“There’s an attack of the giants,” was Ray Albano’s code for his asthma attacks, which were frequent.
For the most part, the giants retreated, perhaps frustrated with the artist’s stubborn refusal to surrender to their might. Ray, who also had a pronounced spinal deformity, went about his work—as an artist, as director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and as a founding partner of Finale Artfile gallery—even while suffering from the chronic disease that would eventually wear his frail body down.
For its 2019 edition, Art Fair Philippines shines the light on the enigmatic artist, with great help from former stage director and now university professor Nonon Padilla, as well as artist and retired academician Judy Freya Sibayan. The two will be giving a talk about their former colleague and close friend. To supplement this, the fair’s visitors will also get to experience Ray’s art, with Judy recreating his interactive installation, Step on the Sand and Make Imprints, and curating a display of posters Ray made for the CCP.
The works on show are but a small fragment of Ray’s oeuvre which spans a broad range of disciplines that include, to name some: photography, printmaking, poetry, installations, paintings, and performance art. Ray gained recognition for his writing with the John Mulry Award for Literary Excellence in 1968. For his art, he was recognized with a 13 Artists Awards honor in 1970, and was accorded an Honourable Mention in the Tokyo Biennale of International Prints in 1974. His more lasting legacy, however, took shape during his years curating shows at the CCP.
The posters that Ray made serve as a documentation of those exhibitions, which reveal his verve and wide embrace of the artistic media. During his tenure, the CCP showed not just the usual paintings, sculptures and the like, but also photography, video, and performance art. His renegade approach influenced a new generation of creatives, Judy and Nonon among them, who followed his lead in pushing their own practice to new directions.
The days of tennis and Sining Kamalig
Bigger than all that are his humanity and joie de vive. “Ang bait niya,” said Vita Sarenas, who started Finale Art File with Inday Tiansay and Ray. “Pero he really lived his life to the fullest ... and he’s really funny.”
Their friendship started in the early 80s when Vita and Inday were still working at the art space Sining Kamalig. The three would visit each other at work, and hang out together after office hours. “Basta after 5 o’clock, we’ll play tennis kasi may tennis court malapit sa Sining Kamalig,” Vita said, “or drink. We love to drink, so we’d go out with Ray. Pero siya Royal True Orange lang iniinom niya. Kami ni Inday beer.”
“Masarap siyang kasama,” said Vita, who wistfully recalled sojourns with Ray at various night spots, which included girlie bars, as well as gay joints. “Pero a few times lang ‘yon. In Manila, tapos meron pang Quezon City...though he’s not gay; he really appreciates women.”
Not long after their first meeting, Inday decided that it was time for new adventures. She quit her job, and Vita soon followed. It was Ray who pointed them to their next path. “Sabi niya ‘you’re good at what you’re doing, so why don’t you set up your own gallery?', Vita recounted. “I said ‘Nooo—we don’t like gallery work na.’” But Ray insisted, telling the girls that it will be challenging because they own the business, and they’ll be working for themselves. “So that’s how Finale started,” Vita explained.
Finale is really Ray
While working at the CCP, Ray was also very active at Finale where he conceptualized all the shows. “He was really the curator,” Vita said, “Finale is really him.” Though they didn’t have much funding, Ray found other ways to market their exhibitions. Vita remembered recycling leftovers from Ray’s works, cut outs of cement bags splashed with paint, which they sent to Ongpin for printing. “Sa likod naka-print yung invitation namin, puro mga sobra-sobra lang ng materials niya.”
They were also able to pull in big name artists, despite their humble location. “Isang wall lang kami sa showroom ni Ben Chan sa Atrium where we exhibited works on paper,” according to Vita. “Ben really helped us because he was good friends with Tony Espejo, who was Ray’s friend. Anyway, ang first show namin, four masters, four works. Cesar Legazpi, Ang Kiukok, Mauro Malang and Olazo. And we had that every year. Until Mang Cesar passed away, nahinto na nung nawala siya. We also had the Saturday group with us.”
Food writer and book designer Ige Ramos, who once worked as Ray’s student assistant at the CCP, has fond memories of his boss. He was very protective of his staff, according to Ige. He recalled a photo op prior to Ray’s trip to Paris, with PAL’s powerful PR, Bonjin Bolinao, in attendance. Bonjin wanted their own photographer to take the press photos since the national carrier was sponsoring the trip. “Since I’m the assistant of Ray, I had a camera with me, to the horror and shock of Bonjin. Sabi niya ‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ Natakot ako kay Bonjin, kasi dragon lady. But Ray just told her, ‘Don’t touch him … he’s my assistant.’”
Ray was also a generous mentor to the young Ige, who, at some point, started helping create posters for the CCP. “Kahit na advertising major ako, most of the things na natutunan ko galing kay Ray. What I learned from him essentially is, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to design. You can actually break free, but you have to know the rules first. It was also Ray who introduced me to so many things, including contemporary art.”
Judy described Ray as a magnanimous mentor, collaborator and friend. “I’m proof of his generosity,” exclaimed Judy. And so are some of the CCP’s casual employees. “Majority of his staff, yung mga kinukuha niyang assistants, dating security guard or theater technician or props man,” Ige said. “Yung isa, dating security guard sa artist’s entrance, naging photographer. One of the janitors (who sported shirts emblazoned with their agency’s company name, Karma), tinuruaan nyang mag-install. Wala siyang pakiaalam kung ano background mo.”
In August of ‘85, Ray’s “giants” would launch a final offensive. Vita saw her business partner and good friend a few days before his last hospital stay, gasping and wheezing but still going about his daily grind. “Ganun na siya,” Vita said, mimicking Ray’s labored breaths, “nasa Finale siya. Tapos sabi ko, ‘ano yan Ray, bakit di ka pa magpagamot?’ Sabi niya ‘baka I’ll go somewhere else.’ Sabi ko ‘Where?’ Gumanon siya [running her hand across her neck to signify death]. Siguro may feeling na siya that he will go.”
Ige also visited Ray in the hospital days before he died, with a colleague in tow, to present a maquete of a set design for approval. “Basta ayoko na … huwag nyo na ako abalahin, mamamatay na ako!” Ray commanded. “Meron na siyang oxygen tank, may mga suwero; but we thought he was going to survive,” said Ige.
Everyone thought the same thing, since Ray’s asthma attacks were commonplace during the last two years of his life. “Kasi parang ganun lang si Ray, may sakit, asthma,” Vita said. She remembered the time they went to Hong Kong for an exhibition. Vita flew in ahead of Ray, who promptly had another attack upon arrival. “Na-confine siya,” she said, and didn’t make it to the exhibition’s opening or succeeding show dates. “After my work sa exhibition, I will go visit him in the hospital . . . siguro one week yon, everyday. Pero parang normal, because it happens once in a while and you never hear him complain about it.”
Before their flight back to Manila, Ray and Vita even went shopping. “I remember, nung pauwi na kami, ano’ng binili niya? Comics...Chinese comics, yung iba mga porn,” Vita said before letting out a throaty laugh.
In the parlance of CCP’s 80s-era milieu, “tumawag ka ng Karma meant to call for a janitor.” On his deathbed, Ray would summon “Karma” for one last time—Edgar Gaspar, who worked as a janitor before becoming the artist’s assistant at the CCP, and at Finale later on. “The day before he passed, may sulat siya na kung pwede daw bantayan siya ni Edgar, kasi wala siyang kasama,” Vita said, explaining that the artist’s mother and sister were based in the US, while most of his immediate relatives were living in Ilocos Norte at that time. “He was already in the hospital, pero may drawing pa yung note niya,” Vita recalled smiling.
Edgar stayed by his dying boss’ side until the last breath. He sent Vita a message, “masama na siya,” a few hours before the artist’s passing. Early the following morning, Vita and Inday arrived at an empty room at the Veterans Memorial Hospital. “Wala na . . . naka-roll na lahat. We were so shocked, it was really really traumatic for us. Para kaming mga girlfriend na waaaaahhhhhhhh,” Vita said, recalling the dramatic wailing that ensued.
The mood turned sombre at the CCP after the announcement of Ray’s demise. “It was a sad day, para kami nawalan ng tatay,” Ige said.
Ray Albano died August 1985, at the age of 38. His installation at the Art Fair is his message from the grave. To leave a mark, like he did, despite the hunch on his back, and the giants that dogged him.
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