In 1967, an out-of-the-ordinary gallery opened its doors on M.H. del Pilar Street in Ermita. The Solidaridad Galleries, says its founder and National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, served not only an aesthetic purpose but, more importantly, a political one. Sionil Jose wanted to put a Filipino face to contemporary art, and he believed this can only be achieved through the flourishing of young artists whose burgeoning virtuosities deserved a nurturing venue.
During that time, it was hard for the unknown painter, despite his or her talents, to break into the intractable milieu of elite artists. Thus, Sionil Jose instituted an art space for the myriad young artists who could not get into the more formal galleries like the Luz Gallery—whose founder Arturo Luz preferred only artists already established in their careers and artistry.
The Solidaridad Galleries was an offshoot of Sionil Jose’s famed bookshop which was established a few years earlier. Called Solidaridad (Solidarity), it was named after the 19th-century propaganda movement composed of Filipino ilustrados in Spain, as well as the movement’s fortnightly and biweekly newspaper. The name reflected Sionil Jose’s patriotic outlook and his roots as a journalist. Even the shop’s address is historic.
As a gallerist, the respected author maintained he had only one criteria for an artist to exhibit at the Solidaridad: “I believe that an artist should know how to draw, in the same way that a writer should know his grammar. It’s basic.”
He explains himself further. “It’s not that I eschew abstract art or anything like that. In fact, I was a good friend of Lyd Arguilla,” says the National Artist. Arguilla is the founder of the legendary Philippine Art Gallery or PAG, the first local gallery to feature abstract art exclusively. “In the 1950s, as editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, I took pictures and I even had two photography exhibitions at the PAG,” Sionil Jose recalls.
The highly regarded Filipino expressionist Onib Olmedo staged his very first exhibit at Solidaridad. “He came to me and I could see he could draw. He knew his anatomy. He could distort but he never lost sight of that skill.” The piece Sionil Jose is referring to — of a comely, bare-chested Eve in a forest glade — incidentally, is from that first Onib show at the gallery. In those early works were the beginnings of Olmedo’s signature skewed torsos and limbs. The milky white of the woman’s skin contrasts with the colors that are also ready to descend to the rich, earthy tones he would become known for.
As for the mid-century female abstractionist Nena Saguil, Sionil Jose says, “I knew her when she was already an exile in Paris. Of course, I never actually saw her draw — and I’d been in her studio many, many times and had never seen any drawings,” he says, grinning. “But I assumed, since she came from the University of the Philippines, she knew a thing or two about drawing.”
The gallerist and the abstractionist would become good friends. “Every time I went to Paris, I would look her up. She lived very poorly, you know. But she didn’t care,” says Sionil Jose of Saguil. “You know, artists live where they think they can work best. Like Rizal, almost all Filipino artists become travelers. I know I did. It comes with the territory. In fact, I wrote ‘Mass’ [the last volume of his socio-political saga, the Rosales novels] in Paris, thanks to her.”
He wasn’t exactly a wealthy man during that period. “I didn’t have any money at the time and she found me a cheap room near her own apartment to stay in and that’s where I wrote.”
Sionil Jose says Saguil’s first major show was at the Solidaridad. “In fact, one Sunday, I got a call from Tato [Renato] Constantino [the influential writer/historian] who asked me if I could open the gallery for Don Eugenio (Lopez). (At the time, Constantino was adviser to the Lopez Museum.) He came in, went through the exhibit twice, each time very carefully. He wound up buying half of the paintings.” Of course the novelist doesn’t remember now which Don Eugenio it was he welcomes, whether it was the father or the son. “Don Iñing or Don Geny — they were interchangeable!”
We are talking about Solidaridad Galleries and Nena Saguil because four of her works, from Sionil Jose’s private collection, is part of Leon Gallery’s space in the ongoing edition of Art Fair Philippines. Saguil’s abstracts find excellent company in the works of esteemed modernists Fernando Zobel, Lee Aguinaldo, Vasarely, Albers, and Diez, among others. The exhibit runs from Thursday, May 6, to Saturday, May 15. A virtual exhibition will be organized on the Art Fair Philippines website at www.artfairphilippines.com. A complementary exhibit will also be held at Léon Gallery International located at G/F Corinthian Plaza, 121 Paseo de Roxas, Makati City.
To book an appointment to see the paintings at the gallery and for further inquiries, contact (02) 88562781 and +6399855172010 or email email@example.com.