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Neal Oshima talks about ‘swan song’ again

A visit at ongoing Art Fair yields some conversations

‘Tattoos, Ternos and Couture’ exhibit

‘Tattoos, Ternos and Couture’ exhibit

‘Tattoos, Ternos and Couture’ exhibit

“This is my swan song,” Neal Oshima tells me, referring to the photography exhibit he helped curate at the 2022 Art Fair Philippines (ongoing until April 1) at the Ayala Triangle Gardens.

We are seated on the concrete ledge overlooking the panels of photographs lined up along a side of the garden—the al fresco area assigned the photography exhibit. Titled Tattoos, Ternos and Couture: A Celebration of Philippine Fashion Photography, the exhibit was curated by Neal, Mark Nicdao, Gio Panlilio and stylist Michael Salientes, and displays fashion photographs taken through the decades by the country’s foremost photographers.

Neal is talking about “swan song” because he says he’s “tired of art” and just wants “to brew beer.” This is not the first time Neal is saying “goodbye” to photography. And I don’t know whether to believe him or not. I remember him seeming indifferent to the art, in the past, only to move on and create even more memorable images. Then and now, he must be inspired and motivated to produce images—a project has to fire him up. He and other photographers like Tom Epperson mounted the well-received Fotomoto exhibit of portraits this year, which will be brought to the Visayas soon.

Conversations in the Gardens: from left, Tom Epperson, Neal Oshima, the author, Mark Nicdao, Michael Salientes

A few years ago, way before the pandemic, he was going around the country, exploring and chronicling street food, carinderia cuisine, with food critic and writer Clinton Palanca. The pair was about to produce a book on that collaboration, until Clinton passed away. Today, I guess—guess—he must have been just physically tired from setting up the exhibit, enough to make him talk about “swan song” again. (Neal is also known now for his craft beer served in choice restaurants.)

Neal and his breed can leave the creative scene today, but doing so will not cancel out the fact that they were the collective pillar of Philippine photography from the ‘80s onwards. They defined the quality and standards of Philippine photography as the country’s magazine publishing industry began to thrive in the late ‘90s to the 2000s, fueled by cut-throat competition, imbibing the dynamism of Philippine fashion design (even if it had no industry infrastructure), and gaining a growing young readership. Before other countries in the region could even have their foreign magazine franchises, Philippine glossies led by Metro, Mega, Preview were already pushing the envelope, as they say. Those years of competition and struggle in magazine publishing enriched my life, actually.

Filipino global designer Lesley Mobo, now based in London, loves to tell us how, as a student growing up in Aklan, he was inspired to go into fashion design after he saw the Metro cover by Neal Oshima of a black-and-white photograph of Angel Aquino standing on a rocky hill in Vigan (actually Bantay), wearing a Ramon Valera beaded kimona and comme de garcons Rei Kawakubo’s long black skirt. This was in 1994—as early as then stylist Michael Salientes was combining vintage fashion—a Valera masterpiece, no less—with an avant-garde foreign brand. That shot is a classic (for years its huge frame stood at the lobby of Benpres building where the Metro office was located) and has become iconic. Why? It wasn’t pretentious, trite or trying hard. It had stop-in-your-tracks appeal yet it was no shock art in an era (‘90s and 2000s) that was about to thrive on shock art. Its local color that was an Ilocos cemetery lent it a unique visual identity. Angel Aquino was simply beautiful and quietly elegant, not easy to pigeonhole into a physical stereotype. At the time of the shoot, Angel was a UP Baguio journalism student who commuted late at night to Vigan (bus and tricycle) to make it to the 5a.m. call time.

The iconic 1994 cover shot of Angel Aquino in Vigan by Neal Oshima for Metro magazine

But—Neal has long outgrown that series of Vigan photographs for Metro, so that he didn’t even include them in this exhibit.

Michael Salientes, however, considers that one of his most memorable shoots. “It had surreal moments and the photos reflect that,” Michael tells us now. He also singles out—”Paris, a dream shoot with Mark Nicdao and the late Helena Belmonte for Mega Magazine. We shot at the newly opened Baccarat Museum in 2006.”

Michael notes how styling in the Philippines continues to evolve: “Filipino-inspired work, original and creative designs, more quality, out-of-the-box ideas, elevated craft-based designs  and products, deeper understanding and higher education in all aspects design, film, creative writing, art/painting, music, more fun and joy.”

“Fashion photography is significant in the growth of photography in the country,” Neal tells me at the ArtFair, again making obvious his penchant for understatement.

He and his co-curators chose photographs for this exhibit on the sole basis of they being “photos. Not based on designers, models or fashion,” he said. “We took them out of their (publishing) context and just wanted those that will resonate with the viewers now.”

Neal said they were unanimous in their choices, so the selection was easy. “It’s good that Art Fair has given photography a platform.”

Neal, like Tom Epperson who is seated beside us, doesn’t mind that in today’s technology, anybody can take photographs with their phones. “Cellphone camera records your life. That’s the beauty of it,” says Tom, who is among the best portrait and architecture photographers in the country. “For many, a photograph is their first experience of art.”

The good news is that the next edition of Fotomoto, the photography exhibit, will carry the theme Home, referring not to the literal home but to that special space in one’s life.

It’s best to see the photography exhibit at the Art Fair at sundown, when the sun’s reflection doesn’t mar the images and Nicdao’s video installation is best viewed against the evening sky.

Partial glimpse of Nune Alvarado exhibit at Art Fair at Ayala Triangle Gardens

The 2022 Art Fair Philippines, aside from the physical event and activities at Ayala Gardens Triangle, has the Gallery Hop which gives guests the route to the various participating galleries. For the extensive story, read Art Fair 2022 blends the physical and the virtual.

What the heck, they seem to say, let’s just get on with life

The world is indeed opening up perhaps not so much because the virus is retreating as because people are getting braver or are simply not as afraid as they were last year—what the heck, they seem to say, let’s just get on with life.

The weekend before Art Fair, Katutubo Pop-up store was held at Bench building in BGC, and this time, the attendance was definitely better than last year’s. The pandemic didn’t dampen the spirit of Mons Romulo and the creative entrepreneurs  who joined it. The designers like Randy Ortiz, Rhett Eala, Tweetie de Leon-Gonzalez, JC Buendia, Vic Barba were back, and so were the food entrepreneurs like Noel Manlapat and the craftsmen. Among the early visitors were Irene Marcos-Araneta and good friend Pepito Albert, and friends were happy to see that Pepito continues to move about.

After two years, it was good to dine with friends again at Manila House where the food continues to be good and so down-home, thanks to chef Gilbert Pangilinan—the “best fried chicken,” said one guest. We had that fried chicken, caesar’s salad, kimchi rice, grilled Hamachi, the halo-halo and the winner chocolate cake, among others—and lots of stories. Consul Agnes Huibonhua hosted the dinner for SM Supermalls president Steven Tan, our birthday honoree even if his birthday was some time ago—we’re on pandemic timeline—and Dos Quong, Mitch So, Chunchi Soler, Carlo Tanseco, Obee Ham, JJ San Juan.

The author (right) with Trickie Lopa, who founded Art Fair founder with Lisa Periquet and Dindin Araneta

It’s good to know, for instance, that in the private sector, the SM group accounted for about 70% of the vaccination-rollout initiative, as SM malls were turned into vaccination centers.

At that dinner we also learned that Siargao is getting back on its feet—the tourists are back as the lodgings and boutique resorts, damaged in the last typhoon, are rebuilt.

Meanwhile, retail pioneer/designer-turned-visual artist Carlo Tanseco has been busy painting for a May exhibit, on the theme—his select books. He is turning his favorite readings into art works. That should be something to see.

On another note—are hotels around Ayala Avenue really fully booked for the end of April in anticipation of a Leni rally? But then we just learned from our chat group that an April 30 Makati rally is fake news. No date has been set yet.

These days politics becomes the spice of life, or its challenge, if not curse. Whatever, life goes on, in some cases, without our loved ones who didn’t make it through the night.

But life goes on.

In a much-awaited reunion at Manila House hosted by Agnes Huibonhua (3rd from left, standing): from left, standing, Mitch So, Steven Tan, the author, Dos Quong, Obee Ham, Jj San Juan; seated, Carlo Tanseco, Chunchi Soler

About author

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After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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