28 May 2017

Curious Curator on Art Appreciation and Showcasing Visayas- and Mindanao-based Filipino Artists

Art is no longer a thing of the elite. Through technological advancements, especially social media, that make sharing experiences a breeze, we’ve arrived at an era where art is accessible and gets more attention than ever. Individuals from different sectors and classes are now welcome to consume and elevate it. This movement is apparent in the recent popularity of open-to-the-public art fairs, the boom of local art galleries which paved the way for an influx of new artists, and the expansion of concepts art tackles. It is truly relieving to realize that we’ve come that far. We still couldn’t deny, however, that there's yet a long way to go, in terms of making art truly universal. And that leaves a challenge to all of us. 

Fortunately, there are those who have already started the work, taking risks to trail the path towards revolutionizing art consumption and/or appreciation. For one, there is Karen Nomorosa and Prim Paypon―a Biology professor and an NGO owner, respectively―who were convinced that the lack of an art degree shouldn't stop one from heeding this call. Through their mutual love for art, they brought Curious Curator to the table―an art incubator and startup anchored on the desire to establish a non-mainstream avenue for starting art enthusiasts and collectors. More than redefining art appreciation and exhibition, though, Curious Curator is driven by the vision to bridge the gap between the vibrant art scene in Metro Manila and the budding artists from Visayas and Mindanao. Upon its shoulders is the hope to make these underrated artists have the recognition and opportunities they so deserve. 

PURVEYR sat with Karen and Prim to better know this new concept that, frankly, has also sparked a lot of questions in our heads.

"to be a platform for these very talented yet very young artists outside of Metro Manila who also have that hope to someday become professional artists." 

When and how did Curious Curator start?

Prim: Karen and I have been friends for 13 years. And it was only in the recent years that we were able to find out that we're both art enthusiasts. That kinda started the discussion about our love for the arts. But we established the Curious Curator just because we felt that, ideally, the Manila Art Scene should also be participated in by the Visayas and Mindanao artists. 

Karen: I think it's also driven by the fact that Prim comes from the Visayas and he's really active in development work. So, when we were bouncing around the idea of maybe doing something like a gallery, we realized that maybe we should really feature artists that have a hard time accessing mainstream galleries here in Manila—great, talented artists who even won international competitions but still have a hard time. 

Prim: We did an informal survey and found that in every 10 Filipino artists that we've interacted with in Ilo-ilo and Cebu, only two gets invited to be a part of a group exhibition or to be staged as a gallery artist here in Metro Manila. When we tried to deconstruct the problem, we actually found out that there's not really an art incubation or acceleration here in the Philippines. So, we tried the possibility of starting an art incubation and acceleration—something to bridge the gap between the art galleries in Manila and the artists in Visayas and Mindanao—in a very start-up framework, since Karen and I also couldn’t afford to put up a physical gallery. We launched it on September 30 last year, on the same night that we launched our first exhibition. 

Founders of Curious Curator: Prim and Karen

What do you envision for Curious Curator?

Karen: Our end goal for the artists is to connect them to the mainstream galleries here. So our success metric, other than selling the works from their two-man or solo exhibitions, is getting picked up by a mainstream gallery later on to later have their own show in that gallery. 

Prim: We call it an art incubator and accelerator because it's not just about tapping an artist and asking them to make ten artworks for us to show. We keep in mind that they've never had an exposure here in Manila so we try to guide them in terms of sizes of the artworks and deciding on the prices. 

What drove you to forward this cause?

Prim: Perhaps passion started it but Karen and I would want to believe that we’re just strongly guided by our “why”—why we actually did the Curious Curator in the first place. We always knew that our profit is very slim but our success metric for Curious Curator is whether or not the two artists we exhibit get invited by Manila art galleries. 

How do you select the artists?

Prim: We have certain criteria for selecting the artist. We profile the artists that we've interacted with and those we've read in the news—those who made it to international competitions. It's really an entire process of selection. Since we're an incubator, we choose those who have never had a solo exhibition here in Manila but have won a legitimate art competition. We also want to work with artists who can be mentored, in the sense that we'd be able to work with the artists from the concept creation stage and help them define their signature strokes. We also try to professionalize, prepare them for potential buyers who are coming from Manila. 

Can you describe this creative process with these artists?

Prim: It's all collaborative. When we find an artist, we try to understand what makes this artist really good. So that we could help him/her with the stroke, the concepts, the texture, the colors that he/she would use. Then we try to come up with a relevant social concept which might match the artist's style. 

Karen: But it's not as if we're imposing 'cause it's something that's inherently there. It's just like we're a third eye or party that will help them figure things out. I think, at this time, it's very important to have a very unique perspective and very original voice. We help them find that. 

Aeson Baldevia, Featured Photographer in "Before They Are Gone"

How do you find them? How do you know if it's a match?

Prim: When we have a set of artists we wanted to work with, we try to match them with the artists that we know from all the exhibitions we've attended who might share the same strokes, colors, concepts with them. So, at the end of it, when they first introduce their artwork in Metro Manila, even if it's a two-person exhibition, they would still be able to showcase their originality. We also try to push our boundaries. Most of the two-person exhibitions in Metro Manila, they're both painters. For our first exhibition, we had an oil painter and a cold-cast marble sculptor. And it's always a balance of a young and a seasoned artist. 

Karen: Sometimes, it's serendipitous, I guess. For that first exhibition, we were in Ilo-ilo and we dropped by one of the galleries, Casa Real. And there was an ongoing exhibit with the Cold-Cast Marble sculptor. And when I saw it, I immediately loved it. And I wanted the artist to do a mother and child piece. Then we saw the works of the oil-painter. We've already heard about the oil painter prior to that. But when we were thinking about who to feature for the first exhibit, it's as if it just naturally clicked. The oil painter features mainly women and children in her paintings, and the cold-cast marble sculptor has this whole series about women. That's when we came up with the theme: The Quiet Strength of a Woman. But we had it in Ilonggo—Ang Maugdang nga Kusog sang Babaye—because they're both from Ilo-ilo.

I think we’re also very fortunate that Prim travels a lot for his NGO. He’s always around different towns across the Philippines. It’s also about maintaining relationships in the art world—maintaining relationships with artists and gallery owners. It’s like a net effect of keeping in touch with people. 

Prim: It’s really trying to bootstrap. To work around available opportunities. Karen and I just do what we wanted as a concept and the type of artist that we want to work with. So, when all of these artists appear in exhibitions that we attend, there’s like a yes-or-no engine in our head.

Jovito Hecita, Featured Painter in "Before They Are Gone"

How is Curious Curator different in terms of the manner for art exhibition?

Prim: We only open for three days—Friday is the opening night, regular viewing is Saturday and Sunday. That’s how we wanted to curate differently. A usual gallery would have it for two weeks or so. For us, those are the days that we can afford to pay for the venue. We don’t do exhibitions in art galleries. So, we try to challenge ourselves in terms of curation. For our Day 2 which falls on a Saturday, we also send our artists for an art education, to visit art galleries and museums here because these are the venues that they have to witness and go to which are not accessible for artists outside Metro Manila because it’s very costly to go here. Part of the art incubation and acceleration that we do is we fly them to Manila. 

We also curate our own food. Why? Because part of appreciating the art is also engaging the audience in a multi-sensory experience. It’s actually more challenging to curate the food because we prepare them ourselves more than curating the arts. In terms of preparing the food, we have to get local produce, ingredients, and delicacies from where the artists come from or from where the concept was born. In addition, we also try to engage local brands to be partners—like a local beverage or local tea. 

Karen: We try to humanize and Filipinize art appreciation. That’s why when we’re trying to create the concept, we try to come up with something that is very relatable and exciting. 

Prim: Apart from that, when Karen and I were coming up with Curious Curator, we wanted the concepts, more than accessible, to be very relevant. We had to agree that it has to be positive and timely. It has to be engaging. We’re also very blessed to work with not just skilled artists but artists who come from very beautiful stories. 

Karen: But it’s not like a conscious choice to pick artists with interesting stories. They just unravel on their own. While we interact with them, we learn about their personal histories 

Why did you make the art exhibitions shorter? 

Prim: Because it would be really costly for a startup. Secondly, it’s a challenge for Karen and I to sell the artworks in the span of just three days. It’s also a barometer of how good the artists are. For people to buy the art or choose to actually go to our exhibition, we have to find all the ways that are creative and innovative to engage them. So three days is really a challenge for both of us.

Karen: Also, our main audience are people who are working or are students. So the weekends are also a time for people to come and spend time. Prim and I also have our full-time jobs. The short span of the exhibit also forces people to come. It’s like a declaration that they have to see us “before we are gone”. 

Prim: No one opens an art exhibit on a Friday. It’s the time for gimmicks. But we took that risk. Maybe we could give people a better use of their time to appreciate humanity and the arts. 

One side of your equation is giving an avenue for these artists, taking them to Manila from Visayas and Mindanao. Can you tell us about the other?

Karen: The other side of it is that our networks consists of young professionals and young founders. And we really want to introduce them to the concept of honing original Filipino art. I think, that’s also one of the reasons why we came up with the pop-up concept and not holding it in a traditional gallery. We wanted it to be in a place that’s familiar and very, very accessible. So, the other part of the equation is also being able to share the experience of loving art with others. That was the other part of our equation. We really wanted to take it away from a gallery setting. Because it’s intimidating. You engage people in conversation and they ask you, “So who’s your favorite artist?”

Prim: During the informal survey that we did before we came up with the framework of the Curious Curator, we asked people what makes them attend an art exhibit. A lot of people felt that the opening nights of an art gallery are very elitist at some point. I think it also worked for us as Curious Curators founders that we're not coming from a very strict art background. Our network is also not the very prolific pool of art collectors. We’re not proteges from that background. In fact, we have different taste for art. So, when a lot of people are intimidated by the arts, we just wanted to humanize the arts in the Philippines. We wanted to show that the arts is actually for all. That’s also one of the reasons, aside from not having resources, why we do everything as far as curation is concerned—we write our exhibition notes with the promise that we write the words in the most understandable way possible. 

Because art should be storytelling. If you don’t make use of accessible words, how can you tell and engage people? 

Karen: For our third, I guess, this is the most demanding exhibit to date because it’s like we’re curating three things.

Prim: The third is entitled Before They Are Gone. It’s a visual homage to the Panay Bukidnon Tribe in Ilo-ilo. It was a very risky concept because it’s not usual here in Manila to actually feature a photographer and a painter to collaborate on a concept as a tribute to Panay Bukidnon. But Karen and I always felt that the arts should also serve that heritage value. 

It’s also a dying indigenous community and I come from that region. And I strongly felt that despite the unpopularity of the concept, we just have to risk it. Besides, we’ve been risking it since our first exhibition. 

And a photographer and a painter together? Really? But they’re both from Negros. So this exhibition is really a way to educate people that there’s this indigenous community in Ilo-ilo. Hopefully, our exhibition would not make "Before They're Gone" a painful reality in our time—that it would never happen, that they’ll be phased out.

How did you know about the indigenous community? 

Prim: I’ve always been a conscious heritage advocate. And I’ve always been there.

Karen: He once had a talk in Capiz and he decided to go up to the mountain, to visit that particular community.

Prim: They’re very authentic. They weave their own textiles, they embroider patterns, and they’re different in terms of their values in the community and their lifestyle. They handcraft all their jewelries. Then it just emotionally hit me—how come we have this beautiful and authentic heritage? 

How about the artists for this concept?

Karen: In a way, it’s also serendipitous. Because we actually wanted to feature Sir Otay, the painter, way before, but it never seemed to work out. Then, when Prim shared with me his experience with the community, it just dawned on us that Sir Otay’s style seems perfect for this. In that sense, it was serendipitous. It’s actually good that we didn’t push through with him the first time because this concept for him is perfect. 

Prim: We feel like there’s a divine intervention in the midst of all of this. For us to actually merge a very relevant concept to be articulated by really powerful artists. From that perspective alone, we consider ourselves very lucky to be working on concepts with very new artists and to get to see their artistic journey. 

In terms of the venue, we’re also very lucky again to encounter a young entrepreneur from the 14th floor of Sagittarius Building. It took us months to find the perfect venue because we wanted something industrial or some sort of an unfinished venue. Because the concept is "before they’re gone". If we do not take action or get ourselves educated about their existence, they might really be gone or finished. So we wanted a space that is unfinished, and where can we find one in Makati? The owner of the space also took a risk in allowing us to borrow the venue, his yet unfinished co-working space. We also liked that one can get a view of the high-rise buildings outside. It creates a very interesting contrast—you have sprawling buildings but you have a regressing community. 

Why did you call it “Curious Curator”?

Prim: ‘Cause we’re not professional curators at all. *laughs*

Karen: Also, I think curiosity is the start of many different adventures. 

Prim: In terms of our framework, the strategies, they’ve always been driven by What-if questions. And “Curator” because we just wanted to bring back how art engages people. Our logo also captures what the concept is all about. It’s like a keyhole. 

Karen: Yes, you try to peek through a keyhole and try to see what’s inside. We wanted to open that door of curiosity for the artists, and introduce them to a whole new community of art lovers, galleries, and art enthusiasts. 

Prim: But, really, the real reason is that we’re not professional curators. We’re just curious. We won’t fake that answer. *laughs*

Any other thoughts that you want to share?

Prim: We’re at the stage that Filipino artists are celebrated in very important stages, exhibitions, here and abroad. And we wanted Curious Curator to be a platform for these very talented yet very young artists outside of Metro Manila who also have that hope to someday become professional artists. That’s the part that I love the most about Curious Curator. 

Karen: At the end of the day, we just really wanna share not only the talent of these artists but really share love for the arts. And encourage people to appreciate how Filipino art helps mold Filipino society, forming our identity as a nation. That’s one of our main drivers as well. 


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