(SPOT.ph) Tucked away in busy Cubao is Dine po sa Amin, Jowell Gaela’s first solo exhibition at Gateway Gallery in Araneta City. This is the artist's first attempt at a solo exhibition—at age 49 and after years of an extended break from creating art. He shared that the loss of a number of friends and artists during the pandemic brought an existential quandary and what he will leave behind when his time eventually comes. The ephemerality of life and art was a starting point for Gaela to pick up his brush once again and sit down to observe his surroundings.
Dine po sa Amin portrays coconuts in various stages of maturity. Most of the pieces show the buko, or "mura" in Lucban parlance. The vibrant, fresh green mura, bunched together still on the tree are painted carefully on the canvas. Though picturesque in approach, Gaela carefully placed the imperfections on the surface of the mura. When observed carefully, the sheen of the husks is often marred by dents and scratches that naturally occur on the fruit.
Life and Livelihood in Coconuts in an Art Exhibit
Gaela explains that his fascination with the mura is rooted in his home. He grew up in Barangay May-it, Lucban, Quezon. The barangay is outside of the town proper where houses are surrounded by farmlands, particularly with coconut trees, vegetable plantations, and rice fields. For Gaela, coconuts do not simply translate to food or a romanticized Filipino identity but are a way of life and livelihood for the family. His father and grandfather were farmers who depended on coconuts to support their family. Aside from the young fruit, they held high stakes too on the highly valued copra.
The coconut industry is important to the economy of Lucban and the Philippines as a whole, with the country as the second-largest producer of coconuts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. For Lucban, the rise and fall of copra prices are the lifeblood of many farmers, including Gaela’s family.
Copra comes from a mature fruit after the nut is husked and cracked into two, exposing the white meat for drying. The well-dried copra is the source of the prized coconut oil. Over the years, copra's changing prices deeply affect farming families dependent on the industry.
"Young Coconut Series" as exhibited at the Gateway Gallery gives a glimpse into the lifeblood of the town. Gaela observed the mura outside his home, reflected on them, and portrayed them on his canvas. Through his lifelike renditions, he captured the story of the coconut and the life of the town embedded in each husk. Much like the image of the town, there is always something more than the pretty picture. The scars and imperfections, much like the struggles that the town must survive, gives depth and personality to the scenic canvas. The young coconut or the mura offers hope for another harvest.
History and Heritage Preserved in Ink
Another series he presented in the solo exhibition are the various ink-on-paper depictions of old heritage buildings in Lucban, most of which are now unrecognizable. "Ancestral House 2" is the most prominent as it is now a fancy hotel by the town’s own Rizal Park. Gaela, much like everyone who has memories of walking through the center of the town in the 1990s, still remembers the iconic building. The colonial structure had fallen into disrepair but was still functional with a family living upstairs and a lugawan and barbershop downstairs.
The destruction of much of the old building was met with sadness around the town, but this was before the enforcement of the National Heritage Act of 2009, which actively sought the protection and conservation of national cultural heritage. Regardless, getting the recognition as well as the resources to care for such a structure remains challenging until the present. It is often more practical to restructure and reuse the building outside the blanket of the law. This is where drawings and paintings, such as Gaela’s series, would come in—giving locals and fellow Filipinos a connection to the heritage that is preserved through old photographs and now more recent artworks. The stories are passed on, through tellings and retellings, strengthened by visual arts.
Cultivating Local Art and Community
Gaela ties together his solo exhibition with experiments on a self-portrait and other still life such as water lilies, a rose, and chilies. He intends to further develop his skills and hopes to participate in more exhibitions within and outside of Lucban. During the opening, he was surrounded by his family, friends, ka-barangays, and fellow Lucbanin artists.
As a founding member of the Lucban Artist Guild, Gaela is among the leaders in developing the community of local and mostly self-taught artists of the community. They often exhibit during the Pahiyas Festival, and now in the reopened Lucban Museum and Gallery in the old Escuelapia Building. They also hold workshops for young artists in the town and partner with Project Space Pilipinas for community-based projects.
Cultivating the local art scene as well as developing a sustainable art practice in Lucban is still challenging for artists, including Gaela. They often need to engage in alternative work to help sustain their living and their art. Yet, the passion continues, especially for local and regional artists despite the lack of resources, support, and a sustainable market. Exhibiting in the city center can be a risk, but a worthy one, not only in engaging the art market but also in giving an insight into the local art practices and perspectives. As picturesque as representations may be, within them are stories that need unearthing, rooted in culture and everyday experiences.
Also read: Beyond the Kiping: Project Space Pilipinas Makes Space for Contemporary Art in Lucban
Dine po sa Amin runs until March 16 at Gateway Gallery, 5/F Gateway Tower, Araneta City, Cubao, Quezon City.