How literature and the plastic arts complement one another in depicting and making meaning of the world and its transitions is underscored in “Allegories and Realities, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi: In Retrospect” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ (CCP) Bulwagang Juan Luna (main gallery).
The exhibit, part of the CCP’s ongoing 50th anniversary program, is the largest exhibition of Gelvezon-Tequi’s prints and paintings to date with 219 featured works from the 1970s to the present.
Having studied English and Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Gelvezon-Tequi draws from literature, philosophy and art history in her prodigious art-making spanning half a century.
Ma. Victoria Herrera, director of the Ateneo Art Gallery who curated the CCP exhibit, explained that the title, “Allegories and Realities,” encapsulates the essence of Tequi’s works—symbolic figures and imagery representing Philippine reality. The title also suggests her artistic development: the earlier works are allegorical while her later ones, realistic and personal.
The first set of works in the gallery introduces Gelvezon-Tequi through her “St. Ofelia” self-portrait series. The works uses a medium she is most known for—etching and viscosity color printing. Other prints in the first set show the houses she had lived in while still in the Philippines before moving to France.
Also in the first section are her silk works. Many art lovers are unaware that she practiced the old-Asian silk painting technique in rendering images that pit Medieval Catholic icons and the Malay animist “anting-anting.”
The medieval iconography and representations evolved to become “Apocalypse,” also known as the “Pinball Series.” They are juxtaposed with pop references and design elements to reflect on Filipinos’ addiction to gambling and games of chance and their Malay belief in spirits and charms.
Occupying a large space in the gallery are a series of images seemingly repetitive, such as the “Predella,” which looks like a Marian icon. It depicts a woman with the suggestion of power sitting on a throne, but her face is unseen. Below her are a group of men involved in violence that she perhaps might never know. The familiar image is grazed with a strong play of color gradations.
Aside from the image itself, this section presents Gelvezon-Tequi’s technical process of viscosity etching on a zinc plate from sketch to the final work. It may be her innate gift of narrative and sense of historical importance that made her keep the plates.
Finishing a work
She commented that she liked the process of determining when a work would be finished. “Will I overcome the mechanical and chemical technique? The result, do I accept it or reject it? I have to be humble because not everything can be controlled,” she said.
Across the gallery is displayed the process of viscosity etching. From a single plate, multiple prints are reproduced which, she insisted, are not copies, but editions or “multiple originals” with differences in color and detail.
Many of her famous works are strongly political, but she has saved them from becoming tendentious agitprop through her keen allegorical approach.
Inspired by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” Gelvezon-Tequi presents her more political commentaries by incorporating what she calls “visual puns,” such as images of the crocodile, lap dog, shadowy figures and men in business attire, representing corruption in high places.
The second part of the exhibit shows her thematic and artistic range. Shifting away from the allegorical and medieval iconography, her acrylic paintings depict Philippine society realistically.
Still, there remain literary and philosophical allusions, such as the Greek philosopher Hesiod’s teaching of the good life in depicting a rural landscape. In all of this is her unfailing sense of composition.
Herrera mentions that if the subjects are taken away, the background may reside in the realm of abstract art due to Gelvezon-Tequi’s strokes and the play of color.
Her Philippine Catholic culture continues to manifest in her later works. She reimagines, for instance, the Joyful and Sorrowful mysteries of the Holy Rosary in the context of the prevalence of poverty and prostitution in the Philippines.
Similarly the Philippine diaspora is depicted with allusions to Catholic iconography.
Gelvezon-Tequi’s latest present more personal narratives. Enclosed in a small space, the works represent the inspiration from her home in the rural village of Limeuil in Southwest France. Placing plants, vegetables, orchids beside porcelain vases and plates, she contrasts the ephemeral and the eternal.
An important figure in Philippine modern art history, Gelvezon-Tequi was the first female recipient of the CCP Thirteen Artists Award (1972). Before that, in 1969, she won the first prize in the Printmakers Association of the Philippines contest. She received the Quatrième Mention at the XVIII Salon Ile-de-France at Bourg-la-Reine in 1985, the Michiko Takamatsu Prize in 2002, and the Lucien and Suzanne Jonas Prize at the Salon des Artistes Français in Paris in 2003.—CONTRIBUTED INQ