The month of March — the beginning of the Philippine summer, when the weather is still mild but sunny, and when the city teems with fairs, exhibitions and performances — is prime time for culture vultures and the creatively inclined to visit the Philippines (the other would be October, which is Museums and Galleries Month). Further benefiting from the spillover following the officially recognized National Arts Month in February, the metro is home to music and arts festivals that range in size and scope from the indie-spirited annual Art In The Park event to larger-scale festivals like Wanderland or Comic Con Asia.
On any given day of the year, however — with the exception of Mondays, which is when museums and galleries typically close — you can go on a gallery crawl down Chino Roces Avenue in Makati, bar-hop around the groovy Poblacion district, or discover unexpected pockets of independent art shows all around the metro. Now, more than ever, there is something to whet every appetite and satisfy every curiosity, whether you’re a seasoned collector, a young art student hungry for inspiration, or someone new to art and looking to explore what you like.
There are several established galleries that have all the big names in contemporary art, but to get a real sense of how vibrant and varied the industry is, it’s well worth exploring groups and organizations outside the mainstream. On Palma Street in Poblacion, Makati — the burgeoning haven of conceptual restaurants, backpacker-friendly hostels and bars-turned-art spaces — you’ll find Pineapple Lab (PL), an arts hub which takes a decidedly inclusive approach to its programming. During our visit, its young staff were busily on their laptops preparing for the Fringe Manila festival, PL’s flagship event that takes place during Arts Month but, as its name suggests, always on the periphery.
The first Fringe iteration in Manila — an offshoot of the worldwide Fringe network — was independently produced by Andrei Pamintuan in 2015. The festival’s ethos of providing an open-access, uncurated and uncensored platform for all kinds of artists and performers attracted some 300 performers on its very first run, proving that there is an incredible amount of undiscovered, underground or alternative talent out there just looking for a venue to express themselves. Andrei joined Pineapple Lab shortly after, connecting his Fringe artists with PL’s gallery and performance spaces to create year-round programming that focuses on emerging artists.
“There isn’t a university course or career trajectory for these types of artists. Everybody’s trailblazing in their discipline and undiscipline.”
Through its consistent support of everything non-mainstream, Pineapple Lab has become known as a safe space for marginalized art and artists. “We put a huge emphasis on women and the LGBTQIA community,” says Andrei. “There isn’t a university course or career trajectory for these types of artists,” adds Jodinand Aguillon, PL’s executive director. “Everybody’s trailblazing in their discipline and undiscipline.” Fringe 2020’s lineup featured a rope bondage workshop, a performance by the Philippine chapter of the House of Mizrahi, the international house of Voguing, and Burlesque PH’s popular Bodabil act.
Despite the strong presence of risqué genres like cabaret, adult comedy and erotica, Fringe welcomes all audiences with its more wholesome daytime events, from pottery and writing workshops to komiks and gifting fairs. There have been circus, magic and mentalist acts, improv groups and stand-up comedy. “The purpose is to level the playing field, whether you’re established or up-and-coming,” says Gabbi Campomanes, the festival’s program manager.
A perfect example of this inclusiveness is the PL gallery’s recent exhibition of flower paintings by Yasmin Almonte, a professor at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts and cancer survivor who has been staging solo shows since 1991. “She’s an established artist, but she came here to access a different audience with a new energy,” says Gabbi.
Next door to Pineapple Lab’s gallery is Hollow Block, a retail and artist space that houses Glorious Dias, Jodinand’s line of vintage clothes; and Filipiniana, and an artist-in-residence program which is held, as of this writing, by Leslie Espinosa, a Fil-Am hairstylist from New York who has experience in theater and cosmetology. Two days a week at Hollow Block, Leslie gives haircuts, specializing in textured hair and encouraging Filipina women to embrace their natural curls. In a beauty culture that represses the natural kink, she’s found fulfilment in seeing her clients’ excitement as they look in the mirror, and being able to tell them, “This is who you are!”
Pineapple Lab has since organically become a conduit for other Filipino artists from the diaspora. Many “Filipinx” discover the arts hub on Instagram or while on holiday, and decide they want to do a workshop or collaboration, using art as a way to connect to their roots.
Leslie is also one of the founders of Burlesque PH, and the award-winning wig designer for Broadway’s Sweeney Todd. “She symbolizes the fringe — constantly emerging,” Andrei says. “She’s the perfect role model for people who are looking for different avenues, wondering how to start businesses while feeding their soul.”
Jodinand himself started at Pineapple Lab as an artist-in-residence, having discovered Fringe Manila while on vacation from Toronto. “It was the first time back home that I felt I wasn’t just an observer,” he says, “but someone who could contribute. Here was a real mirror of the practice and the people I surrounded myself with in Toronto,” he says. With a background in dance, retail and art direction, he was the kind of multi-hyphenate creative with organizing skills that Pineapple Lab needed to run the place. After his residency, Jodinand became part of the team.
Pineapple Lab has since organically become a conduit for other Filipino artists from the diaspora. Many “Filipinx” — the gender-neutral term used for those from the diaspora — discover the arts hub on Instagram or while on holiday, and decide they want to do a workshop or collaboration, using art as a way to connect to their roots. “We have 20 international artists coming in for Fringe,” Jodinand says. “If only I could track those metrics and report them to the Department of Tourism as a reason to support the festival. It’s a small slice of tourism, but what they take away with them, [they use to] become ambassadors for the creative economy.”
A furniture store may seem like an unlikely place to house an art gallery, but then again it also makes a lot of sense. Space Encounters, a design firm and bespoke furniture showroom founded in the financial district of Ortigas, has been providing interior design services for 10 years. Known for its Mid-Century Modern and Scandi-inspired style, it has breathed new life into fast-food brands Greenwich and Chowking with an industrial look, bright signage and colorful wall art. The offshoot of an art gallery grew three years ago, when the firm designed a collection called “New Romantics”. The furniture was displayed through vignettes mixed with vintage items and works of art, showing people how they can integrate art into their homes in an accessible and versatile way.
“We look for art that’s exciting and new, something we could also have fun with, as interior and graphic designers.”
“It’s one way of bringing art closer to people without a space that’s created by more formal galleries. We try to make it fun, not aloof,” says Thor Balanon, cofounder of Space Encounters. “We look for art that’s exciting and new, something we could also have fun with, as interior and graphic designers. We immediately see the possibilities of what we can do with art.”
In the first year, they had a difficult time inviting artists to exhibit with them. By January 2020, however, the gallery’s entire calendar has already filled up. How do they select who to work with? “We choose art that we love, what’s relevant to the community and in the space we are using. We are trying to build something for the future,” says cofounder Wilmer Lopez. Printouts taped to the wall of the offices show what’s in store: group and solo shows of artists with dynamic energy inspired by pop culture, street art, toys, graphic design, and what has been considered lowbrow. (How lowbrow? There’s a large verisimilar painting of Beavis and Butthead, which stirs up amusing memories of life in the ‘90s.)
One of the artists Space Encounters, Mr. S, represents what the firm looks for: a unique style that is both familiar and new, with a clear identity that stands out. As a member of the CVTY Collective, a loose group of street and graffiti artists based in Cavite, Mr. S painted one portion of a wall of the Pelota Skate Park in Las Piñas, in commemoration of the collective’s 10th anniversary. The skate park was where the group had its very first paint session, back when the public largely considered street artists and muralists as vandals, or the “cavities” that bring decay to a city’s environs.
Mr. S had his first solo gallery show in 2015, introducing the world then to Mister Sasquatch. “He’s a wanderer or traveler who features in whichever story I want to depict”
Born Mark Jeffrey Santos, the artist had his first solo gallery show in 2015, introducing the world to Mister Sasquatch, a furry, long-limbed, sushi-loving character he created when he first started painting. “He’s a wanderer or traveler who features in whichever story I want to depict,” he says. Mr. S works in pop surrealism, a figurative genre only noticed by the international art world in the late ‘90s. Drawing heavily from cartoons, comics, tattoos, urban life, childhood nostalgia and other populist sources, pop surrealism has also gained traction in the local art scene not merely as a niche genre appealing to toy- and sneaker-collecting adults, but as an influential force in contemporary art.
Also celebrating its 10th year in business is Vinyl on Vinyl, another gallery that began as a retail store. Gaby Dela Merced, a professional race car driver and ardent toy collector, teamed up with Pia Reyes, a makeup artist, to set up shop “out of ignorance and bliss” in the now-defunct retail hub called The Collective. Colorful, grubby and experimental, the Collective served as ground zero for Makati’s underground scene throughout the 2010s. Its walls were covered with murals done by groups like the CVTY Collective, who were also starting out at the time. Gaby and Pia were joined by DJ and self-taught artist Rob “Danger” Sanchez, and the store was named Vinyl on Vinyl as it sold vinyl toys and records.
“The backbone was really art and music. We were selling records for a low as Php50,” Gaby says. The shop featured art and paintings initially to support the toys. Gradually it phased out the music, moved to a new location and became a full-blown gallery, with a small room dedicated to sound and video art, and only a very limited run of toys produced in-house.
With its current space in the contemporary art-packed La Fuerza compound in Makati and a slot in last month’s Alt Philippines, the 10-gallery breakaway art fair, Vinyl on Vinyl is doing its part in pushing boundaries by enabling lesser-known genres and subgenres like pop surrealism, street art, aftermodernism, vaporwave and postinternet to be more widely accepted. More importantly, the gallery is building a community of artists and supporters. “Especially with hardcore collectors, they want to follow the life of the artist,” says Gaby. “They’re interested in seeing how they develop and grow.”
Vinyl on Vinyl’s resident artists have all been groomed at the gallery. New Zealand-based Gabriel Tiongson had his first show in 2011 at The Collective, exhibiting his intricate, freehand Sharpie doodles of anatomical blobs when he was a 26-year-old physical therapist. Deciding the medical world was not for him, he pursued art studies in New Zealand. Formal study refined his practice and allowed him to translate his deconstructed Ren and Stimpy-influenced creations into more abstract forms on canvas. He joined Art House, the gallery’s big launch for Arts Month, with a selection of gourds painted in his signature cartoony style. Art House was a group exhibition of objects, furniture, paintings, sculptures and installations curated around the idea of the home.
More and more artists are expressing themselves in genres that don’t fit into mainstream narratives. But beneath their bold strokes and brash behavior lurks a profound observation — even celebration — of modern life and its many contradictions. Ultimately, all artists draw from the well of their own humanity, and often in the case of those from the diaspora, the construction of identity and their connection to home. The boundaries of art open up as a diverse field of artists and audiences begin to emerge from the periphery, and find each other.
Art & Stop
- Pineapple Lab: This eclectic, experimental and inclusive space champions artists working in every style, medium, genre and form. Besides the gallery, visitors can also find retail and art space Hollow Block next door. 6053 R Palma St, Makati; fb.com/pineapplelabph
- Space Encounters Gallery: This gallery is a successful creative exercise by design firm Space Encounters, taking off from an initial collection where its founders mixed furniture with works of art. These days, Space Encounters Gallery hosts exhibits that mostly feature up-and-coming artists working in a variety of styles and media. Unit B, Mezzanine Level, Padilla Building, F Ortigas Jr Rd, Ortigas Center, Pasig; fb.com/spaceencountersgallery
- Vinyl on Vinyl: Starting off as a retail store serving the underground scene, it is now a fully fledged gallery that still stays true to its roots. Come here for art that pushes boundaries and packs a wallop. La Fuerza Compound, 2241 Chino Roces; vinylonvinylgallery.com