paintings and not take on any other projects.
I’m Pinoy. What else do you need?
DV: As far as your personal painting style is concerned, were you conscious about expressing your Pinoy identity?
MH: No. You know that overseas channel, what’s it called? I did a group exhibition in London and the first question they asked me was, ‘Is this Pinoy art?’ I said yes. [Interviewer asked] ‘Why?’ Because I’m Pinoy. What else do you need? You know, just because it doesn’t have carabaos, or Virgin Marys, planting rice, that barrel with a penis, or poverty porn or politics … like enough already … I mean, come on. Or we just copy western contemporary painters? I mean, come on. We haven’t done this yet.
DV: Can I quote you?
MH: Yeah, but don’t make it sound mataray. [laughing softly]
MH: As a person?
DV: To criticisms of your work?
MH: No. I just do my own thing, and I know it’s not for everyone. I’ve always been grounded, because of my mother.
DV: What about your technique, can you tell us more about it?
MH: For the new series that I’m showing at the Ayala Museum, I reverted back to my original style of work, which is pure painting. There’s no more acrylic textures, or contours, no precious stones.
DV: What’s your medium?
MH: It’s water-based paint on paper which is unusual for Philippine art. So in my artist’s message, I actually wrote a little bit of history about fine art in the Philippines and why we don’t have a history of art on paper, whereas the rest of Southeast Asia does, because of China. I used 24 karat gold leaf for the gold parts, and all these different textures of leaf.
DV: You do have a distinctive style.
MH: All my life, what I’ve set out to do is create paintings that don’t look like anything that I know. So this style and technique that I do has been an evolution all my life. To give it a conscious [Pinoy] look, I don’t think you need to. I was born and raised Pinoy, my roots are Pinoy … you know, I don’t think you need anything else, really.
Wala ba akong take home na porcelain?
DV: A lot of people are excited about this show. How did it come about?
MH: I met the director of Ayala Museum, Mariles Gustilo, a couple of times and you know, mentioned to her that I was working on a new series of paintings. And then I said, ‘Should we do an exhibit of the new works?’ Immediately they said ‘Absolutely, yes we love it.’ From there, it kinda grew; at one point Mariles said, ‘For all you know we can even bring down some of the objects [from the museum] and put them among the paintings.’ I thought she was joking.
DV: But she wasn’t.
MH: As a joke, I told Ken Esguerra [Ayala Museum’s senior curator], ‘You know, the first thing that I’m gonna ask for is that solid gold Hindu ceremonial halter.’ And they actually said yes. It’s unprecedented, I think.
DV: So where are they staging it?
MH: On the main floor, and it’s a big show … you know Gino. You know what he’s doing? He’s building an entire structure, as in floor and roof! Gino wants it to look like a Chinese bodega in the 1930s. So, floor-to-ceiling cabinets and storage full of objects. And because it’s Gino, he doesn’t like fake props, only real stuff. So they borrowed furniture and objects from four or five different locations, you know, as in Chinese cabinets ... screens. They will all be parang arranged there, the paintings and artifacts, and those will be the only ones with spotlights.
MH: Yes! I asked Ayala [Museum], wala ba ako’ng take home na porcelain?
We’re not savages.
DV: What is the theme?
MH: This time, it is inspired by histories of Southeast Asia, by a time before, or just about the time when the West came and discovered the region. There is that misconception that we were savages before the arrival of Spain, and Catholicism, right? But we were not; we were a very global culture with influences from China and India, Arabia ...
DV: Why Southeast Asia?
MH: Well, I read a lot of history books and I guess I gravitate to different regions, and I start immersing myself. You know, over the past several years also, don’t forget I did the Terno book with Gino so I was immersed in Philippine history. So I just researched a little further back, because I was also doing the paintings.
DV: Are there specific source forms, or historical documents that you referenced for this show?
MH: I found these historical manuscripts. One is by Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of Magellan, where he talks about a black-haired king, and he was the handsomest he had ever seen. He was full of [quoting from his notes from the manuscript] “gold as large as eggs and walnuts,” even his sword was made of gold, and he wore perfume. His island is called Butuan and Calagan, which must be Cagayan. You know, this Western explorers, sometimes they invent mestizo words, and by mestizo I don’t mean half-Spanish.
MH: And the other historical text was Marco Polo talking about Java, and all the wealth in java, the spices, because you know, Europe became wealthy from the spice trade in Asia. Then they happened to find gold along the way.
DV: And stole everything.
MH: The third one is a lesser known Muslim explorer called Ibn Battuta, who wrote about a king and a kingdom called Tawalisi. His daughter was the ruler of one of his fiefdoms or whatever, whose name was Wahi Urduja, which is where the Philippine myth of Princess Urduja comes from. So, not that we necessarily believe what they say verbatim, but it is evidence of the wealth of this country and the region around it in the 1300s to the 1500s when these people were coming here--and the objects from the Ayala collections are from that time period.
That’s a chastity cover; and it says Butuan on his forehead. So there, Pinoy art.
MH: I’ll show you the paintings in my computer. Ayala Museum made hakot everything...this place isn’t as bare as it is today.
DV: Do you have exhibition notes?
MH: I love the fact that Ambeth [Ocampo, the historian] wrote for me, and the fact that he is a Pinoy historian. Kasi, when you look at the work, you wouldn’t think that it’s Pinoy art, you know. But it is, because I am Pinoy. So, Ambeth grounded the show in Philippine history, that it is Filipino art, though it’s not just what you’re used to seeing.
DV: You did the catalogue?
MH: Yes, done! Ayala actually entrusted me to work on the catalogue autonomously with my book designer, Efren Prieto. I just presented to them when it was almost done. What I did was I actually matched the objects to the paintings, to show the relationship.
DV: Were you involved with all aspects of the production?
MH: I’m making paki-alam everything, even the opening night, the food, the tablecloth, because Ayala Museum is used to me being OC about the details. And then, Gino pa.
DV: Can I see the catalogue?
MH: [Showing the first pages of the catalogue in his lap top] So, there...opium. It’s all very playful. This is the loudest, most colorful collection I’ve ever done. This one is actually five images [showing a series of works mounted together]. Here, (scrolling to another image) there is the old Sanskrit writing on his forehead which means opium and snake venom, so I put the those elements in the painting.
DV: What are those writings?
MH: That’s from the Laguna copperplate inscriptions. I use a lot of calligraphy in almost all the paintings, mixing it with all the other elements.
DV: That bowl (referring to a museum piece that accompanied one of the art works) is beautiful.
MH: You see the little stars around the bowl, and the Chinese characters? Again, it’s a mix of East and West. And of course, Salientes (referring to his friend, the stylist Michael Salientes), who’s a mahjongera can read that.
DV: Can I mention that?
MH: He might get mad. Here (showing another artwork), the text actually says Tawalisi in Kapampangan, and it has the rice terraces. [Scrolling to the next section of the catalogue] This is a chastity cover; and its says Butuan on his forehead. So there, Pinoy art! What more do you want? This is just me creating these beautiful images, and not taking myself too seriously. The show is simply a playful, joyful celebration of our great history.
Portraits by Cyrus Panganiban