THE small gallery looks like a big storybook from a distance, but the human figures—all rotund—dominate most of the frames, bathed in vivid colors, thus are readily discernible.
Subconsciously, we equate chubby people with cheerfulness and even innocence because of the baby-like appearance. The faces in the paintings in the exhibit “Reyna Elena, Libertad and other Stories” look cherubic, almost beatific, but after a while one notices that the expressions are inscrutable, many seemingly leaning towards the stoic or sad.
When one lingers long enough, one realizes that the paintings do not portray the usual storybook characters but they are very much real, present in and part of societies, only neglected, marginalized and rendered invisible for millennia.
Suddenly, the colors are not of the bright kind but rather they are deep and bold; the storybook mode is not really innocent but transgressive; and the stories are substantial, seldom told, beautiful, very human.
Artist Daniel Palma Tayona wields his skill and artistry as children’s book illustrator to bring to light LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) issues, experiences and narratives in his exhibit of acrylic paintings at the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) Gallery in Intramuros, Manila, from June 7 to 30, 2018, aptly timed for the LGBTQ Pride Month.
While LGBTQ people existed since pre-colonial times and are integral part of Philippine societies, they are mostly marginalized, restricted to ascribed roles, regarded with hostility, ignored, generally tolerated but rarely accepted, especially with coming of Christianity and Islam.
It is only in recent times, influenced by movements and cultural shifts from the West, that LGBTQ rights are being asserted, acceptance being encouraged, their image being seen in a more positive light, and their stories being told. LGBTQ expressions are now slowly becoming more visible in the arts. Progress has been achieved in literature, theater, cinema, and even pop music and television.
However, Philippine visual arts still experience a dearth in diversity in gender expressions. The field is still being dominated by men, many part of circles that operate like boys’ clubs. There are very few prominent LGBTQ visual artists.
Among them are National Artist Jose Joya, who created exquisite male nudes, but remained closeted until death, and Alfonso Ossorio from Negros Occidental, who migrated to the United States and painted abstract expressionist works replete with Catholic imagery and inner turmoil.
“From the traditional Eurostyle of [Juan] Luna, to the 13 Modern Artists,which was a ‘barkada type of machismos,’ up to the development of the National Artist awards, all straight men patting themselves on the back. Openly gay artists, they were either fashion designers like Pitoy [Moreno] or were too much of an outsider here that they flew to the U.S. or Europe to fully express themselves,” observes Tayona.
At the opening of “Reyna Elena, Libertad...” Tayona cuts a formidable figure, with a bald head and in a leather jacket, looking like an action star, very far from some characters of his works, ready to challenge the status quo.
“Frankly, I would like to step into that role. To use a naive ‘semi-Pinoy’ style, ala-genre format, and tackle themes an urban gay male like me can tackle. My friends say I am ‘in between’ as a gay man, not effeminate that strong-headed straight men would feel uncomfortable or even condescending to be around with, and gay enough that effeminate gay men can talk with me honestly without too much of the sexual innuendos when het and gays are together,” he admits.
Not all regions of the visual arts are male-dominated though.
Predictably, women and LGBTQ artists are concentrated in children’s book illustration, which many may consider “soft” or “non-serious.”
“Coming from the children's book industry, which is mostly populated by women and gay men—only a few straight guys are in picture books, Jomike Tejido for one—I see myself as one of those artists to break that glass,” Tayona remarks.
He now joins Jason Moss, another artist who originally began as a children's book illustrator, in making inroads into the fine arts, but his roots and heart remain in children’s books.
“When I was in grade school, I used to cut the back covers of my father’s Reader’s Digest magazines—RD always had a featured artwork for their back covers—and I would put them in frames and hang them on the wall beside my bed. I would imagine my small corner was a tiny gallery/museum,” Tayona reminisces.
“In college, I would save my money to buy these really nice hardbound children’s books with the golden Caldecott Medal stickers at National Bookstore. If I remember correctly, they were priced not more than 200 pesos. They were stacked at the bottom shelf, and nobody really paid much attention to these superbly illustrated and written books. This was way back in the late 1980s, back when people weren’t paying much attention to children’s books, and there was hardly a local children’s book industry to speak of.”
He specially remembers the first book he bought—The Dessert is Theirs by Byrd Baylor.
“I just got back from a college tour abroad, and I had some money—1989 I think. I saw that book, and I thought how exquisite the cover was, and how the artist and the writer seamlessly created a wonderful piece of a book. I have given my book collection to my nephews and to this day, the Caldecott books I had are still in their shelves at their home,” Tayona relates.
“I guess these books put me on a path to being a visual artist, a book designer and children’s book illustrator. I even told my brother that someday our last name will be in books, and children will recognize it. It eventually came into fruition, and I would sometimes joke with my publisher that kids might think that the artist who made the book might be dead or really old. Why not? I used to think that the authors/illustrators whose books I used to read as a child were that, dead and/or old.I consciously decided to be an illustrator first, because of the children’s books I collected in college, before I was a fine artist.”
After finishing Tourism and Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, Tayona began as an editorial illustrator for business magazines.
“The publication that gave me my first break was World Executive Digest. They’d send me articles, I’d read through it, and I would talk back-and-forth with my editor—faxing sketches, narrowing ideas, and deciding on the final direction for the illustration. Once the decision has been made, I’d do the illustration in a day or two, and have it sent by courier to them,” he reveals.
“That initial foray into editorial illustration opened up other assignments, from advertorial to product illustrations, until, with enough material for a portfolio, I opened a small graphic design office. Things were going well for a year until EDSA 2 came. I made some bad business decisions with some individuals who ran away when the government then was impeached. Business gone, money gone... depression set in, but in between everything that was happening, I was doing work for children on the side. You can say making works for kids saved my sanity.”
In 1998, he illustrated the book Bugtong, Bugtong: Filipino Riddles,by the late children's book author Rene O. Villanueva, and more people began noticing his work.
“Between the years, I did graphic work, opened my small practice, and then lost it. I was doing other small works for children, sometimes paid for, a lot of times not. But it brought me joy and a better understanding of myself as an artist,” Tayona says.
Tayona himself would write the sequel to the Bugtong book, Bugtong, Bugtong 2: More Filipino Riddles, published in 2013, and helped create more children’s books. In 2005, he joined Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development or CANVAS, a nonprofit organization which, among other things, promotes children's literacy and publishes children’s books. Eventually, he became its creative director.
For “Reyna Elena, Libertad and other Stories,” he gathered his works from 2015 and 2018, which glow with Latin American influences.
“I discovered contemporary Latin American art during my art history lessons in college. I love the colors, the depth of their history, from the ancient earth tones of the Incas and Mayans, to the revolutionary paintings/murals of Rivera, the passion of Kahlo, the defiance of Orozco, the activism of Siqueiros....” Tayona reveals. “These were the artists’ works and the culture they were born of that influenced me. I relate a lot to that, and it has stuck through the years.”
Above all, the paintings have deep, personal meanings and connections.
“I paint about occurrences that happened in my life. And as long as I live and new experiences come along, then I create these visual stories to ‘tell’ them,” he says.
As he breaks the glass ceiling in Philippine visual arts, he lets free beautiful and compelling stories to alight on our souls like butterflies.
The titular work, Reyna Elena (48 by 40 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2018), is based on a moving short story by writer Mike de Guzman, “about a gay parlorista who, during her town’s dire needs, in a tragic flood, brought joy and relief by simply doing what she does best—cutting hair, putting on make-up, doing pedicure on her town mates—while they all went through depression. The town’s population was moved into an evacuation center.
Unknowingly, through these little acts of her kindness, she brought back a sense of relief, a hint of joy, and sanity in the townspeople. In the end of the story, the townspeople, in gratitude for her good deeds to them, rebuilt her parlor, and in the summer after the floods, made her the Reyna Elena in their local santacruzan.”
“I love the story. It shows hope, the goodness of people, and the strength of character of a person who, despite her seeming difference, shows kindness and beauty,” artist Daniel Palma Tayona says. (written by Roel Hoang Manipon)
To be continued next week