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“Mondial” brings Old Manila back to life

Artist Dominic Rubio’s solo exhibit revisits the glorious past

Today, the memory of Old Manila seems to be just that—a memory. A memory of a bygone period only accessible through history books and antique photos. A standard that many believe the Manila of today will never achieve again. But for artist Dominic Rubio, Old Manila represents not only an ideal, but a reflection of the present through the lens of the past. In his solo exhibit “Mondial,” Rubio presents works executed over the course of a prolific career that portray his love for Filipino heritage.

For one elegant night at The Manila Peninsula Rigodon Ballroom, friends, family, and art enthusiasts gathered together to celebrate the opening of Rubio’s show, presented by Galerie Joaquin. “Mondial” refers to the global, and in this exhibit Rubio depicts the classic mondial qualities inherent in the pre-war environment of Old Manila. For the artist, this was a time of peace, beauty, dignity, and tradition, and one that needs to make a comeback soon.

“Kapag nakita ‘yung aking painting, character ‘yung pigura, pero ramdam na ramdam mo ‘yung nakalipas na ang sarap balikan. Napakaromantic noong araw, sobra. Sobrang romantic.”

(“When you see my painting, the figures are characters, but you really feel the past that feels so good to revisit. It was so romantic back then. So romantic.”)

Rubio’s unique style has helped him carve his own niche in today’s art scene. Instead of illustrating the colonial Filipino in the ceremonious manner skillfully executed by the likes of Damian Domingo, Justiniano Asuncion, Simon Flores, and other painters of the period, Rubio infuses his own distinct flair for stylization, with a subject matter that has been visually portrayed through realism throughout the years. 

The features on his figures’ faces are simplified. Proportions are purposefully distorted. Simplification and detail are equally balanced out so his figures look both caricatured yet alive with animated nuance. Most notably, the necks of each character, whether nobleman or farmer, are elongated and noticeably thin so that their heads balance precariously on top of the rest of their body. For Jack Teotico—managing director of Galerie Joaquin and long-time friend of the artist—Rubio’s signature thin necks symbolize pride in Filipino culture.

“‘Yung Pilipino tsaka Pilipinas—marami tayong maganda sa kultura natin, so parang taas-noo din, ‘no? Parang, mahaba yung leeg kasi proud ka na may Philippine heritage ka.”

(“The Filipino and the Philippines—we have so much that is beautiful in our culture, so it’s like holding your head up high, right? It’s like, your neck is long because you are proud to have a Philippine heritage.”)

The artist at the opening of “Mondial”
Photo: Mara Fabella

This show is of special significance to the artist as it is his first major solo exhibit after recovering from a severe heart attack in 2014, resulting in six blocked arteries. Since then, Rubio has only been able to do minor exhibits, including one showing at ManilArt. “Mondial” is Rubio’s biggest show to date and signifies a masterful return in full force. 

Teotico and Galerie Joaquin have been by the artist’s side ever since, and he has consistently remained one of the gallery’s feature artists. Teotico claims that beyond Rubio’s skill as a painter and his broad commercial appeal in today’s market, there is a genuinely personal quality to his works that can resonate with many Filipinos. His painting of a mother and child hanging their laundry in a rural village will have people remembering their own experiences doing their laundry with their mother. Viewers will look closely at his detailed renderings of churches in Manila as they will see in his works the very structures they may have visited not too long ago. 

Teotico explains: “Let’s say bibili ako ng artwork. Gugustuhin ko to, kasi kinakausap ako nitong painting na ‘to, e. Naging today ‘yung painting niya of the past.”

(“Let’s say I’m going to buy an artwork. I would like this, because this painting is speaking to me. His painting of the past has become a painting of today.”)

Talking about his artistic style, Rubio describes how it was important he find something distinctive when depicting a time period both his predecessors and contemporaries alike have already done multiple times.

“Sabi ko: ‘Lahat ng ginagawa ko, may katulad na.’ Kailangan ‘pag nakita, ako ‘yun. ‘Yung subject, marami nang gumagawa ng Old Manila. Yung mga simbahan, marami nang gumagawa. Halos lahat ng artist nagagawa na ‘yon, pero pare-pareho. Paano ko gagawin na iisa? Kaya kailangan madala ko sa mundo ko yon.”

(“I said: ‘Everything I’m doing has already been done.’ It should be that when someone sees my work, they see me. So many have done Old Manila as a subject. So many have done the churches. Almost every artist has already done that, but it’s always the same. How can I do something unique? That’s why I needed to bring it into my own world.”)

In Rubio’s world, life is simple and peaceful. Men and women walk down streets hand-in-hand, passing by the humble vendor or the familiar symbol of Old Manila: the horse-drawn calesa. And yet, Rubio is able to enhance his calming scenes by adding stylistic interventions and elevate them from being mere snapshots of colonial society. He uses hieratic scale to make his main figures stand out from a crowd, painting them as larger than life while the rest of his characters crawl about like ants at their feet. While his foreground remains intact, his background—the sky—is completely voided out and replaced with a flat, uniform color: an earthy brown, a sunny orange, or a vibrant red.

“Yung red ko, ‘yun yung quiet space ko. So marami akong makukulit na paintings. So kahit maraming tao yan, hindi magulo tingnan. Kasi meron akong pang-quiet e, yung bakante sa likod… So kahit gaano karaming maliliit na tao, hindi gugulo yung painting ko. Meron akong focal point. Parang music, ‘di ba?”

(“My red, that’s my quiet space. I have a lot of mischievous paintings. But even if there are a lot of figures, it doesn’t look messy. It’s because I have something to quiet things down, that empty space in the back… So no matter how many small people there are, my painting will not get messy. I have a focal point. It’s like music.”)

People look upon the Manila of today with nostalgia. Manila is one of the few cities in the whole of the Philippines’ capital region that still shows signs of the rich, layered history it harbors. The famous walled city of Intramuros bears the last few vestiges of colonial period architecture in the region, from the San Sebastian Church, to the Manila Cathedral, to the imposing Fort Santiago. Manila was known for being one of the most heavily devastated cities impacted by World War II. Much of the grandeur of what Old Manila once was remains a suggestion, as government institutions and cultural workers fight to keep what remains in the face of industrial development.

And therein lies the heart of what artists like Dominic Rubio do. Instead of riding on current trends that emphasize the contemporary, Rubio reframes the past so that audiences may view it from a modern perspective. In his paintings, audiences can see their own upbringings and those of their parents and grandparents while visiting a time yet untouched by destruction and rapid urbanization. By imparting his own artistic personality into these historic settings, Rubio asserts that these romantic periods of tradition and cultural reverence are not forever lost to the past but are instead a universal heritage that will persist through future generations as much more than just a memory.