In Anita Magsaysay Ho’s circa 1980 Women with Baskets, Fish and Crab, the esteemed Filipina artist shares another one of her stunningly realized visions of women working together, finding the joy in the everyday. But did you know there’s an actual story of female bonding behind this particular work?
The 30” x 36” oil painting—up for bids in the upcoming Leon Gallery Spectacular Midyear Auction-–has become the tangible representation of the 70-year friendship between Anita and Charito Panganiban-Melchor who became the former’s neighbor in Pasay at the dawn of the 1940s. A war, ironically, was the spark that brought the two together.
In 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army took hold of the house of Dr. Lauro Panganiban in Agno Street in Ermita, Manila, forcing the barely-in-her-teens Charito and the rest of the Panganibans to move out and find a new home. They found one in Villaruel Street in Pasay which, as fate would dictate, turned out to be just down the street from where the Magsaysays hold residence.
Anita, who would become one of the important painters of her generation, was still a single lady at that time. She had just returned from studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, likely armed with new knowledge and inspiration ripe for sharing. “My mother’s clan knew the Magsaysays very well, which led to my mother and her sister Pacita becoming Anita’s painting students,” Charito’s son Alejandro Melchor tells ANCX. The sisters would walk a block or two twice a week to attend their lessons with the painter. It would be the beginning of a friendship that would last until Anita passed away in 2012.
Anita and Charito moved around the same social circles and their families were good friends. The artist would, in fact, paint a portrait of Charito’s grandmother Doña Maria de Leon Mendoza in 1946.
Anita’s family was a branch of the Yangco clan, whose Don Luis Yangco was known for his many boats and barges docked around Luzon. The artist would famously marry Robert Ho whose family was into shipping. In 1948, Anita’s father Ambrosio would take over the family business and together with her husband jointly found Magsaysay Lines.
The Mendoza family, for its part, was also a prominent clan in Philippine society, held in high regard for the achievements and stature of Charito’s father Dr. Lauro Panganiban, considered one of the fathers of medical education in the country. Dr. Lauro was the dean of FEU’s College of Medicine for three years and a full decade.
Sometime in the 1960s, Anita and Charito would spend time separately abroad, according to Alejandro. Charito would study in Immaculata University in Pennsylvania. On their return to Manila, Anita would introduce her husband to Charito who was by then also married. The four would hit off splendidly. Charito’s husband, Alejandro Melchor Jr., a respected technocrat and cabinet official, a man who served nine Philippine presidents, turns out to also be interested in shipping. “It turns out my father has always felt that the Philippines should develop its maritime industries—shipping, ship building, maritime education—because we’re an archipelagic country. I guess that was the basis of their friendship,” says Alejandro the son.
The two couples developed quite a bond that at one point in the 70s, the Hos even invited the Melchors to their house in Hong Kong for a visit. Robert Ho would give Alejandro Melchor Jr. a tour of his business in the then British colony. In the 80s, upon another invitation, the Melchors would visit Anita and Robert again, this time in their house in Manila. It was in this occasion that the painting Women with Baskets, Fish and Crab would figure in their story.
Upon stepping into the living room of the Hos, the first thing that caught Charito’s attention was the above mentioned artwork. “The first thing my mother saw was this beautiful painting hanging prominently on the Hos’ living room wall,” says Alejandro, recalling his mom’s story. “It was the centerpiece of the living room. It caught my mother’s eye. She fell in love with it.”
Having been around each other a lot, it seemed not only was Charito a pal to Anita but she also became a great admirer of her friend’s work. “She loved the way Anita painted women at that time in her career, you know with their eyes closed,” Alejandro tells ANCX. “She loved the profile of the woman on the right hand side [of the painting] in particular. She loved the baskets. She knew from being Anita’s student how difficult it was to paint the baskets artfully, and there were eight of them perfectly done!”
Charito was hesitant at first but mustered the courage eventually to ask her friend if she could buy the painting then still prominently displayed in her house. “Anita hesitated for a long time,” says Alejandro. “I don’t know that it was one of her favorites but it was in the living room wall!”
Eventually, Anita relented, agreed to part with the painting of the women and their native baskets. She would briefly describe the work she did for the painting to Alfredo Roces, author of the book, Anita Magsaysay-Ho: In Praise of Women, thus: “In doing baskets, the lines have to curve at precise points to get the correct shape of the basket. I start my work with a charcoal or pencil drawing.”
Charito would describe her friend Anita to her son as “Very refined, and never spoke ill of anyone.” “They were both deeply spiritual,” says Alejandro of the two women. “I don’t know if Anita talked much about it but that’s one thing they shared. She might have mentioned to my mother one time that she wanted to be an instrument of God, her art included. My mother and father believe the same thing—that one’s highest purpose in life is to be an instrument of God. My mother saw that in Anita’s paintings. Essentially she ennobled the Filipino woman through her art.”
Charito was reared in a very religious family. Her mother would lead her children and grandchildren to pray on their knees to the Virgin Mary. Her grandmother Doña Josefa De Leon Mendoza, descended from the Mendoza clan of Sta Maria Bulacan, would pray everyday and named her daughter Rosario, “after the holy rosary.” That daughter would in turn name her daughter Rosario as well, but she would eventually be called Charito who, to this day, remains active in the rosary crusade.
After her painting lessons with Anita as a young lady, Charito still picked up her brush and easel, although not professionally. Anita would introduce Charito to a group of aspiring artists she would paint with (one of the paintings she finished, called Mother and Child, was even included in an exhibition). Some of the members of this painting group would become boldfaced names in the Philippine art world: Cesar Legaspi, Mauro Malang Santos and Gig de Pio.
After buying Women with Baskets from Anita, the painting would take pride of place for decades in Charito’s own living room wall in her residence in Wack Wack. A few years ago, she would pass it on to Alejandro, her son, who had been abroad for 20 years and turned out to also be an admirer of Anita’s works, the Women with Basketsamong them. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Charito has been left with nothing to remember her friend by: she has a portrait of herself done by Anita, a gift from the artist.
[The León Gallery Spectacular Mid-Year Auction is co-presented by ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to culture and style, and the lifestyle website of the ABS-CBN News Channel. A preview will be held at León Gallery from May 29 to June 4, Saturday to Friday, from 9 AM to 7 PM. For additional information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact +632 8856 2781. To browse The Spectacular Mid-Year Auction catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com.]
Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery