Artist Norberto Roldan Collages the Philippines’s Past and Present

“Being an artist, to me, is not just producing works in your studio,” the artist Norberto Roldan said during a recent video interview from the Philippines. “I think there is so much that is expected of us, as part of our communities, as part of our society.”

Roldan, a trim and youthful 70, was sitting inside Green Papaya Art Projects, a multifarious art space he cofounded that embodies that ethos. It began in 2000 in Metro Manila, and it is now the longest-operating artist-run organization in the country. However, if all had gone according to plan, it would no longer exist. In 2020, Roldan, its artistic director, was taking steps to shut it down—the Asia Art Archive was helping to preserve its records—when a fire tore through the building it called home. Astonishingly, many of its materials survived, and the AAA website for the space now offers an exhilarating glimpse at the performances, shows, and events it hosted.

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Protestors outside a convention center with the logo for Art Basel on it. Some hold a large banner that reads 'LET PALESTINE LIVE.'

Instead of hastening Green Papaya’s closure, the disaster spurred Roldan and some of his collaborators to keep the venture going, and it has since relocated to Roxas City, an hour southeast of the capital by plane. Roxas has a population of about 180,000 people, and it is where Roldan was born, one of six children of an architect father and a mother who ran a printing press.

The day we spoke, activity hummed around Roldan at Green Papaya, and he was wearing a T-shirt, his trademark white beard, and a baseball cap with the word “adventure” emblazoned on it. I asked about the hat. “I just randomly picked this,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything, actually.” He paused for a second, and continued, “Or maybe, yes. I’m here for a new adventure.”

Or new adventures, perhaps—in a life that has already had many of them. Green Papaya is now running a residency for Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino artists, a rural architecture forum with a local university, an initiative with local Indigenous people, and projects with surrounding fishing and farming communities. Announcing its reopening earlier this year, it quoted Charles Bukowski: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

A three-tier sculpture mostly made of wood with various archival photographs, religious images, perfumes, and design elements.

Norberto Roldan, 100 Altars for Roberto Chabet / NO. 22, 2014–23.

Courtesy Silverlens, Manila/New York

Meanwhile, Roldan has been continuing to make his own art, which collages disparate materials to address the fraught history of the Philippines and its contemporary struggles. These works are incisive, elegant, and often elegiac, and six of them will comprise a solo booth at Art Basel Miami Beach this week from Silverlens, the New York and Manila gallery. In May, at the gallery’s Manhattan location, Roldan will stage a one-person show, his first in the United States.

“There’s always a question for me: How can we speak about the past?” Roldan said, discussing his practice. “It was only yesterday. How can we look at the past within the context of now? Because for me, they are so intertwined.” For a series called “100 Altars for Roberto Chabet” that he began in 2014, he has been building ziggurat-like assemblages with architectural elements of demolished homes in the Kamuning neighborhood of Quezon City, where Green Papaya was located at the time, along with old photographs and sundry possessions. (Two of these “Altars” will be in the ABMB booth.)

You could see these wall-hung pieces as reliquaries for areas that have been cleared in the name of progress, for urban renewal and development, and for the people who lived there. “We’re losing a lot of cultural landmarks, architectural landmarks, things that we can preserve,” Roldan said. The works encapsulate the way that people protect their memories as they move elsewhere and age: in fragments, always inevitably incomplete. No. 23, for example, has jazzy faded wallpaper, black-and-white images of people gathering in groups and trying to look their best, the odd bit of latticework, and tiny old vases and cans. It suggests a life that has been well lived.

The ziggurat form nods to the shape of famous works by Chabet, a godhead of conceptual art in the Philippines who died in 2013 at 76. “I was too old to become a student of Roberto Chabet,” Roldan said, “but he became a very good friend through Green Papaya. He was a great mentor or friend and adviser. The few times that I wanted to close down Papaya, he was there to stop me.”

A three-tier sculpture mostly made of wood with various archival photographs and design elements.

Norberto Roldan, 100 Altars for Roberto Chabet / NO. 23, 2014–23.

Courtesy Silverlens, Manila/New York

That may be true, but is hard to imagine Roldan quitting. Exuding a can-do optimism, he seems like the rare type of artist who was always going to make it, or at least the type that was never going to give up. So it’s intriguing to learn that he did not originally set out to become an artist.

Roldan entered a seminary at the age of 11. “I knew after finishing eight years that I was not going to be a good priest,” he said. Instead, he pursued visual communications at a school in Manila in the mid-1970s, a path into advertising—“a very lucrative job,” he said. “Very glamorous, as well. And that attracted me. It was also creative enough.”

In the early 1980s, Roldan’s then-wife inherited a sugar farm on the island of Negros, where conditions for workers are notoriously exploitative. “That got me politicized when I got there,” he said. “Realizing that there is really something wrong with Philippines society, if the condition of that island was allowed to happen for so many generations.” He became involved in activism—he learned to build communities and educate, skills that would help him later—and he began developing an art practice. By 1987, concerned about his safety, he decamped to Australia for an advertising job. When he got back to the Philippines in 1990, he kept organizing, creating the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference, the nation’s oldest biennial.

A textile work with a green floral layer in back, a black lace layer n the middle, and a top layer with embroidery.

Norberto Roldan, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas 1, 2023.

Courtesy Silverlens, Manila/New York

“I knew from the very start that I was not going to live off my art,” Roldan said. “So from the very beginning, I always had a day job.” He was raising two children. But in 1998, as he neared 50, he decided to focus more on his art, and quit his job as a creative director at the media company ABS-CBN (which was targeted by President Rodrigo Duterte).

Roldan’s unorthodox past—his on-the-ground political activities, his near-priesthood—comes through in his work. One 2012 painting, owned by the Guggenheim Museum, pairs an American F-16 flying over Afghanistan with a quotation posthumously attributed to US President William McKinley about the need to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” Filipino people after the US had acquired the country following the Spanish-American War. Roldan “situates the religious or spiritual discourse within a political sensorium, mixing post-colonial conceptualist approaches with hybrid folk imagery and knowledge systems,” said Patrick D. Flores, professor of art studies at the University of the Philippines, deputy director of the National Gallery Singapore deputy director, and curator of a Roldan retrospective at the Jorge B. Vargas Museum in Quezon City in 2017.

A textile work with a pink floral layer in back, a black lace layer n the middle, and a top layer with embroidery.

Norberto Roldan, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas 2, 2023.

Courtesy Silverlens, Manila/New York

Other works that will be at Art Basel include textile pieces that resemble ceremonial banners that might be used in a Catholic mass or procession. They are radiant, richly symbolic, and subversive. Relacion de las Islas Filipinas 2 (2023) features three layers of fabric, “representing the three layers of Philippines society,” Roldan said.

The bottom layer is a pink floral pattern that denotes the “the folk or masses,” its edges adorned with demonetized Filipino coins, Roldan explained. “They may look decorative, but it also connotes how poor their economies [are] at the fringes.” Next is an intricate black lace: the elites.

Finally, on top, is earth-colored fabric dyed by a young artist named Giah De los Reyes, which “represents the revolutionary movement against the persisting social inequalities,” Roldan said. At its center is a 19th-century “amulet” vest bearing Catholic iconography, a thin undergarment of the kind worn by revolutionary fighting against Spain. This symbolic, spiritual armor was believed to provide protection in battle against colonial forces. That struggle still resonates today, Roldan said, in “the context of the revolution against the continuing oppression and harassment in the countryside” and, he told me later, “against our colonized selves.”

While the solo booth will be a major event for Roldan’s career, he will not be making the trip to Florida. He has plenty going on. Besides his upcoming solo outing in New York, he is gearing up for a yearlong residency for Green Papaya in Berlin via DAAD, in which all six of its current members will be taking part. There is also the matter of the “100 Altars for Roberto Chabet.” There are around “30 altars right now,” Roldan said. “Far off the target of 100. But I am continuing the series to get to that.” There is conviction in his voice. You know that he will get there.

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