Isabel Santos on her practice and dealing with hope

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"What I like about being an artist, kapag may idea na ako, nawawala yung sense of time and tuloy tuloy lang na naeenjoy ko siya. It gives me many breaks from reality." Photo by JL JAVIER

Isabel Santos’ most recent exhibit at Blanc Gallery, “But may we mourn?”, echoes her own lived experiences in line with the ongoing pandemic and the recent 2022 Philippine elections, where she campaigned for the leading opposition candidate. For the artist, all these are both life-changing, having dealt with “such a tangible presence of hope.” The exhibition serves as an extension of her anxieties and fears in connection to a monumental loss. She asks, “But may we mourn? Are we allowed to?”

Santos comes from a family of individuals and artists who are active forces in the visual arts ecosystem such as parents Soler and Mona, and her grandfather Mauro Malang Santos.

As an artist, what propelled Santos to pursue her practice is an assertion of her individuality, being always “labeled” as linked with her family’s lineage in relation to the arts ecosystem. This desire to lobby for herself eventually led to pursuing European Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Installation view of “But may we mourn?” at Blanc Gallery. The exhibit runs until July 23. Photo from BLANC GALLERY/FACEBOOK

“Nasanay ako being the youngest one. Being known in school, which my sister also attended, and ngayon sa art world, more on being Luis’ sister, or anak ni Soler, apo ni Malang,” shares Santos when asked whether there’s pressure in the family when it comes to becoming an artist “I got used to it. I’m proud of all of them, so, if they associate me with them, I’m flattered.”

In this conversation, Santos walks us through her artistic practice, including intersections with fashion and beauty as well as her ruminations on the arts ecosystem as she carves her own path while asserting her individuality.

Do you think artists, who come from a family of artists, have a better footing at the door through the art scene? And perhaps, also, being linked with certain personalities? What are your thoughts on this?

I think that the door is open, but it’s the path you choose. Like, yung iba tends to be very similar to your relative, having the same style. And my Lolo said, “Don’t copy me,” or “Try to find your own look, style.” Sabi niya parehas tayo magugutom kung pareho ng style. So, if you look at all of our styles. Iba-iba siya.

I think that’s an interesting point. I wanted to ask about your Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix (UTGP) win in partnership with The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The entries came from around 10,000 people which is just massive. What was your initial reaction when your work, “A Fortune In Jewels Kept In Your Safe” (2020), was announced?

I applied and there were sprinkles of emails, if you’re short-listed. Only the top three will be the part of a MOMA night where you get to have dinner. Until the last minute, they didn’t tell me that I won the grand prize. I was happy-stressed and looking forward to something, a good announcement throughout COVID, because it seems that there’s nothing good happening, no good news. And when they told me na nanalo ako, the world was getting worse. No chance na makukuha [and] makakapunta ako sa New York. And then, when they were giving me trickles of information [before the announcement]. Hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala, actually.

READ: Isabel Santos becomes first Filipino to win Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix

I wanted to bring up your most recent exhibition, “But may we mourn?”. You mentioned that it’s about “processing life after COVID and the recent elections.” Can you tell us more about it?

Voter naman ako since I was able to. Pero I’ve never campaigned like this. ‘Yung ganito talaga ka-passionate. And then, parang na-distract ako with the campaigning kasi sumali ako sa mga volunteer [activities], and all of those things. para talagang — I guess in denial ka na — hindi pwede siya manalo. Kasi, ‘yung mga rally, you feel something eh. Parang sabi ko nga, I think iba ‘yung awakening. ‘Di ba nga, sabi nila, iba ‘yung hope na nangyari. Iba ‘yung awakening na nangyari sa akin na finally, kasi, every leader, I don’t really expect na may mangyayaring much different. And dito, I think, sabi ko, “Ahh, it’s gonna be better.” And we went house-to-house. And then nung elections, slowly, nung may results na, parang gumuho. And then, I had to do all of these, I had to finish my show. So, emotions were floating around. I was like, “Ugh, nako, if I see you again, how will I store these things after?”

"Are the People Rejoicing?" by Isabel Santos. Photo courtesy of BLANC GALLERY/FACEBOOK

Ngayon, andito pa rin siya, its like in a pile of stuff na hindi ko alam kung ano gagawin ko sa kanila. And sobrang laki ng effect niya sa akin. ‘Yung election na, syempre gusto mo ma-express as an artist, ‘yung expression. Pero ‘yung takot ka rin what will happen. So, I played with the layers. It’s there but I’m scared what’s being super out there kasi now, I know na nanalo na. And then, I still have no idea kung anong path mangyayari. So, it’s like, hidden din. It’s like, ‘yung pagka-layer niya, it’s just how I’m expressing my fear rin.

I totally understand and relate to having much hope also considering the current pandemic. Would you say that creating this exhibition actually helped you cope with it?

Yeah, mayroong malaking work ‘to na I put a screen for the shirts of Leni. Nakalagay na “Let Leni Lead” sa likod, basta andami. Pero I found myself, isang night, na parang binubura ko. I used acrylic which is not opaque, even when you dry it, makikita mo pa rin. Like traces of it. The texture was there, kunwari mukhang Leni, face ni Leni, kasi nga I was scared. Una, parang scared na ma-redtag ka. Next is, ayaw bilhin ng tao because very Leni siya. Or magiging something very literal, which is, I didn’t want also.

Details from "Shall I Look At You with Fondness?" by Isabel Santos. Photo courtesy of BLANC GALLERY/FACEBOOK

I actually liked that you referenced the importance of introspection in your work. How do you approach — let’s say the materiality of it — to your body of work? How do you approach the personal? Perhaps the translation of ideas in your works. Could you say that these are still prevalent or relevant with your ongoing and upcoming works?

Since hindi ako nag-aral ng Fine Arts, ‘yung career ko, kasama na ‘yung trying other materials. Hindi ko alam what’s the best thing for this. And now, [nitong may] COVID-19 I think it was yung time na nakapag-experiment ako sa photo transfer, sa silk screen, and different types. So may stage talaga siya in your life na “Ang pangit talaga” and then you figure it out slowly.

What I like about being an artist, kapag may idea na ako, nawawala yung sense of time and tuloy tuloy lang na naeenjoy ko siya. It gives me many breaks from reality. Nakaconcentrate ka on this thing, not your other problems, figuring out how to use this new approach. I think iyon ‘yung nakikita ko when an artist starts with painting, eventually they wanna try other mediums. But I was talking to this person na magaling siya mag-mix ng medium, [tapos] dream naman daw niya to make a show na puro paintings. I think, iba-iba naman yung mga gusto.

I think that’s a very relatable statement. Isabel, I’m sure you’re aware of discussions or conversations on creative industries lately where various collaborative gestures are common. And I get that your interest also hinges on fashion and beauty. Would you say that this intersects with your practice at some point? How so?

I think marami na din nagstastart na mga businesses here. I’m trying to experiment on some of my works on fabric. I feel it would translate on clothes. Di ko rin alam kasi how people would see. ‘Yung iba, medyo may pagka-snobby sa art and like, “Dapat art lang.” I don’t know if people would see it na if you put your work into a clothing, commercialization of art. Pero feeling, nice to see it on 3D, flowing. Now, nag-test ako ng mga old works ko on mga tela and maganda naman sila. I mean, it’s just like figuring out kung saan siya. Kasi may mga pattern ako ng mga damit na gusto ko siyang gawin. And, figuring out, iyun din. Kasi nga, wala din akong alam sa fashion. And, it’s not like, I like it or not. So, I don’t know kung anong mga tela ang bagay sa ganitong design, yung mga ganoon.

In 2021, Santos became the first Filipino to win Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix, which is done in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Photo by JL JAVIER

While the contemporary art scene in the Philippines is diverse and dynamic, is there anyone you look up to locally or admire in terms of body of work?

I think yung batch ng dad ko, marami akong gusto. And then yung younger sa akin or my age, they tend to be nagpo-po sa akin palagi dahil inaassociate nila ako sa mga parents ko o mga siblings ko.

I mostly hang out with my dad ng mga ganoong age. Who I really like is Johnny Alcazaren kasi ang dami din niyang [ginagamit na] medium eh. Parang may workshop din siya and then he uses alternative materials to make sculptures.

Do you have specific thoughts or observations regarding arts, culture, and the art market during the pandemic? Another point of discussion is women in the contemporary art scene. Locally speaking, share with us your thoughts on opportunities, plight, or may be something on pursuing a career in the arts.

Actually, noong start ng pandemic, medyo kinabahan ako. Syempre essentials ‘di ba, iyan yung focus. What I saw was, actually ang hirap to group it to luxury items pero tumaas daw ‘yung demand kasi we can’t travel eh. So that happened to art, yung may disposable income, dumami dahil nga they couldn’t travel. So the budget, good for us, kasi [it] went to art.

Yung women in art scene dito, which I find so good, kasi my experience, nag-residency ako before eh. And the common thing sa females was, kulang ang kumukuha sa kanila ng shows, in general. And here, what I see is, wala talagang ano sa gender here. Well, yung experience ko ah, parang mas maraming sikat na babae here eh. Parang, it’s more of the work.

Santos with her dog, Benny. Photo by JL JAVIER

Do you have any specific advice for emerging artists and your contemporaries? I’m just thinking about sustaining your own artistic and personal practice, personal development, building connections and handling criticism. As these things are not usually taught in school, what can you say about it?

It’s funny that people are more familiar with your art than you [as an artist]. Ok lang di ba? Buti then they don’t know na ikaw yung gumawa, and then you can overhear, and then you can hear criticisms. They’re talking about your work and ‘di nila alam eh. It used to affect me, pero you just have to choose the opinions that matter to you. For me kasi, mayroon din naman akong gusto so sana hindi naman nila matake personality ‘yun.

Like, ako din, some people like it, and others do, and that’s their personal opinion. So if an artist admires my work, ‘yun ung iaabsorb ko. Hindi naman dapat na all [opinions] [matters] to you kasi mababaliw ka talaga. So kapag may senior artist [or] any artist na I find na ang ganda ganda ng work who goes “ang ganda ng shot mo.” Syempre, kikiligin ka ‘di ba?

Speaking of network, would you say that’s something emerging artists and your contemporaries should follow on?

I think lucky ako kasi napadali ang pag-enter sa art scene. Pero iba pa rin ung hurdle of being a newcomer not knowing anyone. Kunware, artist pa minsan introvert, so paano kami makikipag-ano [interact] ‘di ba? [But] if you really have an interest, punta ka sa mga shows and then you’ll find the people there — ‘yung mga magiging kaibigan mo, and then makikita mo na rin yung style eventually. Parang makikita mo yung mga gusto mo and hindi.

I'm curious about your take on validation in the art scene. For example, award-giving bodies, art potentials and backgrounds coming from a different point of view not studying Fine Arts.

Actually, sometimes, it’s nice to have awards like the Ateneo Art Awards or CCP Thirteen Artists. I won’t say these don’t matter to me. Kasi kapag nanominate ka, nakaka-flatter din. Pero parang in my head, kung wala akong Uniqlo award, “Shocks, wala bang may gusto sa akin?”

Pero parang nakuha ko naman yung validation ko from that kasi like noong nakakuha ako ng residency, kaya nga ‘yon ‘yung gusto ko kasi wala siyang connection sa family ko, yung Uniqlo. Hindi siya nanalo dahil anak ka, apo ka, kaya gusto ko iyon. Other people think that you’re doing something worth something. Pero, I like that I’m not lying na ayoko ng awards, pero hindi ako madedepress kung hindi ako makakuha. Kung wala, wala.