A red-hot take on Filipino superheroes is front and center at the exhibition entitled “‘Di Pasisiil (The Unconquerable)” set to open Wednesday, February 2, at León Gallery International. Two sculptors are behind this “passion project” of bringing our favorite idols straight into the 22nd century: Ram Mallari and Megs Empinado. Serendipitously, the two first met when they joined a group making 3d-printed face shields for frontliners at the start of the pandemic.
The duo is presenting our favorite historical characters as we’ve never seen them: Rizal as Rocketman, Mabini as Charles Xavier of X-Men, Sakay as Mad Max. Hen. Luna and Lapulapu are androids, part Machine Gun Kelly, part alien king. There are 10 heroes depicted in this dream team, from a motorcycle-riding Gregorio del Pilar to a sailing Sultan Kudarat, from men-of-steel warriors Emilio Aguinaldo, Andres Bonifacio, and Sultan Kudarat to the ‘generala’ Gabriela Silang.
For their individual works, Empinado has created grey-skinned mutants called “cyberpunks” including a vignette of the Battle of Mactan, with Lapulapu in midair as he slays Magellan, in the style of an avenging angel demolishing Lucifer. It’s a classic tale of the triumph of good over evil. Mallari draws from his now-famous arsenal of Filipino pop icons, among them the tarsier and the Jollibee rider on wheels.
Mallari is no stranger to the world of art. His zany “steampunk” creations, straight out of a mad scientist’s laboratory, are what James Bond’s arsenal would look like had he lived in the 19th century. For his talent in re-purposing nuts and bolts and odd bits of machinery into cool sculptures, he has attracted the attention of Yahoo, BBC, Reuters, as well as NBC who have all featured him in their news programs. Pre-pandemic, he was guest artist at the Singapore Science Museum.
Empinado, on the other hand, specializes in creating collectible toys for the likes of Marvel and DC Comics and knows more than a thing or two about creating the larger-than-life characters that inhabit the pop fantasy world.
We sat down with the artists for a quick chat to find out more about their latest works.
What does this project mean to you?
RAM: It’s been a long-time passion for me to showcase Philippine patriots, to reimagine an entire team of heroes, and to recreate the look of each character in the steampunk version, side by side with the technology and aesthetic from 19th-century industrial steam-powered pieces of machinery.
Works that belong to the steampunk genre are often set in an alternative history of the British Victorian era or American Wild West, in an alternative future where steam power stuck around, or in some kind of a fantasy world that uses steam power.
In this show, León Gallery gave us this chance for this collaboration — to showcase our mightiest heroes in a very different form of a literary sub-genre of science fiction. It’s a great opportunity and a dream come true for artists like us.
MEGS: For me, it’s proof of the saying, "What we do in life... echoes eternity” — in the same way our Filipino heroes influence our current luminaries and they will certainly continue to inspire generations to come. These heroes not only spur me on to become a better person, but also to strive to be a better artist.
At this moment, we are at peace, not "literally" oppressed by foreign countries. It's just that everybody has their own personal battles. We should not succumb to our personal enemies, they may not always be human. Sometimes they are laziness, ego, procrastination, and self-doubt.
Like what Antonio Luna said, our greatest nemesis is ourselves, our innermost demons.
Let’s talk about your individual pieces.
MEGS: My individual pieces are more along the lines of cyberpunk. My objective here is to tell a story where I attempt to merge the past, the present and the future in each sculpture. Hopefully my art will provide you with a time travel experience. I refer to my art style as "wormhole punk.”
RAM: My individual pieces are still Filipino cultural archetypes from the lawin and tarsier to the bulul and the Jollibee rider all redesigned into steampunk versions.
Ram, why the fascination for “rescued” and “found” objects?
RAM: I make artworks that utilize ordinary objects not conventionally designated as art supplies, and I manipulate them, turning them into something different and unique. It’s like giving new life to random objects coming together in an inexplicable harmony, creating a coherent composite image, while usually being quite meaningless individually. Also, the availability of materials and concepts is tremendous. For me, art such as this helped to bridge the gap between art and life, making the two barely distinguishable from one another.
You’ve been quoted as saying that steampunk “saved your life”? Please explain.
RAM: I first discovered steampunk art when I was at my lowest. I had just quit my job then — and just found myself making something that I somehow thought resembled steampunk. I actually discovered it on Google! I posted it on social media and I never expected to receive positive comments about the works. I can say now that steampunk art found me and has never left me ever since, just like a true friend.
Your new approach has breathed new life into our heroes — can you share a memorable anecdote about each hero in the making of this exhibit?
RAM: I can't say much but I guess we just enjoyed every moment tackling each one of them in a unique retro-futuristic style and surprisingly, the results, for us, are breathtaking and completely satisfying.
This exhibit has been a year in the making. Please explain your process from concept to finishing.
RAM: Megs and I selected the 10 heroes first. He made the 3D designs for each character and printed them. After that, I did the rubber molds and fiberglass casting and made the steampunk detailing—creating the base, steampunk aesthetics, and mechanisms, put them together, and applied the final paint and finishing touches.
What is it about 3D printing that you find so fascinating?
MEGS: In 3D, the possibilities are endless. There is nothing you can’t do in 3D. You can combine different ideas and the result is simply phenomenal.
[León Gallery International is at G/F Corinthian Plaza, 120 Paseo de Roxas, Makati. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or text 0998.517.2010]