In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 14: Art in the Post-Pandemic — An Epilogue

Ian Rosales Casocot
11 min readJun 2, 2023

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In Shelter Gallery over in Tabuctubig, just as the month of May was easing into fruition, I stumbled on a show that was exhibiting works of such vitality, such strong presences, and such mindful meaningfulness that the apt response from any art lover might as well be worship. I’m not kidding.

The show is titled Matinabangon, and it opened last May 12 [and closes on June 16], and is meant to be a showcase of contemporary visual artistry from the other side of Negros Island, represented here by Occidental artists Charlie Co, Ann Gaurana, Barry Cervantes, Elwah Gonzales, HR Campos, Janrey Llegue, Jay R. Delleva, Jovito Hecita, Jun Jun Montelibano, Karl Arnaiz, RA Tijing, and Vincent Sarnate, all from by Bacolod’s Orange Project. Talk about Bacolod artists coming to the Dumaguete art scene, and meaning business. They came blazing.

Tryst at the Creek by Jun Jun Montelibano

The first painting that drew me in was “Tryst at the Creek,” by Jun Jun Montelibano, which haunted me even days after seeing it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was it the painting’s storytelling quality? Was it the simplicity of the composition that’s disturbed somewhat by the uncanny? Was it the fairy tale-like take of a young girl in white, holding flowers, wading in ankle-deep creek water, meeting a freak from some unholy mishmash of that monster rabbit from Donnie Darko and a plague doctor from the Middle Ages — which somehow affirms a nightmare I can never tell my therapist about? And yet the painting is also a picture of loveliness. It is also frightening. Both all at once.

It was the key piece of art that provided me the way to look at and appreciate the other works in the collection — an exhibit of such eclectic curation that also somehow made this show come off as an unintended boast, but certainly a well-deserved one. The show seems to say, “This is what we do in Bacolod, Dumaguete.” A dare.

And what is it that they do?

Anger by Charlie Co

One can begin with Charlie Co, the godfather of Bacolod visual arts, who knocks off timid artistry that coasts along with having nothing to say by giving us “Anger,” a work in acrylic on canvas which is worthy of its title: it depicts primarily what looks like a brutalized man who sneers in contortions of anger and pain as he is paraded around — like a crucified Christ — in an unholy procession, held aloft by a menacing mass of people in strange yellow masks. It invites religious and political readings, maybe even the sociological — but the point is the poignant pain dramatized by the man’s face, his eyes fixed on the viewer like a rebuke. The work unsettles, by design of course, and with this, an artistic gauntlet has been thrown.

But the exhibit is not all like this work by Co. The show contains multitudes of styles: from classical representational pieces like Karl Arnaiz’s “Mother and Child,” a work in charcoal on paper that recalls familiar Renaissance figures, and Ann Gaurana’s “Consenting Vulnerability,” a work in oil featuring a female nude, with flowers, on an oblong-shaped canvas — with the woman’s face turned away from us like a knowing rebuke to the male gaze; to the wild surreal contortions and even pop-art inventions of RA Tijing’s “Carnis,” a work in oil which features a two-headed beast in a forest, with some canines popping out of its blue skin, pausing before a feast of red meat, and Barry Cervantes’ “God Bless the Ammunition,” a work in acrylic that also takes the figure of the Christ, this time dressed as the hood ornament of some futuristic rocket ride, driven by a figure in protective gear with a skull for a face, through a landscape that’s clearly an environmental dystopia. Both paintings are ripe for endless interpretations. Also in this latter mode, you have Janrey Llegue’s “Taga Uma” [acrylic and modeling paste on canvas] that takes whatever pro-vegan messaging in Tijing’s work and makes it more horrifically tactile; and Elwah Gonzales’ “Maayo Na Lang ang Sobra Sang sa Kulang” [acrylic on canvas], which is portrait of a woman with a heart for a body, with what looks like sheets of water coming out of the ventricles — a commentary on love? Who knows.

Pollination to Rot by Jovito Hecita

In between these styles, you have Jovito Hecita’s “Pollination to Rot,” a work in mixed media on a round canvas featuring an assemblage of fallen leaves in autumn-rich hue, which on closer inspection is really the color of death, made more precise by the carcasses half-concealed in their midst: the bones of a bird and the decaying body of a rat peeking out from under the leaves, both of which make up the lower angles of a triangle with an actual clock ticking above, its frame yellow as the leaves, and its numberless existence making us mindful about the eventual mortality we all have to face. This is death personified by a painting.

Swallowed by Jay R Delleva

Heady stuff indeed — which probably explains why I found myself attracted to the more whimsical pieces in the collection, like HR Campos’ “Abi Ko Friendly Ka” [mixed media on canvas], which features an orange beast that looks like a dragon — or a menacing caterpillar; or Jay R Delleva’s “Swallowed” [acrylic in canvas], which is very much in the mode of Margaret Keane but taken to a higher conceit with a merry mix of John James Audobon nestlings and William Morris florals; and especially Vincent Sarnate’s exquisitely sculpted mixed media works “Pugad,” “Aratiles,” and “Last Leaf,” which all take the narrative of the botanical mania of plantitas and infuses the figure of the potted plant with the darling nightmare of baby faces growing from the same soil.

Pugad, Aratiles, and Last Leaf by Vincent Sarnate

I realized right then and there that what attracted me to this show, like Montelibano’s haunting work, was the pieces’ ability to thread nightmare and whimsy in the same breathing space — some more-in-your face or more infused with social messaging than the others. The variety, and the conceit, works. That they’re all done with such boldness of composition and theme adds to the success of the exhibit.

The aim of the show, riffing off the Visayan word of the title which means “to help, support, and assist,” is to represent thematically the raison d’etre of Orange Project and Shelter Gallery together — which is that both are artist-run galleries that “share the same vision to provide nurturing spaces for artists and their communities,” which is “rooted in the mission to provide a multidisciplinary platform for the people and by the people,” thus making matinabangon not just a show title but also a descriptive for the “art eco-system” that both galleries try to be “sustainable” in. All of these are in the statement introducing the show.

That word “sustainable” feels like a wound — because this is the last show you can see at Shelter Gallery before it closes after June 16, when its lease at the venue it occupies finally runs out, and with no clear future for another venue to transfer to in sight.

“This is why I wanted to have this show with Bacolod artists,” Shelter’s main mover Faye Mandi tells me. “I wanted to close the gallery with a blast — featuring very powerful works by fellow artists from the other side of our island. People who share the same vision as I do, who can underline what I’ve been trying to do since opening Shelter.”

It has been a year and six months since Shelter Gallery opened, with its inaugural show featuring Ms. Mandi and Hersley-Ven Casero in a collaborative exhibit — something that propelled them both to loftier reaches as working artists, going as far as maintaining undeniable presences in national art events such as Visayas Art Fair in Cebu and Art Fair Philippines in Manila.

In the interim, Shelter played host to 15 exhibits, including Fast Times [March 2022], Training Wheels [April 2022], At the Moment [May 2022], Pakigbisog sa Kailaloman [June 2022], Jia You [July 2022], Intention [August 2022], Surface Tension [September 2022], Every Day is a Sorrowful Mystery [October 2022], Windows of Perception [October-November 2023], Pagsibol ng Punla [December 2022], Layaw [January 2023], Sonden [February 2023], Ichi-go Ichi-e [March 2023], and Hue [April 2023] — plus two or three one-off events that combined the visual with theatre arts and literary arts. Many of these shows were group exhibitions, but Shelter Gallery managed to put out solo exhibitions, a considerable number of them first-time solo exhibitors, for artists like Rey Labarento, Mikoo Cataylo, Eli Wong, Vanessa Gaston, Chanel Pepino, Trina Montenegro, and Juan Macias.

Ms. Mandi assures me this is not the end of Shelter. That they’re actively scouting venues for relocation, and that the gallery might take another form — but still very much within the range of her vision of “providing nurturing spaces for artists and their communities.” In the meantime, she is eager to go back to her painting — something she has missed since she became busy being a gallery maven.

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But, in the end, as I put this fifteen-part series to a finish, a part of me wonders whether this magnificent resurgence of Dumaguete arts — certainly a COVID-19 miracle — is very much a protracted phenomenon enabled by a pandemic hunger for culture. Imagine a community hankering to make and display art in the first two years of the pandemic, bursting with so many possibilities in 2022, and now reckoning with the wane of that pandemic wave in 2023.

One notes, for instance, the unheralded demise of Dakong Balay Gallery as exhibition space, now reportedly taken over by a franchise coffee shop wanting more space. But the venue started it all with its initial showcase of Hersley-Ven Casero’s paintings in January 2021 — snowballing to the establishment of Shelter Gallery in January 2022, and MUGNA Gallery in June 2022, and in that bright environment also ignited the local productions of other arts, from music to theatre, from literature to film, from dance to photography. It became home to artists wanting a home for their art, and home for art lovers wanting to see local art in a pandemic time that didn’t seem to end.

Is the wave over? we can ask. A corollary question becomes: Is art sustainable in a city that may not have all that it has to really appreciate artists in its midst? Because I asked a local gallerist this question once, not too long ago: “Do locals buy art?” The response: “They do — but most cannot go beyond P50,000.”

I still am willing to believe that the pandemic wave of artistic resurgence in Dumaguete is not a fluke — but that it is going through a much-needed reconfiguration given post-pandemic realities. But there are lessons to learn from the past three years:

First, that while institutions like Silliman University and Foundation University remain critical to art production in Dumaguete [which remains very much a “university town”] — and this is simply because both have the infrastructure, and the budget, and the history of art-making at their disposal — the pandemic art wave also taught us we can actually make art even when important cultural institutions like these are closed down. At the height of the pandemic, we didn’t have the Luce or Woodward or Sinco Hall for our theatrical and cultural productions — but we found unlikely venues to stage our plays and cultural shows. We didn’t have their galleries to exhibit our paintings in, but kindred souls found a way to remedy that — and we actually had more galleries during the pandemic than before the pandemic. True, both institutions have also been instrumental in finding ways to bring culture to people via working Internet platforms — this is especially true for Silliman’s Culture and Arts Council — but that instance of independence from them was actually exhilarating, as if we were given a new paradigm for doing art, and finding that it works, even when wonky.

Second, artists will make art — even with a pandemic raging. And their common hunger can ignite community. The pandemic art wave was mostly sustained by young artists who had no care for the quarrels of their elders, and who only wanted a space to exhibit, and a space to commune among themselves. Our young artists made the pandemic art wave happen — and may their hunger remain unabated.

Third, Dumaguete is truly hungry for culture and the arts. I can see that every time a new exhibit, or a new concert, or a new play opens. And I could see that for real when I spent a day at Pinspired Philippines, which occupies the main lobby of Dakong Balay, and which for the longest time provided the entry point to the gallery at the second floor. It astonished me that there was a considerable stream of people coming in, asking if there was an exhibit upstairs. It was more than a trickle. It wasn’t exactly a flood — but the constant stream of patronage was astonishing for me. People will look for art.

When the National Museum at the Dumaguete Presidencia finally opened in late November 2022, it provided me another way to mark this local hunger for culture. According to one of its staff, the average number of visitors coming to the museum daily is around 80 people — but it can reach as high as 250 on very busy days, which apparently seems to happen more often these days. That’s an astonishing number, given the smallness of the museum — and they also get a lot of repeat visitors, people who are hungry to learn more about the geographic and biological diversity of Negros Island, about archeological riches of Dumaguete and its vicinity, and about the beautiful architectural heritage we have on this island as well as in Siquijor.

Our challenge now is to learn from the pandemic as well as from the pre-pandemic, and find ways to consolidate our strengths from both eras in managing local art and culture — to make the post-pandemic a more sustainable time for artists and the people who support them, and to make art that matters to the community, and to foster a deep cultural environment that will sate the hunger of a city that, in fact, yearns for it.

The arts in Dumaguete indeed flourished during the pandemic, miraculously. That success shouldn’t just be a pandemic story.

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Ian Rosales Casocot

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror