Lei Manto: Solo Exhibition

 “Paano kung kaya hindi namin mabuo ang aming paraiso  

ay dahil ikaw ang isa sa nawawalang piraso nito?”*  


A Solo Exhibition  

Lei Manto approaches his first solo exhibition with a critical exploration of the Filipino trope of paradise and destiny.  Locating his narrative in the confines of his community and upbringing, Manto intimates a glimpse of his life that has defined his art. This includes the negotiations he pursues that come with his visualizations and imaginings. He exposes the anxiety of the human experience through his search for identity, his understanding of the gestures of positions and power, and decisively, through the collective experience of a social group.   

This repertoire of works is shaped by the sentimentality of individual motivations and communal interests intersected by the irony of struggle and hope. Manto collaborates with other artists to merge and juxtapose aesthetic sensibilities to ruminate impressions and notions about paradise. Paradise, as an exhibition, attempts to unwrap the materiality of social tensions of a community gentrified by the vanity of art.  

“At kung ang mundong ito ay magiging paraiso ng Diyos,   

Para kanino ang bukas na may kakayahang tumanaw nito?”*  

  In a country with the vast majority drowning in poverty, Manto tries to initiate the conversation with a question. Is accepting such a fate brought about by the belief that “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5: 31)?   

He probes further and continues to ask if the Filipino tendency to accept suffering is a product of religion. Is it a romanticization of hardship or a resignation to the realities of power relations, or is this the summation of the exercise of state apparatuses2, which is set to condition people into submission?   

In his appropriation of religious imagery, Manto seems to mute the potency of his message, but the meticulousness of his art evidence otherwise. He unsettles and teases out a reaction from his viewers by forcing the issue of the illusion of paradise with the strangeness of his visual expression.   

“Kung ito ang pinapangarap na paraisong ipinangako ng Diyos,  

Marahil ay titigil na lamang akong mangarap.”*  

Paradise Village is one of the communities in Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela (CaMaNaVa), the cluster of urbanized cities known for flooding, factories, and container-van yards kept alive by people mostly living in pocket-areas of squalor and stench. It is an ironic name for a less than privileged community. Like the nearby Happyland of Tondo, Manila, where life is not distinguished by bliss or contentment but by all the plagues of a third world. The naming convention of these communities abstract their realities. It invalidates actual experiences and others a populace away from their lived truths.   

But Manto asserts – his life is a testament to the legitimacy of his community. He has made a life in this chaos with minimal spaces marked by muddy streets, sketchy alleys, heaping piles of trash, accumulated muck, and abuzz with a constant noise of anxiety. He has brushed arms, broken bread and played basketball with pier/port workers, scavengers and all the vagabonds of the informal sector begrudgingly working to keep alive. They are the fallen angels of this paradise. Yes, with Manto being both an active participant and passive observer, social imaginations are made material and true with his lived experiences.  

Manto worked with artists Melbourne Aquino, Richard Buchani, Demetrio dela Cruz, Honesto Guiruela III, Kenneth Montegrande, Rinald Sotto, and Michael Villagante to customize sculptures reminiscent of the Santo Nino or the Child Jesus. The sculptures reference contemporary life but at the same time, they seem to imply to the multitude of idols we have seem to come to worship.   

Idiosyncratic to the personal contexts of his collaborators, each artist deciphers the exhibition’s theme with synchronous and asynchronous interpretations of Manto’s world. The sculptures are the artists’ meditations that range from personal anecdotes, careful critiques, and prosaic observations.  The articulations of the artists have varying considerations from religious to socio-political including references on the environment. The diversity of these considerations expounds Manto’s theme.  

At the same time, the sculptures allude to the innocent and unwilling who have been damned for life because of the sole crime of having been born in this twisted type of paradise.  There is a discomfort, a haunting feeling with each sculpture which agitates the viewer. The sculptures consequently ask, if we are in paradise, then who/what are we?  

“Ganito ang kahulugan ng aking pagkakabuo:   

walang hanggang paghahanap ng mga piraso ng hindi mahagilap na paraiso.”*  

Tying the stories of each of the works is Manto’s trademark puzzle pieces. He questions common notions of paradise, gods, and destinies by recasting the idea of the absolute. He breaks images with missing portions or detachable pieces. Fragments become principal elements. His puzzles demonstrate his constant search for meaning and value. He is always in the process of creating and disassembling, stressing the active role he takes in the development of his personal narrative. Importantly, his puzzle pieces express the insecurities and connections of our realities, that we are never whole, and we are always part of something. He makes apparent in his works the uncertainty of his context and the recognition of his potential through the imagery of contrast with his veiled subjects.   

“Sa aming mga nakabuklat na sawimpalad,   

hayaan ang iyong sariling kumuha’t magbigay.”*  

Quite intriguing is the ambiguity of expressions of Manto’s faceless figures. Is the young child supplicative or taunting? Is the scarfed woman smiling or smirking? At times, you can distinct an emotion. However, look again and their expressions become blank – passive and cryptic. Conversely, with the same kind of vagueness are the open palms of these figures – are these acts of solicitation or oblation? It may seem that Manto is indecisive with his messaging. But it is also his point. He aims to develop a symbiosis between his art and the viewer, to open a conversation, to offer and take ideas and meanings and create new ones.   

“Doon ko napagtantong hindi hinihintay ang paraiso   

Dahil ang aming bawat kabuuan ay parte ng mga piraso nito”*  

The sophistication of Manto’s narrative lies in the paradox of paradise imposed by a society that thrives to distort truths. Paradise Village of Malabon, Happyland of Tondo and the many marginalized neighborhoods are exercises of systemic and institutional manipulation and revisionism. It echoes a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler, “By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.In this pandemic and era of massive disinformation, the artist makes his presence known to declare his truth and reality. Manto asks his audience, “What is your paradise, and where is your paradise?”  

“Kung ikaw ay isa sa mga piraso ng paraiso,   

sasama ka ba sa amin upang tuluyan nang mabuo ito?”*  

By JA, *iglap tula by AV