LAST year “CityNews” reported that the National Gallery of Australia’s Asian contemporary galleries had got off to a cracking start with “Play 201301” by controversial Chinese artist Xu Zhen and five large-scale ceramic sculptures, “Mud men”, commissioned from Sri Lanka-born Sydney ceramic artist Ramesh Nithiyendran.
Now the NGA and its senior curator of contemporary art, Jaklyn Babington, have turned their attention to the less-known Filipino art, with the commissioning of a large triptych, “The promise land: the moon, the sun, the stars”, from artist Rodel Tapaya, who in 2011 won the Signature Art Prize given by the Asia-Pacific Breweries Foundation and the Singapore Art Museum. It is now under consideration for purchase.
Tapaya has been in town explaining his mighty work, which might owe something to the great surrealist muralists of Mexico, but might not, since it is firmly based in the daily life, myths and legend of the Philippines. And to a younger generation, street art might come to mind in this huge, colourful work that encompasses decades of the Moro conflict, environmental issues and social displacement.
You can see how the gallery is thinking.
“Tapaya’s vibrant work reflects the vitality of the contemporary arts scene in the Philippines, and provides insight into local and global concerns,” NGA director Gerard Vaughan says, while Babington comments, “His ability to weave the complex present day socio-political issues of his country with pre-colonial creation myths delivers an unnerving balance that, at times, questions the current political agenda and the future of the Philippines.”
Tapaya has been exhibiting for more than a decade, after studying at the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, the Parsons School of Design, New York, and the University of Art and Design in Helsinki.
Many of his works are large in scale, encompassing the complex history of the Philippines, its indigenous origins, its early Islamic traditions, and its effective colonisation by Spain, Japan and the US. But in this exhibition, the first major survey of his work to be seen in Australia (he was featured at the Biennale of Sydney last year) there are also smaller works on display, shadowy scenes from contemporary life.
One such deals with the so-called “My Way” karaoke killings, a fad deriving from Frank Sinatra’s song of the same name.
Focusing on his new work set in Mindanao, Tapaya tells “Citynews” how he has mixed myths and legends with figures from the military, a break away freedom army and the Lumad people who became casualties of unrest.
One enigmatic figure, half-crocodile and half-man, a reference to the business people who have exploited the mineral wealth of the island. “Crocodile people equal big businessmen,” he says.
On the right appears a magnificently clad Bagobo warrior, bleeding from his wounds. In the central painting appears Mebuyan, the multi-breasted goddess of the underworld from the Bagobo people, seen intertwined with roots and nurturing a dead baby consigned to the netherworld. Unlike lusher areas of the Philippines, the island is also is often drought-stricken and subject to the effects of El Niño, also reflected in his triptych.
Tapaya’s triptych comments on the way military conflict has pulled the island apart over the last four decades. Even the moon and the sun were originally a couple, he says, but fought, like the military and the people.
“Our president came from this region, that’s another element,” he says.
But alas, or maybe good luck for him, while this enormously successful young artist engages in social criticism, he’s pretty much left alone to make his own statements – “they just don’t care,” Tapaya concludes.
“Rodel Tapaya: New art from the Philippines” is open until August 20 in the Contemporary Art Galleries on Lower Ground 1. Free entry.