Bicolano teacher’s kinetic art embodies hope, healing 2
"Alim" Vela and his "Sarong Rawog" sculpture: "The pieces I created are inspired by the idea of resilience." Photo by Jilson Seckler Tiu

This teacher’s kinetic art embodies hope, healing for storm-swept Catanduanes and Bicol

The first solo show by Jualim Vela consists of sculptures in brass, stainless steel, etc., as well as paintings mostly built around the idea of “resilience.”
Lito B. Zulueta | Jul 24 2023

When the conquistadores arrived in Catanduanes in the late 16th century, they initially named the island Isla de Cobos, “island of huts,” referring to the huts or dwellings made of readily available, if flimsy or combustible, local materials such as thatch and bamboo. The original name didn’t hold for long, and it was just as well, since Catanduanes and the rest of the Bicol region were, then as now, along the destructive meteorological path of typhoons that have bedevilled much of Philippine history. As in Manila and elsewhere, the friar missionaries and other Spanish authorities in Bicol quarried for stones and more sturdy materials that could be used in constructing buildings that could withstand fires, earthquakes, and typhoons.

Perhaps it is to those materials, whether native or imported, readily available or not, that the impressive exhibit, “Sarong Rawog,” now running till July 31 at the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) Gallery in Intramuros, Manila, generally refers. The first solo exhibit by visual artist-educator Jualim Datiles Vela, “Sarong Rawog” consists of sculptures in brass, stainless steel, and terracotta, shattered masks in epoxy, as well as paintings that are generally built around the idea of “resilience,” referring to the capacity of materials to withstand the pressures and challenges exerted by atmospheric and natural forces that may border on wreckage and destruction on Catanduanes, as well as the mental and spiritual toughness embodied by the Catandunganons and other Bicolanos who have weathered them down.

Curator Delan Robillos sets up the exhibit
Curator Delan Robillos sets up the exhibit

The exhibit shows Vela coming to his own as an artist. A faculty member in the performing and visual arts division of the Department of Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences of University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, Vela was a scholar at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) where his batchmates included Juanito Torres and the late Riel Hilario and where his junior was Leeroy New.  Invited to teach at the PHSA after finishing fine arts at UP Diliman, he took up a master’s in education majoring in educational technology. He later took up graduate studies in sculpture at Hiroshima City University in 2006 to 2008, but because the school required dissertations to be in Kanji, he was advised to transfer to Hiroshima (State) University, where he got his master’s and Ph.D. in educational development in 2010 and 2015, respectively, under the Monbukagakusho international scholarship program of the Japanese Ministry of Education.

Alim has participated in group exhibitions in Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and at the GSIS Gallery, Altro Mondo Arte Contemporanea, Art Anton, and Nova Gallery Manila.

Curated by Delan Robillos, art gallerist, cultural-mapping trainer, and former NCCA vice-chair of the Subcommission for Cultural Heritage, “Sarong Rawog” is, according to “Alim” Vela, “inspired by the idea of resilience from a personal point of view, a distinct (oftentimes abused or misrepresented) characteristic of the people of … Catanduanes.”

Himself hailing from Catanduanes, “Alim” Vela’s artmaking derives its spirit and choice of mediums from the meteorological and existential conditions of the island province, which is the No. 1 producer of abacá in the world. 

Three-panel painting highlights filaments of dried leaves in typhoon aftermath
Three-panel painting highlights filaments of dried leaves in typhoon aftermath

Abacá is of course the plant from the banana family native to the Philippines; its fibers are stripped to be made for a variety of uses, especially rope. In fact, its main use in former times was to hold the sails of ships, particularly during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade from the 16th to the early 19th centuries, when it came to be known around the world as “Manila hemp.” Its most famous use nowadays is as paper currency, but sadly our own Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, which has apparently made it its mission to befuddle and confuse Filipinos with paper bills that look the same, has dumped abaca for plastic, which should provide us a barometer of the central bank’s economic nationalism and environmental consciousness, if any. In contrast, Mercedes Benz, the German car-manufacturing company, has recently adopted abacá for use in manufacturing its car body parts, since the Bicol fiber uses far less energy compared to the production of fiberglass.

The BSP decision to dump abacá for plastic currency was a big blow to Catanduanes, still reeling from the devastation wrought in 2020 by super howler “Rolly” (International name “Goni”), which wiped out 90 percent of its abacá plantation. For Alim Vela, the devastation followed a particularly painful personal loss: the death of his father from COVID-19 earlier that year.

But the abacá industry and the Catandunganons have always had a reputation for bouncing back. Hence, Alim Vela’s “Sarong Rawog” exhibit, whose title is the closest Bicol phrase to “resilience.”

Although the exhibit doesn’t use abacá fibers (Vela said that while abacá paper lends well to artmaking, available technology in Catanduanes still would have to be developed further so as to produce abacá paper comfortably large enough for more solid art works), it employs materials in which Vela has developed expertise in through the years.

Nude figure in terracotta
Nude figure in terracotta

His use of brass wire in his kinetic sculptures began when he was invited to teach at PHSA after his UP studies. At the Hiroshima City University later, he honed his mettle as a terracotta sculptor. His paintings of dried leaves, with their obsessive attention to the skeletal filigrees, draw from his personal experience since childhood of the typhoons that regularly hit Catanduanes: he collected in fact many of them especially in the aftermath of “Rolly.”

While Alim recalls that the use of brass wires in his kinetic sculptures began when he was a teacher in Makiling and his mettle as a terracotta sculptor was honed in Japan, his present art concept was triggered by his reflections on “Rolly” and the trail of destruction the typhoon left in its wake.

All of these materials converge in “Sarong Rawog” and its theme of “resilience.” “This concept is represented by the kinetic metal sculpture pieces and three-panel sets of paintings,” Alim Vela explains in the artist’s notes. “In particular, the sculptures are stylized representations of weathered barotos (boats) drawn from various forms of mostly fallen and dried leaves (from the plants of my parents and grandparents) that I had observed and collected usually in the aftermath of ‘Rolly.’”

The sculptures evoke the “baroto,” which, according to him, “refers to the Northern Catanduanes Bicol term for boats as told by my grandparents and elders during my childhood.”

The baroto is likewise inspired by ancient beliefs on “utilitarian, symbolic, and ritualized practices” related to passages in life. “To my mind, the boat is a medium, a bridge, and a channel or a conduit of a person’s way of life and life after death thus giving its own purpose,” he writes. 

“The main pieces,” he adds, “were created in mostly kinetic sculpture forms, lines of the metals resembling knitted fibers, manifesting a sense of motion and balance as simulated by the movement of a boat on the surface of a vast unpredictable body of water.”“Sarong Bangka Kita (Iisang Bangka Tayo)” is a graceful sculpture that captures the dynamism of the people of Catanduanes, a special character that has enabled them to withstand if not creatively engage with the island’s unpredictable weather and the other vagaries of nature.

Three-panel painting is X-ray-like depiction of filaments of dried leaves in the wake of super typhoon 'Rolly' in 2020
Three-panel painting is X-ray-like depiction of filaments of dried leaves in the wake of super typhoon "Rolly" in 2020

“Ugong ning Hangin (Howling Wind)” is another lissome piece that embodies in the twists and turns of its metal wires the wailing wind characteristic of storms.

“Andam/ Mag-andam” meanwhile represents the people’s resolve to prepare for a coming storm.

“This piece is inspired by two fallen dried leaves I found attached to each other in the aftermath of the typhoon,” Vela writes. “Similar to the other pieces, I created this sculpture in a kinetic form to simulate the movements of a leaf or a boat on a body of water. ‘Andam’ or ‘Mag-andam’ is a Catanduanes Bicol term that means to prepare (securing our food and house, packing our things, and ensuring our livestock will be safe) especially when a typhoon is coming.”

“Senyales ning Panganudon” (Signs from the Clouds),” a sculpture made mainly of stainless rod, is a tribute to the sturdy abaca. “The form of this piece is inspired by the abaca leaf and its fibers,” Vela writes. “Its kinetic form is also inspired by the idea of the movement of leaf boats.” On the steel rod are different parts of the face (made of epoxy). “(They) represent how we the people of our island province are affected (or fragmented) by natural calamities and how we are still kept together by our collective ideas as represented by the metal boat leaf form.” 

The paintings are in oil and are nearly X-ray-like depiction of leaves. The leaves have a personal and artistic connection with the sculptures. “Since childhood, I have been fascinated and fond of the various forms of leaves and would try to form them into boats and would then let them sail along the streams or canals,” Vela notes. “While observing and collecting leaves with interesting forms, I would take a step back and reflect on life experiences from the mundane to the mystical.”

In the platform at the center of the exhibit hall is an installation consisting of paintings, steel and terracotta sculptures of women figures with their limbs broken, and shattered masks and dried leaves strewn all over.

'Sarong Rawog' exhibit consists of kinetic metal sculpture pieces and three-panel sets of paintings.
"Sarong Rawog" exhibit consists of kinetic metal sculpture pieces and three-panel sets of paintings.

“The mask-like sculptures made of sawdust and epoxy and the terracotta figures represent the polarization of the people during the pandemic,” explains Robillos in his curator’s notes. “It is also (Vela’s) his personal sentiment and commentary on isolation and abandonment during the pandemic’s quarantine periods and the devastation of the super typhoon.”

“The linear images on Alim’s paintings and sculptures,” Robillos adds, “are interwoven with his heritage in Catanduanes—from the Abaca fiber industry as the lifeline of the community, the island’s boat culture, to how Catandunganons deal with typhoons, the water, and the wind. One baroto, one boat, one community collectively rowing, unified in times of crises—the essence of ‘Sarong Rawog.’”

Despite the focus on resilience, the exhibit tries to steer clear of reductionism and easy answers. “The concept of resilience may, however, be a double-edged sword,” writes Robillos. “On the one hand, it enables individuals and communities to acquire a sense of faith in the ability to overcome setbacks. Recovery is more evident in resilient groups that raise solidarity. On the other hand, resilience may be overrated and the pressure to be resilient can be a drawback when it creates unrealistic expectations.”

But overall, the sculptures and paintings in Alim Vela’s exhibit, according to Robillos, are art works of “hope and healing.”

Photos by Jilson Tiu