Wednesday, October 31, 2018



Death came early for Filipinos in the 19th century; life expectancy was just about 35 years. Life, was indeed precious, which was why, death was considered major rite of passage, with ceremonies and post-mortem practices created around the inevitable. All Saints’ Day (Todos Los Santos, on Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2)--2 distinct observances that Filipinos have merged as one—have been providing the perfect backdrops for rituals and activities practiced in many parts of the Philippines. Chief among these is the practice of pangangaluluwa (for the souls)
PANGANGALULUWA. Illustration by Pepito Frianeza, Filipino Heritage, vol. IX

Prevalent in Tagalog regions, pangangaluluwa originated from the belief that souls in purgatory need not just prayers but material things to make the transition to heaven. As such, people, impersonating souls, go from house to house, seeking for alms as they sing songs that end with an urgent exhortation to “hurry up or the heaven’s gate will close on us”.
GOSU SINGERS, from CKS book,by Cris Cadiang

A Kapampangan version is the singing of death-inspired songs called gosos from house to house on October 31. Much like carolers, they are rewarded by money or with food (In Nueva Ecija, sticky rice cakes or suman, are doled out to children). If the manggogosu are ignored, they pelt the house with stones, or steal a chicken or  fruit from the owner’s garden—similar to trick or treating during Hallowe’en. 


Hallowe’en celebrations are becoming more widespread in the country, mostly in cities and urban areas, perhaps due to the visual attractions of costumes and make-up. Hallowe'en is a contraction of “Hallow’s Evening”, the eve of All Saints Day. Halloween traditions evolved from ancient Celtic harvest festivals that began as pagan rites, and later Christianized.

Customs and practices like trick-or-treating, parties with horror themes, wearing masks and guises, carving and lighting jack-o-lantern pumpkins, playing pranks, divination games—have all been developed through the years, attaining greater popularity in Europe and America.

The Philippines was introduced to the concept of Hallowe’en parties by foreigners led by Americans, British, Spanish and Germans, expatriates who organized their own clubs or “sociedad de recreo” for social leisure.  There was the Casino Español (the oldest, at Pasaje de Perez), Manila or English Club (at Nagtahan, with a branch at Plaza San Miguel),  and the German Casino Union at Solano St.

The clubs organized leisure activities like concerts, operas, stage and musical plays, but the most popular were the exclusive themed parties: danzas, masquerades, costume balls—and the first Hallowe’en parties were first conducted in the 1920s within these elite circles.

In time, socio-civic organizations took up the cue and groups like the “Daughters of American Veterans” (of the Spanish-American war) which, from 1929,  regularly  held their Hallowe’en socials in full costume regalia, at La Palma de Mallorca Hotel in Intramuros. Not to be outdone were the members of the German Club, who gather together in their native costumes every last week of October for their Hallowe’en event in their clubhouse in Manila.

It took awhile to cascade the idea of a Hallowe’en along with its trappings to Filipinos who were “Catolico cerrados” and who shied away from figures of horror like demons and goblins, strictly sticking to their undas tradition of cemetery visits and masses for the dead. In the Commonwealth era,  Filipino high society took to having costumed parties—but mostly based on wholesome characters.

The biggest national party—the Manila Carnival—gave Filipinos the platform to express their creativity,  as the fair featured costume contests that drew outlandish, often horrifying costume entries. But these were worn for competition, not designed for Hallowe’en. 

It was only in the 70s that the novelty of Hallowe’en parties was appreciated by Pinoys, fanned by commercial establishments which began riding on religious events to drum up their sales. Hence, Holy Week culminated with an Easter Egg Hunt, Christmases became mega-sales events—and All Saints’ Day—a fright night costume extravaganza.

Today, malls, bars and clubs, companies, schools, villages and every other neighborhood have imbibed the spirit of Hallowe’en,  spooking up their places, holding their own trick or treats and monster costume contests, staging terrifying zombie runs and haunted house visits. The Church is saying “Boo!” to all these displays of “pagan fun”, but for most Filipinos, it’s just another day to “chill”.

Graphic Magazine, various 1929 issues.
Cadiang, Cris. Gale at Gosu. Center for Kapampangan Studies, Holy Angel University.
Mallari, Joel P., Serenata. A Treasury of Kapampangan Folk Songs. CKS, Holy Angel University
Illustration by Pepito Frianeza, "Pangangaluluwa", Filipino Heritage, vol. IX.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


BAHAY KUBO BY THE BROOK, signed T.I. Sanchez, dated 1962.

You'll never know what you'll find in known as I have been pretty successful sniffing out bargain art on this selling site. For example, I got this 1962 Filipiniana painting signed by T.I. Sanchez, at an amazingly affordable price. Mabini-style paintings are just my cup of tea, and this mid-century piece, though a bit scruffy,  is certainly a welcome addition to my collection.

THE PAINTING, as advertised on theonline selling site

I have scoured art books to find out who the painter is, but I have not been successful. The closest was an artist named Turino M. Sanchez, listed as a member of the Philippine Arts Guild in the the book, “The Struggle for Philippine Art”. I have also checked online sites auctions selling art, and  found one or two vintage T.I. Sanchez paintings with prices ranging from $16 to $350, but no info on the artist.

I sent a shout-out to art aficionados and had a response from an art collector who saw a similar painting for sale in a Long Beach flea market.  

Courtesy of Mr. Wuth Franza

Surprise, surprise! The artwork was not only painted by the same artist, but he painted the same subject too. The two looked almost identical, except that they were painted a year apart.
IDENTICAL T. SANCHEZ PAINTING, painted 1963, courtesy of Wuth Franz

At this point, finding the real name and background of this painting has become irrelevant. It’s the folksy appeal of the piece that is more important to me. When  at last, I cleaned the painting, its vibrant colors were revealed.

After a bit of retouching, I had the painting re-stretched and then re-framed. The results are on this spread.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

65. Filipiniana: A PORTRAIT BUST OF “JOSEFA”

I have been collecting bits and pieces of Filipiniana of all sorts—and one field of collecting interest are old Philippine busts. I have about a dozen portrait busts—Rizal, Bonifacio, Maria Clara, Macarthur, and some unknown personalities—made of wood, composition and cast cement. 

So, when this bust of a lady came into the market, I decided to acquire it to add to my collection. A bust is generally a portrait intended to record the appearance of an individual, but may sometimes represent a type, in this case, a Filipina type.

 It is very unusual for its tiny size, standing no more than 4.5 inches, including its plinth, which has an incised date of 1931. It may have been carved as a practice piece to test the skill of a student carver in shaping and carving the details.

But what drew me to this piece is its uncanny likeness to a Filipina war heroine—the socio-civic leader Josefa Llanes Escoda.  Of course, her martyrdom was still over a decade away, so this could not have been a memorial piece, but by 1931, Josefa was a prominent figure as a social worker, a civic leader and a champion of nationalism and women’s suffrage.

 In 1940, she founded the Girl Scouts of the Philippines. Tragically, she was captured by the Japanese for her underground activities during the war, and was presumed executed on 6 Jan. 1945.

That’s how I came to call my tiny wooden bust, “Josefa”. With her head slightly turned to the left, she has the exact middle-parted, marcel-curled hair that Josefa Llanes-Escoda sported in her extant pictures, a style popular in the late 1920s-30s. She is carved wearing a collared Western dress (Escoda favored the baro’t saya) and a bead necklace hangs from her neck.

“Josefa” is a fine example of Filipino skill and artistry, in a period where Western influences began intruding on our artistic traditions and making lasting impressions until today. 


Thursday, September 27, 2018


The Filipino's penchant to find their counterparts in the West was a form of colonial mentality that peaked post-war. Philippine showbiz spawned its own versions of Elvis, Liz Taylor, James Dean and Charlie Chaplin. From fashion to fads, local copied American ways.  Soon, architectural landmarks from the Western world began making their appearance here--some deliberately copied, a few just accidental look-alikes.  Here are 8 of them: 

BANTAYANG BATO of Sta. Rosa Laguna and ARC DE TRIOMPHE of Paris, France
The Sta. Rosa Arch in Laguna served as a watchtower for marauding pirates in the early days.Watchmen blew their horns either for signs of danger, during festivities or for mourning a deceased native In 1925, municipal president Jose Zavalla hired David Dia to renovate the Arch which was said to be modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe at the Champs-Élysées, built in 1806. The local  Arch was built near the market area in 1931. Dia, a native of Santa Rosa, was a famous sculptor during his time. He was th maker as well of Dr. Rizal’s monument in the town plaza.
Credits: Bantayang Bato, Graphic 1929 / Arc de Triomphe, vintage postcard, author's collection,

Pisa’s leaning belfry was started in 14 August 1173 and took 199 years to complete. The tower began to tilt while it was being constructed and has a height that varied from 186 to 183 feet, and currently leans at an angle of 3.99 degrees. In the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, there exists a version of the Italian campanile—but the leaning structure is a NAWASA water tower that was constructed in 1929 at a cost of Php10,000. Due to subsidence and its weak foundation, it tilted through he years. There was an attempt to prop it up in 1947, but the cost was prohibitive. Thankfully, it  stopped tilting in 1955. It makes an angle of 87º with the horizontal (normal is 90º with the horizontal.
CreditsLeaning water tower: photographed by Nelson Pineda/ Tower of Pisa: Author’s collection

THE RUINS of Negros Occidental and the TAJ MAHAL GATE of Agra, India
The great gate to the Taj Mahal of India is of medieval architecture, with fine inlay work of white marble and precious stones on the red sandstone surface. It is eerily similar to the remnants of the mansion once owned by sugar baron Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson and Maria Braga Lacson in Talisay, Negros Occidental, now known as The Ruins. The grand residence was constructed in the early 1900s, inspired by medieval Italian architecture. It has been transformed by descendants into a tourist attraction.
 Credits: Taj Mahal gate: www.pixabay.comThe Ruins: photo by Dustin Mijares,

SANTIAGO APOSTOL CHURCH of Betis, Pampanga and SISTINE CHAPEL of th Vatican.
The Sistine Chapel, originally known as Cappella Magna, is found in the Apostolic Palace where the Pope resides, in the Vatican. It is famous for its ceilings which are profusely decorated with 15th and 16th century frescoes with many biblical scenes, as well as events from the life of Christ. Its Philippine counterpart can be found in the baroque church of Betis, rebuilt with concrete materials in 1770. The church underwent extensive renovation and beautification during the term of its last Spanish priest, Fray Santiago Blanco in 1939. The magnificent ceiling paintings are attributed to a series of artists that included the legendary Simon Flores,  Isidoro C. Soto, a relative of literary great Juan Crisostomo Soto;  Macario Ligon in the 1930s; and, in the early 1980s, Victor Ramos (1922–1986) who repainted and restored almost 80% of the ceiling artworks. The church has been declared a National Cultural Treasure by the Natioonal Museum and the National Comission for Culture and Arts in 2001.


THE LINCOLN STATUE of Baguio City and the LINCOLN MEMORIAL of Washington D.C.
 In Washington D.C., just across from the iconic Washington Monument stands a the Lincoln Memorial, built to honor Pres. Abraham Lincoln. In the expansice central hall can be found the seated statue of the great president, carved by the Piccirilli Brothers under the supervision of the sculptor, Daniel Chester French. The statue stands finally 19 feet (5.8 m) tall from head to foot, and took 4 years to finish, A more modest version can be found at the Liberty Park, in Camp John Hay, Baguio City. Abe, just like his Washington counterpart, sits dignified on a chair, although he is made of cast cement with painted features that made him look sadly comical. There is also a Statue of Liberty replica in the same park.
Credits: Lincoln in Baguio: Photo by Neil Sinadjan, taken Nov. 2009, Lincoln Memorial statue:

LOURDES GROTTO of Bulacan, and the LOURDES GROTTO of Massabielle, France
In 1858, starting on Feb. 11, the Virgin appeared to 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous
In the cave of Massabielle in Lourdes, France. Her apparition was climaxed with the revelation that she was the Immaculate Conception. The rock cave has become the focal point of the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine. The religious grotto in Lourdes has been replicated  at brgy. Graceville in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan and features a small spring whose water, running beneath the Lourdes statu, and like the spring France, is also said to be miraculous.
 Credits: Lourdes, France: vintage postcard, Author’s collection / Lourdes,Bulacan:

The symbol of Christianity worldwide, the 98 foot-high concrete statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), with arms open wide, stands on the peak of the Corcovado Mountain, overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. French sculptor Paul Landowski created this art deco masterpiece, and executed by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa. Th massive image was built between 1922-1931. There are at least 3 copies of Cristo Redentor in the Philippines, but the most faithful is the one found in brgy. Balua, Cagayan de Oro. The 30 foot-tall statue, completed in May 2012,  stands on a 10 hectare land owned by the Villar-owned Golden Haven memorial sanctuary.
Credits:Christ the Redeemer, Brazil: Wikipedia/ Christ the Redeemer-CDO: Photo by Clement Dampal II,

The most replicated symbol of American freedom is that of Lady Liberty, which stands enlightening the world on Staten Island in New York. A gift of France to the U.S., th 305 foot image was inaugurated in 1886. In Manila once stood an 8-foot copy of the Statue of Liberty in the Balurate de san Diego, Intramuros. The Philippines was one of the recipients of the bronze statue, which was created on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America in 1950. It survived attacks from student activists in the 60s thru the 70s, until it was moved for safekeeping at the BSP head office in Ermita, Manila.
Credits: Liberty of Intramuros: / Liberty of NY: wikimedia commons

Monday, September 17, 2018

63. First Filipino Broadway Star: CELY CARRILLO


 Cely Ocampo Carillo (born 18 Feb. 1934/d. 2017) was the daughter of  Dr.Tomas Carlos Carrillo Sr.from Binan, who once served as a medical officer in the U.S. Medical Corps during World War II. Her mother, Carmen Casas Ocampo, was a Spanish language teacher at the University of the Philippines. The school opened doors to the the child musical prodigy who often performed in presentations staged by the U.P. Dramatic Club.

CELY CARRILLO, press picture, 1960.

One of Carrillo’s  earliest performances was playing Gilda at age 13, in the Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto”, where she was hailed and billed as the world’s youngest coloratura soprano. To prove that her success was no fluke, she next appeared in another play directed by Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero—“Give the Kid a Break”(written by Mely Landicho). When the play opened at the Little Theater in Diliman, Cely--who was only in a minor role as the younger sister of the lead character Roberting—earned the highest kudos of the evening.

NEW YORK GIRL. Cely refreshes for a shake and  burger .

Her stage achievements that included starring roles in “Kismet” and “Firefly”, paved the way for the young artist to compete against other budding international talents for a slot at the famed Juilliard School of Music. Her efforts were rewarded with a 6-year scholarship at the school in New York. Moving to the U.S., and quickly immersed herself in getting a complete Western-style theater and performance arts education.


Carrillo, bent on pursuing her Broadway dream,  lingered on and rented a West Avenue apartment in upper Manhattan. With her was brother Tomas Jr., who was starting college at Fordham University, and her unmarried maternal aunt, Miss Ocampo (her mother and 2 sisters Cory and Cecille, were living in Tennessee).

CELY CARRILLO answering an audition call, NY. April 1960

Like all aspiring artists, she went on countless auditions, snagging TV roles on and playing alongside Raymond Massey and Lee Tracy. She was also a featured singer in the ABC-Paramount produced record, “Hi-Fi in an Oriental Garden”, where she sang 3 folk songs: Leron, Leron Sinta, the Pearls of Mindanao, and Bahay Kubo.

"The Pearls of Mindanao" Here:

In 1958, a casting call was sounded out for a new Broadway musical created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the 1957 novel, The Flower Drum Song, by Chinese-American author C. Y. Lee.


The story is about a rich Chinese refugee,  Wang Chi-yang, who clings to traditional values in San Francisco's Chinatown.  The musical shifted its focus to his son, Wang Ta, who is caught between two clashing East-West cultures, including the practice of arranged marriages. Rodgers and Hammerstein, with stage director Gene Kelly, then scoured the country for Asians or Asian-looking talents to form the mainly Oriental cast.

FLOWER DRUM SONG, Road Tour Program, 1960

Carrillo joined the casting call  for the new musical, and was taken in as part of the ensemble. Also passing the audition was a compatriot, Patrick Adiarte, originally from Manila, best known for appearing as the young Prince Chulalongkorn in the 1956 film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “The King and I”.


The lead female role, however, was won by the Japanese-American actress and former nightclub singer, Miyoshi Umeki.  Umeki had won a supporting role Oscar for the 1957 film, "Sayonara", headlined by Marlon Brando. Carrillo, later became her understudy, a fortuitous role. She also understudied Pat Suzuki, who was cast as the first Linda Low, Ta's nightclub love interest.


“Flower Drum Song” opened  in New York at the St. James Theatre on 1 Dec. 1958, and was met with enthusiastic reception, generating significant advance sales. There were many sold-out performances and the original cast album which included Carrillo, also did very well too. Some of the memorable songs included: “I Enjoy Being a Girl” (later popularized by Doris Day), “A Hundred Million Miracles” , “Love, Look Away”, “The Other Generation”, and “Chop Suey”.  Come awards season, “Flower Drum Song” received six Tony Award nominations.

THE NEW MEI-LI. Cely takes over Umeki's lead role in 1960.

After over a year of headlining the musical, Umeki left and it was Carrillo who stepped into shoes her in 1960, a milestone in her career. Suddenly, she was thrust in the spotlight as the lead actress in a popular musical, a first for a Filipino. 

CELY CARRILLO featured in a trade card.

Her moment of Broadway fame would be brief, lasting until May 7, 1960 only, as by then, plans were afoot for a film version of the hugely-popular musical. The movie would be released in 1961 topbilled by Miyoshi Umeki, who reprised her stage role, and James Shigeta. Unfortunately, Carrillo was not included in the film adaptation (Adiarte was retained), but when “Flower Drum Song” closed on Broadway after 2 years, she joined a road tour of the musical that opened in Los Angeles in June 1960, and which then played in San Francisco, Dallas, Denver and other key U.S. cities.

CELY WITH ROBERT MITCHUM, in the movie, "Rampage", 1963.

Surprisingly, “Flower Drum Song” would be Carrillo’s  first and last Broadway credit. She would foray into television and films, which by then was burgeoning business. She was seen in The Corruptors (1961, TV series) , rampage (1963, with Robert Mitchum), The Virginian (1964) and Coronet Blue (1967, TV series).

During her stay in New York in the 1960s, Carrillo was squired by a number of suitors. One of them was George Strattan, a classmate at the American Theater Wing who has also appeared in  off-Broadway revues. He would be seen in TV shows such as “The Monkees” and “The Waltons”. But it was to Filipino Antonio M. Onrubia that she would spend her life with.

CELY WITH CYNTHIA. 1977. Pix;, by gottogodisco

A daughter, Cynthia Onrubia (b. 27 Jan, 1962, inherited her artistisc genes. She gained national attention, when, as a 15 year old,  was cast in the musical, “A Chorus Line”–the youngest dancer in the blockbuster production that premiered at the Shubert Theater in 1977.  She stayed with the musical until 1985, and then was seen in other hit musicals---"Cats" ( 1982-83); "Song and Dance", "Jerome Robbins’ Broadway" (Asst. choreographer, 1989-90); "The Goodbye Girl"(Dance Captain, 1992); "Damn Yankees" (1993-95); "Victor/Victoria" (1995-97);  "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour"(1999),  “Cabaret” (2014-15),


“Flower Drum Song” enjoyed a short revival in 2001, using a script rewritten by playwright David Henry Hwang. It opened on October 14, 2001 at the Mark Taper Forum with Filipina Broadway star Lea Salonga  in the title role. The sold-out show had an extended run, which ended in January 13, 2002. 

CELY MEETS LEA.  Opening of Flower Drum Song the Virginia Theater.Pix: Getty Images

Because of its success, “Flower Drum Song” was moved to Broadway on October 17, 2002. At  the opening night at the Virginia Theatre, Cely Carrillo was on hand to meet Lea Salonga—the musical’s newest Mei-Li.  It was a trailblazing role that once was hers, which she played to so many standing ovations, and which made it possible for an Asian—a Filipina, to be exact—to conquer the Great White Way and pave the way for other incredible Filipino talents  to follow.

My thanks to Mr. Rufi Carrillo for Cely Carrillo's personal background.
Aguila, Dan D’umuk, “Cely Carrillo in Broadway”, The Sunday Times Magazine, 10 April 1960 issue, pp. 6-8.
Cely Carrillo & Cynthia Onrubia:
Broadway World:

Monday, September 3, 2018

62. MABINI ART: From Tourist Souvenirs to Mainstream Masterpieces

WALL-TO-WALL ART. Filipinana paintings done in the so-called Mabini School style fill the walls of Serafin Serna's studio
 For over 80 years now, the 2-kilometer street located in once-genteel Ermita has been the nexus of touristy and artistic activities—Mabini Street---which, in its heyday,  teemed with art galleries and shops, making it Manila’s most colorful alley.


Mabini was known in the late 1800s as Calle Nueva, and, like Calle Real (now known as  M.H. del Pilar St.) ran straight and parallel to the bay, starting from Wallace Field in the north and ending at the Pasay boundary. Back then, the Ermita-Malate district was peopled with Manila families from the principalia class, along with many Spanish and Spanish mestizo residents. After the 1860s, Ermita expanded as a suburb, along the main calles of Real and Nueva, which provided Manila with an important link to the Cavite harbors where the galleons landed.

MUSLIM COUPLE, by Crispin V. Lopez (1903-1985). From the Collection of  
Øcsalev Thor, Used with permission.

When the Americans came, they too were drawn to the quiet dignity and exclusivity of the suburb which characterized the uppity residential streets—Calle Nuevo included. Renamed during the American occupation as A. Mabini St. to memorialize the “brains of the Revolution”, the street slowly began its transition as a shopping destination, along with the Escolta and the walled city of Intramuros.


By the 1930s, as the country opened its doors to the world, Manila’s population swelled to include international residents and visitors. Hotels, serviced apartments, posh homes and clubs sprouted along the area.  Joining the Germans, Dutch, Swiss and English traders were the Americans and their families—soldiers, teachers, diplomats, government officials, businessmen, adventure seekers, and tourists—whose fascination with our  exotic islands stimulated a demand for manufactured cultural souvenirs to send back home as gifts and travel mementos.

BARRIO STREET. Gabriel Custodio. 

 Mabini St. and its peripheries became the go-to place for such tourist souvenirs. The Little Home Shop ran by the Metcalfs on 676 A. Mabini was one of the first shops to offer “a treasure trove for the seeker of the unusual”. It carried everything from Moro brassware, embroidered piña and Igorot dresses. Nearby was Philippine Shell-Craft that created stunning remembrances of shell and mother-of-pearl. Also just a walk away, on 620 Mabini, was Manila Art Craft that specialized in reptile leather goods, trays, cards, candy boxes and other novelties.

The war decimated much of Ermita, but when peace settled in the country and rebuilding went underway, the proud district rose from the ashes with a renewed sense of optimism.  With the promise of independence fulfilled in 1946, the new country continued its spree of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

HARVEST TIME, By Serafin Serna.  He trained under Prof. Teodoro Buenaventura before enrolling at
the U.P. Fine Arts. His biggest commission was decorating the Philippine Pavilion at the New York’s
World’s Fair with murals and brass sculptures in 1964. 
Øcsalev Thor Collection, used with permission.

 Mabini St. attracted artists like Paombong-born Miguel Geronimo Galvez Sr., to open his own visual arts shop in 1949. Galvez had honed his painting skills as a sit-in student of Prof. Teodoro Buenaventura at the U.P. college of Fine Arts along Taft Avenue. Simon Saulog, from Imus, also located his studio cum shop along Mabini.

STARTING THEM YOUNG. Art along Mabini St.. 1952.

The early artists that gravitated towards this street painted in the realist tradition—led by such names as Galvez and Saulog, plus Ben Alano, Fermin Sanchez, Cesar Amorsolo,  Jose Bumanlag David, Elias Laxa, Romeo Enriquez and Gabriel Custodio.  Like master Fernando Amorsolo, the conservatives painted idyllic pastoral scenes, landscapes and ruralscapes, nipa huts set against mountain backdrops or rice fields, and other folkloric themes. Abiding by tradition, they painted what they saw-- the more real, the better.

Left: YOUNG RAJAH, by Jose Bumanlag David, 1955. The works of this Pampanga artist was often featured on
the pages of Graphic Magazine in the 1920s. Left: T’BOLI ELDER. By Fortunato Jervoso. Pasay-born Jervoso
learned painting via the International Correspondence School , Philadelphia from 1934-37. Alex Castro Collection.

BATHING BEAUTY, by Victor T. Cabrera. 1956. This U.P. educated artist
trained with Vicente Manansala
and Antonio Dumlao. His works--landscapes,
portraits, historical paintings--were characterized by 
" a silky, finished quality",
evident in this painting.Alex R.Castro Collection.

The  distant Far East from a Western perspective was always imagined as exotic, wild and tropical, an isolated part of the world—with swaying palm trees, bare-breasted island women, mysterious Mohammedans and mountain folks. These conceptions were consistent with the imageries that Mabini artists managed to deftly capture on their canvasses. Tourists, with tastes far different from art connoisseurs, snapped up these artworks, simply as remembrances of their Philippine experience. Not only where these paintings affordable, but the paintings were also portable to hand-carry home.


 “Commercial fine arts”, was a term first used by Fabian de la Rosa to describe  art associated with advertising—billboards, illustrations, magazine covers. It would later come to refer as well to the products of the “Mabini School”, meant to be sold and generate money. Anybody with a fairly good hand could churn out paintings of the same style and hackneyed Filipinana themes. As expected, academically-trained artists and aficionados of high art thumbed their noses at these creations—hastily done, painted in multiples, and cheaply priced.

MARANAO FISHERMEN. By Romeo Enriquez, 1953. A  much sought after portraitist,
established his studio-gallery along Mabini St.
Øcsalev Thor Collection. Used with permission.

No matter, the demand of tourists for commercial fine arts  intensified during this period.  Mabini St. assumed a bohemian air of some sort, as classicists and the rising modernists congregated in the area. The convergence would eventually lead to a clash in 1955, when, in a contest mounted by the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), the modernists won over the conservatives, prompting a walk-out of some 20 realist painters. They also won the support of non-AAP members who join them in their outdoor shows in front of Manila Hotel, that elicited much attention from the public.
BANCA RIDE,Oscar T. Navarro. 1964. Alex Castro Collection.

Indeed, times were changing in the city’s landscape too. By the end of the 50s, the offbeat color of Mabini—often likened to New Yorks’ Greenwich Village—was starting to pale in its appeal. Alongside residences, quaint souvenir shops and art galleries arose in quick profusion, an amalgam of dress shops, 3rd rate motels, cocktail lounges, sleazy bars and unsightly tenement buildings and barong-barongs. But the artists stayed on, both the good, the bad and the downright phony.

LAPU-LAPU AND BULAKNA, by Rod Pasno. 1960s.

The output was more commercialized—velvet nude paintings that American servicemen favored, copies of famous European paintings (Da Vincis’s Mona Lisa, Last Supper), his ‘n hers ethnic kitsch (Rajah & Rani, Lakan & Lakambini, Moro & Mora, Igorot & Igorota) and Tiki crafts to decorate American dens and bars. Aesthetic rules could also be broken, based on the dictates of the buying customer. Thanks to the promotion of tourism, Mabini art—despite its reputation as cheap souvenir art for the tourist trade—enjoyed a ready, and steady market.

ISLAND GIRL, by Ben Alano, 1952. Alano maintained a studio in Ermita 
for over 20 years. Øcsalev Thor  Collection, used with permission.

True talents—in the persons of Paco Gorospe, Salvador Cabrera (Bencab’s brother), Roger San Miguel, and Leonardo Zablan, would emerge from this 60s decade, representing the second generation of Mabini painters with exceptional skills that were yet to be recognized. Galleries continued to proliferate in the area—Gorospe, Zablan and Lopez had theirs along Mabini—which gained major patronage from hotels, embassies and corporate buildings in need of interior decoration.
SUMMER FIELDS, Isidro Ancheta, 1904.

Pistang Pilipino (later, Sining Pilipino) a one-stop commercial arts and crafts center with 200 stalls, was put up along Mabini in the 80s, and carried many souvenir paintings of Filipino artists, in varying grades of finish and quality.  These artists, many of whom remained nameless,  constituted the third wave of Mabini painters that began painting in the 70s through the 90s.


The political turmoil and the economic instability of the mid 80s dealt a severe blow to Philippine tourism, and Malate-Ermita business felt the impact more than any other district.   Alternative commercial centers like Greenhills and Makati drew more “quality” crowds as opposed to Mabini, which suffered from its ‘red light district’ image.  Regular crackdowns on illicit trades didn’t help in hastening Mabini’s decline. Many art galleries closed, and while Pistang Pilipino remained open until 1995 and then relocated, its business was never the same again.
MANOBO ELDER. By Crispin Agno. 1955. Alex R. Castro Collection.

But just when everyone thought that Mabini art was on its way out,  a new breed of art aficionados began rediscovering them in other parts of the world with the advent of the the internet in the mid-1990s. Filipiniana paintings from the mid-century and older began appearing in online museums as well as international selling sites, gaining a core group of patrons, mostly overseas Filipinos.


 It must be recalled that in the course of 50 or  so years, thousands of these Mabini paintings made their way to other countries, especially the United States, where they either hung in homes or stashed away for keeping, passed on to descendants, to be recovered in estate, garage sales, auctions, and flea markets.  
GRAND OLD LADY. By Miguel Galvez, 1937. Miguel left Paombong to work in the household of
his uncle-artist PrOf. Teodoro Buenaventura, who enrolled him at the U.P. Fine Arts. He was the
first artist to open a studio on Mabini St. in 1949.

International online selling sites like and  regularly offered vintage Philippine paintings as early as the late 80s, posted by sellers who picked such pieces from rummage and yard sales, and sold outright or thru bidding.

From a few dollars, the prices for these Philippine works  have quickly escalated to hundreds, even up to thousands of dollars. A quick check on ebay’s current inventory (as of July 2018), features a 24” x 20” Simon Saulog 1959 painting of a Filipina gathering palay that is priced for sale at $1, 650. Two Crispin V. Lopez portraits are more realistically priced at $299 each.
Add captionLeft: SAN MIGUEL ARCANGEL, A painting copied from Sanzio Raphael. Signed "Rafael Sanzio
por Dumlao". By Antonio Dumlao.1955. Right: ORACION EN EL HUERTO. By Domingo Celis. 1951.
He is one of the first graduates of the UP school of Fine Arts in 1914.

American museums, like the Field Museum of History in Chicago, keep many good examples of this kind of genre paintings. Since 1989,  Geringer Art based in Honolulu, Hawaii has also been studying and marketing fine Southeast Asian paintings, including Filipino works wrought by artist who began their careers in Mabini,

In 1992, a book based on the art collection of Jorge B. Vargas, the former Executive Secretary of Pres. Manuel L. Quezon, was written by Prof. Santiago Pilar Albano on the occasion of the Vargas Centennial Celebrations. The book, PAMANA, featured write-ups and photos of paintings of many Mabini luminaries, raising further awareness for Vargas’ vintage paintings which he bequeathed to the University of the Philippines, where they are now housed at the school’s Filipiniana section.

WINNOWING RICE. By San Fernando-born Patricio Salvador of U/P. 1967.

Suddenly, collectors and critics from here and abroad began taking a more serious look at these artworks and the painters that created them, finally acknowledging their significance and their place in the development of Philippine art history.
BALIK-TANAW EXHIBIT in Chicago. Courtesy of Victor Velasco

In June  2013,  Filipino expatriate Victor B. Velasco assembled Filipiniana paintings found in the U.S. in a representational exhibit in Chicago entitled “Balik-Tanaw: Philippine Images Beyond Nostalgia” . The exhibit featured the paintings of Mabini artists and others who worked in the same style like Serafin Serna, C.V. Lopez, Hernando Ocampo, Crispin Agno and Isidro Ancheta.

OLD SPANISH CHURCH. Elias Laxa of Macabebe,Pampanga. 1964.

Art collector Mr. Jack Nasser, founder of Philexcel Business Park and a pioneering investor  in Clark Field, Pampanga,  began amassing Mabini art paintings beginning in the 1960s. When he passed away, his widow, Ariella Nasssr-Moskovitz, organized the Jack Nasser Collection and put the artworks on permanent display at the Philexcel Art Center, inaugurated  in 2016. The paintings on exhibit, many done by Oscar Navarro and Paco Gorospe, is open to the viewing public.

WEDDING GIFTS, by Simon Saulog, 1954. Commissioned by Heacock’s Department Store in Escolta. 
Alex R. Castro Collection.

Perhaps, the most convincing proof that Mabini Art had indeed gained mainstream status as well as respectability  in the art world is the inclusion of paintings in the two premiere auction houses in the Philippines—Salcedo Auctions and the Leon Gallery Auctions. Along with the like of Amorsolo, Bencab and Manansala, examples of Mabini Art are now being offered on regular basis on the prestigious auction houses—and doing very well.


For example Cesar Buevantura’s “Planting Rice” had an ending price of Php 303,680 from a staring bid of Php 120,000. The “Barrio Scene” painting of Romeo Enriquez sold at Php 163.520, more that quadruple its initial Php 40,000 bid. Oscar Navarro’s “Sailboat”, which had a starting price of Ph 16,000, was snapped up for Ph 46, 700. Simon Saulog’s “Nude”, was had a tag price of Php 30,000, and which sold at Php 327,040. Finally, Antonio Dumlao’s painting, “Bountiful” ,  with a starting bid of Php400,000, ended with a realized price of Php 759,200.The prices are still far away from the millions people pay shell out for a Manansala or a Bencab, but selling is brisk and the demand remains strong.

BAHAY KUBO BY THE BANKS, by Felix Gonzales,1955. Gonzales
owned a gallery at the Manila Hotel 
then moved to Mabini. Many of
his children became artists like him.

The popular art form persists and endures today, although slowed down by the vagaries of tourism industry and fads of taste. In some nooks and crannies of Mabini and neighboring M.H. del Pilar, there are still a handful of studios which continue to churn out canvas after canvas of nipa huts, tinikling dancers, grazing carabaos and toiling farmers—objects of beauty that have also become idealized expressions of our culture. In those holes-in-wall may yet arise another Amorsolo, de la Rosa or Manansala, but what is clear is that Mabini Art, once disparaged by local patrons, is finally receiving the appreciation it deserves today.

Mabini’s Arty Street, Sunday Times Magazine,  6 January 1957, pp. 14-15, photos by Ben Santos
Castañeda, Dominador C., Trends and Influences in Fine Arts, PROGRESS 1955. Pp. 26-34
Quingco II, Oliver, Hartung III, Klaus W. Revisiting Mabini Art, Transwing ® Jane Hartung, e.k., 2013
Albano, Santiago Pilar, Pamana: The Jorge B. Vargas Art Collection, Committee on Arts and Culture, Vargas Centennial Celebrations, U.P. Vargas Museum, 1992
Balik-Tanaw: Philippine Image Beyond Nostalgia, exhibit catalog 2013
Castaneda, Dominador, Trends and Influences in Fine Arts, Progress 1955. Pp. 27-33
ERMITA Magazine, 1976 issue
The Dynamics of Change in Tourist Arts