A collector’s journey to find treasures of Philippine culture

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'Design alchemist' Federico de Vera puts together some of the most beautiful objects of Philippine art and culture. In photos: "Vestige VIII" by Gregory Halili (oil on mother of pearl, wood base), and a bul-ol (or Ifugao rice god). Photos courtesy of AYALA MUSEUM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Federico de Vera has prepared a feast for us all. The jeweler, collector, and tastemaker from Dagupan, Pangasinan, world-renowned for seeing and recreating what can only be simplified as ‘things of beauty,’ curates an exhibit of 300 objects representing Filipino heritage. One would perhaps need four eyes to fully appreciate the curious collection he has put together, titled “Curated by Federico de Vera,” which will open on Nov. 6 at the Ayala Museum.

At the museum, de Vera is in his element. It took the “design alchemist” and “aesthetic savant with an Enlightenment viewpoint,” as the New York Times calls him, more than a year to put together the assortment of paintings and treasures to be housed in three of the museum’s floors. There are paintings both familiar and strange, in the first floor, where de Vera plans to put works depicting Filipino life: its myths, histories, and faces. Here, I see a Whang-Od portrait by photographer Jake Verzosa. There is even a circa-1970 portrait of Monique Siguion-Reyna, painted by Ang Kiukok, which seems odd and divergent from the artist’s celebrated body of work.

A preview of the first floor, which is themed "Portrait of the Filipino." In photo, from left: "Papunta ka pa lang, Pabalik na Ako" by Jaypee Samson; "Portrait of Monique" by Ang Kiukok; "Untitled" by Yasuo Kuniyoshi; "Igorot Woman with a Pipe" by Felix Gonzales; and "Farmer from Mayaoyao" by Benedicto Cabrera. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

De Vera is not quite an artist (in the conventional sense of the word), but it seems misplaced not to see him as one. He puts faith in the storied weight of objects he finds beautiful. To define ‘beauty’ is of course, an exercise in futility. But to know what it is is another thing. De Vera sees it in something as mundane, for example, as an aluminum bowl his sister uses to feed the dogs. Or in the many santos that reflect his strict Catholic upbringing, one he now carries lightly. “Filipinos are very guilty,” he remarks. “Of what?” I inquire. “Of being Catholic,” he laughs, as he recalls his childhood.

The architecture graduate from the University of Santo Tomas had a family business waiting for him, before he would gradually put up his store of curiosities in New York, with a clientele comprised of the who’s who of the world’s biggest names: Hillary Clinton, Karl Lagerfeld, Anne Hathaway, Steve Jobs, and Daniel Day-Lewis, among many, many others.

“I didn’t compromise from the beginning. I was just going to sell what I want, I don’t care if it sells or not," says Federico de Vera. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

De Vera’s mother is named Romana: the Romana of Romana’s Peanut Brittle based in Baguio. But he was not meant to work there. What was supposed to be a trip to the U.S. to get an MBA turned out to be a journey of discovery. “I’m more of a creative type,” he says. Instead of taking business classes, “I took classes in art history, filmmaking, art appreciation, more liberal arts classes.”

Starting on his own abroad (after leaving Gallery Japonesque) taught him to trust his own eye. “I didn’t compromise from the beginning. I was just going to sell what I want, I don’t care if it sells or not,” he says. “It was a gamble, but it paid off.” More than two decades later, de Vera is sought not only for his “kaleidoscopic eye,” but for the stories he tells through his assemblage of objects he finds. In the exhibit notes, de Vera states: “The art of placement is also very important, because through a well-thought out exhibition design I can put things in context, weave my story, and present my idea clearly.”

The 300 objects on exhibit speak of Philippine heritage. Left: Alfredo Esquillo's "Daang Ligid Krus"; right: an assemblage of pieces of jewelry. Photos courtesy AYALA MUSEUM

From left: "Untitled" by Jay Yao; "Nationalist" by Ronald Ventura; "I Want to Live a Thousand More Years (Self-Portrait After Dengue, with Tropical Plants and Fake Flowers)" by Wawi Navarroza; "Her Harvest (After I Gak Murniasih "Jamuku / My Medicine")" by Wawi Navarroza; "Burning Bay" by Elmer Borlongan; "Prayer Before Meal" by Vicente Manansala; "Anxiety" by Benedicto Cabrera. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Visual feast aside, the de Vera-curated exhibit is more importantly a lesson on Philippine art, design, and history. The goal is to provide an experience — one which de Vera is adept at doing — which will hopefully encourage exhibit-goers to appreciate the collection, make connections, and ask questions. He’ll be satisfied “if I can pull people’s eyes into something”: whether it’s a polychrome wood icon of (and titled) “Christ taken down from the cross,” a vase of sunflowers made from recycled magazine pages, or a woven Tingguan tapestry from Abra.

It’s an enviable job. Glimpses of the exhibit can leave one already full — and we haven’t even seen the treasures of the second floor — so one can just imagine what opening night will look like. Anticipating the experience makes me recall an old Spanish saying, about being ready to die after seeing the Alhambra’s golden pavilions; perhaps, the same can be said of the otherworldly experience of a de Vera-curated exhibit.

"Angry Purple Brain" by Jigger Cruz. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

From left: "Lola" by Jana Benitez; "Avatar #1" by Julius Redillas; "Second Life Portrait" by Winner Jumalon; "Regina Dee" by Claudio Bravo; "Portrait of Fang-Od" by Jake Verzosa. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

A week before the opening, he shows us around the exhibit space. Paintings are still in state of organized disarray, and objects are still waiting to be displayed in their proper places. De Vera examines them and sees what we don’t. At least, not yet.

“I always try to find something beautiful in some things,” he says. “It’s like people too, we all have redeeming qualities … we can’t discount something we don’t understand.”


Curated by Federico de Vera” opens at the Ayala Museum on Nov. 6, 2017 and runs until Jan. 28, 2018.