By Hannah Jo Uy
Portrait by Pinggot Zulueta
“Folk arts and crafts have something the outside world does not—the purity of the Filipino heart and soul,” says William Gaudinez. “We may not have the top-of-the-line materials, but it’s the content fused with the craft that matters. Yes, it’s a challenge since it’s very labor-intensive and time-consuming, but in the face of globalization, we have to stand firm in our commitment to express ourselves to the world in the best possible way.”
The artist has paved the way for greater appreciation of folk art. It was a journey of self-discovery that revealed to Gaudinez ancient worlds hiding in plain sight and, eventually, formed his artistic identity and advocacy.
This journey began when, following his uncle Angelito Antonio’s advice, he took up advertising. In college, he encountered another influential mentor, Mario Parial, who introduced him to the nuances of German Expressionism, sparking his attraction to the works of Max Beckman, Emil Nolde, and Sandro Chia.
After college, Gaudinez immersed himself in advertising, working six days a week for RS video production to oversee character animation and special effects. “Saturday, I would head straight to my Uncle Antonio’s house and spend the whole day painting,” he recounts. After much prodding from his aunt, Norma Belleza, Gaudinez entered a nationwide painting competition at Metrobank. “It was my first time,” he says. “I found myself asking, ‘How do I start?’ I finally chose to paint what was closest to my heart—the carinderia.” Gaudinez named it Ambos Mundos, after the establishment his father had inherited. After a month, at one of his routine visits, his aunt met him at the gate to tell him he won, “much to my disbelief,” he beams.
As Gaudinez became involved in the art scene, he felt that something was amiss. He tried to ascertain his style through intense soulsearching. It was after meeting Anselmo “Bobi” Valenzuela, the late curator of Hiraya Gallery, that Gaudinez’s eyes were opened to the alternatives to painting on canvas. “After his initial assessment of my earlier works, [Valenzuela] gave me an unforgettable advice: ‘Go back to your roots,’” he intimates.
These rituals may be obscure, but that’s part of the duty of an artist—to help resurrect these long lost traditions.
Gaudinez was consumed by the visual possibilities hidden in books and monographs, “a gateway to our past that has been long forgotten.” This led him to create works that were portals to the past, built upon all of history’s twists and turns and integrated with folk art, such as photos of art from Santos, sculptures from Paete, Tagbanwa birds, the works of Maranao artisans and the Bagobos to name a few. “For me, the greatest artists are the ordinary artisans who are unschooled but whose raw talents overflow beyond expectation,” he says. Gaudinez also explored festivals and forgotten rituals. “These rituals may be obscure but that’s part of the duty of an artist—to help resurrect these long lost traditions.”
Later, Gaudinez taught himself to sculpt wood, buying tools from Paete. “Somebody has to pass on these skills so that the craft will not die a natural death,” he says, observing that the younger generation, especially in remote areas, is becoming obsessed with modernity. Gaudinez pivoted to mixed media in his desire to pay homage to Philippine culture, integrating traditional motifs and symbols and inlaying indigenous materials, such as carabao bone, horn, mother-of-pearl, and capiz, in the hardwood. He also believes the folk artisans offer an education in their ability to adapt to scarce conditions. Which is why he makes it a point to use discarded wood as part of his small contribution to “the delicate web of nature.”
For Gaudinez, these are the lessons that the Philippine art scene must take to heart. In his latest show, “Ultra Lemuriam,” he returns to the empowering myths of our pre-colonial history. Lemuria refers to the mythical world that antedates Atlantis. The collection explores the theory that the Philippines, along with Borneo, Java, Sumatra, and other Pacific islands, was a remnant of a continent doomed by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. “The people inhabiting Lemuria or the lost continent of Mu were believed to wield psychic powers,” says Gaudinez, adding that there are claims that Pangasinan was the center of Lemurian civilization. “Today, the natives of Pangasinan say that the Hundred Islands are the peaks of Lemuria’s gigantic peaks,” he says.
In his show, Gaudinez expands the Lemuria myth to create a unique fusion of the past and present. While the exhibition, according to Gaudinez, does not claim to represent the real face of the Lemurian myth, it should help preserve this fragile fabric that, as myths do, portrays the glory of our origins.