Words by Francine Marquez
Before Elmer Borlongan, 51, became a celebrated A-lister in the local art world, he was a street artist, a cultural activist, a fighter for social change. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t carry this persona anymore—it’s in his core. And good for the artist that art galleries have noticed and collectors fancy taking that leap into his inner world where every Juan and Maria is a hero.
Borlongan’s recent retrospective exhibition, “An Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary,” is a humble validation of the artist’s enduring homage to explore the struggles and tender triumphs of the Everyman.
All 150 paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila echoes glimpses of that familiar sense of sorrow, fear, exasperation, rage, repentance, even escape that delivers the masses through the dailiness of living.
It’s a crystalline retrospective that documents Borlongan’s life in painting and his point of view as an artist: From his high school days where he already showed potential (“The Gardeners,” a 1979 oil on canvas work that won Honorable Mention in a YMCA art contest) his period as a cultural activist (“Rehimen,” which won at the 1988 Metrobank Annual Painting Competition, utilizes the Marlboro seal as his iconography for the era’s pervading powers that be and an emaciated human figure as the oppressed masses); to his witty takes on the commonplace both in the urban and rural setting (consider “Order ni Misis” where a man lifts a concrete barbell molded from vintage Baguio Oil cans. Or, “Gabay” where a driver is kept company during his trip by Jesus Christ.)
Leading historian and curator Dr. Ambeth Ocampo had a hand in streamlining this presentation that celebrates 25 years of Borlongan’s artistic career. From one group of paintings to the other, the viewing public gets a straightforward proverbial ride on how the visual artist came to be.
Born in Mandaluyong City, Borlongan has always been drawn to the arts even as a child, enrolling in the art classes of Fernando Sena. In college, he took up Fine Arts in UP Diliman where he got exposed to activism for social change and as it was the call of the times. A turning point in his young artist’s life was when his classmate Manny Garibay asked him to take part in finishing a mural for slain student leader Lean Alejandro in 1987.
In the midst of his political awakening, Borlongan became a member of ABAY, an art collective that became the visual arts arm of the alliance of leftist groups. Borlongan would collaborate with other artists in creating street murals, effigies, posters, and other art works that were presented during street protests or cultural presentations.
In 1994, Borlongan founded Salingpusa along with other young and accomplished artists of his generation. What began as a group of friends who simply wanted to paint and put out art shows together eventually became an art force as each artist emerged with their own distinctive styles and unyielding points of views.
Today, Borlongan is much more settled in his home in Zambales with his wife, the artist Plet Bolipata. Although he still paints the Everyday, his imagery has shifted from the griminess of the metro’s streets to the simpler but just as spirited scenes of rural living.
A writer once asked if Borlongan considers himself a social realist, having played an active part in the protest movement. Borlongan says he prefers to refer to his style as figurative expressionism, perhaps palpably so as his works are not so much as political rhetorics as they are presentations of the human story, essentially retold with emotions but without idealization. Borlongan’s narrative comes straight from his eyes and his experiences.
Twenty-five years is just a number for an artist like Borlongan who continues to have that urge, that unnerving impulse to paint his memories and tell the Everyman’s story.
Don’t call his Met Manila art show a retrospective, he insists. Call it a survey. There is still more to the Everyman as he continues to reckon with the changing times. Borlongan’s Everyman is more than a well-done image or an amusing subject. He relives the struggles and joys of the Everyman’s experiences, his foibles, his desires, his humanity—and this is what makes Borlongan’s works compelling.
About the Author:
Francine Marquez is the Founder of Art Brand + Allies. She is an art pusher, a creative enabler, and a multimedia cheerleader.
This article was published in the adobo magazine Trends 2018 issue.