Art/Style/Travel Diaries

The political (and other) lines that Jose Tence Ruiz has drawn

‘Drawing gave me a lot, mainly because I gave it all I had’

'Maestro of the line': Jose Tence Ruiz's exhibit runs until March 25. (Photo from exhibit catalogue)

Pepeng Orig and the ABC, 9 inw x 13 ½ inh Markers and Graphite on Bristol Board, ca. 1983, Personal Boceto for an article to be used in WHO Magazine

In the time-tested hand of visual artist Jose Tence Ruiz, drawing is an end in itself, not just the preliminary study to a more lasting or bigger, seemingly more permanent work.

In his latest exhibit (until March 25) called Drawings of Love Hate and Pained Abiding at vMeme Gallery of Contemporary Art on the third floor of Estancia Capitol Commons in Pasig City, his illustrations in pen, ink, markers, graphite and other media indicate what a maestro he is of the line, especially in dealing with such subjects as political detention and compromises, child slavery, hostility, and lack of a safe space in the age of the internet, the stifling of the press in reporting uncomfortable truths and so on.

Tence Ruiz discussing his views on art and life with former Manila Chronicle colleague Rolly Fernandez

One emerges from  the show feeling disturbed by how much the works, dating as far back as the 1980s, still reflect current issues. This realization somehow points to the uneasy fact that not much or even nothing has changed. Sure, we may have new high-rise buildings, shopping complexes and skyways, we’re the most numerous users of Facebook, we might even have the latest model of mobile phones. But the humongous gap between socio-economic classes remains nearly unbridgeable.

One mustn’t mistake the artist’s works as mere “editorial cartoons,” if by cartoon one means something laughable, playful, cute, or a work that serves as breaker to a serious and gray-colored text. Again in the hands of Bogie (the artist’s famous nickname), the cartoon takes a life of its own. It is stand-alone, meritorious work that doesn’t need to be propped up by words.

Ramos and his Coup-Pals, 12 3/8 inw x 14 inh Ink on Vellum 12/14/1986, For The Manila Chronicle and PYTK!

Take Ramos and His Coup Pals. The title makes for witty word play—“coup pal” sounds in Filipino as kupal to mean, according to Google, “the dirt, dead cells, and what not found under the skin of the tip of a boy’s uncircumcised penis” and colloquially to mean “someone who’s a jerk.”

It depicts the former head of the Philippine Constabulary, the jailer of political dissidents during the Marcos dictatorship, the trademark tobacco in his mouth and rebellious soldiers in his pockets, sleeves and epaulets to signify the various coup attempts that sought to destabilize the Cory Aquino government. Fidel V. Ramos was also one of two main instigators (the other, the now centenarian Juan Ponce Enrile) of a putsch versus his relative and commander-in-chief, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., so he was no stranger to coups.

Those coup attempts against Ms. Aquino challenged Ramos who was then already defense secretary. Bogie accurately captures the puzzlement on the subject’s face as he tries to exercise authority over his restive, unruly soldiers.

The artist also has a soft spot, and he belies this in Pepeng Orig and His ABC, a portrait of the nationalist Ka Jose “Pepe” Diokno. The expression on Diokno’s countenance is grave, he is holding an umbrella with the letters ABC on it. The former senator, with the sagging, loose lines on his face, seems to be contemplating the country’s bleak future as it continues to be under the spell of the US. ABC, by the way, stands for Anti-Bases Coalition. In his exhibit notes, Bogie writes that the ABC at that time was “needed to give the Philippines material autonomy from its historic subservience to American neo-colonial interests in the Asia-Pacific Region of the 1980s.”

He is at his most biting when poking fun at the elites

The Carbon Footprint of the Patriot, 48 inw x 66 inh Oil and Bitumen on Primed Canvas 01/2024, For Drawings of LOVE HATE and Pained Abiding

He is at his most biting when poking fun at the elites, whether they rule the world (like Israel is trying to do with Palestine) or the Philippines. In The Carbon Footprint of the Reluctant Martyr, done in oil and bitumen on primed canvas, it seems he is extracting the word “pain” from “painting” to portray the suffering of the people of Gaza with the continued bombardment by Israeli, or rather, Zionist forces. One can almost smell the burning bodies and pungent gunpowder.

In The Circus of Banal Violence, ballpen and tempera highlights on Bristol vellum, dating back to 1988, Bogie trains his eye on what he calls “the decadent violence and banal excesses of certain members of the elite in Manila.” It seems as if the human figure in the picture is committing a suicidal gesture in the excesses she commits. What excesses these are—they can be sex, alcohol or drugs—the artist seems to pass cold judgment. The work is reminiscent of an iconic Diane Arbus photo of a circus sword swallower, a woman at that. The difference is that Arbus’s subject lives on the fringes of society, unlike Bogie’s woman who wears butterfly sleeves  and assorted jewelry on her fingers and wrists.

Scarecrow for the Scared, 11 inw x 14 7/8 inh Acrylic and Colored Inks on Fabriano Paper 03/29/1988, For The Manila Chronicle

Scarecrow for the Scared, acrylic and colored inks on Fabriano paper, initially seems a breath of fresh air after the heaviness of the other subjects until one stares at the foreboding clouds above the two scarecrows, one a plain farmer’s tool to drive away birds and other pests, the other garbed in a cardinal’s or a bishop’s sacred vestments in royal red and yellow.

What is Bogie again trying to say? Perhaps it’s a statement on the material wealth accrued by the Roman Catholic Church, most especially in Manila, in its preaching that true richness doesn’t lie in this but in the next world vis-à-vis the poverty of peasants and fisherfolk who cling to the faith that things will be better in the afterlife.

Donya Victorina Makafili, 60 inw x 72 inh Oil and Bitumen on Primed Canvas 01/2024, For Drawings of LOVE HATE and Pained Abiding show

For Donya Victorina Makafili, oil and bitumen on primed canvas, the artist reserves his venom for what he calls “the elites whose hearts were always misaligned away from the Filipino masses and (who have) brought betrayal to a level where it was achieved with misappropriation of massive government funds that manifest in absurd luxury and spending.” The work is a study in gray, except for faint touches of red and blue here and there. Again the female figure is costumed in a traje de mestiza and is holding on its left arm a reptilian figure. Could it stand for the crocodiles in high and public places and whose appetite for money that isn’t their own is bottomless?

In his artist’s statement, Bogie credits drawing for bringing him “to where I am. Illustration gave me a job when I left my parents to be with my girlfriend, now my wife of 42 years. Drawing helped pay for the apartment, fed, clothed and transported us in the lean years, the years of resistance to a dictatorship, the years of three-digit savings accounts, the years when those drawings justified themselves by now being records of that irreplaceable cultural and political juncture…Drawing gave me a lot, mainly because I gave it all I had, and never saw drawing as less valid. Pundits said: Why slave over a drawing for a newspaper that was going to wrap fish in two days? I said because a few thousand strangers might enjoy it for a minute or so before deciding to wrap the fish. It also allowed me to inoculate the collective present with my innermost personal thoughts, now elevated to public imagery. Who gets to be so lucky? Drawing is the little engine that could, and I rode that little locomotive inside my brain leaking out of my left hand through all the LOVE, HATE and Pained Abiding that times hurled at me, and these traces still vibrate with those times and places and people and tragedies and contradictions and dilemmas and moments of sheer wonder. And I got paid to do it.”

He has drawn for such publications as The Review Magazine, WHO Magazine, The National Midweek, the short-lived Manila Times of 1986, The Manila Chronicle, The Singapore Straits Times, even the underground publication Ulos.

It’s a point of pride that he also drew for many writers like Virgilio Almario, Teo Antonio, Edel Garcellano, Bienvenido Santos, Fidel Rillo, Justice Fred Ruiz Castro, Odette Alcantara, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Amando Doronila, Vergel Santos, Gelacio Guillermo, Flor Caagusan, Mariel N. Francisco, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Fe Arriola, Charlson Ong in a long long list.

One’s impression of Bogie has remained unchanged and unwavering. The man loves life, good food, good music. But these days, with the passing of a number of his contemporary social realists, he is acutely aware that he, too, can go anytime. He reminds us, his friends from our freelance work years, to “take care of your mortal package: It does articulate and mediate our spirit, and we feed and clothe and bathe and perfume it, and I would merely like not to immolate all that investment in a wave of grief.”

He said he has left instructions that should he die ahead of his immediate beloveds, he would like his body to be studied by medical students and working organs to go to those in need of them (“My corneas are still good”). Afterwards, the remains can be cremated. For his wake he would like nothing better than a blown-up photo of himself at his most guapo, while people listen to a curated song list from the best of Dave Clark Five to U2.

The Barbed Wire Child, 8 5/8inW x 8 3/4 inh Ink on Vellum 06/1/1988, For The Manila Chronicle

May all that take a long time coming, Bogie!

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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