“If I weren’t a conqueror, I would wish to be a sculptor.”
Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
A quote frequently used by Napoleon Abueva
The University of the Philippines (U.P.), Diliman campus, is a haven for art lovers, who can promenade among the thick vegetation of the school with many artworks located all throughout. Although the university is symbolized by Guillermo Tolentino’s 1939 sculpture entitled the “Oblation”, the most dominant sculptures in the whole campus are by his former student and co-National Artist, Napoleon Abueva.
Born in 1939, Isabelo “Billy” Veloso Abueva (1930-2018) took on the name Napoleón at the age of six. He was named after the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, by a nun from the St. Joseph Academy, of Tagbilaran, Bohol Province. After high school, Abueva moved to Manila, and studied at the U.P. School of Fine Arts, under National Artist, Guillermo Estrella Tolentino (1890-1976), who was then the director of the school. Although trained in the classical style of sculpting, Abueva broke from its mold and began experimenting on modernist styles and techniques. Soon he became known as and Godfather of Philippine Modern Sculpture.
Abueva was already beginning to gain recognition by winning many local competitions, when he was given the break to create the “Christ Crucified/Christ Resurrected” crucifix, the “Twelve Apostles” lectern and the “Sermon at the Mount” altar for the U.P. Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, by Fr. John Delaney, in 1955; to work alongside Arch. Leandro Locsin, and painters Vicente Manansala, Arturo Luz, and Ang Kuikok. The church was a marvel of modernist architecture and art, with all five creative minds later recognized as National Artists of the Philippines.
However, pieces at the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice were not the first works commissioned by the university. Fresh out of college in 1950, Abueva was asked to do the University Seal, for the newly constructed Gonzales Hall of the Mani Library.
A few years short of Abueva’s 1959 Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines (TOYM) award; he would once again create two new monuments that would mark the entrance to the University of the Philippines: the University Avenue. The first piece is the U.P. Gateway, which he had won in a school wide waiting shed design competition, in 1962. Designed to represent the paper airplanes of his youth, the final design was executed by Eng. David Mendoza Consunji (born 1921), whom he worked with in the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice.
The second work of Abueva along the University Avenue is the 1966 “Tribute to Higher Education”, which are two monumental pieces that flank the north and south lanes of the road. In this piece, Abueva showcased his mastery of classical and modernist styles into a symbolical collection of reliefs in concrete.
Aside from exhibitions here and abroad, Abueva has represented the country in many international art events and forums, such as the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle (1962), the Arts Council in England (1964), the 5th International Congress of Art in Tokyo (1966), the 6th International congress of Art in Amsterdam (1969), and the Biennale de Sao Paulo (1969). One of the most prestigious art events Abueva participated in was the 1964 32nd Venice Biennale, with Jose Joya. The Philippines would not participate in this event again, until 2015.
Soon Abueva was building historic and symbolical monuments all over the country and abroad, aside from create smaller pieces for exhibitions. In 1976, he was given the honor of National Artist for Sculpture, making him the youngest recipient of this distinction.
Just like his mentor Tolentino, Abueva also served as dean of the U.P. College of Fine Arts, in the 1980s. During his stint as dean, he put up the foundry for sculpture, right behind the Vargas Museum. Soon he was placing artworks all around the area of the foundry, which would later lead to the development of the U.P. Sculpture Garden. Aside from pieces by Abdulmari Imao and Renato Rocha, the only work by Abueva left in the garden is his 1984 “Fredeswinda”, which is a replica of his 1981“The ASEAN Boat” in Singapore.
Aside from his public artworks, Abueva has created numerous smaller pieces such as death masks for actor Fernando Poe Jr. and Cardinal Jaime Sin, and trophies for many institutions such as the Gawad Plaridel of the U.P. College of Mass Communications.
Missing teaching, Abueva returned to the classrooms in 2006, at the Industrial Design department of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde School of Design and Arts. Sadly this was cut short, when Abueva suffered a massive stroke in 2008, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. He suffered two more strokes in 2010 and 2014, leaving him in a comatose.
Hence it is sad that most students and visitors of the University of the Philippines do not appreciate the genius behind these great artworks found all around the campus. They pass these monuments every day, and do not give a second thought about who made these and how much he has done for our country. It breaks my heart to look at this once vibrant man, reduced to a vegetative state, and no one takes the time to thank him.