Two men, art, and the city of light

Fritzie Rodriguez
Two men, art, and the city of light
'My only advice is curiosity,' says renowned Filipino artist Gaston Damag to a younger artist in Paris

SAINT-DENIS, France – From Banaue to France, the artist thrives.

He was a young man when he first came to Paris in the 1980s. It was a woman who made him fly, an engineer visiting Ifugao for research.

Tambay ako noon sa Banaue,” quipped renowned Filipino artist Gaston Damag. “And when you’re young, you hunt.” 

His studio was messy, with colorful crusts and spots, as he narrated his roots. A pack of Choc Nut rested on his desk, while a nearly empty bottle of Tanduay stood against rows and rows of books.

Damag had some time off after graduating from high school; in those two years, he met tourists from across the globe. One of them eventually became his lover.

Damag’s girlfriend suggested he try his luck at the University of the Philippines. He did. And so the Banaue boy found himself enrolled at the Fine Arts (FA) program in Diliman, sharing artworks featuring the Bulol or the Ifugao rice god.

After a year, Damag’s girlfriend had to return home. He joined her.

In Paris, Damag again tried his luck. First at the Paris Ecole National Superieure des Deaux-Arts, then at the Cergy Ecole National Superieure d’art Plastique.

He obtained degrees from both universities, graduating summa cum laude. Education is free in France, he was thankful for that. The entrance exams, however, were tough.

The young artist then toiled as a technical assistant in a museum. The day job paid the bills and allowed him to meet and learn from other artists. When he is not working, he is making art.

Whenever money was tight, Damag would squat in buildings and let art flow on those walls. He had no money for his own workshop then.

“Most artists have very supportive wives,” Damag said, as he thanked his wife for standing by him for over 30 years. He recalled how difficult it was during his first few years as a full-time artist.

After 12 long years, Damag finally decided to focus on his art. Until today, he uses the Bulol in his art.

Why the Bulol?

“It’s more fun for me to use idols. I’m an Ifugao, it’s really in my skin. And because I know him, I grew up with the image.”

Now 51, Damag opens his home in Saint-Denis in the northern suburbs of Paris to young Filipino artists, encouraging them to explore and make the most out of Paris, art, and life.

“Work, work, work,” Damag advised young artists. “And be proud of being Filipino.”

PH art

“I think we have our own identity, different from the others,” said Damag as he described Filipino art. “But we are easily influenced by the values of others. We have to go back to our own.”

“My only advice is curiosity. Travel around the Philippines, be curious about our own culture,” he continued.

The problem, however, is that not everyone gets to access art.

“In the Philippines, what’s problematic is that we don’t have many museums. If there are, it’s hard to commute,” Damag explained. “So their priority shifts.”

Unlike Manila, it is very easy to get around Paris either by walking, cycling, bus, or train – making it easier for people to see art wherever and whenever they want. Most galleries also do not charge fees.

“Culture is not the Philippines’ priority,” he added. This is something he hopes to change. On the upside, Damag lauds the efforts of the National Museum and the several art galleries flourishing in the metro.


Classical music flows through Damag’s studio as he lifts a stool and returns to his painting.

He offers a drink to a young man, one of the many Filipino artists who look up to him. Renz Lee has been an exchange student in Paris for over 4 months now, under a scholarship from the French government. 

Lee has always been in love with science. In fact, he wanted to study physics or architecture, but failed the exams. He then tried the Fine Arts (FA) program; since then, the young man has been making waves.

Aside from making art installations, Lee also chairs the UP FA student council.

The 20-year-old uses his works to promote Philippine art and culture. As a feminist, he also uses art to send a strong message – “You cannot free art if you do not free women.”

INSTALLATION ART. One of Renz Lee's work, entitled 'Kalakal ng kalawakan.'

Lee observed that in the Philippines, access to art seems “exclusive.” Like Damag, he wants this to change. 

How? By shifting art away from being a business-oriented affair, argued Lee.

“Here in Paris, people are so submerged in art. In museums, the people I see are not artists but families and common people,” Lee said. “Art here is not exclusive, it’s part of their lifestyle.” 

Lee encouraged Filipinos to explore Filipino art, sharing some of his favorite places:

  • The UP School of Fine Arts and Vargas Museum
  • Pinto Museum in Antipolo
  • 1335 Mabini Art Gallery in Ermita

Lee admits his worry that someday he might also succumb to the “business-oriented” side of art as he needs to survive. “But if I can escape it, I will try.”

Upon his return home in January, he will be holding an art show where he will be featuring the homeless in Paris. “They are immigrants in their own country,” explained Lee. “Homelessness is also a problem in a beautiful country.”

ARTISTS. Filipino artists Gaston Damag and Renz Lee share stories and artworks on a Thursday afternoon. All photos by Fritzie Rodriguez

Like one of his idols, Damag, Lee is proud to be a true Filipino artist. “Filipino art students can thrive here,” he said. “They’re just not given a chance to show their art.”

Lee, alongside the many upcoming artists, are calling on the Philippine government to support culture and arts, not just financially, but more importantly by giving it more attention in terms of publicity and education.

From one artist to another, Damag advises the likes of Lee to carve their own paths without forgetting their roots wherever they may be – even in a faraway, lovely place like Paris. –

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