Angel Velasco Shaw, founding director of the Philippine Women’s University’s Institute of Heritage, Culture and the Arts, recently facilitated a talk over coffee at the Ayala Museum and it revolved around the artist and tastemaker Mark Lewis Higgins’ much-admired second solo exhibition.
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Inspired by the ancient histories of Indochina, the East Indies, and the Philippine archipelago, Higgins's Ayala Museum show “Gold in Our Veins” is meant to celebrate our Southeast Asian ancestry. “The Philippines did not necessarily only become civilized in the 1500s upon the arrival of the West,” Higgins states, alluding to the level of wealth and opulence that existed in these isles as chronicled by Antonio Pigafetta in his Report on the First Voyage Around the World.
“At certain parts of my life, I’ve immersed myself in the history of different civilizations. For this one, it was particularly Southeast Asia, it’s something I’ve never done before, and it’s something I wanted to focus on,” Higgins says.
The artist painted his knowledge, feelings, and impressions on a series of 30 portraits of aristocratic men and women, each piece a fusion of several elements and coming together of various symbols from different Asian countries and periods. “It’s completely, deliberately mixed up. It’s all about the knowledge not being clear,” he points out. While based on facts, Higgins claims his works are not factual.
Higgins, the son of Manila fashion icon Salvacion Lim Higgins, doesn’t see history in chronology. Instead, his vision sees its translation in patterns. His non-linear presentation supports his observation that “history is not a list in black and white. It is a tapestry of information and as time passes, modern technology, and science help to rewrite history sometimes. So often, what we learn in school growing up is not the case anymore 20 to 30 years later. I think it is difficult to say that there is absolute in history,” he shares.
Higgins is also setting forth a message that purity doesn’t really exist in identity. We are an amalgamation of different things, he argues, and we are far more complex than a nationality. While identity and nationality are markers that are functional, Higgins says these do not define a person.
The finest details
To describe his creative process, Higgins repeatedly uses the word “meditation.” He reveals that he does not set out with a plan nor does he attempt to rationalize the combinations of colors and textures and motifs that are found in his paintings. “It’s instinctive or subconscious. There are just all these elements in my head, I suppose. I never know how it will look like until I’m finished. It in itself is a journey, a process of discovery to finish it and see what it says to me. Even the techniques, it’s a work in progress,” he claims.
There is frequent use of gold leaf, gouache, and textiles that make Higgins' works for "Gold in Our Veins" so textural. Higgins emphasizes that the art materials he utilized are the finest versions of everything he can find, from handmade paper to pigments. “There is a frame there that has scroll ends that I especially carved out of lapiz lazuli or maybe turquoise,” he says.
In the Ayala Museum show, instead of just hanging on plain walls, the paintings are showcased in a bodega installation conceptualized by scenographer Gino Gonzales. “We had to borrow from six different locations to fill up the space. The fabrics are from my many years of travel, I just hoard fabrics with no specific purpose knowing that someday they will come in handy, I was right. I always make it a point that when I’m somewhere that’s exotic and fascinating for me, to buy something from there that speaks to me about the place. So far, all the weirdest things I have bought from my trips helped in filling up this installation,” Higgins chuckles.
The setting is a metaphor for what was previously undiscovered, the hidden treasures of information, and history that we were previously unaware of. Completing the scenario are pieces from the Ayala Museum collection handpicked by Higgins—selections of Philippine archeological gold, indigenous textiles, and Chinese and Southeast Asian trade ware ceramics.
“The culture of opulence is a fascinating thing and it is really what a lot of our collection is all about. And it was serendipitous that there was this person who had this in his mind and told us that he had began to think about it partially because of what our collection is and it’s sort of all nicely fit in,” says Mariles Gustilo, Ayala Museum director. “The idea of opening up our permanent collection is quite ground breaking because the story is told outside the exhibition narrative where they are contained. Perhaps this will get people to re-evaluate the pieces on their own. On many levels, Mark’s concept triggered many things.”
“Gold in Our Veins” by Mark Lewis Lim Higgins will be on display at the Ayala Museum until May 26, 2019.
Photograph courtesy of Ayala Museum