Abdulmari Asia Imao: Molding History

In the hands of Dr. Abdulmari Imao, matter meets its destiny. Matter becomes molded into its highest capacity, it becomes imbibed with soul, meaning and history. Matter becomes beautiful, and most importantly, matter becomes art.

Abdulmari Imao is a national gem, a patriot who has wholeheartedly taken it upon himself to instill in the Filipino people a sense of pride in the cultural diversity that exists within our very islands. He does so by uplifting the indigenous tradition, harnessing its natural beauty as a fuel to create breathtaking, thought-provoking and innovative art pieces.

Honored as a National Artist for Sculpture in 2006, Imao's contribution to the arts is immeasurable. As the first, and to date only Moro to receive the award, he has not only forged a path of recognition and opportunity for his own Tausug people; he has also shown the world a new dimension to the Philippines through his artistic portrayal of his heritage.

The works of the celebrated artist whether as a sculptor, a painter, photographer, writer or cultural researcher, all exemplify the vibrancy, richness and romanticism of the Moro people. Born in Jolo, Sulu, Imao's blood is a fusion of cultures being of Chinese and Arab descent. Perhaps, this also contributes to his sensitive perception of the indigenous people of his region, a people whose culture he has immortalized through beautiful works of art, one of which has become an iconic image that has captured a nation's imagination: the sarimanok.

The sarimanok is a stunning, multicolored bird emerging from the folk legends of the Maranao people in Mindanao. Akin to the phoenix in its mythical and elusive qualities, there are many stories surrounding this captivating creature. A symbol of wealth and prosperity, it is said that the sarimanok's tail was dipped in a rainbow, that it is a messenger of the gods, the lover of a sultan's beautiful daughter, and also that it has its Islamic roots as the rooster in the first of seven heavens.

Imao's fascination for the sarimanok came about after his extensive travels abroad. He was challenged by the head of a prominent museum in New York to develop something that is indigenous to the Philippines. As a professor at the University of the East's College of Arts, he used his summers to study the tribes and culture of the south, educating himself in the richness of the region. As a result, he had re-created the sarimanok, immortalizing it through modern art. Since then, it has been a national icon used for various purposes. It was used as a symbol of culture during the '70s and was used by a prominent television channel, whose widespread use of the sarimanok logo only served to infuse it more into the Filipino psyche.

Aside from his fascination with the sarimanok, Imao also explored other iconic Islam images extensively and incorporated them into his creations. Among them is the okir, a geometric flowing design with elegant curvilinear characteristics. However, what is also striking in his work, particularly in his paintings, is his use of color. The colors that grace the works of Imao are bright, vivid, and arresting. It is the color of festivity and celebration, the bluest of the blue, the reddest of the red, the greenest of the green and so forth. His palette tickles the eyes, each block of color commanding attention, seducing the senses, yet all elements balancing each other, the epitome of harmony and unity. ''During the Japanese time when I was young, I was a fisherman for more than five years,'' recalls Imao. ''I saw so many colorful fishes under the sea. I was inspired by them, because of their color. Generally ang mga Tausug mahilig sa bright colors. You'll see that even their native costumes are very very colorful; primary and secondary colors are their main color scheme.''

The intellectual and technical superiority of Imao is undoubted. This is evident not only in the discipline and thoughtfulness that he applies to his creative process, but also in his thirst for knowledge that constantly sharpened his skill, putting him ahead of all others. A graduate of Sculpture from the University of the Philippines, he originally wanted to study painting. However, under the tutelage of masters such as Guillermo Tolentino and Napoleon Abueva, his talent with his hands was so evident and overwhelming, they encouraged him to develop his skill. He took his craft further, taking up his Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the University of Kansas, USA in 1962 as a Smith Mundt and Fulbright Scholar. He also did advanced studies in sculpture and ceramics as a Fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1961-1962, and in brass-casting and photography as a Faculty Scholar at the Columbia University in New York City from 1962-1963. Imao also has the distinction of being the first Asian recipient of the New York Museum of Modern Art Grant to Europe and Scandinavia in 1963.

Indeed Imao has accomplished many colossal and monumental artworks. His brilliance dots Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Among them are the Industry Brass Mural, Philippine National Bank, San Fernando, La Union, the Mural Relief on Filmmaking, Manila City Hall; Industrial Mural, Central Bank of the Philippines, San Fernando, La Union, and Sulu Warriors (statues of Panglima Unaid and Captain Abdurahim Imao), Sulu Provincial Capitol. Abroad, his calligraphic brass sculpture and paintings are in the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

He also lent his expertise to help develop brass-casting technologies in other parts of Asia such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.

Despite having an intimidating list of accomplishments under his belt, Imao shows no sign of stopping, enthusiastically continuing his legacy of creation. In line with his 77th birthday, he unveils his latest collection of visual poetry in an exhibit entitled, ''Mythical Realms.'' A fitting name for a journey into a magical world, he takes us along in his most recent artistic exploration of his favored subjects. Numbering over 30 pieces, his collection of paintings represents his latest representations of the sari fish and sarimanok in his familiar pulsating effervescent manner. His brass/wood sculptures, however, show a notable change from his previous works with the masterfully manipulated brass sarimanok on top of a beautifully carved wooden stand, a reminder of the dexterity and expertise of the artist on a wide variety of materials.

The artist remains as animated as ever, full of life, energy and hunger to create, and we, as Filipinos, are better for it.

''Mythical Realms'' will be open for public viewing until February 14, 2013 at Galerie Joaquin located at 371 P. Guevarra Street corner Montessori Lane, Addition Hills, City of San Juan. 723-9418 or visit www.galeriejoaquin.com.