Bambina Olivares has worn many hats. Just last year, she curated the first group exhibition of Philippine artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Manila’s new location, “The M”. Attuned to the ways of the world, she lived for years in France, the UK, Hong Kong, Jordan, Guam, Mauritius, and South Africa, for her own studies and during her marriage to a banker. During this extensive period living abroad, Olivares remained active in the art scene of whatever locality she was in, expressing, “That love and passion were always there.” As she speaks to the LIFESTYLE.INQ team, she enunciates in an elegant, almost genteel manner. Yet she is undoubtedly the kind of person that grabs life by the horns.
Upon her return to Manila, Olivares worked briefly as Lifestyle Editor of the Standard, then APEC, and then as Director of PR and Arts for the Culture and Education Programs at the Manila House. With an eloquent bearing and analytical mind, she has risen to the challenge of writing criticism for art exhibitions. She also maintained a column in Preen for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “It was always there,” she says, “kind of competing between writing and art. Sometimes art would win. Sometimes the writing and journalism side.”
At present, she wears the “thinking cap” of an academic, finishing up her dissertation for the Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies Masters Program at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. While balancing her metaphorical wardrobe as a full-time Communications Consultant and Consultant for Special Exhibitions at The M, she shares expert advice with the museum team through knowledge of art theory, art history, and aesthetics.
Bambina’s journey into the field started where many people first fall in love with art — in the classroom, during an Art History elective as a student at Ateneo de Manila University. After graduating, her first job was to catalog work in the Ayala Museum library. Tasked to do a research paper on the investment potential of artists, she remembers, “I really enjoyed it. I liked the research part of it. The nerdy, geeky side.” As a young adult, she left Manila to study a French Language and Civilization summer course at the Sorbonne, as well as a History of Art and Architecture program at the Institut Catholique de Paris. The rest is history.
It soon becomes clear that all her life, Bambina Olivares has been in pursuit of education. She recalls her Masteral classes in the Sainsbury Centre, a museum attached to the University of East Anglia, and one of Norman Foster’s first commissions. “I really took to it quite nicely, I think. UEA, as we call it, wasn’t one of these schools that were a hundred years old where you walk through these August halls. It was modern, a little brutalist. But the quality of art in the museum was incredible. You walk through it every day and there are Henry Moores all around. They [Robert and Lisa Sainsbury] were very refined collectors who had Mexican and pre-columbian art from the Americas—civilizations juxtaposed with modern art like Francis Bacon, Picassos. They had a Modigliani,” she gleams.
Currently, Olivares is hastening to finish her dissertation for her Master’s Degree, writing remotely from the Philippines. She tells us her topic, “The Power of Impotence: Deimperialising and Reimagining Hong Kong Cultural Heritage Through the Films of Wong Kar-wai.” How cool can you get?
“I know it sounds geeky,” she says, “but I lived in Hong Kong for a long time, and both my daughters were born there during two separate stints. It is an interesting postcolonial society in that it had no pre-colonial society to return to after 1997, and it was not prepared for independence.” Through this colonial lens, she explores its capitalist history, uncertain future, and “a power in powerlessness” she finds parallels of in Wong Kar-wai’s films.
During her course in England, Olivares was in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds when she got a call from Metropolitan Museum of Manila President Tina Colayco, who asked her to curate the exhibition at the museum’s new location. Both happy and with some trepidation, she shares, “Of course, I’ve always wanted to curate because of my experience in art. But sometimes I would think this is like a case of those who can’t teach?” she laughs, “Or those who can’t paint, curate?”
“The Hat of the Matter”
South African curator Ricky Burnett once told Bambina Olivares, “Curating is using the art to make magic. If you’re not changing the room with the art you put in it, you’re not doing it properly.” And while Curator Olivares did not cast incantations on the “The Hat of the Matter” at The M, the presentation made you feel like you were coming under a spell of enchantment.
Through paintings, photography, video works, and sculptures, “The Hat of the Matter” from October to November 2022 explored our local hat-wearing culture with both traditional and contemporary pieces. The displayed objects addressed issues like “climate change, power structures, colonialism, and collective memory” to “income equality, global supply chains, gender roles, and female empowerment”. Presented in an approachable way to viewers, milliner and feminist Mich Dulce presented fascinators and fedoras in T’nalak weave. Tekla Temoria pushed the boundaries beyond headwear with her large-scale paper skulls. Hanging from the ceiling was Princess Mononoke, Guardian of Smokey Mountain, a sculpture made of discarded plastic bottles and cable ties by Leeroy New. Fiber artist Aze Ong presented her wearable sculpture Queen Azenith. The exhibit was anchored with historical pieces like wooden Cordillera helmets on loan from historian Ambeth Ocampo and a silver salakot from the auctioneer Jaime Ponce de Leon.
Thanks to Olivares’ curatorial platform, the contemporary works in “The Hat of the Matter” communicated significant issues in exciting ways, while grounded in the preservation of Philippine heritage.
Plans and Her Vision
According to Olivares, when you curate, you also create. “You’re not just showing art. You’re creating an experience,” she explains, “You have to be open to the fact that art means different things to different people. It’s not a place for elitism. You have to have substance, but you can’t be exclusionary. If the greater public can feel that they’re entitled to experiencing art and everything that it brings–mental, emotional well-being, provoking intellectual thought or just helping and giving that kind of serenity and joy, it’s a good thing.”
She speaks to us in a modern section of The M. Distinguished from the art deco Manila Metropolitan Theater as well as the Met in New York, “The M” is at the nucleus of the city. In BGC, the new space has a tangibly refreshed and re-energized spirit. The emerging arts hub is right beside Bonifacio High Street, bustling with working professionals and families. On the other side, its view is a verdant public park.
Olivares tells us about the upcoming exhibition, “Sounds of Blackness” on March 14, a group exhibit featuring an ensemble of visual artists from the African diaspora, curated by Ghanaian-American curator Larry Ossei-Mensah. The exhibit promises to bring fresh perspectives to the Philippines, with works evoking “expressions of joy, pain beauty, and the complexities of black life around the globe.” Olivares tells us to expect a completely different energy with a refreshed originality and exquisite draughtmanship.
Another exhibition coming up later in the month is “An Elusive Edge”, featuring the works of pioneering Philippine abstractionists like Joya and Manansala. Trusting her familiarity with art history canons, Olivares states, “I find there is a very specific language of Philippine abstraction that is quite unique to us.”
Behind the scenes of these thought-provoking exhibits are research, planning, and all kinds of coordination. But Filipinos are resourceful, and things always come together at the last minute, “It could be stressful,” the curator says, “but the results in the end make you forget the stress.”
It’s hard to say what hat Bambina Olivares is going to wear next. On her vision for The M, she tells us a core part is, “Art for all. You’ve really got to think with a broad brush, so to speak. You have to have that openness to reach everyone. To welcome.” Gifted with brilliance as both an art worker and journalist, Bambina Olivares inspires through her influence to create experiences that promote diversity and inclusion. As she dons an out-of-the-ordinary career ensemble, we take our own “hats off” to Bambina Olivares for her innovative vision.
Photography by Patrick Diokno
Styling by Ria Prieto
Creative Direction by Nimu Muallam
Hair and Make-up by Angel Reyes-Manhilot
Sittings by Angela Go