Edwin Wilwayco’s arresting diptych of ambiguous figures in strokes of reds and browns surprise visitors upon entering the Raffles Suites’ lobby, in Ayala Center, Makati.
As they look closer and hear the strains of piano music from the adjacent lounge, they realize they are abstractions of musicians and the paintings are odes to the scherzo.
Likewise, Daniel de la Cruz’s sculpture of a woman’s body inside a cello echoes the musical theme. While sipping tea or cocktails at the lounge, guests savor “Harana” (The Serenade), a group of six paintings setting the romance.
Small paintings of a leaf-blower, a pianist, harmonica-player and a violinist surround a barong-clad man wooing a long-haired woman. Beside their portrait is a magician suggesting the “magic of the moment.”
Lebanese art consultant Hala Jaber explains that since the lobby lounge is a venue for entertainment, musical-themed artworks would enhance the ambience. The experience stands in for the custom of Filipinos greeting foreigners and balikbayan with music.
Beyond decoration, art is interlaced with the guest’s or inhabitant’s experience at the Raffles Suites and Raffles Residences. They have a collection of over 1,700 commissioned artworks, which is unprecedented in the hotel industry.
A sociologist, Jaber approaches art in a cultural context. While living in Ghana, she wanted to furnish her home with African art. However, African art can be overwhelming. Thus, she started researching on the culture, the local artists, and incorporated her knowledge of Western aesthetics.
“I worked on concepts and color combinations,” she recalls.
Every painting had a theme that complemented the activity or the mood of a house.
Her curation made such an impact that she was hired by Kingdom Hotel Inc. (KHI), the investment company of Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, which develops and manages high-end properties in the hospitality industry.
Her first job was to select the art for historical Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel in Accra, Ghana. The collection reflected the soul of Ghanian culture.
When KHI was building the Fairmont-Raffles property for the Ayalas, Jaber was tasked to source artworks for the Raffles hotel and service apartment.
She visited the main galleries and museums and dined with local artists. One day, sculptor Ramon Orlina lent his driver to take her to St. Luke’s Global City. Jaber was impressed by the diversity and how managing director and art connoisseur Dr. Joven Cuanang integrated Filipino expression as a fundamental element in the hospital design.
Jaber observes most artworks in other hotels seem dispassionate, leaving the visitor cold.
“Here we make it personal,” she says.
When she collaborated with 35 artists, she told them art was a part of the hotel’s identity. It should cohere with the architecture, design, concept, the spirit of Raffles and the vibe of the culture.
“I checked every artwork myself. There was an easel in my office, which turned into a studio. We talked to artists about last-minute changes so that some colors would suit the place. Even the framing was done in a homey feel.”
Jaber’s concept was to depict Philippine culture in unexpected ways and to invite guests to think more deeply about their experience. The hotel location, the activities and its clientele were considered.
At the elevator foyer, “The Explorer” by Gerry Joguico portrays trade during colonial times. A Spanish galleon is surrounded by images of banana trees evocative of the tropics; old stamps; the travelers’ palm logo of Raffles; an antique crest; and 19th-century elite which suggests the hotel’s upscale clientele.
The painting, which portrays luxury travel in the Spanish times, suits a high-traffic area such as the vestibule.
“People come and go here,” Jaber says.
The Long Bar represents icons of Filipino culture. Cebu-based French artist Delphine Delorme’s Pop Art collages reveal our fascination with beauty contests, Manny Pacquiao, and social pastimes.
In the boxing collage, Pacquiao’s features are softened.
“He mustn’t look aggressive as this is a bar,” maintains Jaber.
His portrait is superimposed with images of “Thrilla in Manila” and a poster announcing Pancho Villa. It is contrasted with a feminine collage of Carnival Queens.
The third is a pastiche of turn-of-the-century cigar and alcohol labels and a couple dancing.
Cartoonist Sherwin Gonzalez and artist Anthony Palomo pay homage to an original print on the making of the Singapore Sling, a signature cocktail at the Raffles Bar in Singapore. The local version humorously shows a series on how a bartender makes a cocktail with San Miguel Beer and a tiger getting drunk afterward.
Even the restrooms at the bar are enlivened with amusing artworks. The men’s room has an ambigram of “Joy to You,” which reads the same backward on its mirror reflection. An animé of a woman with big eyes and red lips suggests that the female powder room is a place for touch-ups.
Along the corridors, guests feel as if they’re touring the city with earth-toned abstractions of buildings, electrical posts, bancas, jeepneys by Jojo Austria.
Since Raffles is at the heart of the Central Business District, the artworks are subtle and relaxing, yet reflective of Filipino sentiment.
“Every suite should tell a story,” says Jaber.
To show the Philippines’ historical link with Spain, all suites are furnished with Rafael Cusi’s triptych of a bailaora, a Spanish dancer and portrait of a matador, done in soft washes and ink.
The romance of Clarence Eduarte’s “Lumina” and “Flora” in the living and dining area plays against the urban mixed-media abstraction of Max Balatbat.
Another suite displays idyllic themes such as Cusi’s “Old Spanish Town”; Leopoldo Aguilar’s “Lady Ukkil”; laced with Maranao patterns, Palomo’s diptych of travels; and Carlos Rocha’s sculpture of a fisherman.
These integrate seamlessly with the theme of vacation and make the stay of the guests more enjoyable. They feel part of an experience without knowing exactly why.
As the elevator opens to the hallways of the Raffles Residences, the inhabitant or guest is greeted by powerful images of the Pahiyas, embroidery, the sorbetero, the banig, bamboo, weaving, the carnival, street vendors, Maria Makiling and pintados.
On several floors, Balatbat sets chicken wire and geometric patterns against stenciled tiles, portraying amorphous images of Makati.
“Some paintings are more obvious than others. This looks more like a map,” defends Jaber.
A triptych of Japanese artist Wataru Sakuma’s mulberry-paper art is found in every bedroom of the service apartment. As one wakes up, Palomo’s painting of a bicycle amid a background of leaves stirs feelings of vigor and activity.
“It inspires you to exercise. You want to feel fresh, and it’s whimsical,” says Jaber.
When the person comes home to the unit, Rocha’s painting of a large piano with wine, roses and a date lends a welcoming presence in the loving room.
“You have to feel good—that’s the story of my art,” says Jaber.