Expressing one’s own controversial opinions is par for the course on social media. But a Filipino artist living in the United States calling out Filipinos back home takes guts.
If there is one quality that characterizes Filipino artist Jeho Bitancor, it’s chutzpah. After all, it takes courage to leverage one’s artistry to make statements addressing social issues in the country. And that voice came out as early as the artist's pre-kindergarten years.
After discovering that he can draw, paint, and write as a young child, the young Bitancor happily indulged in his natural visual talent as his main means for self-expression. His mother later encouraged him to attend art workshops in Manila where he found inspiration in the works of the old masters like Mauro Malang and Cesar Legaspi.
It wasn’t until he entered the University of the Philippines, however, that he learned to use his work as a platform for stirring audiences—and consciences—to certain political, social, and philosophical principles.
For example, he refers to one of his paintings, Polarity of Extremes, as an indicator of our zeitgeist. “It’s about the complex issue of how violent we are as a nation…how we follow our whims,” he points out. “Those are divisions between people in terms of their belief systems, values. It’s also reflective of how those beliefs are transformed into political decisions.”
Some of these beliefs include the use of violence to exert power, and the evils of misogyny. Even as these are unpopular characterizations of the Filipino psyche, Bitancor still asserts his hope for Filipinos. “Everybody has a chance to change,” he says, “to be a human being for the better.”
For contrast, Bitancor has also worked alongside a more diverse art community in the US. Despite the struggle migrant artists experience in penetrating such a tightly knit circle in a foreign country, it transformed the way he shares his ideas.
“It has become more appealing to a wider audience,” he describes his work after having immersed himself in eclectic art circles abroad. “Before I was doing work that only Filipinos could relate to.”
This ability to communicate with broader audiences eventually led him to create more pointed political statements. Consider his Pilapinas 2000, a 1995 show depicting modern Filipinos standing in line as part of our daily existence. It’s a dark, tongue-in-cheek critique of a pervasively inconvenient system that he exemplifies with the countless number of queueing we do as a people, “Pila sa bigas, pila sa jueteng, pila sa…even a sex den…pila sa ATM machine, pila sa sugalan…”
Despite his strong and definite views on our current political climate (and the negative press that comes with it), Bitancor sees his stint abroad as a chance to define positive Filipino traits in the eyes of foreign onlookers. Seeing our culture from a distant lens has also made him more Filipino—one who wants to act as cultural ambassador to the world.
“Few people realize that other nations judge us from our art and culture, on how civilized we are,” he adds. “Ang pinagbabasihan kung gaanong kataas yung art (It’s based on how elevated the art is) because that reflects the level of thinking, and the degree of civilization, and educational attainment.”
His exposing local insights on foreign soil has paid off; some of his artworks are in the hands of Asian collectors, including the director of the Singapore Art Museum and some private Malaysian art enthusiasts.
To date, Bitancor has held at least 23 solo exhibitions and has had his work on display at various locations around the world including Singapore Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center in Las Vegas, the Ateneo Art Gallery, the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art, and Leon Gallery.
After having his work circulate throughout several audiences, he staunchly remains true to his philosophy, his sense of worth unaltered by the promise of material wealth. “I think it’s more of how we grow as an artist, how we cultivate our mind, how we improve our craft,” he asserts.
And cultivate it well in both local and foreign turf he did.
For someone whose work is driven by aspirations of a vastly civilized Filipino society and culture, Bitancor’s motivations are refreshingly rooted in a firm grasp of reality—and tough love for the people. Looking squarely at the darkest parts of our ethos and elevating them into a positive global message on canvas requires fearlessness. Bitancor paints and politicizes without fear.
Jeho Bitancor’s current exhibit, Poetic Dissent, currently shows at the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art. It runs until November 7, 2018.
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Photographs by Berwin Coroza