Three years have come and gone and it’s the season once again for that classy circus which, to the informed, is just as exciting as the national elections: the national artist awards. The deadline has been met and all those nominations—thick portfolios over which much energy has been expended, along with prayers and crossed fingers—have been submitted.
Soon the directors of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts will be deliberating on the array of materials, testimonials and catalog of accomplishments before them.
Let’s see now what we have heard, having no insider information.
Among the candidates for literature and theater are the late playwright Bienvenido Noriega, fictionist-playwright Jose “Butch” Dalisay and my late aunt Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, essayist par excellence (nominated by F. Sionil José).
Nakpil, acclaimed for her wit and command of English, published 12 books, including personal and historical essays, memoirs and a novel. And her best work was done in her old age, the three-volume book of reminiscences: “Myself, Elsewhere,” “Legends & Adventurers” and “Exeunt.”
Author of two highly praised novels and considered a master of the short story, Dalisay has collected his stories into a hefty, 495-page book, “Voyager and Other Fictions.” This won plaudits from National Artist Resil B. Mojares: “In a digital culture that fosters an appetite for the easy, the quick and the merely smart and fashionable, it is important to slow down and relish the pleasures of reading Dalisay: the precision and fluency of his prose, his natural storytelling gifts, his skill at character and dialogue, his cool wit and penchant for the ironic and, beneath his air of levity, a keen understanding of human frailty and folly, tenacity and strength.”
For all of Mojares’ brilliance as a short story writer, for me the Cebuano genius is best exemplified by Renato E. Madrid (Msgr. Rudy Villanueva in real life). As a seminarian at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) during the 1980s, Villanueva shyly presented his stories to Nick Joaquin, then and now every young writer’s literary idol.
“I suppose I was expecting a wad of devotional gooey,” recalled Joaquin in 1986. “What I got was stuff to make the flesh crawl.”
Villanueva wrote more stories and, under the pseudonym of Renato Madrid, published his first collection of stories titled “Southern Harvest.” He went on to write two terrific novels: “Devil Wings” and “Mass for the Death of an Enemy.” He is also a playwright, and a trained composer and conductor.
Too late now but he could have been nominated national artist for literature and for music, not that he would have cared either way. For the little that I saw of him—Mojares took me once to visit him at his San Jose Seminary in Cebu, and at another time, he attended a PEN meeting at Solidaridad Book Shop in Padre Faura, Manila—Villanueva’s priority then and now was Holy Mother Church and Her flock.
Three years ago, composer Jerry A. Dadap lost out to the younger Ryan Cayabyab in the national artist derby. Cayabyab had talent and popularity; Dadap, who is in his mid-80s, has talent but lacks Cayabyab’s charm. His best-known work is the great musical “Andres Bonifacio: Ang Dakilang Anak Pawis,” presented at the CCP in 1979 with a large cast. But he has written many other major compositions, including an opera on San Lorenzo Ruiz and an oratorio on the life of Jesus.
His admirers are not giving up and this year he is being nominated again. Dadap (incidentally my choirmaster) can take great songs like Felipe de Leon’s “Payapang Daigdig” and Lucio San Pedro’s “Sa Ugoy ng Duyan,” rearrange these for four voices, and raise the music to greater heights as interpreted by the choir.
In visual arts, cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo is apparently a strong contender, considering the buzz around him. But a dark horse has emerged in the person of painter Rene Robles, 70.
Robles took up fine arts at UST and furthered his studies in New York. Grants and study tours have taken him to France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium. He is said to have had over 70 solo shows in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia.
Robles’ works are not too well known here but he has been highly praised by critic Cid Reyes: “Rising above the rubble, as it were, is Rene Robles [with] works ranging from portraiture, still lifes, nudes, landscapes, religious images, murals, figuration [to] abstraction…”
Why, even the fashion designers are in the running; is fashion design a major art form? I leave the answer to the reader, with his or her perceptions.
I can think of many outstanding artists who should be national artists by now but they have not been so honored. Kabayao, Castrillo, Brillantes, et al. And there are those who almost became national artists because of presidential intervention, like—well, never mind.
Even the Nobel Prize jurors have their hits and misses. They overlooked James Joyce but gave the award to Sinclair Lewis. Actually, nobody would object if they gave the award to this scientist or to that peacemaker. But it is always the arts which generate a lot of controversy. Ate Guy will surely corroborate this. —CONTRIBUTED