by TERENCE REPELENTE
Portrait by PINGGOT ZULUETA
Artist Lydia Velasco spent most of her younger years in the then male-dominated advertising industry where, despite the fierce competition and the disadvantages of being a woman in a deeply feudal society, her name made loud noise. She was particularly famous for creating visuals for brands that targeted women—beauty products, soaps, shampoos. When she was drawing countless storyboards for these products, she eventually developed this distinct figure, a woman, a kind of a self-portrait, which remains in her art to this day. This iconic figure, according to Lydia, was recognized by almost all the big advertising agencies during that time.
In 1988, she left advertising and started a whole new career as a visual artist. “Parang nagsimula uli ako sa baba (It was like starting from the bottom again),” she says. “And it needed hard work. It’s a good thing that I worked in advertising. I know how to sell. I know how to position myself.”
Eventually, she did sell. And Lydia attributes this to her advertising roots, where she was trained to sense what the market wanted. Sometimes, she says, she is forced to please the market. Channeling her storyboard drawing days, she intentionally makes the women in her paintings cuter and sexier, as in possessing Caucasian features. “Madalas gusto nila maganda ‘yung kulay, maganda ‘yung babae (Often they prefer the woman to be beautiful, to be of a good color),” she says.
But it didn’t take long for Lydia to develop a style that didn’t care about what the market wanted. After a series of experimentations and, what she calls “weird” art making, she started to create art that wasn’t dictated by the taste of others, a style all her own. Inspired by greats like Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Lydia says she always uses—sometimes unconsciously or by instinct—intense colors, such as yellow, green, orange, and red, in her works. “I love the intensity of these colors,” she says. “It mirrors me as a person, as a woman. I like to see myself as an intense and a passionate woman, a woman who isn’t easily deceived or tricked, a fighter.”
And as a woman and an artist, she rejects and subverts the patriarchal standards imposed upon women’s bodies. “I don’t follow the ordinary anatomy, or the standard body structures,” she says. Most of the time, the women in Lydia’s paintings have masculine features, sometimes disfigured. She likes to give them fierceness, assertiveness, leaving passion and emotion to burn in their eyes.
Lydia’s art, however, doesn’t just focus on the women as individuals. Most of her works contain more than one figure in them. This is a central theme in her works, the relationship of women with others—mother and child, women in solidarity. “My paintings are a composition of the relationships depicted in them,” she says. “Of course, the canvas must communicate with the viewer but, more important, the figures and elements inside the canvas must first connect with each other. There must be harmony among them. There must be a relationship, a story. Most of the time, it’s a personal story I want to tell.”
Two years ago, Lydia was diagnosed with cancer. “It was hard to accept at first. Cancer, hindi birong sakit (not just an ordinary illness). It felt like I had one foot in the grave,” she says. “I had a lot of questions. What do I do? Is this the end of my art making? Is this the end of my life?” She says a voice in her head whispered: You need to fight. And that was all what she needed to hear. “I realized that I didn’t have any choice, I have to fight.” And because of her condition, she was able to create something new.
In her latest solo exhibit, “Unvanquished,” Lydia tells her story as a cancer patient. “The works are neither sweet nor calm. They’re also not the usual thing I do,” she says. “There’s a lot of angst, anger, and fear, but there’s also hope.”
In “Unvanquished,” Lydia shows, quite vividly, the process of facing cancer using elements such as cancer turbans and post-mastectomy scars. Ultimately, she sends a message to all those who are going through the same condition—struggle, hope, and faith. “Cancer is scary,” she says. “But we need to fight. I will never let it stop me from doing what I love most—my art.”