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The Cebuano who could be National Artist

/ 09:33 AM October 28, 2012

Nominations are up once again for the National Artist Awards and I received a request for endorsement from Erlinda Gorospe, the Bahamas-based daughter of the Cebuano master Manuel Rodriguez Sr., for the latter’s candidacy for the highest honor given to artists in the Philippines.

Even before this request by the family of Mang Maning (as artists fondly call this Bahamas-based artist who celebrated his 100th birthday early this year), I have already written several articles about him, his significant contributions to modern art in the country and why he deserves to be honored as a National Artist.

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Although Mang Maning spent most of his life as an artist outside Cebu, most of his friends in the local art community support the call for him to become a National Artist. In fact, the group Cebu Artists Incorporated is  circulating a petition and planning a tribute exhibit for him whose art and success have been a source of inspiration for many Cebuano artists.

Among them is Celso Pepito who  recently visited Mang Maning in the Bahamas. Formerly  based in New York,  Mang Maning now  stays more with his daughter in the Bahamas to escape the cold of the Big Apple.

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But according to Celso, the centenarian has remained incredibly sharp and is in good shape. He could still walk by himself and talk in Cebuano. That’s exactly how I remember him when he last returned to the Philippines two years ago for the  opening of his retrospective exhibits here and in Manila.

But the question as to why he should be a made a National Artist has nothing to do with his being Cebuano, although I believe it’s valid to ask why the prestigious award seems  elusive for “promdi” artists, especially those in the Visayas and Mindanao.

I guess Mang Maning’s role in the development of Philippine modernism does not only focus on his early explorations of abstraction in the representation of local themes during the postwar years. His contributions rests more significantly in his efforts to make  graphic arts or printmaking acceptable as fine art not only for collectors but for the public as well.

The art of making “multiple originals” which is what printmaking essentially is, enables the artist to make a limited “edition” of his work, thus allowing him to sell some or share some. Unlike painting, which is made expensive by its singularity, multiple originals can be sold cheaper by the artist, thus allowing ordinary people to collect them.

Printmaking thus democratizes art. And in the postwar years when distinctions were made between high and popular cultures, when anything mass is considered “lowbrow”, Mang Maning dared to exhibit prints in galleries, taught the craft to the public in printmaking workshops, and eventually founded a national organization of graphic artists, the Printmakers Association of the Philippines.

Today, the PAP continues Mang Maning’s mission to popularize printmaking, holding workshops and exhibits in the regions. I count myself among those fortunate to have been introduced to printmaking through the different workshops of the PAP, twice under the “Father of Printmaking” himself, as Mang Maning has been called.

At the height of his fame in the late ‘70s, the Cebuano artist left the Philippines for the United States, where he would spend the next decades putting up exhibits before a more multicultural audience, particularly in New York where he  set up a studio and lived.

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Now exposed to an international audience and confronted with global discourse in contemporary art, Mang Maning turned inward in his search for the spiritual and universal dimensions of art. His art reflects a yearning for transcendence yet at the same time a longing for home, particularly Cebu, the city of his youth.

Mang Maning returned to Cebu in 1997 for the first time since he left the city as a teenager 72 years ago. Cebu honored her prodigal son with awards including the City Hall’s Rajah Humabon Lifetime Achievement Award and the Provincial Capitol’s Garbo sa Sugbu Award. He  returned to Cebu when he was 98 years old to attend exhibits, talk to students and fellow artists, and grace the launching of a coffee table book about him.

Now at 100, he still wants to retire  in Cebu, according to Celso, who  saw some of the artist’s last works, many of them unfinished and unsigned. But these unfinished projects notwithstanding, the artist has already given so much to the nation in a century of his life. It is time the nation gives back by bestowing on Manuel Rodriguez Sr. the highest honor while he is still alive.

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