Books & Art

Elmer Borlongan's Art in the Time of COVID-19

The celebrated Filipino painter keeps his art and hope alive.
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There's lots to see and think about each time one sees the works of contemporary Filipino painter Elmer Borlongan. Fondly referred to as Emong and best known for his mastery of the figurative expressionism art style, his pieces (specifically, the faces) is recognizable even to novice art enthusiasts. Borlongan, who also created the Letras y Figuras artworks for Vim Nadera’s RIZALPABETO, tells stories with his art; from pre-colonial all the way to present times, visualizing various depictions of Philippine society. Today, however, Borlongan adds to his oeuvre with pieces reflecting life with the coronavirus.

If you’ve been to Pinto Art Museum, where some of his artworks are displayed, you’re already familiar with his work. He’s also made a name for himself internationally. Some personal favorites are “The Happiest Place On Earth (2017)” featuring a somber person with only their face and hands exposed, one hovering above a medium-sized serving of Jollibee fries; or maybe "Atlas’ Sack of Rice (2018)," a painting bursting at the seams with metaphors. 

The Father of the Philippine Art Workshop, Fernando Sena, is Borlongan's former mentor-turned-friend for decades. Sena has known the artist since he was 11 years old as an avid, and he sees Borlongan as someday becoming a National Artist, believing in his dedication and craft that puts Philippine art in the spotlight.

The pandemic has taken so much from us, and then some. With everyone inside their houses as the frontline workers braved going to work with lesser commute options, we clung to various forms of art and media or whatever was accessible to us. Museums and galleries were mostly closed and people were only buying the most basic essentials. The NCCA even offered assistance to artists and cultural workers, especially freelancers whose livelihoods were affected. While art could easily be used as a tool for escapism in these trying times, the social responsibility of creating art is not lost on Filipino artists who have made it a point to send a message of social relevance through their life’s work. Art, like everything else, has always been an amalgamation of politics, history, and society—not just for art’s sake

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Borlongan kept creating in quarantine, even showcasing some of his recent creations in different galleries when they re-opened later on. Some of these pieces he posted on Instagram were for sale, some explorations for his personal collection.

"FRONTLINER" is Borlongan's take on a photo sent by Sue Ann Locnen as a commission, released on the first few days of lockdown back in March 2020 for the Pinto Art Museum Collection. It’s a sketch of a person wearing a PPE and a mask, with eyes that allude to getting ready for battle.

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One of the artist's early pandemic pieces "Deep Listening," watercolor and gouache on paper, 2020, even helped in his philanthropic initiative of buying more PPEs and N95 masks for frontliners. The piece was open for bidding exclusively in the Art Rocks Viber group.

We seem to glimpse Borlongan's world in quarantine through his works as well, like in his piece, "Stay At Home," pastel over monotype on paper, 2020. Two people are at rest, seemingly in slumber.

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While most of us would take endless selfies in quarantine both in boredom or perhaps progress-tracking, Emong takes it up a notch with a self-portrait in 2020. Fifty-two days without going to get a haircut must feel like a lifetime in quarantine. Relatable, but not everyone can make art out of it.

Borlongan's skill in print-making also progresses through his artwork updates. Here we have "Stay Safe," Rubbercut, 2021. It shows the COVID-19 pandemic in a nutshell, faith and science in the frame.

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One of the unexpected, yet totally sensible pandemic-related hobbies: planting. In this work-in-progress post, we catch a glimpse of a plantito in his distinct art style

His large paintings have always been the kind to demand attention with his work in intricate details. He ended last year with an oil in canvas work, “Kapit Lang,” and recently, created a watercolor boceto of the battle in Mactan (paying mind to Chief Lapu-Lapu’s fighters and their tattoos), eventually to be translated onto a big canvas. 

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Lastly, Borlongan uses the color blue well in "Love In The Time of Covid," Vinta Ink blue blood on paper. The soon-to-be art print depicts lovers wearing face masks as they kiss; passion still included.

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Marielle Fatima Tuazon
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