The Moving Stories Behind the Ateneo Art Awards' Winning Pieces


To say art is a reflection of society is barely scratching the surface of what art truly is and what it can be.

While it may be viewed as an expression of an artist’s personal story, commentary, opinion, or experience, art can speak so much to its viewer who may, in turn, find it a work that mirrors his or her own sentiments.

From a shortlist of twelve artists, the Ateneo Art Gallery has named the three distinguished artists for the Fernando Zobel Prizes for visual art. They are Ronson Culibrina, for his resin and charcoal work, Talim, shown at Blanc Gallery;  Johanna Helmuth’s solo exhibition Makeshift, also held at Blanc Gallery; and Cebuano artist group KoloWn, for Low Pressured Areas, shown at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Ateneo Art Gallery director Maria Victoria Herrera, Millet Mananquil, Ronson Culibrina, Johanna Helmuth, koloWn, and vice president for the Loyola Schools Maria Luz Vilches.


The winners will also take the international stage with their residency grants from Ateneo Art Gallery’s partners. Culibrina has been given a residency grant from Liverpool Hope University – Creative Campus in Liverpool, Helmuth has been invited to a residency in Singapore with Artesan Gallery + Studio, and KoloWn has received a grant from La Trobe Art University in Bendigo.

Despite differing in themes, mediums, and sources of inspiration, the common trait among this year’s Ateneo Art Award winners is that while each work serves a personal purpose, it can also serve as a common voice to those who find their own viewpoints truthfully encapsulated in the artists’ works.

Culibrina’sTalim references the artist’s hometown in Laguna de Bay. 

We are transported to Talim Island’s murky waters of the flooded island, the coming and going of fishing boats, the houses among bamboo stilts and water lilies, and its residents trying to make a living.

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Plastic bottles enclosed in glass cases lie in the middle ofRonson Culibrina’s (below) powerful depictions of Talim, a once ecologically sound island, now marred by industrial development, overfishing, and pollution.

A multicolored tricycle sidecar is the center of attention in Johanna Helmuth’s Makeshift.


Like an actual home, a pair of woven slippers is left at the doorstep of the sidecar, a beaded curtain serves as its door, and the interiors are made warm and cozy with pillows.

The exhibit was borne of Johanna Helmuth's (below) fascination with the struggling Filipino’s means of creating temporary measures, having grown up in a place where pedicabs have become both sources of livelihood and makeshift homes for their drivers. 

Whether it takes its name from colonialism or Colon Street in Cebu, the oldest and shortest national road in the country, or maybe both, elusive artist group KoloWn’s works are impossible to miss.


Low Pressured Areas is more than an artist’s work, but just as much its audience’s response to it, too. 

Through its limitless, unorthodox, and interactive use of material and space, KoloWn’s exhibition is all at once a playful, humorous, daring, disruptive, and thought-provoking commentary on social issues, shaking us awake from complacency and blindly just accepting what we are fed.


This year’s art awards, meanwhile, also marks the beginning of a new prize: the Ateneo Art Awards – Embassy of Italy Purchase Prize, as selected by Ambassador Giorgio Guglielmino.

Its first-ever recipient is collage artist Jel Suarez, for her exhibition titled Traces By Which We Remember, held at West Gallery.

Jel Suarez (below) calls it “involuntary remembering” and in her work, we are reminded of our own thought processes: a lone fragment that links to a similar yet different memory, little pieces that make up a bigger picture, or the repetitive images we instinctively connect together. 


The artist’s inspiration can also be traced to her interest in architecture, and childhood memories of living near a construction site in Caloocan, and spending childhood summers amid colonial houses in Batangas, building cairns and stacking stones atop each other.

Finally, for the visual arts category, the Ateneo Art Gallery had also run a People’s Choice poll for the shortlisted exhibitions, giving an opportunity for gallery visitors to vote for their favorite. The emerging winner is Mars Bugaon’s Becoming, held at Artinformal.

Becoming features plastic bags repurposed into prints, installations, and sculptural works. Likewise, it is also an illustration of the dark period in the artist’s life, “repurposed” into works of art.

The twelve shortlisted exhibitions remain open for public viewing at the Ateneo Art Gallery until November 4.

Alongside the visual arts awards, the Ateneo Art Gallery has also announced the winners of the Purita-Kalaw Ledesma Prizes in Art Criticism. These are Mary Jessel Duque, for her entry, Pacita Abad: A Million Times A Woman, An Artist and Alec Madelene Abarro, for her essay, An Organized Chaos: Navigating the Looban. 

Millet Mananquil, Ada Ledesma Mabilangan, Jessel Duque, Alec Madelene Abarro, Alvaro Talavera of the Spanish embassy.

Duque takes the Purita-Kalaw Ledesma Prize – The Philippine Star award, giving her a twice-a-month column in the Arts & Culture section of The Philippine Star for an entire year; while Abarro receives the Purita-Kalaw Ledesma Prize – ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, where she will be writing six articles for one year for the bi-monthly publication. Both Duque and Abarro will also be contributing to the 8th edition of Perro Berde, an annual publication of the Embassy of Spain and the Instituto Cervantes.

A new sub-category, which is a special citation for an essay written in Filipino, was also given this year to Maria Lourdes Garcellano, for her work Sinehan sa Isang Museo: Karatula o Obra? While the Ateneo Art Gallery’s partner publications only print works in the English language, Garcellano’s essay was too strong an entry to disregard, thus the special citation. 

The Philippine Star will make way for her story this month, while Perro Berde will be open to publishing the entry, translated to Spanish. The awards institution has yet to find a partner publication that is dedicated to publishing literary works written in Filipino.

As a fitting culmination to the event, the Ateneo Art Gallery is also pleased to launch its new blog site, Vital Points: Essays from the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prizes in Art Criticism, in its effort to provide a new space and a broader audience for shortlisted art criticism essays.

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