One of the major cultural hubs of the University of the Philippines (U.P.), Diliman campus, is the U.P. Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center. The Vargas Museum is the first building found on the eastbound route on Roxas Avenue, along the U.P. Academic Oval. Built between 1982-1987, the museum is named after the 1st National Executive Secretary of the Philippine-American he Commonwealth Era (1935-1946), Jorge Bartolome Vargas (1890-1980), who had donated his entire collection of art and antiquities to the U.P. in 1978. Aside from holding regular exhibitions of noted and up-coming artists, the museum has an impressive collection of Spanish Colonization (1523-1898) and American Occupation (1898-1946) artworks, including a large compilation of the works of Juan Luna y Novicio (1857-1899), an award winning artist and Philippine Reformist.
Aside from his purchases of now invaluable art pieces, Jorge Vargas also had several commemorative works commissioned by artists. One notable piece is the 1950 portrait of Mr. Vargas as the Boy Scouts of the Philippines president, which was painted by Bonifacio Nicolas Cristobal (1911-1977). Mr. Cristobal was one of the first thirteen proponents of Modernism in Philippine Art;, alongside the more noted National Artists, such as Victorio C. Edades, César Legaspi, Vicente S. Manansala and Hernándo R. Ocampo.
Another family portrait is the bust of Jorge Vargas’s daughter, Inday Vargas Eduque, by Ahmed Parfan. There are more paintings and sculptures of the Vargas family, but those are temporarily hidden in the museum’s archives.
In the early 1990s, there was very little activity in the Vargas Museum, so the U.P. College of Fine Arts (CFA) took over certain areas of the museum. At the rear parking lot and the basement, these areas were used by the CFA students and faculty would use these for their workshops for sculpture and painting. Sometimes the students would also conduct their thesis presentations and deliberations. The area would be very busy by November and December, when the Fine Arts students would built their gigantic floats for the annual U.P. Lantern Parade. Another memorable event was when the U.P. hosted the 1992 UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines), where the students created gigantic paper–mâché sculptures of the mascots of each participating school. Now-a-days, the CFA has concentrated all its activities in its larger complex, but sometimes holds thesis exhibitions at the Vargas Museum.
Around the perimeter of the Vargas museum loom many large sculptures, which are part of the U.P. Sculpture Garden. The latest addition to these works is Cian Dayrit‘s “Artefact X: A Narrative of Mystification and Demystification”, which was part of his 2011 thesis exhibit. This can be found along Roxas Avenue, fronting the Vargas Museum.
The moment one enters the Vargas Museum’s driveway, one can immediately sees National Artist Abdulmari Asia Imao‘s 1984 “Allah Configuration”. And behind the parking lot is National Artist Napoleon V. Abueva;s 1984 “Fredesvinda: The ASEAN Boat”, a revision of his sculpture for the 1981 ASEAN Summit, in Singapore.
At the steps of the Vargas Museum, there are more statues. The first is Anastacio T. Caedo‘s 1974 “Malakas at Maganda”, which is a visualization of the ancient Tagalog myth of the first man (Malakas / Strong) and the first woman (Maganda / Beautiful). This sculpture was originally part of Marcos Collection in Malacañang Palace, but it had to be removed after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, where many of these priceless artworks were either stolen of damaged by looters, when the people stormed the presidential palace right after the Marcos family fled the country.
The next sculpture in front of the steps is Florante ‘Boy’ Caedo‘s 1974 “Rajah Sulayman”. Rajah Sulayman (1558–1575) was the ruler of the Kingdom of Maynila, when the Spanish conquistadors first arrived on the island of Luzon to start the colonization of the Philippines. This statue was once on display at the nearby Romulo Hall, but was moved years later to the Vargas Museum. Florante is the son of Anastacio Caedo. In the “selfie” photograph with the “Rajah Sulayman” in the background, I am sitting beside the art critic Prof. Patrick Flores, who now the current curator of the Vargas Museum.
The garden in front of the Vargas Museum is now also a venue for exhibitions, specifically for outdoor installations. In 2017, as part of the international mulit-artist exhibition “Almost There“, Rosario Encarnacion-Tan (Philippines) and Nousika Fuminori (Japan) created the “Bamboo Theater” of bamboo and used rice sacks, for outdoor film showings and performances.
The CFA moved to its larger academic complex in 1993, so the administration of the Vargas Museum had to organize more events to bring visitors. Soon exhibitions of upcoming and established artists were mounted on a regular basis, and in 1998, I exhibited my collection of flag paintings as part of the Philippine Centennial(1898-1998) celebrations.
The latest exhibitions that I have seen at the Vargas Museum were the 2016 show of National Artist Benedicto Reyes Cabrera, who is better known as BenCab. The exhibit was a sort of retrospect of his drawings, paintings and prints. The exhibition was highlighted with two long scrolls and a performance work “Mandala”, in which the video is played on a screen for visitors. In the 2008 “Nude Scroll”, Bencab creates a montage of drawings, which features the many nude models who have graced his studio in the last few years. And the 2016 scroll entitled “Gestures and Nuances”, he gives the viewer a glimpse of various activities of the common folk. During the exhibition run, I was able to view the show with the renowned artist and former U.P. CFA dean, Nestor O. Vinluan.
Another interesting exhibit during my last visit was that of Sergio Bumatay III, where he presented his 2015 illustrations for the children’s book “Anima” as wall art and 3D installations.
Some of the pieces in the exhibits become part of the Vargas Collection, such as Roberto Bulatao Feleo’s 2009 “Vitrina” collection. Feleo’s sculptures are commentaries of modern social issues, yet he places them in glass cases that allude to the Catholic saints. Feleo’s social commentaries have always pushed the boundaries of image and meaning, which garnered him the 1988 Cultural Center of the Philippines’ (CCP) Thirteen Artist Award.
Another contemporary piece to be added to the museum permanent collection is the conceptual work by the husband and wife team of Alfredo Juan and Isabel Aquilizan, and their 2008 piece “Belonging In-Transit”. The couple have regularly represented the Philippines in international art biennales and exhibitions, and were once teachers at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA), in Mount Makiling, Laguna Province.
There are more exhibition slated by the Vargas Museum, and who knows what new works will be incorporated into the collection and be on display for generations of U.P. students to enjoy.