“Quest for Freedom” is painter Juanito Torres’ timely meditations on national identity and sovereignty during Philippine Independence Month. Presented by Art Lounge Manila with Galerie Joaquin at The Podium, the new series of large-scale oil-on-canvas works is a surreal survey of Philippine history right up to contemporary times. With the Covid-19 pandemic stalking the nation and with China building military bases right on Philippine waters, Torres’ conclusion seems predetermined: freedom remains an elusive quest for the Philippines.
Perhaps the first painting to tackle the China factor is “Ang Bagong Spoliarium,” Torres’ updating of the Juan Luna masterpiece, although it could have as well been inspired by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populachio “(Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace). Instead of a fallen gladiator being dragged out, a naked woman lies sprawled in what appears a gamblers’ den populated by colonial types. But at the foreground is a Chinese mandarin in imperial robes, on whose foot lies the nude maiden whose modesty is flimsily secured by a native woven cloth. The message is trenchant: colonizers old and new wager on the Philippines, who is defenseless and betrayed by her own people.
The same defenselessness is depicted in “Hocus-Pocus”: Mother Philippines floats in a trance before a quack doctor surrounded by other grotesque characters that overall paint the Philippine situation as one comparable to an outlandish circus.
A graduate of the Philippine High School for the Arts and University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, Torres specializes in allegorical and historical paintings in the tradition of academic art. His works can be found in several museums such as the Juan and Antonio Luna Museum in Ilocos Norte, Mabini Museum and Malvar Museum in Batangas, and Museo ng Katipunan in San Juan City. He also has works in the collections of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and the city governments of Mandaluyong and San Juan.
Only in his early forties, Torres is developing his own unique iconography to allegorize the Philippines’ search for freedom. In “The Filipino Identity,” he shows a faceless Filipino who holds up a mirror where his own image is seen, the mirror as symbol of colonial image-making. In “Exposure and Influences (Brainwashed),” he shows how the Filipino is formed by the endless bombardment of crass western values through the media. Adapting Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel “Creation of Adam,” he shows the American god-figure with the TV screen for a face extending his finger to a mirror image of the same finger attached to the Filipino everyman, another metaphor for colonial image-making.
In “What We Value the Most,” Torres uses agricultural images germane to the country to depict patriotism and the struggle to throw off the colonial yoke. Another allegorical work is “Knowledge in Life,” which adopts and makes variations of Guillermo Tolentino’s iconic “Oblation” statue in U.P., to exalt knowledge and education as forms of release and freedom.
The historical murals are just as striking—“One December Morning (The Execution of Rizal in Bagumbayan Field),” “We Shall Never Forget (Martial Law), “The Truth in Reality (The Japanese Occupation),” and “The Sumuroy Rebellion.” The last is particularly powerful. It depicts the rebellion that took place in the mid-17th century when, under pressure to defend the islands against the Dutch threat, the Spaniards recruited the Waray menfolk in the Visayas to rush the making of war vessels in the Cavite shipyard. Uprooted from their hometowns and separated from their families, Sumuroy and the Waray men revolted in 1649-1650. Dramatically composed and endowed with searing pictorial realism, the painting has dynamism, verve, and compelling significance.
Over all, “Quest for Freedom” is Juanito Torres’ trenchant warning on the threats, external and internal, that bedevil the nation. It is a warning that demands to be heeded.
[“Quest for Freedom” is presented by Art Lounge Manila with Galerie Joaquin at The Podium in Mandaluyong (tel. 0926-7227925 or 0977-8398971; email firstname.lastname@example.org]