Books & Art

This Extremely Rare Elmer Borlongan Artwork Will Be Up for Auction

The mural-style Elmer Borlongan artwork holds a wealth of meanings for creatives and creation.
IMAGE Salcedo Auctions
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There are two notable things about the large-scale Elmer Borlongan artwork that is set to go under the hammer of Salcedo Auctions’ upcoming Important Philippine Art & Furniture event. First, it’s humongous. Like really, really, really big.

Largest Borlongan to Come into Auction

In a phone conversation with Esquire Philippines, director of Salcedo Auctions Richie Lerma describes the mural-style painting by Borlongan—one of the most sought-after Filipino artists today—as an experience akin to viewing a stained-glass window in a cathedral. Early preview images show how it just eats up the space, soaring from the floor like a vivid scene from, maybe, the Bible or a mind-bending fairytale.

Photo by Salcedo Auctions.

Moreover, at 13-by-14 feet, it is, according to Lerma, the largest Borlongan painting that has ever come to auction and perhaps one of the artist’s largest pieces. Most important, the creation is a rare object as, points out the director, the artist “would only do these murals for close friends.”

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Cultural Gravitas from a Beloved Icon

And this brings us neatly to the other notable thing about the painting—that it was commissioned by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, the celebrated writer and publisher and immense art lover who passed away in 2020. “That cultural connection gives it a lot of gravitas,” says Lerma, who was fortunate enough to experience the work in its original context at the writer’s home.

Cordero-Fernando was introduced to Borlongan by artist Roberto Feleo in 1996. She commissioned a smaller piece, “Huntahan,” from the young artist and, later on, asked him to create a larger mural-style work for the narrow, light-filled hallway at the entrance of her home. That was the grand Borlongan, which was completed in 1999 and stayed with Cordero-Fernando until it was sold to another art patron in the writer’s latter years.  

It’s also important to note what was going on in Cordero-Fernando’s fabulous home at the time. As Lerma describes it, the writer was like a nexus for creatives and creativity: “She would often invite artists and literary figures to her home for these intimate parties—for conversations, singing and dancing, and rituals.”

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The director remembers how she would hold ceremonies to welcome or celebrate artworks. In one instance, when a sculpture shaped liked a Bagobo figure, which was hung from a tree, crashed during a terrible typhoon, Cordero-Fernando decided to bury it.

Symbols Tied to Artists and Patrons

But back to the Borlongan artwork. Cordero-Fernando describes its figures and intent best in her book The Last Full Moon:

“The bigger mural has a two-headed angel carrying a sword. Standing in the center is a towering male figure holding a conch shell. On the left side is a runaway horse being held down by a bald guy. A couple is in a desperate embrace and a doorway leads to the sea. There are some blue people floating in front. I warned Elmer that the painting must be friendly and welcoming because it is by the entrance. Located on a slatted bridge whose doors slide open, the mural is so big it has to be viewed from the garden outside.”

Photo by Salcedo Auctions.
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Borlongan, who was given free rein in the creation of the work, may have created the angel, the bald man, the couple, and the blue people as a representation of Cordero-Fernando’s artistic conversations. For Lerma, the painting recalls “a constellation of figures that moved around the center of everything.” Which was the writer herself, “an important figure in the scene who gathered a lot of the culturati in her home.” 

The director reads it this way: The conch shell is a call to gather together, the couple in embrace harken to intimate rituals. And that eight-pointed star (some people see this as a leaf—what do you see?) could very well the center around which these fables revolve.

Photo by Salcedo Auctions.
Photo by Salcedo Auctions.
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The director points to two more interesting details in the piece: The door that opens to the beach (at lower right) may speak to a present-day longing for escape, while the ox (at lower left) can be considered as, well, a lucky coincidence in the Year of the Ox.

“You can see the love between artists and patron,” says Lerma, who stops short of calling it an homage, instead describing the piece as something that responds very well to the space, as well as the people in that space.

Open to Endless Viewing 

Another thing that he emphasizes is how the work is very much open to interpretation and that’s exactly why this impressive Borlongan does not have a name. A title, Lerma points out, can lead the malleable mind in a particular direction. In other words, you are free to see a leaf or a star or whatever else your heart tells you.

Photo by Salcedo Auctions.
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This rare Elmer Borlongan artwork is among the highlights of the online auction that goes live at 2 p.m. on March 13. The event’s online catalog, where more impressive lots, including 19th-century tipos del pais or watercolor paintings by Jose Honorato Lozano, will be available on February 24, Wednesday. You can also experience the total scale of the Borlongan at Salcedo Auction’s showroom at NEX Tower in Makati. This wild painting of a two-faced angel and floating blue people has never been seen in public.

0917 825 7449, 0917 107 5581, salcedoauctions.com

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Clifford Olanday
Editor in Chief, Esquire Philippines
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