Vim Nadera: How did you discover that you are a visual artist?
Elmer Borlongan: When I first started to draw in my early years, I had no concept of what a visual artist is. The thing I remembered is I enjoyed copying the pictures I saw in books, comics and magazines. It was the painter Fernando Sena who introduced me to the art world. While I was studying under him at the Children's Museum and Library, Inc. (CMLI) in 1978, he would open the pages of the encyclopedia and show in class the works of his favorite Dutch painters Rembrandt and Frans Hals.
VN: How influential are your first idols aside from Danny Dalena, Onib Olmedo, Nestor Vinluan, to name a few?
EB: Fernando Sena is my only art teacher who taught me the basics of drawing and painting. It was a solid foundation to prepare me to the direction of where I want my art to proceed. All of his students imitated his style to understand the techniques he was teaching. It was up to the individual to find his own identity.
VN: Why did you pick the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts? Who were your class or batch mates during college?
EB: I was planning to take up architecture in UST. But Mr. Sena convinced me to enroll in fine arts instead. My friends from Sena's CMLI class like Tony Leaño and Rolly Acuna were already enrolled at the UP College of Fine Arts one year ahead of me. I followed them so it would not be hard for me to adjust to a new school and environment. And of course, most of the great Filipino artists studied in UP. My classmates were Mark Justiniani, Manny Garibay, Anthony Palomo, Karen Flores, Joy Mallari, Tammy Tan and Norlie Meimban.
VN: What doors were opened when you became a delegate to the 1984 ASEAN Youth Painting Workshop and Exhibition in Kuala Lumpur?
EB: Being a delegate exposed me to new developments in Southeast Asian art. Our exhibition was at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The Filipino delegates held a homecoming exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I met the CCP Visual Arts Director and conceptual artist Ray Albano who curated our show.
VN: What did you do after graduation in 1987?
EB: My classmate Manny Garibay asked me to help him finish a mural for Lean Alejandro's funeral procession. It was an eye-opener for me on the ills of Philippine society. I eventually joined the activist art collective ABAY or Artista ng Bayan along with another classmate Mark Justiniani. We were prolific in doing street murals, effigy, posters, banners, streamers, illustrations and comics for cause-oriented groups. Giving art workshops and organizing students were also a part of our activities.
VN: How important was your winning in the 1988 Oil Painting Category of the Metrobank Annual National Painting Competition?
EB: The award was a good exposure to enter mainstream galleries. I was able to buy new art materials using the cash prize. Metrobank supports their past winners and give grants for projects and solo exhibitions. It encourages young artists to pursue their career so they can survive through art.
VN: Why were you selected to the 1989 International Conference On Human Rights and Democracy in Paris? Did the experience influence your philosophy?
EB: Artist Egai Fernandez, one of our consultants and senior members of ABAY, invited me to join the Paris group along with musicians Buklod and some members of the theater group PETA. Yes, it influenced me a lot. One of the prominent speakers in the conference were Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy activists of Tiananmen Square in China.
VN: Would you consider yourself a social realist? If not, how would you describe your style?
EB: I consider myself a figurative expressionist.
VN: Why did you put up Salingpusa? How important are art groups for an artist?
EB: Salingpusa started as a "barkada". It was a loose group with no officers. We would go up to Antipolo every weekend to hang out in different friends' houses like "pusang gala". It's easy to mount an exhibition if you are in an art group using the D-I-Y principle. Discussions about art helps a member express his ideas. Each one of us motivates the other.