In 1887, Jose Rizal climbed the summit of Mt. Makiling accompanied by a personal escort (his life was believed to be in danger after publishing the controversial “Noli Me Tángere”). The excursion would be the subject of his writing years later, revisiting the lore of the diety that guarded the mountains, Mariang Makiling.
He did not see her that day. No one has for years by then. He was nonetheless entranced by the mountain’s towering trees teeming with vines that “weave most beautiful laces embroidered with flowers, most rare and varied parasitic plants from the threadlike form to the toothed broad leaf, the split of circular gigantic ferns, palms of all kinds, tall and graceful, which distribute their symmetrical leaves in space as a splendid plumage.”
Artist Ryan Villamael knows how this story ends, knows of said “delightful places, charming places, worthy to be inhabited by gods and goddesses,” having been born in Los Baños, Laguna.
He knew too that the threat that awaited hikers today is less severe than what Jose Taviel de Andrade was tasked to protect Rizal from—though just as deadly. They may be lost and end up on the other side of the mountain in Batangas if they make it out at all.
We didn’t venture too deep into the forest reserve with Ryan as our tour guide. But even on the short scenic trail to the Flat Rocks, philodendrons slithering towards the canopy for sunlight and more than century-old toog trees that asked us to crane our necks, wonders that Rizal must have seen, were already showing off.
Other wonders are elusive to the untrained eye. Not to Ryan, who points to things we would have otherwise missed: a funnel-like mushroom growing on tree roots, a small harmless snake, a green snail shell no bigger than a fingernail, and strange fallen flowers on the forest floor.
Even in his beat-up sneakers, he took the hike in stride. This is a man attuned to Makiling’s eccentricities having lived in proximity to it most of his life. He climbed onto piled-up rocks of the mountain’s volcanic past with ease, fearing no bugs, unmoved by the mountain’s intermittent weather. At one point, he sat on a protruding formation, the nearest thing he could grab onto for stability was a vaguely Calder-like plant similar to his airborne foliage made out of maps.
He says these were, in fact, the very things that moved him to make those. “Ito ‘yon.”
Ryan Villamael’s nearly two-decade-long art practice, he often says, is a result of a fortuitous pivot. Paint proved too expensive for him as an artist fresh out of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman’s Fine Arts program. Paper was something more accessible. Equipped with the exact skill of paper cutting—thanks in part to his childhood tailing his mother, a laboratory technician at UP Los Baños—he set out to literally and figuratively dissect the medium and its meanings.
While paper cutting as a practice was often relegated to a crafty pursuit, he pushed its boundaries and explored themes beyond the tactile. He poured himself into maps and archival books, transforming them, one incisive cut after another, into critical objects questioning hegemonic narratives, particularly about the lives of Filipinos.
Ryan has deconstructed archival maps and subverted their territorial assertions; dissected and subsequently erected black and white photos of Manila ravaged by wars; and even did an “emotional forensics” exercise to investigate his own past. What always ties his growing body of work is a sense of place, a geographic, emotional, historical, sometimes personal epicenter of sorts.
His last show at Silverlens Gallery, “Return, My Gracious Hour,” is a reimagining of the American occupation landscape replete with lofty metal leaves, whose long shadows are just as imposing as their scale. A closer look at the wall where the 38-piece work “Memories of My Town”—named after a Rizal poem that inspired the show—reveals little wonders to those who take their time to peruse through each frame. Among texts of prevailing American-era stereotypes interspersed with intricate paper flora are black and white photos of idyllic rural sceneries from a 1900 book chronicling the Filipino people, their modes of living, customs, industries, climate, and conditions.[READ: Permanent historical marker to commemorate Philippine Village at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Missouri]
What drew him to this material, he says, are the parallels between our then-emerging nation and the present where some of the consequences of colonial rule still persist.
“The American archives are the most accessible archives online. That period when they colonized us is well documented,” Ryan says. “In a span of almost 50 years, we were observed at a microscopic level: our blood type, hair, the way we talk, eat, interact, dress—lahat! Kasi oddity tayo sa kanila e. Ang liit ng tingin nila sa atin and I think, we still carry it until today. We’re still relearning it.”
Zooming out of that pervasive lens, there are the nipa-roofed houses and bamboo structures that reminded him of his upbringing in the Southern Tagalog region. “That’s the environment that I grew up in. Mag-iimbento pa ba ako? [With] home and dwelling, you can do it as very personal but at the same time also universal and historical.”
The personal has always been fertile ground for him. In 2019, for his seventh solo show at Silverlens, he filled the gallery’s main section with only four pieces: a 20-meter unfurled scroll (pristine if not for the termite infestation-like pattern carved out of it) pinned atop mounds of sand, a stainless steel sculpture mimicking the cartographic veins of an undisclosed location, and two finely cut figures encased in house-shaped frames.
“I was actually very insecure and afraid doon sa show na ‘yon kasi it might be too personal. Pero it was really a surprise din sa akin when people walked in; some of them were crying,” he recalls.
As he remembers it, he was working on a totally different show when he stumbled upon a box of letters from his father, an overseas Filipino worker in the Middle East, who had since left their family. “Hindi naman tinatago sa akin, nakita ko lang siya, read a few of them, and realized it’s very timely na gawin ko siya.”
The scrolls turned out to be his way of responding to those letters: blank except for marks made with a precision cutting knife. The metal map was a triangulation of three locations resulting in a make-believe place where Ryan, his mother, and his father exist together. The subjects of two framed paper cuttings were more apparent. Carved out in copies of the original blueprint of their house from the ’90s are the emblem of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where his father was stationed, and a hoya vine, one of the handful of plants he and his mother care for in the house they built together in the absence of the supposed “pillar of home.”
“Para kaming aviary dito in the morning,” Ryan says as he welcomes us into the lush garden in the back of their three-story home. His mom, meanwhile, mourns the recently concluded blooming of her hoyas and the New Guinea vines that set the house ablaze with its blood orange blooms in early January.
The house is watched over by two giants: Mt. Makiling on the southwest and Mt. Banahaw on the east—two scenic views Ryan grew up with. He was born at the university infirmary, spent his childhood around the UP Los Baños campus, and studied at Maquiling School Inc. and Philippine High School for the Arts. He could have gone to LB for college, comfortable in the company of his mother’s colleagues, but young Ryan wanted to go out there to know what it’s like living in Manila.
For most of college and after graduation, he lived away from home, in Quezon City. That was also the time he experienced what it was like to be an artist with no financial prospects. To stay afloat, he said yes to any project that came his way, most of what he can remember now were in production. There was a brief stint at a corporate gig and an attempt at becoming a mall visual merchandiser, “Pero sabi noong kukunin na ako, ‘You’re overqualified.’”
What pushed him to pursue a career in the arts despite these events was his time as a studio assistant for artists Louie Cordero, Gary Ross Pastrana, and Nona Garcia, who referred him to Silverlens. “Si Ate Nona actually ‘yong very first na nakita ko how it was like to be a practicing artist: ‘yong mayroon kang sariling studio and then you love what you do, at the same time, financially, you can earn from it.”
It would be years before it became a reality for Ryan: from mounting his first solo exhibition in 2011 to winning the Ateneo Art Awards in 2015 and subsequently going on various art residencies abroad to becoming one of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists awardees in 2021. (Still, he humbly admits—as he usually does, deflecting exceptionalist remarks about him with universalisms like “ikaw din naman” or “lahat naman tayo”—“I actually don’t see myself, hanggang ngayon, [as a successful artist]. Really. Promise.”)
During those times, he was holed up in his Quezon City apartment slash studio. It was there that he fashioned out of replicas of archival Philippine maps his monumental and most recognizable work, “Locus Amoenus,” originally commissioned for the 2016 Singapore Biennale at the Singapore Art Museum. The site-specific installation has since been shown in Shiga prefecture, Japan; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Manila, and is currently back in Singapore at its national performing arts center, the Esplanade.[READ: How Does Ryan Villamael Make Art?]
It wasn’t until 2020 that he decided to move back with his mother in Los Baños. “Weeks before the lockdown, doon ako nagdecide lumipat. Pero ‘di ko alam na mag-la-lockdown nang matagal. For some reason, someone, whatever, was telling me to move back.”
The Villamael residence wasn’t always an inviting, warm space peppered with Mrs. Villamael’s plants and Ryan’s drawings from his early exposure to art at the workshops his mom enrolled him in in lieu of daycare. Before the second-floor room became his studio, it was a laundry area. In one interview, he remembers growing up in a “home that was not quite a house.” It was, according to him, raw, unpolished, and with parts left undone.
When he moved back to Los Baños, he decided to make it his mission to realize a home for his recently retired mother and himself.
“At that time, I was very stressed. Paano ko ba ‘to aayusin? I felt like I was living two lives at the same time,” he says referring to a time of turmoil involving a recent communication with his absentee father. “I have to balance my personal stuff with the stuff that I’m working on with my career. It’s a constant back and forth. Hindi siya madali pero I welcome it. I would constantly remind myself na being an artist is really a privilege that I have to be grateful for.”
The three-bedroom house sheltered Ryan, his mother, and maternal grandmother (who passed away during the pandemic) along with their five dogs. The ground floor room gave way to the kitchen where Mrs. Villamael, a Sylvia Reynoso Gala-trained baker, prepares her equally intricate pastries.
During our visit, she cooked spaghetti with meat sauce along with her bread and butter: heart-shaped mango cream cake handpiped with dainty buttercream flowers and a lambanog-infused fruitcake. All of which Ryan thoroughly enjoys yet he maintains a lean physique, which his mother attributes to his lack of sleep.
He has been working late nights leading up to his solo show, installation at Esplanade Singapore, appearance at SEA Focus with fellow Silverlens-represented artists, and in preparation for Art Fair Philippines and Alt Philippines this February.
“When I do shows, binubuhos ko talaga lahat. Napapagod talaga ako not just physically but emotionally.” And often, because he’s an introvert prone to bouts of isolation—and out of fear that if he enlists other hands, the work wouldn’t be as good, or that it wouldn’t really be “his”—he prefers to go at it alone.
This is something he’s trying to unlearn as an act of self-preservation. “Doing ‘Locus Amoenus’ really challenged me to include other people. I realized doing that kind of work na hindi pala ako mauubos nang sobra if I welcome other people in my process.”
It was also by opening up his work to collaboration that he realized the value of taking breaks. “Parang mas nakikita mo ‘yong work in a different light or perspective so by the time you work again, mas may energy ka to do more.”
So after doing three shows in a short period, he’s taking some time off. But not a total time off. “Hindi naman parang bibitawan ko. Gusto ko lang ng breather.” Ryan’s idea of rest being: Eating and streaming shows and movies at home. This too is why he took on renovating their house: “I think ‘yon naman din ‘yong gusto nating lahat: a place where we can rest and be ourselves. Parang mayroon tayong sarili nating lugar.”
Going around the sprawling UPLB campus, Ryan feels at home.
It’s as if he was doing a house tour. Here was the church where he was once an altar boy, a now-abandoned cold spring resort where he spent his summers, the clubhouse where he learned how to swim, and the university staff housing where his mom, then a twenty-something woman, used to live.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Ryan chose Manila over the comfort of living in a suburban idyll. But in an interview in 2019, he said about his upbringing: “Drawing was really an outlet for me, imagining lives and worlds outside of Laguna.”
Did he ever tire of all these?
“Hindi ako nagsasawa pero ngayon iba ‘yong appreciation ko of the place I grew up in. I guess it comes with a certain kind of maturity and a different way to look at things lalo na kapag iba na rin ‘yong hinahanap mo. Tsaka ‘yong relationship ko din with my mom, mas nag-iba ngayon kasi bumalik ako na medyo matanda na ako, mas mature na,” he says.
Even though his art practice has taken him to far places—developed countries with “functioning public transport and government” unlike his own, European cities where a Rodin sculpture once dared him to dream—he insists on staying in the motherland: “I don’t think it (moving abroad) will work for me kasi ito ‘yong source ko e.”
And what a generous source Los Baños, or at least, what he considers home beyond its geographical bounds, is. It will be long til he runs out of inspiration. Even if he does, he can always revisit themes that he feels he hasn’t drilled down yet, as he is wont to do. “Being an artist, it’s a constant questioning and investigation of your process, ideas, thoughts. I’m still questioning. ‘Yon ang torch ko. Kailangan ko to constantly question things kasi otherwise parang wala nang point.”
Does this questioning ever reach an endpoint?
“Feeling ko ‘yong mga ginagawa ko years prior, I would still revisit and rework it. Iga-gather ko ulit siya and then maybe I can do something about it again. Hindi siya natatapos.”●