National Artist Abdulmari Imao's Mythical Realms

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National Artist Dr. Abdulmari Imao (Sculpture, 2006) is perhaps the most “Asian” of National Artists. His pioneering practice uses recurring folk motifs drawn from his Sulu heritage, which connects to the wider world of Southeast Asian mythological traditions. Thus, this consistent and successful usage of folk themes goes beyond the clichéd appropriation of genre scenes common in Philippine art—creating and assuming Southeast Asian archetypes to retell the myths and legends of the culture of his birth. His most familiar motif, for example, that of the sarimanok is essentially a link to that story of a rooster in the first of seven heavens. That same motif persists in different Southeast Asian cultures—the serpent naga of Malaysia, the most evident example. These regional thematic linkages set the practice of Imao apart in the Philippine art community as something truly unique. It isn’t surprising then that Imao’s art represents a visual rendering of the Philippines’ place within the community of Southeast Asian art and characterizes an important aspect of the national artistic trajectory.

On the occasion of the National Artist’s 77th birthday, Galerie Joaquin examines Imao’s navigation through national and regional mythologies in an exhibition of his latest works. Entitled Mythical Realms, the exhibition is a fascinating survey of the intellectual nous and technical intricacies that have seen Imao become an important figurehead in Philippine visual art. Opening on Thursday, January 31 at Galerie Joaquin’s main gallery in San Juan, Mythical Realms displays the best examples culled from the prolific oeuvre of this living national treasure.

Galerie Joaquin is located at 371 P. Guevarra Street, Addition Hills, City of San Juan. They may be reached through their landline at (632) 723-9418 or email at

The exhibition looks into two of Imao’s most iconic series: sarimanok and Arabic calligraphy. Taking two forms, acrylic on canvas and works of sculpture, both series revel in Imao’s bold use of bright colors, bold lines, and an abstract, stained glass window-like aesthetic sensibility. The brilliance is that he applies the same aesthetic styles to both forms—so one can look at a sarimanok brass figure and think that it jumped out of a sarimanok canvas.

This immense technical and conceptual aptitude is a hallmark of the National Artist. Graduating from the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, his teachers have included National Artists Guillermo Tolentino and Napoleon Abueva, while he is the contemporary of the likes of National Artist Jose Joya. As a Smith Mundt and Fulbright Scholar, he received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Kansas and has also done post-graduate research at the Rhode Island School of Design and Columbia University. The recipient of countless awards for his visual arts practice, Dr. Imao’s practice received perhaps the best recognition that the Philippines can bestow upon him—admission into the Order of National Artists in 2006.

Mythical Realms attempts to honor the seminal artist on his 77th birthday by a close examination of the motifs that he is best known for. The survey of works should be an essential item in any art lover’s calendar.

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