Art in the Philippines has had a history of inclining outwards, always gesturing towards an ‘elsewhere’ that reveals reality in other climates far from the tropics while imbibing the sentiment of the expectant native. Conversely, this ‘elsewhere’, this ‘promise of the foreign’, has been aspired to as an index of a kinder survival, a reprieve from the harsh temper of the islands, the main impulse of migration and of allegory. In light of this art’s emergence as a tool of instruction, and therefore a vehicle of conversion of three successive colonial occupations by Spain, America and Japan, beginning in the sixteenth century and ending in the second half of the twentieth century, the notion and moment of ‘art’, in the sense of its institution as a particular social practice, could only have been part of a grander project of conquest. Such conquest created eccentricities of form quite alien to the supposed sources of a supposedly superior influence. This is how a fairer view of ‘art’ within this latitude (not a province of the metropolis, to be sure) might proceed; one that is tainted by civilization – culture being fundamentally a corruption – and at the same time instilled with the struggle to overcome the condition of control.
The modernity of this tradition of art is robust. Filipino printmakers signed their names on maps in the eighteenth century, and the first school of drawing in Asia opened in Manila in the nineteenth century – in the same season that the first history painting was created in the region (a series of fourteen panels depicting a revolt incited by protest against the monopoly of sugarcane wine). In the late nineteenth the colonial subject Juan Luna, who studied art in Madrid, at that time the capital of the Philippines’ conqueror, was awarded a gold medal in the 1884 Madrid Exposition of Fine Art. From this trajectory of seminal achievements came a complex expression of modernism, from the 1920s through the 1950s. Stirrings of the contemporary began to surface in the 1970s, alongside massive infrastructure for culture from an authoritarian state and the reciprocal resistance from a social realist movement sympathetic to socialism. It was in this furnace that what may be described as contemporary art in the Philippines came to be wrought.
Excerpt from Persuasion Flights, Patrick D. Flores