Snapshots: Manila’s accessible art

Nico Marco

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A young Filipino expat comes home for business with memories of free art

MANILA, Philippines – I have not lived in the Philippines for a considerably long time, but every time I go back home, I acquire a different perspective of our vibrant lifestyle and culture. It’s almost like playing tourist in your own hometown, but with a rightful balance of cynicism and wanderlust. 

Though I’ve always been a casual enthusiast of art in general, my knowledge and appreciation of Pinoy art was admittedly dire. (Growing up in urban Manila, my idea of pop-art was phallus vandalism on brick walls, with statements that say “Bawal ihi, kundi putol ****” — Non-Filipinos, Google Translate at your own risk!). 

It was in my last business trip where I spent most of the time in hellish Manila traffic that I rediscovered Manila as an art force. I wasn’t sure if it was the idle time or simply my hipster pretense, but it all came like an avalanche to me.

No need to dig into history books, nor visit museums. Manila is full of art delight, with some works that are actually just staring right at our faces. Here’s a simple list of what I just casually stumbled upon. (Snotty scholars beware, this is untrained-eye-friendly.)

Outdoor mall art 

FOR THIS, YOU GOTTA stop and look more closely. Relish the colors and prints, allow them to 'blanket' you. Photo by Nico Marco

Manila’s concrete jungle fixtures have started adopting Filipino art into their exterior. Most notable are the Ayala Malls in Makati, where a stroll in the Greenbelt area would lead you to modern sculptures and kinetic installations. A personal favorite is the mural of photographs of native fabrics taken by Jaime Zobel in the Greenbelt tunnel.

I had to get out of the car in the middle of traffic just to get a closer glimpse of the richly-colored patterns. It felt like stepping into a real-life Instagram portal. 

Classic government buildings 

I remember, as a teen, I wondered why our government buildings look like structures from ancient Olympus. These flagship government buildings were built back in the early U.S. era and, at the time, the American urban planners and designers were heavily influenced by their European roots.

NOT ONLY IN EUROPE. We have beautiful buildings like the DOT building, too. Photo by Nico Marco

The National Museum and the Department of Tourism buildings in Manila are examples of neo-classical architecture that is now considered heritage.

The EDSA project

Perhaps the cradle of imperial Manila’s mess and pollute, EDSA has recently been getting a makeover via a joint project by the MMDA (Metro Manila Development Authority) and Boysen (Philippine paint manufacturer). Dubbed KNOxOUT Project, the campaign is an urban renewal initiative that aims to simultaneously clean the air and enable public accessibility to ambitious artwork.

TRAVERSING EDSA IS NO longer the same. With artwork like this, commuters get a free exhibit everyday. Photo by Kai Magsanoc

What I found most striking is the work of Finnish artist Tapio Snellman along the Cubao Aurora Underpass — a sepia-like, complex view of Manila life, largely represented in various types of pipes and wires. I first stumbled upon this at two in the morning, and for a moment there, it looked like it was straight out of an Asian version of the “Blade Runner” movie. 

Glorious churches 

Much has already been said and written about Manila’s legendary churches, but I’d still like to reiterate it here.

THE HUSTLE AND BUSTLE of Quiapo is part of the energy that makes the city interesting and enigmatic. Photo by Nico Marco

The Baroque design of San Agustin Church, the unique steel structure of Basilica Minore de San Sebastian, the grand flair of Quiapo Church — amid Manila’s dirty soot and noise, they’re almost nothing like it in the world, particularly in Asia.


(Nico Marco is a Southeast Asia-based Pinoy expat. You can follow him on Twitter via @nicomarco.) 

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