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Santy Bose was as Pinoy as his art. Portrait by Wig Tysmans. Courtesy of Silverlens Galleries

The selfish brat and generous comrade inside the artist known as Santy Bose

As in the lives of artists ahead of their time, the larger public would wake up to the importance of Santy Bose’s art only after his passing. On the occasion of the opening of the first of a three-part retrospective on his oeuvre, his family and friends recall the brat, the generous spirit, and the artist who gave his life to his art.
Devi de Veyra | Aug 18 2019

Since his passing in 2002 at age 53, Santiago Bose’s prodigious legacy began unfolding layer by layer through tributes and exhibitions to reveal its true worth. Recognitions followed, along with the spike in the clamor for his works — a phenomenon that Santy never experienced in his colorful, short life.

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“It’s too bad he didn’t get to see that,” laments Peggy Bose, Santy’s wife. “I knew he was going to be an important artist because I have been witness to the awards given him during the early years of our marriage, how he helped organize Baguio Arts Guild, and mounted several successful international art festivals in Baguio. But I didn't realize how much bigger he would become after his death.”

“We heard from everywhere,” Santy’s daughter, Lilledeshan, recalls of the years following her father’s passing, “from Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, the US. People were talking about him, telling us about his works. And there were tributes in all these places. Then we realized he’s such a big deal.”

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Santiago Bose and daughter Lilledeshan in 1990 outside their Baguio home. Photo courtesy of the Bose family

The body of work the artist left behind is remarkable in its diversity, and the volume pretty astounding —“close to five thousand works, ranging from prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations,” according to Peggy. “There are also undocumented and unacknowledged works,” Lille points out, “such as his projects with communities, art mentorship, his art theories.”

To a generation not familiar with his work, Santy Bose was known as a mixed media artist who liked to work with indigenous materials and found objects, among them volcanic ash and bamboo. In a country that largely patronized “imported” influences, his work expressed a strong indigenous Filipino identity and colonial critique, a local consciousness and religiosity. As in his likeness, his works are as balls-out Pinoy as can be. 

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Wife Peggy, daughter Lilledeshan, Santiago, Mutya and Diwata in front of Santy's installation for the 1991 Baguio Arts Festival. Photo courtesy of the Bose family.

“He gave his life”

Santiago Bose’s bequest to the art world, and to the cultural landscape by and large, could only come at a price. “He gave his life, literally,” says Santy’s close friend, the artist, curator, and art organizer, Angel Velasco Shaw. For his art, he sacrificed his health, and his family. 

Just three years old at the time of her parents’ separation, Lille, the second-born child, harbored resentment towards her father when she was growing up. “Someone should have just explained to me that it’s a privilege to be able to focus on your art. Not everyone has that luxury,” Lille says now, looking back. “And not everyone has my father’s strong sense of self....that his art was important enough [for him] to leave the traditional family structure, in order to focus on his art. If he were a mediocre artist, I don’t think he would do that. In that sense, mayabang siya;if you need to be that way in order to concentrate on art, you have to be super confident of your works and ideas.”

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Bose took his children on a photo-documenting trip through Ilocos Norte in 2001. Everyone had rolls of film and cameras, and shared photos afterward. Son Lawin, daughter Mutya, and Bose.

When Peggy told Santy that she has finally decided to end their marriage, she recalls that he only took it calmly, and agreed. A separation became necessary. “Partly because I felt that his being an artist got in the way of his being a family man, with three kids,” says Peggy. “It was not what we promised each other when we got married. And it was making both of us unhappy.”

It wasn’t just art that broke the marriage, however, according to Peggy: “He was a spoiled brat. He would buy gadgets even if that was the last money he had. A typical Leo, he wanted to be treated like a king, wanted to be served at the table. I refused to do that. Santy was also possessive and jealous.”

While Peggy’s business prospered, Santy, who lived in Baguio after the separation, struggled to make a living with his art. 

“He was a spoiled brat. He would buy gadgets even if that was the last money he had. A typical Leo, he wanted to be treated like a king, wanted to be served at the table.”


“They’re not buying my paintings”

“He had a hard life,” Angel remembers. “Santy could be really masungit, without a doubt, because his works weren’t selling. He would complain: ’Angel, they’re not buying my paintings.’” And she would tell her friend: “They’re not pretty, so how will people buy them?”

The artist Norberto “PeeWee” Roldan recalls the time he was with Santy in Japan sometime In 1992. “He said half-jokingly that he envied Robert Villanueva, because he attracted all the women, and BenCab, because he attracted all the collectors.”   

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Santiago Bose performing his work "Imagined Borders" at the Adelaide Art Festival in 1993

One could say Santy’s art practice didn’t match the period he chose to start in. “At that time when he started making his art, abstract expressionism and minimalism were the bigger forms of art that were selling, in terms of the market,” explains Angel. “Santy was neither. He was a storyteller of a different kind, creating work that was critical of society, that was political.”

Angel first met Santy in 1988 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines where the latter was giving a talk. “His presentation was very good, and he was so funny. I mean, the guy knew how to perform.”

They became instant friends, with Angel frequenting Baguio and staying at Santy’s house. She used to watch him “paint for days, not giving a shit if he ate or not,” recalls Angel. “One time, there was a raging typhoon outside. In his house, he had a lot of rice, and Cheez Whiz. I grew to love Cheez Whiz; everytime I eat it, it reminds me of Santy. But at some point I told him to get the fuck outside and get me some eggs. He did. But just that, eggs!”

Santy would sell his art to tide him over, or trade them in for things he needed. One of his biggest collectors, TV personality Kim Atienza, would visit Santy in Baguio and rummage through his bodega where he found Santy’s earlier works. Santy would also drop by Kim’s house, offering something to sell or barter.

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Portrait of Santiago Bose by Wig Tysmans

“He went to my house one night,” Kim recounts, “with a painting. He said ‘This is one of my most important works. It will be the cover of a book that will be launched in less than a year.” It was a big piece titled “Free Trade,” which ended up as the cover for Angel’s book, Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1989-1990. “Akala ko binobola niya lang ako, pero sabi ko sige. So I got it.”

Later on, Santy visited Kim to barter art for a mountain bike that was hanging in the Atienza family’s  living room. “He brought a book that he was finishing. Eleven pages made of handmade paper, with a painting on each page; the cover was made of sticks he picked up in Baguio. Sabi niya, ‘Sa’yo na ‘yan. Akin na yung mountain bike mo.’”

The two would barter for one last time just a few months before Santy died. “Kim, I want a car,” the artist said. 

“But I don’t have a car. What I have is a multicab,” Kim replied. 

Soon, Santy was happily driving back to Baguio in a multicab, and Kim ended up with another Santy Bose work.


Mountain boy 

Santy, just like his art, wasn’t the easiest to like, more so to love. He was an enigma. A complex man who PeeWee describes as “the epitome of contradiction — a mountain boy with a global outlook.” 

“He can be very selfish,” Angel says, “but he’s not alone with that; no one is a saint, no one’s without flaws. But he wore it on his sleeves.” 

“He has a temper,” adds Kim, “and he’s very moody. If you allow him, he will always be angry about something. Paggalit siya sa isang tao, he can talk about that guy the whole night.” 

“Pag hindi mo siya kilala, mapipikon ka. He would look at your work and say, ‘Art na ba yan?’" says Perry Mamaril, one of the co-founders of Baguio Arts Guild.

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Santiago Bose in front of his mural in a Sagada school, photo courtesy of the Bose family.

On the other hand, Peggy admired Santy’s honesty with his dealings, how he valued friendship, and his resourcefulness. “He would do research and experiment with his art-making. We would buy old doors and windows somewhere in Dimasalang, which he would use as his canvas.”

“Pag hindi mo siya kilala, mapipikon ka. He would look at your work and say, ‘Artna ba ‘yan?’ 

Despite his hardships, Santy’s magnanimity is legendary. “He was a very generous human being,” shares PeeWee.  The day of the opening for Santy’s last recorded show at PeeWee’s Green Papaya Art Projects, “Travelling Bones Gather No Stones,” coincided with the first day of EDSA protests against then President Joseph Estrada. Santy decided to cancel the opening. He asked guests to proceed instead to the artist-run space Surrounded by Water located near Robinsons Galleria. Even the food for his opening night was delivered to the venue where artists started to gather to join the protest. 

A more poignant gesture transpired just a few weeks before he died, when Santy left some artworks with PeeWee. “Keep them for your rainy days,” was Santy’s reply when PeeWee asked what they were for. Years later, proceeds from  the sale of Santy’s works to a collector averted the closure of Green Papaya. 


The second coming 

Peggy Bose, along with daughters Lille, Diwata, and Mutya, are now the custodians of the portfolio built by the man regarded as a paradigm of Philippine contemporary art. Part of the family’s plans include converting Santy’s house in Baguio into a museum, in accordance with the artist’s wishes. This even as his vision lives on through the Santiago Bose Center for Creative Arts, established to nurture the next generation of artists who share Santy’s artistic manifesto. 

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In the late 1970s, with daughter Diwata in front of a mural he created on Sto. Domingo street.

More importantly, his admirers and a new generation will get to experience Santy’s works through planned annual shows as well as a centerpiece exhibition that will travel all over the world. This begins with Silverlens Galleries’ current offering, Bare Necessities, curated by art scholar Patrick Flores. It is the first of a series of shows dedicated to revisiting Santy’s art, tracking its turning points in both style and content.

As the public will eventually realize in the coming months and years, Santy’s famed generosity extends to his art practice, evidenced by his mentorships (including for those without art backgrounds,” according to Lille), his initiatives with the Baguio Arts Guild, and the depth and breadth of his inspiring oeuvre .    

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Santiago Bose's 'Eyes of Gauze' 1983, mixed media, 48.03h x 33.07w in

PeeWee is just one of many artists deeply affected by Santy’s work. He credits Santy’s influence early in his practice, when the latter’s early strides toward his singular style were already evident. “This was in the 80s when Social Realism was a dominant form in the visual art scene. To be considered part of the SR movement, one had to be a painter. More importantly, one had to be politically aware and aligned with the National Democratic Movement. Santy was neither painting purely during that time, or part of any people’s organization aligned with the mass movement. Yet his art and cultural  work reflected the same socio-political relevance that the SR movement advocated.” 

PeeWee also credits Santy with helping him establish the regional artist-run Biennale, VIVA ExCon. “Santy thought that VIVA ExCOn and the International Baguio Arts Festival could strengthen the regions and the ties between Baguio in the North, and Bacolod in the South. We even had a private conspiracy to bypass Manila.”

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Santiago Bose's 'Cat’s Cradle' 1987, intermedia, 22.64h x 19.49w in

“Santy was, and remains a master of, the Filipinization of contemporary art,” Angel declares. “A lot of Santy’s images originate from the multiplicity of Philippine cultures;  the regions, religions , languages. Santy was doing all that.”

Santy passed away in December 3, 2002. In New York a few days later, Angel launched the book Vestiges of Warto a crowd of about 350. In the middle of her presentation, the lights began to flicker on and off. “I started to cry on this big-ass stage!” Angel says. “Then I just said,  ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Santiago Bose, who just died a few days ago.’” 

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Santiago Bose's 'Travelling Bones in Hanging Bridge' 2000, scanned image on canvas, acrylic, 86h x 56.50w in

The lights would go off too at Santy’s wake in Baguio, just before his friend and Baguio Arts Guild co-founder Kidlat Tahimik (“with whom Santy had a childish quarrel just before he died,” says Peggy) entered the door. “Kidlat said aloud, ‘Santy! Peace tayo!,’” recalled Peggy. The lights went on only when Kidlat was  about to leave.

During his short lifetime, Santy gave so much of himself to the craft that he loved. In death, he demands an introduction, an apology, and most of all, a remembrance. 


Santiago Bose: Bare Necessities is ongoing until the 14th September at Silverlens Galleries, Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati City

Portraits courtesy of Silverlens Gallery and the Bose family.