Elmer Borlongan's Eye

Elmer Borlongan’s Eye: A New Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila

  • January 20, 2018

An exhibit of Elmer Borlongan’s work over more than 20 years opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila

More than 200 artworks made over 20 years are on exhibit from January 20 to March 28
More than 200 artworks made over 20 years are on exhibit from January 20 to March 28

It was an unexpected treat to view the works of Elmer Borlongan at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila before the exhibit opened to the public. An insider’s tip during the Central Bank Governor’s Reception at Fort San Antonio Abad led to the back door of the Met within the Bangko Sentral Complex. Most of Borlongan’s works were already up but were as yet untagged. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to view a collection of Borlongan’s paintings from over more than 20 years.

Extraordinary Eye

Elmer Borlongan at work
Tree Huggers by Elmer Borlongan

Elmer Borlongan began painting more than two decades ago. He first came into prominence as a winner of the Metrobank Annual National Painting Competition in 1988. Rehimen won second place in the competition that has jumpstarted the careers of several important artists in the Philippines today. He placed second again in the Metrobank Annual National Painting Competition in 1992 for Tampuhan.

The studio of Elmer Borlongan is transported into the Metropolitan Museum

The social awakening of the then Fine Arts student in the University of the Philippines was already translating into his paintings. His canvases conveyed a social consciousness captured in representational figures framed within the life of common folk. Disfigured people with prominent eyes ride bicycles, sell sampaguita leis, carry layers of egg trays and ride on the top of a bus with unicorn clouds above. He is able to see the particular distinctly within the backdrop of everyday life from a very personal perspective. How appropriate that his exhibition is entitled “Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary.”

Inside Elmer and Plet’s House

The living room of Elmer Borlongan and Plet Bolipata is recreated by the main entrance of the museum using furniture and decor from their residence

There was a living room set-up to the right of the main entrance of the museum.  It was a recreation of Elmer Borlongan’s living room in the home he shares with his wife, fellow artist Plet Bolipata. Plet’s painting hangs behind the sofa under lamps with pink lampshades. There are a couple of peach colored accent chairs, two round stools and a coffee table with ceramic figurines that assumedly are part of their home décor in San Antonio, Zambales. Verdant potted plants suggest the lush greenery surrounding their residence in the sprawling Bolipata family property. Elmer and Plet’s framed photos hang on the yellow walls and stand on a folding side table, adding to the sense of being in their personal space.

Chalks and drawing pencils used by Elmer Borlongan

A few steps away is Elmer’s work area as it might be in their house. The artist’s studio has blue walls, an easel and a canvas with worktables holding the paints and brushes on one side, and the chalks and drawing pencils on another. All the furniture are made of wood, including a dog footstool. A painting hangs on the wall showing the couple sleeping on a double deck bed with Plet on the lower level and Elmer above. It enhances the intimacy of the space.

Painting Songs of Hope

Painting of Elmer Borlongan and Plet Bolipata in a double deck bed

The collection of paintings chronicles the development of Borlongan’s early years to more than two decades after. This exhibit is curated by Dr. Ambeth Ocampo, noted historian, columnist and academic. In the exhibit notes, Borlongan attributes “his early imagery from the back streets of Nueve de Febrero in Mandaluyong (where he grew up) and his coming of age in life and art, formed by the political upheavals that saw the beginning of the Marcos dictatorship in 1972 and its end in 1986.

By removing the hair to create bald images, Elmer Borlongan draws attention to the face
Elmer Borlongan captures particulars in the everyday life of common folk
Kapit-bisig by Elmer Borlongan
Painting of children at play by Elmer Borlongan

“His images sing. Their melodies cover music, folk religion, journeys and destination, people like animals and animals like people, people at work, individuals in isolation or fused in unity, people at play, the dismembered, disabled and dispossessed. In all things, good and bad, Borlongan’s steady refrain is hope.”

by Anna Isabel C. Sobrepeña