Fernandez with a piece from his "May Buhay sa Looban" series, which were created from 1975 to 1977.
Culture Art

Famed social realist Egai Fernandez tackles the reality of COVID in his latest work

The artist’s “Lockdown Reflection,” which he finished in the middle of self-quarantine, borrows from his previous works. BY BARBARA MAE NAREDO DACANAY
ANCX | Aug 09 2020

The lockdown has allowed social realist painter Edgar “Egai” Fernandez to finish his latest masterpiece at last. A 4 x 4 feet oil painting entitled “Lockdown Reflection,” it is a commentary self-portrait, a surreal studio series that he began doing in 2007 with fresh reflections on the current pandemic.

The artist began the painting last February, but was sidelined in March by flu-like symptoms that included fever and dry cough. “I did not assume it was COVID-19. But on March 12, I quarantined myself in a bedroom-cum-library at the first floor of my house in Quezon City,” Fernadez says, adding that his wife Nena and their kasambahay would leave porridge, hot turmeric and calamansi, and fruits outside of his room. “My fever went down on March 15, but I was groggy for several more days. I had no contact, and did not talk with anyone in the house for three weeks, until April 1. Ganon pala ang nakabartolina.”

Fernandez with his recent work "Lockdown Reflection," a 4 x 4 feet oil painting, which he finished while in self-qurantine.

He mostly slept then, but in the times he was awake, he pressured himself to finish his mural. “I had to finish it. I started doing it with this question: ‘Where am I now after the years that passed by?” he explains.

“Lockdown Reflection” is a painting within a painting. Fernandez painted himself seated with a brush, reflected three times, in perspective, the last and biggest frame of which shows him with a mask; his shirt and shorts covered by images of forest and rivers. 

The smallest frame at the far end of the painting is Fernandez  in front of a reclining model who is covered by orange cloth. At her back is the Philippine flag. Behind this frame are heads of armed men with gas masks against an orange background. Cells of the corona virus hover in every frame. Ax and bundles of sticks are on the floor of each frame. A woman and an armored man, like poster images of modern day television series adorn the upper left side of the painting.

Fernandez's 2016 work "Reflection," a 3 x 4 feet self-portrait.

A big reclining model with white personal protective equipment (PPE) suit, goggles, and facial mask dominates the lower right side of the painting. This image is in contrast to his studio series that he made in 2007 and 2016, which featured nude models. “Now, the model is covered. She is also a frontliner with PPE suit,” Fernandez says, adding that this is a symbol of covered truth. His aim is to unlock what is hidden.

His piece is about a dream for the living: “I am showing my hope for the end of fascism worldwide. That’s why the ax and bundles of sticks, symbols of Roman fascism, are painted on floors of several frames in Lockdown,” he explains. “I am also for the establishment a scientific and caring socialism as a form of government. All over the world, governments are being unmasked because of what is happening.”

To various sectors, Fernandez explains, “May matutunan ang nga tao sa ganitong pangyayari. Lahat ay apektado. Kung may reflection ang lahat, makikita nila ang katayuan nila sa buhay.” People shaping their own future will be developed as images in his next edition of Lockdown Reflections, which will be a studio series.

There are elements in “Lockdown,” from his 2016 work, “Reflection,” a 3 x 4 feet oil painting. That four-year-old piece depicts Fernandez, the painter, twice in perspective. In the smaller frame, at the far end of the canvas, is a reclining nude model. On the upper left side of that frame are three images: a baby trying to grasp a ribbon shaped like a dove; Christ’s face and the word “magmahalan kayo gaya ng pagmamahal ko sa inyo;” and a soldier’s mask. Fernandez exhibited “Reflection” together with 11 other murals, four smaller works, and one installation, in an exhibit on images of Martial Law at Manila’s National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 2016.

A piece from Fernandez's "Hubad sa Katotohanan," which he finished and exhibited in 2007.

The baby’s image in “Reflection” is, in turn, taken from Fernandez’s 1990 4 x 6 feet piece “Kahapon, Ngayon, at Pangarap,” which depicts a woman in yellow giving birth, her body crucified, with the Philippine flag at her back. He exhibited “Kahapon” when he was one of 13 awardees of the Cultural Center of the Philippine in 1990.

Meanwhile, in 2007, Fernandez began making commentary self-portraits in studio format, a series which he entitled “Hubad Sa Katotohanan.” These works also feature similar elements as that of “Reflection,” and “Lockdown.” The artist says that the series is about different perspective of looking at truth. He exhibited the 2007 studio series at the NCCA in 2010. 

 

Murals and politics

While Fernandez has done about 30 murals since the 1980s, he has been depicting the inhuman condition of the oppressed and the poor starting in the mid-70s.

Greedy capitalism, dynastic rule, feudalism, imperialism, and inequality were issues for stoning in Fernandez’s artworks. Politically organized, he immersed in communities, went out and saw the country’s social condition, before marching to his studio where he painted the outside world, alone. “In the past, there was no social media, so social integration was very important for artists like us,” he says.

The baby from Fernandez's 1990 work "Kahapon, Ngayon, at Pangarap" resurfaced in his later works.

A child prodigy at three, Fernandez would climb chairs and the refrigerator to paint on walls of their house in Caloocan. he recalled. He painted horses and chariots in the same house after watching Ben Hur when he was seven. A year later, his mother would bring him along to her class at the University of the Philippines, where she studied Fine Arts. By that time, he and his family had transferred to another ancestral home on Trabajo Street in Makati.

Fernandez, a Philippine Women’s University graduate, was 11 in 1966 when he won honorable mention in India’s Shangkar International children’s competition. Since then he has won awards and placed at a slew of contests including the Makati Rotary-north competition, the Art Association of the Philippines art contest, the Development Academy of the Philippines contest in 1975; and the Civilization’s TV series contest.

Fernandez was 15, a vocational arts student of Aurollo High School when he made placards and posters for the moderate Malayang Pagkakaisa ng Kabataang Pilipino (MPKP), of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) at the start of the protest rallies against former President Ferdinand Marcos from January to March 1970. “I didn’t join rallies in the 70s. I just made artworks for rallies,” Fernandez explains. Soon, he was a member of MPKP’s local chapter in Makati. “MPKP was Marxist Leninist, not Maoist. It was influenced by the communist party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic,” the artist says.

In 1975, student artists such as Vin Toledo and Arnel Acosta who belonged to the radical group Kabataan Makabayan (CPP’s youth arm) approached Fernandez, then 20 and a recent graduate, for workshops in poster-making and silkscreen printing. It led to the formation of “Kaisahan,” the first organized group of social realist painters. “At the time, the Nagkakaisang Progressibong Artista at Arkitekto (NPAA) was organized earlier, but members disbanded when Martial Law was declared in 1972. Walang nalalanguyang artist group yung mga nakalutang at yung mga nasa underground left noon,” Fernandez shares.

Kaisahan attracted 23 members. They included (among others) Jess Abrera, Pablo “Adi” Baens Santos, Joe Curaesma, Antipas “Biboy” Delotavo, Renato Habulan, Fernandez, and Pol Lumaig. “Many of them were politicalized after they joined Kaisahan,“ Fernandez says. Art critics Alice Guillermo of the University of the Philippines and Emmanuel Torres of Ateneo Art Gallery held discussion groups with the artists at the house of Fernandez on Trabajo Street. In 1976, the group finalized Kaisahan’s Manifesto, which centered on the importance of creating cultural, political, socially and historically relevant Filipino artworks. 

Fernandez sits by a newspaper collage in his room in Trabajo street, Makati in 1972.

“My initiative to organize Kaisahan included plans to create a coop that would sell artworks directly, without a middleman, to buyers. I was inspired by the concept of socialism,” explains Fernandez. “This was important then. Ang hirap makapasok ang mga batang artists sa gallery system noon,” he said. But the Manifesto did not push this kind of radical marketing.

Meanwhile, young executives such as Jinky Morales, Marie Luarca, and Mar Salazar, journalist/publicist Bibsy Carballao, and Coco Federation (Cocofed)  board executive secretary Emmeline Quinio organized the Center for the Advancement of Young Artists (CAYA) and forged an alliance with Kaisahan in 1976. “Art critic Torres introduced Kaisahan members to CAYA. It became Kaisahan’s direct agent. It also funded several art initiatives,” Fernandez says. Not long after, many Kaisahan members, including their respective wives explored relevant theatrical productions. It resulted in the demise of both Kaisahan and CAYA. But the social realist artists rose more prominently because their artworks symbolized the growing anti-Marcos sentiment in the 80s.

Fernandez helped found more art groups. Artista ng Bayan (ABAY) was organized in 1985. Free the Artists Movement which was against censorship was organized in 1983. Concerned Artists of the Philippines was put up in 1983. “I have participated in the making of a total of 50 collective big and small scale murals with about four groups since the 70s,” the artist says, adding that ABAY made an average of one big or small scale mural a month toward the end of the Marcos era and the start of Aquino’s presidency from 1985 to 1986. 

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It’s a tragedy that artists and members of non-government organizations  (NGOs) failed to document or preserve the big and small scale collective murals that were used in rallies against Marcos from the 70s to the 80s. “We never recorded the images. They were confiscated by policemen during lightning rallies. Hindi pa uso ang selfie noon,” explains Fernandez.

“Almost all the collective murals we did for NGOs were borrowed, destroyed, lost, or sold. Ilang collective artworks ang nawala dahil sa kapapabayaan and lack of cultural and historical sense among NGOs,” he explained.

Fernandez was slowed down by heart attack in 2000. “I had an out of body experience at the ER of the Heart Center. When I got well, I started learning about (Buddhism’s) Vajrayana and (ancient European) Rosicrucian philosophy,” he recalls. He took a six-month therapeutic project: he designed the gold-leafed resin (that was molded in clay) to decorate the expanded walls of the marble lectern and table of the Manila Cathedral. He also made a Philippine version of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a four-foot stone finished cast cement sculpture that was installed at the Cathedral’s entrance in 2018.

“Now, when I make artworks, I reflect on many things: reality, joy, life, love, and truth,” Fernandez says.