Rodel Tapaya, Adda Manok Mo, Pedro? ( Do You Have a Rooster, Pedro? (2015-16). Collection Art Gallery of NSW. Gift of Geoff Ainsworth AM and Johanna Featherstone, 2016. On display in Passion and Procession: Art of The Philippines, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until November 12. Rodel Tapaya, one of The Philippines’ most successful contemporary artists, grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, the son of parents whose livelihood was selling smoked fish at the local markets.
As a child, Tapaya helped in the family business by buying the newspapers to wrap the fish, and it was through these newspapers that he first became interested in art. He was fascinated by the reproductions of paintings in the lifestyle sections and enthusiastically collected these pictures as reference material.
He also grew up surrounded by a complex mixture of Filipino iconography. From family and friends, he heard about pre-Hispanic mythical folktales, such as Kan-Laon, the cre- ator and king of time. But he also attended church, where he was enthralled with the religious symbolism of Catholicism.
From those early associations and after formal art training, he developed his idiosyncratic style of narrative painting whereby he wove together disparate forms of symbolism to comment on sociopolitical issues in his country.
His work Adda Manok Mo, Pedro? (Do You Have a Rooster, Pedro?) is on display at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW in Passion and Procession. The exhibition is part of the Bayanihan Philippine Art Project, which includes events across multiple venues to celebrate the art of The Philippines, which has often been under-represented in many Australian institutions.
One of the distinctive features of Philippine art is its range of influences. There is a long history of colonial art from Spanish involvement, and then North American colonialism. Mixed into all this is the impact of Catholicism. The Jesuits went into The Philippines in the 16th century but the Christian art of that period was modified by traditional beliefs such as animalism, almost like voodoo.
Many of these influences are evident in Adda Manok Mo, Pedro?, and when I visit the AGNSW I am shown the painting by Matt Cox, curator of Asian art, who says it was first shown at the 20th Biennale of Sydney lat year. It is now the gallery’s first acquisition of contemporary Philippine art.
“I think everyone when they first see it is overwhelmed by the scale and the intensity of it,” says Cox. “You are immediately struck by all these different things going on and how they relate to each other, so it is a challenge as you wander around the painting. Rodel is quite happy for you to rest your eye on one moment and absorb that.”
Vying for attention in the composition are soldiers with the heads of roosters, pink mummified bodies, spider-like figures, decapitated statues, a blue horse and decaying Marcos family mansions, and that’s just for starters. There are references to a child’s game, political manoeuvring and the violence of war. More specifically, it refers to a fatal clash between elite police officers and Islamic fighters on January 25, 2015, in the southern Philippines.
The painting has been described as surrealistic, says Cox, but it doesn’t refer to the subconscious or a dream world. Rather, these are allegories depicting real events and real figures that Filipino people understand.
Cox says Tapaya has had an accelerated rise to international acclaim. “It tells us what an accomplished painter he is, that he can paint something on this scale and it still appears as a very comprehensive and compelling image. He is going to be one of the big players, I think, in Southeast Asian art.”
Tapaya’s work also is featured in the exhibition Rodel Tapaya: New Art from The Philippines at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until August 20.
Acrylic on canvas; 300cm x 100cm x 5cm