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A refreshing art space in Laguna

Text and photos by Elizabeth Lolarga, VERA Files

Nineveh Artspace, the first and only art gallery in the capital town of Santa Cruz, Laguna, and the biggest in the province, comes as a breath of fresh air for the Manila-based visitor, especially on exhibition opening day. There is none of that cocktail-party artifice where one tries valiantly to view the works while maintaining a decent conversation and balancing a small plate of finger food on one hand.

At Nineveh, expect a mini barrio fiesta with similar performances from local choirs or dance troupes to keep the familiarity levels up. Food unique to Laguna is served like kalamay sa talulo, especially made in the town of Cavinti, mo-le (actually deep-fried balls of banana heart), akin to kare-kare and ordered from Pila native Joe Lat, vegetable dishes and miki-bihon pancit.

These touches reflect the down-to-earth personality of Louie Sevilla, the moving force  behind the art space. Apart from teaching Philippine history, art appreciation and the Rizal course at St. Peter's College Seminary in San Pablo City, he writes and directs plays, the most significant of which are variations of the senakulo (plays on the passion and death of Jesus Christ).

He opened his home and made it part of the country's gallery circuit "at a time when I was collecting artworks like mad and wanted to share this passion with others," he says.

In bringing art to his residence, Sevilla says his friends tell him "it's a joy to visit it every now and then because there's something different each time."

He was partly inspired by Totong Francisco's The Second Gallery in Angono, Rizal, who turned his garage into a display area, by a sampling of what gallery work is like when a set of paintings was loaned to him for a move-over show and by an opportunity to exhibit 13 Artist awardee Noel Soler Cuizon's new works.

The Cuizon show did it for Sevilla. By November 2003, Nineveh, a biblical name to mean both "root" and "dwelling," opened its first solo and has since built up a track record of putting up at least seven simultaneous shows three to four times a year, or 21 shows yearly.

What sets Nineveh apart from other galleries in the country is the volume and variety of works, its big backroom and a nature space that is home to a number of plants and animals.

Sevilla says: "While we do have some artists who, by regularly exhibiting with us, have become identified with us, we don't opt for exclusivity. We have encouraged many young artists to exhibit here, with some having their first solo here."

The place has seven exhibition spaces with sizes suitable for a modest solo show to a bigger space for group shows.  Sevilla says: "If we were to accommodate two outdoor shows for outdoor sculptures, for instance, and allot one gallery space for two exhibits, there would be room for 10 simultaneous shows!"

He chooses exhibiting artists whose works he appreciates and feels should be recognized by a wider audience. He examines works for the excellence in craftsmanship and the idea or philosophy being put across by the artist.

Sevilla quotes a departed friend, Bobi Valenzuela, who once said: "If a work moves you, then it's good."

This year, he upped the ante by also setting aside a room for the works of 13 Artists awardees, explaining, "While Nineveh would like to encourage young unknown artists, we need to show the works of recognized artists because these are what draw art aficionados to patronize the gallery. Moreover, exhibitions featuring the works of 13 Artists serve as models of excellence for beginning artists and the viewing public. Any one show has a mix of renowned and unknown artists. We invite students from elementary to collegiate levels to visit our exhibits to upgrade their knowledge of and taste in Filipino art."

Sevilla suggests these other spots to put in one's Laguna cultural itinerary good for a weekend: Pila, a heritage town that is a perfect example of the Spanish colonial setup and renowned for its preserved turn-of-the-century houses; Lumban for its barong; Paete for sculptures and paper mache; Pakil for its church and the Danilo Dalena museum; the liturgical museum in Liliw; and the Underground Cemetery in Nagcarlan.

With this entire month dubbed as "La Laguna," an arts and culture festival, it's a good time to head for south. Nineveh Artspace is at 2452 1st Avenue Villa Silangan Subdivision, Santa Cruz, Laguna.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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