A Subconscious Effort to Form a Community: Filipino artist Lena Cobangbang on curating – interview

Lena Cobangbang shares her stories on being an artist and curator.

Art Radar catches up with Filipino artist Lena Cobangbang, who’s lately been occupied with curating exhibits for young galleries in Manila.

Exhibition view of Galerie Roberto’s “Thing Object Stuff”, curated by Lena Cobangbang, 2017. Image courtesy Alvin Dennis Cristobal and Galerie Roberto.

“Thing Object Stuff”, installation view at Galerie Roberto, 2017. Image courtesy Alvin Dennis Cristobal and Galerie Roberto.

There is something refreshing and intriguing about the exhibitions that Filipino artist Lena Cobangbang curates. Be it a show that spotlights painting or one that revives traditional crafts or explores unorthodox materials, Cobangbang sure knows how to lay it down. Cleverly amalgamating colours, message and a variety of forms, she transforms spaces into vessels of stories that allow viewers to remember art history and see its projections, to bask in universal contemporary experiences, and to simply enjoy the art that is in front of them.

Still actively exhibiting, Cobangbang (b. 1976) works across video, installation and found objects to embroidery, performance and photography. After opening a solo exhibition at the Pinto Art Museum, she has immediately jumped into curating group shows for two of Manila’s up and coming galleries this month: Galerie Roberto and Art Anton.

For Galerie Roberto, she gathered 15 artists for the exhibition “Thing Object Stuff” (1-17 July 2017), which featured works that play with found objects, traditional crafts and new materials. As for Art Anton’s “Digging for Fire” (8-27 July 2017), she put together artists that undauntedly stretch the boundaries of painting, namely Argie Bandoy, Kat Medina, Patrick Cruz, Lizza May David, Kurt Gloria, Jayson Oliveria and Carlo Ricafort.

Art Radar finds out more about Cobangbang’s work as a curator, which includes her past experiences and activities that led to it, the materials that continuously feed her concepts, as well as her artist picks and exhibit objectives.

Zeus Bascon, ‘Promises I’, 2013, strings, beads, wire, found objects, size variable, exhibited in Galerie Roberto’s “Thing Object Stuff”, 2017. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Zeus Bascon, ‘Promises I’, 2013, strings, beads, wire, found objects, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

I recall you saying that you got into art writing/coming up with exhibition texts out of necessity. Was it also out of necessity that you, a visual artist, got into curating? Can you still recall the very first exhibition that you curated?

Yes, it did come out of necessity, and primarily to earn income. As a full time artist who does freelance work, curating is but one of the ways I can earn wage from, especially since I don’t always get to sell my works as often as I’d hope to. I’ve observed that most artists, especially from the older generation, have made curating a job that can financially supplement/support their art. Those who do them, however, also write, teach and have done production management work. Being organised and being able to communicate with different types of people are key characteristics in being able to curate a show.

My time with Surrounded By Water has probably kindled this as we were all trained to do things on our own. We aimed to be self-sufficient and abide by the dictum of DIY as necessitated by being an artist-run space/collective. We have to rely on our own strengths to survive and to make things happen, from organising our own shows, submitting exhibit proposals, to running the whole space, including the clean-up.

My hands-on training for gallery administration was for Secret Fresh as their gallery manager when it was just starting out. I was just basically following through with their brand or their vision of being a gallery for street art/urban art or more graphic art.

Curating/organising shows seem not so dissimilar with production design having done such work prior to gallery administration. Pre-production work is akin to conceptualising the show, sending correspondences with artists, suppliers and sponsors, coordinating with transport, the script is the curatorial premise; the actual production work, the ingress/the set-up, the shoot would be the opening, the egress, the wrap-up – a 24-hour production work stretched into a month/months long work.

My first freelance curating work where I had a hand in what type of works I can put in it was Delayed Craftification in 2013, where I gathered works by artists who incorporate craft in their art or who craft objects using materials that are not typically used in art. It featured works by Mimi Tecson (she used plastic toys), Bru Sim (mainly used embroidery but composed them like constructivist pictures), Kat Medina (bric-a-brac from her dresser and embroidery) and Catalina Africa. This was in a commercial gallery in Megamall’s Artwalk.

Paola Germar, ‘Blood, Tea, Sweat?’, 2017, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in, exhibited in Galerie Roberto’s “Thing Object Stuff”, 2017. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Paola Germar, ‘Blood, Tea, Sweat?’, 2017, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Where does curating fit in your artistic practice? Are there any major themes that cross over between your art and curatorial practice?

I noticed that most of the shows that I’ve curated/organised run on an occurring theme or motif on craft and objects, or are very material-based, maybe because I do them as well in my art projects. I’m interested in learning how other artists engage with it; hence, it’s probably a subconscious effort to form a community with such artists by including them in shows I organise, like forming a peer support as well because most of the time, in this very painting-biased art market, objects or fabric-based art, or art that doesn’t usually employ the conventional materials rarely gets sold or marketed. To feature them in shows is one way to expose them, give them more opportunities to show such work.

Ranelle Dial, ‘Scroll Up’, 2017, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in, exhibited in Galerie Roberto’s “Thing Object Stuff”, 2017. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Ranelle Dial, ‘Scroll Up’, 2017, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

You must be one of the most active curators in Manila today, having exhibitions regularly take place in different parts of the Metro. While you have claimed in an interview that road blocks are part of an artist’s journey, this doesn’t seem to be the case for you. Your exhibit themes are fresh, so are your design choices. How are you able to avoid the so-called art slump? What materials/activities feed your work as a curator?

Wow, thank you for thinking that way about the shows. Actually, I cram, and think of art at the very last. I binge watch movies and TV series, binge read graphic novels, bike, marathon cooking shows and read up on a lot of dystopian literature. The only time I get to discuss art is when I drink with friends, but most of the time it’s mostly art gossip, which somehow segue to plotting art projects, from the very feasible to the incredibly impossible. These drinking/chat sessions become incubation nests or rather brainstorming exercises.

But I still get frazzled come ingress, as most of the time I get to see the works only during the set-up, the images that were sent prior were mostly in their production stage still. It helps though, that I’m familiar already with their practice, so more or less I would somehow know how things would come about, where certain works would go. Most of the time, the juxtapositions are incidental, it’s like forming idea puzzles.

Ayka Go, ‘Origami (Cranes)’, 2017, paper, 24 x 24 in, exhibited in Galerie Roberto’s “Thing Object Stuff”, 2017. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Ayka Go, ‘Origami (Cranes)’, 2017, paper, 24 x 24 in. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

The exhibitions you curate involve artists whom you have forged a long and trusting relationship with, as well as those who are fairly new to the scene. What is it about an artist’s practice that attracts you? And which usually comes first for you: the curatorial concept or the list of participating artists?

I first make up a list and from there I’m able to come up on the show’s theme or concept.

Galerie Roberto and Art Anton are rather young galleries.  As someone who has curated shows for a long time, do you still find excitement in “attacking” a newly built art space? What do you look forward to whenever you curate shows for new galleries?

New spaces always excite artists on what they can do with it, as new spaces offer new views/perspectives of their works. Artworks look different, offer a different reading of it depending on the spaces they occupy. The location can also offer a context in viewing it.  I wonder also how the people within a specific site/location react to such exhibits.

Exhibition view of “Digging for Fire” in Art Anton, curated by Lena Cobangbang, 2017. Image courtesy Javelyn Ramos.

“Digging for Fire”, installation view at Art Anton, 2017. Image courtesy Javelyn Ramos.

One thing that new galleries accomplish is letting in new audiences. I have attended the openings of your “Bellweather Furies”, “Thing Object Stuff” and “Digging for Fire”, and have spoken to some of the casual visitors. Many of them commented that the works in the show are catchy, “leaning more towards Western art” and “rather deep/intelligent in meaning” and “not sure if I understand it fully… but it’s nice to look at.” Are you used to hearing these descriptions? Do you ever compromise your exhibition concepts in order to invite in more people?

When I had a chat with a group of college-age kids at Galerie Roberto at one of the openings, they were at first apprehensive to get in. I said, you’re much welcome to see the show and partake of the refreshments. They seemed to enjoy their time viewing the works; they were looking forward to going to more shows afterwards. That’s really great that they were encouraged to do so. I do hope more of them come to exhibits even after the opening.

Regarding random comments from strangers… I’ve yet to hear them. It’s nice as a start that they get interested to come in and see it. They don’t have to like it; but it’s always best that they get intrigued by it and are driven to ask more of the work’s meaning, for them.

I don’t understand that one comment about “leaning more towards Western art”… Although this seems telling of people’s general idea of Filipino art having to depict folkloric themes, or being characterised by fiesta colours, or having brown-hued figures huddling over a meager plate of fish and rice. I don’t blame them because that’s what’s usually seen or peddled in mall galleries. I just hope these new galleries exhibit works that expand beyond people’s perception of what Filipino art is, or even what art can be in general.

So, with regards if I have concessions that I accede to when I organise these shows, I just consider the logistic possibilities. More or less, I let the artists do whatever they want to do for the show, within the theme/concept, of course.

So far, the one show that I have broken through certain “restrictions” was the “Bull In The Heather” show in Megamall Art Center in 2015. The panels’ conditions were so bad, plus I wanted to have a more open view of the show, so I had two big panels laid down like a stage. The gallery staff didn’t want to put down the panels, kesyo kesyo daw ewan (due to all the reasons they could think of.) But I cleared it first with SM management, and they OK’ed it. So, (together with) the assistant installer that I brought, two of the participating artists and their boyfriends, we all laid down the panels soon after. I was just laughing in relief after; na pwede naman pala e, tapos yung gallery staff umiiling lang (what I wanted was possible, the gallery staff was just giving excuses).

Jayson Oliveria, ‘Church Goer’, 2015, oil on canvas and bottle opener, 73in x 83.5 in, exhibited in Art Anton’s “Digging for Fire”, 2017. Image courtesy Art Anton.

Jayson Oliveria, ‘Church Goer’, 2015, oil on canvas and bottle opener, 73 x 83.5 in. Image courtesy Art Anton.

Let us go back to the artists you have included in your shows lately. You seem to have an affinity for artists who revive craftsmanship (such as embroidery and paper folding) and those who explore new materials. And usually, viewers refer to such works as their favourite pieces in the show. Do you think that the craftsmanship revival and use of everyday objects and new materials would still have a strong presence and appeal in the coming years?

I think it will, since there seems to be a constant search for authenticity and tangibility more than ever in this increasingly image-saturated world, and where images, digital information can be easily manipulated. But the bleak view of this preponderance to craft is the fetishisation and primary appeal to labour, that if people don’t go beyond this discourse, artists would still be seen as just mere producers of objects, no different from craftsmen.

Kurt Gloria, ‘Cheaper in Motion’, 2017, stencil oil on canvas, 30in x 50 in, exhibited in Art Anton’s “Digging for Fire”, 2017. Image courtesy Art Anton.

Kurt Gloria, ‘Cheaper in Motion’, 2017, stencil oil on canvas, 30in x 50 in. Image courtesy Art Anton.

Who among the artists you have featured in “Thing Object Stuff” and “Digging for Fire” do you think are THE emerging artists of today’s Philippine art scene?

The artists in “Digging for Fire” are all mid-career artists already who have considerable output and exhibition history far longer than these young upstarts that these collectors are buying blindly just because they’re trending. I’m actually appalled by that phenomenon because these artists in “Digging for Fire” deserve far more attention and recognition as they’re consistent in challenging notions of painting, bravely twisting it to open discourse about the scope and limits of art. It’s ironic that, because of this skewed and trend-based marketing of art, mid-career artists are still being seen as emerging.

The artists for “Thing Object Stuff” are a mixed group of emerging and mid-career artists (Ranelle Dial and Mac Valdezco had been in the scene for more than 10 years already.) All these artists deserve to be recognised and given opportunity to exhibit more.

Con Cabrera, ‘Feelings’, 2017, watercolour on paper, size variable, exhibited in Galerie Roberto’s “Thing Object Stuff”, 2017. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Con Cabrera, ‘Feelings’, 2017, watercolour on paper, size variable. Image courtesy Galerie Roberto.

Who do you think are the underappreciated artists? As a curator, what do you do to address that problem of “easily-sold out” artists having all the attention and publicity?

All the artists in “Digging for Fire” are underappreciated artists. I organise these shows to provide opportunity for such artists. Sold out artists – I don’t include them anymore. Most of the time, these artists are so over-exposed.

Lack of decent art venues, discourse and curators with historical knowledge are among the challenges that curators have named in our previous conversations with them. As a curator and artist yourself, what is the biggest challenge in advancing the arts in Manila? Do you think it’s possible for art to become a “national phenomenon” as described in the “Digging for Fire” exhibition text?

That’s such a pipe dream. I guess the world will end first before that happens; but I’m always optimistic it will come to that someday. But as how things go politically, it seems impossible. Sometimes, I feel party to such a system because some politicians buy art as a money laundering scheme or for them just to look good. How not to be complacent or deeply complicit to such act is always a challenge for me, and maybe to some who care deeply (about) how or why they make art… To counter that I guess, is to open up discussions to make people aware of the interconnectedness of art, how art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These discussions can be done through independent publishing or broadcasting since the technology is there. This can also be a political means of using the Internet or social media by inducing more active participation, rousing people from lazy like-clicks.

Exhibition view of Lena Cobangbang’s “Primal Green” at the Pinto Art Museum (11 June – 2 July 2017). Image courtesy Lena Cobangbang.

Lena Cobangbang, “Primal Green”, installation view at the Pinto Art Museum, 11 June – 2 July 2017. Image courtesy Lena Cobangbang.

We know that you have a lot of art-related activities on your plate. Could you name a few that you are looking forward to sharing with the public?

I still have several exhibits I’ll be curating for Art Anton this August and for Galerie Roberto this September. Then after, I’ll take a break to prepare for my solo shows next year at Mo_Space, Archivo and at Art Informal. In between, I hope to finish the layout and to finally release my Cubao zine project, and other art zine projects.

Javelyn Ramos

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Related Topics: Filipino artists, gallery shows, installation, painting, interviews, events in Manila

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