Reshaping Heroism in Our Time With Artist Juanito Torres' Latest Exhibition

The surrealist has been known to tackle macro-historical narratives in his work.
IMAGE GALERIE RAPHAEL

"In this age of massive disinformation and orchestrated behavior, where historical truth can run a far second to customized perception, we may need the likes and the forthrightness of a Juanito Torres to remind us of where true heroism resides: In each of us, as ordinary citizens struggling to do the right thing in a society that demand our submission to power, however wrongful."

- Jose "Butch" Dalisay Jr.

"Nakamit na nga ba ang Kalayaan" by Juanito Torres, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Galerie Raphael.

Juanito Torres is our favorite art critic's favorite artist. He's been standing on the shoulders of giants for quite some time now. Torres, when it comes to the allegories and romanticism in his work, is a disciple of Juan Luna, dare we say (he says that he first saw Lunas during pre-school in the '80s).

The late great art historian Alice Guillermo, for instance, held Juanito Torres in very high regard. She considered him, together with the likes of Elmer Borlongan, Mark Justiniani, and Neil Doloricon, among others, as the leading contemporary artists of their generation.

Torres, much like his contemporaries, is not one to shy away from tackling heroic subject matter. This is evidenced by his portrayal of the Philippines' most important figures and events, which have shaped the Filipino identity in one way or another, both in a micro and macro sense.

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But he doesn't simply tell these stories as they are. He has found a way for the novelty of his paintings to endure, with a visual symbolism that relies on selfhood, struggle, angst, oppression, liberation, collectivism, and sustenance. There's a certain rhythm and humor to his elements, as well. It's all in the nuances, all great artists know.

While Torres' work may border a cheeky dream-like state, they have always remained grounded on historical accounts without sparing the truths and complications of Philippine society's most damning mythologies.

Known for his gigantically climactic narrative paintings (both figuratively and literally), Torres' latest exhibition with Galerie Raphael is no different. The Hero in Our Time posits quite the question for its viewers, as well. It asks them candidly: What should heroism mean in our time?

"Mga Bayani ng Rebolusyon" by Juanito Torres, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Galerie Raphael.

This, in itself, can be such a monumental question with equally monumental repercussions. It's not simply a yes-or-no kind of thing. We do not live in a black-and-white world, folks. One may argue that we are all living in thousands of shades of grey. History and the fables of the heroes of yesterday, as we know, are never linear, as well. And for Torres, these are best pronounced and described in a vivid surrealist fashion.

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"Nais ko lamang magkaroon ng awareness ang mga manonood sa ating mga bayani. Hindi ko nais na mag-define o magbigay ng eksaktong pananaw ko sa kasaysayan bagkus ay naglatag lamang ako ng isang usapin na maaaring magbigay ng pananaw ang sinuman," he tells Esquire Philippines. "Ang artists ay marahil nagre-respond lang sa panahon na kanyang kinabibilangan."

For Torres, the definition of hero has mostly remained the same, too. It is only the context that really changes. 

"'Yung definition ay ganoon parin: Mga nagsakripisyo at nagbigay ng buhay para sa iba. Ngunit, syempre, nagkakaroon ng mga bagong kumakatawan dito sa paglipas ng panahon," he notes. Kagaya sa panahon natin kung saan ito naman ay ang mga doktor at iba pang health workers."

Writer Butch Dalisay puts it this way: “Even as we see St. Michael battling the dragon, we are St. Michael.” The only thing is “who and what is the dragon of our time?” And Torres battle these dragons in myriad ways. 

"Mga Ideya ng Pagbabago (The Propaganda Movement)" by Juanito Torres, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Galerie Raphael.
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Let's look more closely at his works. The Hero in Our Time starts off with “Nakamit na nga ba ang Kalayaan?” There are reformists and revolutionaries and the far-reaching consequences of colonialists and conquistadores, while a lady in torment cages a monstrous humanoid.

Floating around the space are fish, birds, and rooster-canine hybrids. Yes, Nemo is there, too. The marine life and animals, we may argue, suggests a quest for freedom and the inevitable torment that comes from a longing for identity.

In “Mga Bayani ng Rebolusyon,” we see Torres take on a much more deadpan tone, allowing for a more direct appreciation of Filipino self-actualization. Here we can see Andres Bonifacio, Macario Sakay, Emilio Jacinto, and the less-heralded soliders of the revolution liberating themselves against colonial masters.

"Sana Huwag Mangyari" by Juanito Torres, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Galerie Raphael.

Torres then brings the discussion to our current times and social quandaries. In “Little Heroes (Back to School),” he chooses the youth to communicate the silent dangers and menaces that are still at play in the post-pandemic world. The ghoulishly gas-masked children and the setting are a commentary on the young's reckoning with the lingering effects of a grief-stricken society.

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The same goes for “Little Heroes (Ituloy ang Laban).” This time, these small soldiers go with a more active approach to facing indignities. It's a parody of the path Antonio Luna and the Katipuneros took to liberate themselves from their own bouts with grief and colonial angst. This is riveting stuff.

"Sa aking palagay, 'yung work ko ay hindi pumupuna sa ating mga bayani; bagkus ang pagpuna ay para sa ating henerasyon kung ano na kaya ang pinatunguhan at resulta ngayon ng sakripisyo ng ating mga bayani."

"Little Heroes (Ituloy ag Laban)" and "Little Heroes (Back to School)" by Juanito Torres, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Galerie Raphael.

We can say that the world has always found newer threats to its existence and the people's selfhood. There are quiet and loud evils that need to be examined and conquered somehow. These can be anything from war and climate change to economic instability and looming authoritarianism.

What used to be post-colonial, post-war, post-industrial, and post-modern apprehension now collides with post-pandemic blues. In the Philippines' case, we are currently wanting in a future that is as crazy and absurd and unpredictable as ever. It makes it all the more important to reassess the past and especially the present. Perhaps this is what should make the modern Filipino a hero then. And maybe, right now, this is our best attempt at freedom.

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"Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present."

- Albert Camus

Ultimately, heroism comes in many forms and takes on new meaning in different times. And this time is ours. For Torres' exhibit, it's more about raising questions about these things than actual answers. It is up to us to decipher all this texture. "Kung anuman ang nais ng audience ay hindi ko intensyon na hawakan dahil ang tao ay iba-iba." That, too, can be as heroic as it gets.

"Heroes for Freedom" by Juanito Torres, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Galerie Raphael.

The Hero in Our Time exhibit runs until September 7, 2022 at Galerie Raphael in UP Town Center, Quezon City.

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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