This set is one of 3 pairs in the collection of 30 units. Photograph courtesy of Ayala Museum

“We did not necessarily only become civilized upon the arrival of the West”

The Ayala Museum recently hosted a talk to discuss the ideas and information contained in Mark Lewis Lim Higgins's "Gold in Our Veins," a stunning collaborative work that locates his new paintings against a Chinese bodega setting conjured by friend and scenographer Gino Gonzales 
Nana Nadal | May 19 2019

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.

Artist and educator Mark Lewis Lim Higgins and founding director of the Philippine Women’s University’s Institute of Heritage, Culture and the Arts. Angel Velasco Shaw engage in conversation over “Gold in Our Veins”.

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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.

“Gold in our Veins” is a multi-sensory experience of stepping inside a warehouse brimming with hidden treasures.

“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.

Prabhajjana is the old Sanskrit word for tempest. The God of storms is depicted on her headdress and the word storm and tempest are written on either side of her in Chinese. Vidya is the old Sanskrit word for correct knowledge or clarity. Written on her garment is Antonio Pigafetta’s manuscript report on the first voyage around the world, in French. On her head are books of geography and cosmology by Ptolemy and another book on Muslim history.

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.

In this piece, the book case alone took two months to create. “There are times when I’m working on something and realize, oh my god, what are you doing? And I just have to kind of stop reacting and finish it because it’s daunting if I plan it,” relates Higgins.


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.

Higgins portraits shows a layering of identities. In “Angkatan” the central image is a cross between Christian iconography and a Bodhisattva. The gold leaf around it is refers to illuminating the saints in manuscripts. The calligraphy on the manuscript she is holding is Laguna copper plate calligraphy, the tattoos on her arms are tribal. On top, a funerary mask is flanked by several bulul. At the bottom are different cycles of the moon from a Venetian calendar, a basis for navigation. The left and right hands are also Buddhist in reference but the calligraphy is also from the Laguna copper plate.

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.

A sample run-down of typical materials that Higgins’ plays with. For this one, it’s gouache, acrylic, chalk pastel, 23.5ct gold leaf and variegated metal leaf on Chinese silk. Mounted with hand women Benares silk and Shantung silk.

“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.”

Tundun was an ancient affluent kingdom and Singhasari is named after a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom located in East Java between 1222 and 1292. “This is what Southeast Asian art and what Philippine art would look like from my perspective, it’s not necessarily a conclusion but a meditation,” Higgins muses on his works.


“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