By Hannah Jo Uy
Images by Pinggot Zuleuta
“Bring it on, Omi!” Roel Obemio called playfully to his creative partner, Omi Reyes, who was more than happy to take up the artistic challenge. This was the spirited approach the artists had toward their latest collaborative exhibition called “Affinity,” which serves as an intersection of their distinctive worlds—Reyes’ steampunk style with Obemio’s childlike whimsy. While the show was not their first creative interaction, it provides deeper insight into their identity as artists, as contemporaries, and as friends.
This was a feat, given both their specializations in widely different, almost opposing, genres. “The challenge isn’t in the material or the ideas for the works,” Obemio says. “The challenge is if there is tension between us—it would destroy the form and creativity. You cannot prepare for that. It’s the energy of our friendship that people like as well.”
Known for his Fernando Botero–esque approach, Obemio used his animation background to develop voluminous renditions of reality, often in homage to the iconic artworks of Da Vinci, Boticelli, Michaelangelo, and other masters who have inspired him. “All people are influenced by the past,” he says.
Speaking on his evolution as a painter, Obemio says his inspiration is born from a unique mixture of personal experiences and observations. Drawing from his memories of the mountains and quiet nights looking at the moon, he uses his paintings as means to escape from a chaotic reality and indulge in his most treasured recollections of the lush landscape of his youth, which has fallen prey to deforestation. “The past continues to live,” he says. “It’s always in our mind, and this is where I draw inspiration. Every painting is like a wish to go back.”
Obemio’s desire to pay tribute to the past was something echoed by Reyes, evident in their rendition of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. In one of their eight collaborations, the female subject was “Obemized” while Reyes integrated his signature gears and interpreted the male subject’s face as a dystopian, abstract portrait.
Reyes has been known for his textured approach and muted palettes, being widely considered by his peers as the pioneer of steampunk in the Philippines—aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery coupled with technology. Reyes describes his affinity for mechanical aesthetics as unexplainable. “Even as a kid, I was always fascinated with mechanical parts,” he says. “I would even look and listen to the sound of the gears of the trains by the tracks. It wasn’t a conscious effort.”
Coupled with his propensity for carpentry and natural restlessness to create something with his hands, Reyes has been moving toward larger sculptural works. He shares that, while developing three-dimensional pieces is a tedious, time-consuming exercise, it also provides a unique satisfaction, especially upon seeing viewers admire a piece from all angles.
Obemio commends Reyes for the tenacity of his work. As such, the success of the show is largely underpinned by the artists’ mutual respect for each other. “I have a lot of trust in Roel,” Reyes says.
“It’s also about giving respect to the painting. Even if I am sometimes only doing the frame, I don’t put myself down by saying that,” he adds, pointing out that this was the essence of collaboration. “In a movie there is the main star, and the supporting actor. Sometimes when the piece is there, even beyond the frame, I go into the soul of the painting, putting gears, after discussing with Roel.”
“It is not just art. It is friendship,” Obemio stresses. “I believe that art is not an exact science. I want to have Omi there as a partner.”
The exercise also challenged both artists to reflect on the importance of finding a middle ground of their artistic differences. “The most powerful instinct we have is the ego,” Reyes says. “It’s important to take it out, even for a while. You will feel so much lighter. Artists are emotional, you have to be or else where will you draw inspiration from? It’s natural for people to be proud. I don’t really think of competition, what’s important for me is respect.”
Obemio adds: “A lot of artists prefer to be alone. I believe it is important to fight that so you don’t become too selfish. Life is about connection, and no man—or artist—is an island.”
“Affinity” will open on Jan. 17 and run until Feb. 28 at The Gallery Solaire Resort & Casino.