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Art and artists in martial-law Manila

It was November 1972. Martial law had been inflicted upon the land, following the fake ambush of Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. My magazine the Graphic had been padlocked, along with the rest of the magazines and newspapers, except for the crony paper Daily Express. I was out of a job, like many in media.

A few months later, while trying to earn a living translating lachrymose Spanish-language comics into Tagalog, courtesy of Morita Roces, I learned that Purita Kalaw Ledesma, the founder of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), had been looking high and low for me. It turned out that Mrs. Ledesma needed, not a critic (who would just quarrel with her), but a collaborating writer who, as she pointed out good-naturedly, knew “next to nothing about art.” The task was to write a history of the AAP.

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That was my introduction to the world of Philippine painting and the visual arts. For two years we worked on the project, and the book “The Struggle for Philippine Art” (suggested by the main author’s daughter Rita) was launched in 1974. Many relatives, friends, and art enthusiasts attended, and it was a great day for the two of us.

It was the time the Heritage Art Center in Lantana Street, Cubao, headed by the vivacious Odette Alcantara, would soon be making waves on the art scene. It became the watering hole of many artists and writers, including Onib Olmedo, Heber Bartolome, Jonah Salvosa, Leo Benesa, Nestor Mata, Glenn Bautista, Babeth Lolarga, Gig de Pio, Odette’s favorite painter Prudencio Lamarroza (whom we called Amor) Barbara Mae Dacanay, and Alex Dacanay, a journalist with a wonderful baritone who Odette, with typical bombast, hailed as having “the beautifullest voice in Southeast Asia.”

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Leftist cultural groups, with their red flags and clenched fists, staged rousing shows, leading Odette to caution them not to “invite attacks.” For Marcosian spies were everywhere. The mini-concerts by Joey Ayala were a hit.

There was a Manansala Café managed by Bet Montecillo, and a Manansala Chess Tournament, for Odette and many who frequented the place were chess buffs. Chess grandmaster Ruben Rodriguez was the star here. And sometimes the great man himself, Vicente Manansala, would show up, regaling us with anecdotes. Once he was in Paris during a study grant, he recounted. He didn’t speak a word of French and, in a bistro, the waiters couldn’t understand his order. So he drew a chicken. “Poulet,” cried the delighted servers. The next day he sketched some fish. “Poisson,” chorused the waiters.

At one time, I was with Mrs. Ledesma at Heritage, and Angelo Baldemor was about to have a show. So what seemed to be the whole of Paete, Laguna, descended upon the place in a truck and started to haul some things and objects, including plates and utensils. “Did you see that, Amadís,” exclaimed the astonished art historian. “They’re setting up shop right here.”

Try doing that in a hoity-toity establishment like the Luz Gallery.

Because of his magical Amburayan River series, Lamarroza was the leading artist of his generation, and it is unfortunate that he seems to be forgotten now, that he is not a darling of auctioneers like, say, BenCab or Ronald Ventura. Anyway, Manuel Duldulao has documented his life and works in a coffee-table book, “Prudencio Lamarroza” (2005).

The Heritage Art Center was later destroyed in a fire, and Odette decided not to bring it back to life again. They’re gone now — Odette, Mrs. Ledesma, Manansala, Onib Olmedo, Nestor Mata, Ruben Rodriguez, Alex Dacanay, and many others in the world of arts and letters. I remember them with affection, especially at this time, November being the month of the departed.

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Amadís Ma. Guerrero, 79, is a short story writer, cultural journalist, and author who has been contributing regularly to the Inquirer since 1992. His new art book, “Sym Mendoza, Galicano and Paspi,” published by the Erehwon Center for the Arts, is expected to be off the press early December.

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TAGS: Amadis Ma. Guerrero, Art Association of the Philippines, Heritage Art Center, High Blood, martial law cultural scene, Odette Alcantara
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