Local artists are striving to both capture and preserve the beauty of their tropical island home.
By Isobel Diamond
Hidden behind palm fronds on a pristine beach is the glass-fronted studio of artist Jonathan Benitez. Sitting amid his vivid collages, sand pictures, and oil paintings, all bathed in streams of natural light, we discuss how he came to be an artist, how he learned to use watercolors at the age of 10 and studied the Western masters from books. He had no formal training, yet his exotic, florid style is exquisite, with the colors and atmosphere of his surroundings flowing through his work.
Based in Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan province, Benitez is part of an emerging art scene in these western Philippine islands. Since the 1980s, Palawan has been growing as an incubator for a group of artists who share a passion for the local environment, whose astonishingly diverse habitats include coral reefs, tropical forests, and mangroves. The challenge—or, at least the one the artists have adopted for themselves—is how to preserve it. Benitez shows me an abstract portrait of a victim of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the country in 2013. “Man thinks he is a superior being to nature,” he says, “but in a second, nature showed that we are just flesh and bones.”
It’s easy to see why Benitez is so inspired by his surroundings. Touring through the islands by boat, I’m struck by the beauty of the limestone islets dropped in the ocean like stone icebergs, deserted karsts hiding secret bays beneath jagged cliffs. However, I’m certainly not Palawan’s only admirer; annual visitor numbers grew from some 140,000 to nearly 900,000 in the last decade. And with a concomitant increase in illegal logging, fishing and turtle poaching, the risks to Palawan’s UNESCO-listed ecosystem are extreme.
“Every year there is an increase in traffic, and the temperature is rising,” Benitez says. “We need a program to counteract this.” One group that has emerged in response is Collective Artists for the Environment (CAFE), also based in Puerto Princesa on the main island of Palawan. Exploring the capital, I find all types of art woven into its urban fabric—realist, abstract, functional. Artists of all mediums are hanging their works in a growing network of galleries and social spaces, and though their individual styles range widely, it’s apparent that the whole scene is cemented by a will to create sustainably, using organic and reclaimed materials.
“We’re rich in natural resources, and we work with what we have,” says Frances Mendoza, a portrait painter who documents the island’s indigenous tribes and self-designs her own tattoos. Her canvas works are often 3-D, blending toys and found trinkets with acrylic and oil portraiture. “It’s what makes our work different and special.”
At the Palawan Museum I discover the art of the indigenous tribal people. The 4th Indigenous Peoples’ Visual Art Exhibition, curated by Benitez, showcases their works, mixed media that incorporate all corners of island life: quotidian objects like baskets and mats, still lifes of nature, large expressive canvases. Among them are the works of Elordie Mesac, rubber-cut and wooden sculptural pieces depicting the fish and flowers, plants and animals native to Palawan. He explains that tribes like the Tagbanwa have “lived in harmony with earth and the environment for many years.” Conservation is his primary concern, and through art he wants to “open people’s eyes to what they’re doing.”