Gallery: Abe Orobia “Images of Our Nation” @NCCAGallery

Art as a Form of Critical Care

“Your pride for your country should not come after your country becomes great. Your country becomes great because of your pride in it.” — Idowu Koyenikan

In 2019, Abe Orobia was one of the few artists who received a grant from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Gallery for its 2020 exhibition program. The NCCA Gallery annually opens to the public its “Call for Exhibition Proposals” to give young and emerging and established artists from all regions a chance to showcase their artworks, express their creative visions and explorations, and share their conceptual narratives freely without interference.

Orobia’s 2019 exhibition proposal to the NCCA Gallery tackled the plight of common folk and the struggle of the downtrodden for social justice. He was planning to include drawings of farmers, laborers, and fishermen wearing the artist’s signature motif of crumpled paper dresses depicting temporary shield and survival, symbolizing both weakness and strength, vulnerability and resiliency. “It is our culture as Filipinos to find happiness despite the adversities we face,” writes the artist on the curatorial brief he submitted. He was already preparing to execute the main pieces from the studies he made for the exhibition collection when the pandemic struck.

Due to the alarmingly sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines, the National Government created the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) and imposed the first Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon and other islands on March 17, 2020. The ECQ is one of a series of measures restricting the movement of people and ordering them to stay at home. Among the community quarantine classifications with differing degrees of strictness, the ECQ is the strictest measure in the country. Commonly known as a total lockdown, mass public transport facilities were suspended, bars were closed, restaurant dine-ins were not allowed, mass gatherings were prohibited, classes were suspended, and strict physical distancing and home quarantine in all households were in effect during the ECQ. Only establishments providing essential activities and basic necessities were open.

All of a sudden, the world stopped, and Abe Orobia’s life as an artist was put on hold.

Abe Orobia, the scion

Eleazar Abraham Orobia, or Abe to the art community, comes from a family of artists. His father is impressionist painter Rogelio “Maestro” Orobia who himself hails from a family of artists in the Bicol region. His mother, Fe, is the great granddaughter of Juan Luna whose obra maestra, “The Spoliarium,” depicting dying gladiators, garnered the gold medal at Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884. The painting currently hangs at the main gallery on the first floor of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila.

Abe was the youngest artist (at five years old) to join a group show of The First Filipino Good Samaritan Artists at the Philam Life Pavillion in UN Avenue in 1989 and at the age of 6, he held his first solo show titled “Ang Unang Kulay Pintang Sining ni Abe Luna Orobia” at the Makati Medical Center.

Abe Orobia, the educator

A painting graduate at the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas (UST), Abe Orobia was cited the Gawad Beato Angelico Santomas Outstanding Faculty Member Award twice at the College of Fine Arts and Design in the same university. His national awards include two from the Parangal ng Bayan given at the Malacañang Palace.

Abe currently teaches basic drawing at the Art Room under the Summer Art Workshops Series of the Ayala Museum in Makati City. He is also an instructor and lecturer at the College of Saint Benilde – School of Design and Arts and teaching students online has admittedly been a challenge for the 37-year-old artist-educator.

Last year, all the scheduled exhibitions at the NCCA Gallery (including Orobia’s) were postponed. The vibrant pre-pandemic Philippine art scene was brought to a standstill by a situation in which all cultural activities have stopped. Adding insult to injury, artists were pushed into survival mode because art and culture were classified under “non-essential” economic operations. The pressing issue was that art, deemed non-essential, was actually someone else’s means of livelihood. Artists could not only go out to buy art materials—they ran out of resources and could not buy anything.

With this pandemic and the onslaught of fear and helplessness, an artist not creating is unimaginable; and for Abe, to create is to exist, to create is to survive, to create is to heal.

Late last year, the NCCA Gallery contacted Orobia and informed him about the resumption of its program, including the implementation of the delayed 2020 exhibition grants. Artistic research has never been more relevant for him not only in terms of knowledge in audience development under the “new normal” but also of the community’s conduct towards art and culture in times of crisis. He agrees that COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation and while creative and cultural work is people-oriented (which requires observation), we all had to learn how to create experiences digitally and to a certain degree, this both saddened and challenged him.

Orobia took advantage of the added knowledge with technology while boxed-in in a work-from-home environment. He continued his art through sketching and drawing and documented the process via videos, adapted to an alternative teaching modality, eventually telling his students to bear in mind that “what is happening at home can still have an impact on our art and culture consumption.”

Abe Orobia, the artist

In the midst of the pandemic, Abe Orobia developed “hope muscles” and learned to find opportunities from these painful experiences. He now shares them with the public in this exhibition titled “Images of Our Nation” at the NCCA Gallery. His presentation of works of felt tip on watercolor paper and white ink on black paper are accompanied by his narratives written in prose. His documentation and archival videos are also showcased as part of the exhibit.

In the beginning, Abe did not want to be political about the images in this collection and the exhibition itself. Though with what was happening (the number of COVID-19-related deaths, the slow vaccine rollout, the agricultural crisis, the unemployment, the food pantries, the red tagging, and the infamous “lugaw incident”), to not use his art as an expression of social relevance and an instrument for reform in the midst of social inequality and injustice, would be both unnecessary fiction and tragedy.

Abe Orobia, the messenger

Orobia says he is proud to be a descendant of two notable painters and that the name Luna is attached to his, but clarifies that it does not give him a free ticket to being an excellent artist. He further expounds that he may have the talent or the gift to create beautiful artworks but if it lacked content and failed to send a message to his audience, then the artistry of his creations had not been manifested.

Humanity has been shaken by COVID-19. Suddenly, words like social distancing, health protocols, frontliners, and ayuda have become part of daily vocabulary. Some of these words are visible in the images of “Dalanging Medikal,” and “Sugod lang! Laban lang!” Physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel wear their full personal protective equipment or PPE as temporary shield in the fight against this invisible war.

In the 35th session of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization-Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, it was cited that “COVID-19 has led to widespread economic distress throughout the region. The pandemic has had profound impacts on food systems, including food security and nutrition, food and livestock production…” All industries including the agriculture sector have been pushed to swiftly adapt to the “new normal.” The crisis brought by the pandemic also came at a tough time for our farmers and fisherfolk. Even cultural heritage and indigenous communities were not spared. Abe depicts how life must go on for the average Filipino in “Daloy,” “Kinartong Pangarap,” “Nakayuko sa Lupa,” and “Lupang Tinubuan.”

Orobia also took inspiration from the bayanihan spirit which triggered the establishment of various community pantries. Tired of complaining and inaction, citizen Ana Patricia Non decided to put up the Maginhawa Community Pantry in Quezon City using a working principle from a slogan popularized by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Roughly translated in Filipino, the first community pantry put a sign which read,“Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” Since then, the community pantry has taken a life of its own and has been duplicated all over the regions. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that as of April 22, 2021, citizen-organized community pantries have snowballed to at least 350 throughout the country.

Abe, too, duplicated the pantry as part of a critical narrative in his exhibition as if to say, to criticize is to care. Although Orobia may indeed seem to be critical at times, he has nothing but praises and pride for what he calls a great country and how his countrymen—the everyday Filipinos—are dealing with this pandemic. These for him, are the images of Filipinos he wants to keep and remember.

“Images of Our Nation” By Delan Lopez Robillos opens on June 7, 2021 at the NCCA Gallery, 633 General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila. Exhibition runs until June 30, 2021. Email gallery@ncca.gov.ph for more details.

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