Antipas Delotavo’s juxtaposition of worlds

The artist Antipas Delotavo and his work "Royal Street" —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Social realist Antipas Delotavo came back to his birthplace Iloilo City for his 20th solo show titled “Iloilo Variants.”

Curated by Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz, himself a well-known social realist and Delotavo’s longtime friend, “Iloilo Variants” was launched as a two-tiered art event, with a vernissage on July 27 that unveiled the oil-on-canvas pieces (the oldest dated 2014 and the most recent 2022), and a curator’s talk on July 29 at The Box of the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (Ilomoca). 

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Artist-curator Jose Tence Ruiz presents the works of Delotavo

Ruiz walked the audience through Delotavo’s body of work, from his humble beginnings in 1971, when he left Iloilo after a year of studies at the University of San Agustin to pursue a course in fine arts at the Philippine Women’s University in Manila.

“Bogie’s talk brought nostalgia, especially since I’m not the type to reminisce about my works,” declared Delotavo, 69. “It brought back a lot of memories as the wide-screen projection of some of my works enabled me to see the details that have escaped my mind already. It made me realize that my work is not bad at all.” 

The show runs until Sept. 17 at the Ilomoca’s ground-floor Hulot Gallery.

‘Awkward, unwilling neighbors’

In his talk, Ruiz depicted the collection as Delotavo’s “will to salient juxtaposition.”

Ruiz said the impact of Delotavo’s “recent works and longtime métier lies in his juxtaposition of worlds that are, in real terms, mutually exclusive yet impinge on each other like awkward, unwilling neighbors.”

According to the curator, juxtaposition is “an effective didactic method that contrasts, if not compares, two opposing sides, two facets of one existence that allow one side to enjoy pleasure, treasure, and luxe until it is sick from the abundance, while the other is starved and deprived to the point that it remains undernourished, unattended, and unwell, if not downright sick, this time of unmitigated destitution.”

“All our democratic, esthetic leanings clamor for this anomaly of inequity to be mediated, for charity to remedy if not to negotiate with greed, for selfishness to yield to altruism, but alas, as the insightful Indian American philosopher Aijaz Ahmad declared, the logic of capital is now too deeply entrenched in all of our societies,” said Ruiz.

“Delotavo’s juxtapositions have been threading these tainted waters for so, so long, hoping not to be exhausted, hoping not to succumb to drowning in their murky inertia, or lapse into convenient ornamentalism with just enough of a redolence of progressive rhetoric, however we construe that in 2023,” he said.

The works also highlight a persevering facet of Delotavo’s practice, the “shock-of-recognition portraiture,” which, said Ruiz, show a “recurrent decision to sample the tropes of overabundant material excesses that live not very far from the abject and often dispossessed and resigned everyman.”

Architectural landmarks

“Iloilo Variants” shows “recognizable architectural landmarks of Iloilo’s commercial history against which [Delotavo] situates or floats his disposed denizens,” Ruiz said.

“It is not a straightforward landscape,” he said, but “more of a historico-cultural layering, with an added genericized modernist horizon hovering as an inviting but uncertain future of these markers of Hispanic and neoclassical colonial occupation, architectural monarchs etched into the mental narrative of those who would call Iloilo their home or point of origin.”

The tone is set by Royal Street (38 x 59 inches), also known as Calle Real, the old downtown district of Iloilo City, which symbolizes the economic and political center. The area was declared a heritage site after undergoing restoration years ago.

“Royal Street”

Royal Street shows a string of edifices that made up the stretch: “a congress of the influential looming over men and women on asphalt or cement, not quite sure of where they are going, not quite a participant in the power that the locale exudes,” Ruiz said.

“Kombustyon” (left) and “Variant 6”

Other famous facades come into the compositions, like the often photographed Eusebio Villanueva Building, popularly known as the Washington International Hotel, shown in Kombustyon (48 x 36 inches); the Bahay Panlalawigan ng Iloilo or the Casa Real with the Arroyo Fountain in front of it in the piece Variant VI (40 x 30 inches); and the Iloilo Central Market in Warriors (40 x 30 inches), a place that is close to Delotavo’s heart because his father, then a police officer, used to bring him to the police station on the second floor of the structure.

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“Warriors” left) and “Domination”

One piece that solicits much attention is Domination (48 x 36 inches), which shows the form of the Lizares Mansion (now Angelicum School) with a new ironwork arch above it—“harking to the stockade entrance of the Holocaust Auschwitz Camp, with an English translation of the sardonic phrase Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free),” said Ruiz.

“Delotavo does not necessarily reject the progress and beauty that these art deco and neoclassical landmarks have brought to his home province,” declared Ruiz. “He does glaringly remark, though, that the mechanisms and social systems needed to distribute these gifts of the colonizers must have fallen short and are not up to speed, to the point that by juxtaposing their grandeur with the unflinching and longstanding plainness of the citizens that he sets beside them, he creates works that manifest—nay enunciate—the ironic inequity.”

Ruiz summed it up thus: “This may lie at the heart of this brand of social realism; this may lie at the core of an art that celebrates even while it observes and critiques with a tinge of deep discomfort, … much like one peering at the banquet from an unattainable distance while placating a ravenous stomach, a famished gut, and even a hungrier soul.”

Artistic sensibilities 

Opening night of exhibit: (from left) Ilomoca museum director Maricel Montero, art collector; Edwin Valencia, Festive walk Iloilo general manager Karmela Jesena, Mayor Jerry Treñas and his wife Rosalie Treñas, Delotavo, Mariejoy Alonte, and curator-artist Jose Tence Ruiz

Delotavo is the youngest of nine siblings. The family lived in the now-populous Barangay Rizal-Estanzuela, with the Iloilo fishing port and terminal market close by.

He developed an eye for art as early as when he was eight years old, among family members who were brilliant at drawing and making illustrations. 

“Most of us know how to draw, and my siblings were always drawing during their free time,” he said.

Delotavo traced the instances that shaped his artistic sensibilities, and the process was like putting pieces of a puzzle together to complete a picture—encounters at home, in the community, and then in the city where he grew up.

He recalled watching everyday people use their creative prowess as a means of livelihood, such as a neighbor named Moros who did illustrations for students and teachers and lettering for diplomas, painted watercolor portraits, and rendered images on materials like pitogo and wood that were made into keychains.

He and his friend and neighbor, Papo de Asis, were “habitues” of Moros’ shanty. “Our close encounters with him, watching him work over something, probably triggered our artistic sensibilities,” Delotavo said.

In 1976, De Asis and Delotavo, together with now-illustrious names in the Philippine social realist movement—Pablo “Adi” Baen Santos, Neil Doloricon, Renato Habulan, Albert Jimenez, Al Manrique, Orlando Castillo, Jose Cuaresma, Edgar Talusan Fernandez, Charles Funk, and Bogie Ruiz, among others—founded the art collective Kaisahan (Solidarity). 

“Unlike today, Iloilo City did not have an art scene to speak of in the early 1970s,” noted Delotavo. He learned from what was available, marveling at a large movie billboard done for May Theater by a person named “Alfutin,” whose signature was emblazoned at the bottom as though the work were a public art mural, as well as the sculptural pieces of Marañon, which he frequently viewed at the Hoskyn Compound.

But one encounter that persists in his memory is a life-size concrete sculpture of a woman embracing a tomb at the Tanza Public Cemetery. The sculpture gave him a hair-raising experience every time he took the cemetery route as a shortcut to get to his friend’s house.

Some may find those early encounters as informal, even low, art, but Delotavo said they contributed to his learning and enriched his appreciation of art talent, which paved the way for him to become one of the Philippines’ multi-awarded watercolorists and portraitists. 

Pondering on art and its role in society, Delotavo said: “Only economically successful and progressive societies in the world recognize art and culture as vitally important for the growth of their country and people.”

He said Ilonggo artists today are “lucky to have a supportive city government and like-minded collectors and people who are responsible for Iloilo City’s cultural renaissance.”

“As an artist, I believe that there is no high art or low art,” Delotavo said. “If art touches or moves you, it’s the best art in the world.”

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