Moralde "Ral" Arrogante Utopian Vision: Romancing Copper, Brass

MANILA, Philippines - For more than 25 years, sculptor Moralde ''Ral'' Arrogante has been buying industrial products like copper, brass and aluminum from junk shops to create pre-industrial images and symbols of underdevelopment - like the houses on stilts of the Badjaos, an ethnic group in the southern Philippines, and the colorful shanties of slum dwellers in Metro Manila.

At the same time, Arrogante idealizes humble fisher folks, farmers and security guards, including insects like dragonflies, beetles and praying mantises, by making them shine in yellowish brass and reddish copper sheets.

His series on boats and objects with wheels celebrates man's creativity and fantasy more than development per se.

His ant-like figures of factory workers, commissioned by the Leyte-based Philippine Associates Smelting and Refinery Corporation (PASAR) in the mid-'90s, are symbols of workers' tenacity and strength, he says. ''Nagmukha silang alien, may patulis na helmet (sa ulo), at nakasakay sa mga machines habang nagbubuhat ng metals. I did this when I found out that they could withstand the heat in the factory.''

His images may look avant garde, futuristic, or modern, but they ironically rebuke the supremacy of the industrial world and surprisingly reveal his Utopian vision, or his hankering for the rural, the pastoral and the primordial (the ethnic).

Arrogante's schizophrenia - his fixation with industrial products to make images that intentionally subvert the modern and industrial ethos - also mirrors Philippine society - which is modern and feudal, industrial and agricultural, democratic and oligarchic.

Assessing his works, he says, ''Medyo ethnic ang dating, parang sinaunang trabaho.'' They are comparable, he adds, to the evocative wooden bulol, the rice god made by Filipino ancestors in northern Luzon, prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonials in 1521, or the mysterious ancient art objects of the Aztecs before Spain's colonization of Mexico in 1519.

Materials from junk shops

Arrogante perennially visits junk shops to buy copper tubes scavenged from abandoned air conditioning units; copper wires dismantled from fallen (or stolen) electric wires; brass and copper sheets salvaged from radiators; fat and thin flat copper and brass wires from old industrial products. He goes to contractors, lamp-shade makers, electronic companies and manufacturing firms to get discarded aluminum sheets. His favorite greenish and bluish aluminum is sourced from the printing equipment discarded by a publishing company.

His retrieved materials are meticulously cleaned, classified and carefully stored in three rooms that he rents near the parking space of his family-owned Cityland condominium on Shaw Boulevard in suburban Mandaluyong. ''It's like having three stores for art-production,'' he boasts.

Industrial materials turned into art

Like a magician, Arrogante uses copper tubes as posts, and radiator sheets as walls to assemble his version of a one-level house on stilts. The reddish copper apes the brownish nipa leaves used in building the indigenous abode of the Badjaos in the south. It has a bridge leading to a bathroom ''to simulate the activities of the people there,'' he explains.

In contrast, he uses bluish and greenish aluminum sheets to recreate the colorful tarpaulin walls of the shanties of slum dwellers in Metro Manila. ''Ginagawa kong canvas ang aluminum sheets pero pinapatungan ko ng copper kasi tagpi tagpi yung walls and roofs ng mga shanties. Lahat ng abubot ng bahay ay brass and copper. If I use pure copper, magmumukhang madilim ang urban shanties ko; with aluminum sheets, nagkakakulay and nagmumukhang shanties talaga sila,'' he explains.

The morphing of shanties is very interesting: ''tumataas hanggang three to five floors; may kulungan ng kapalapati at sampayan sa itaas; the shape is very irregular kasi hindi arkitekto at engineer ang gumawa ng mga shanties,'' he observes.

Why are human figures absent in his houses? ''Magmumukha silang estatwa; at tumitigil ang storya pag may human figure sa bahay. Their presence is implied, kaya pinapakita ko yung sampayan at kulungan sa bahay nila,'' he explains.

The four delicate wings of his dragonflies are made of tiny ribbon-like brass and copper spring wires found in the computer's internet connection sharing (ICS) device. The dragonfly's head is made of copper sheets, its six legs, made of tiny copper tubes, folded and curbed at the lower part.

Brass sheets, sourced from brass bells of the old black (PLDT) phones, are the wings of his beetles. Flat brass becomes a twig where insects are mounted.

In the 1990s, after observing how wayang kulit (the Indonesian puppet) is made, he was emboldened to make human figures complete with faces, in copper.

''To make a face, I use a square copper sheet, make a vertical cut for the nose, two holes for the eyes, a half-moon cut for the lips, and corner-folds for the jaws. Parang maskara. I use copper sheet or copper screen for the head, and braided flexible copper, those that vibrate inside generators, for the hair,'' he explains. ''Ginagamit ko ang flexible wires na buhok ng babae at lalake, balbas, at patilya. Pwede ring kurbata at scarf.''

Creative Process

A true romantic, Arrogante favors hand-crafting over welding and soldering to make artistic images out of the industrial materials that he tinkers with.

''I put my materials together by puncturing holes on copper sheets and copper tubes and stitching them tight with copper wires. With my hands, kaya ko silang pagdugtungin. They are not welded or soldered. I developed my skill because I am asthmatic and allergic to fumes and I refuse to be aided by a welding machine,'' he says and claims no ideology in his creative process.

Very important junk shops

One of his favorite ''art suppliers'' is a junk shop on Barangka Street in suburban Mandaluyong which he calls ''junk shop of all junk shops''. Another shop is in suburban Las Pinas. ''Nagpupunta rin ako sa junk shops sa Bulacan at Pampanga (north Luzon) at Cabuyao, Laguna (south Luzon),'' he reveals his other sources.

Getting art materials from junk shops can be very challenging. ''Hangga't maari ayaw magbenta ang mga junk shops. Gusto ng mga caretakers kilala nila yung bumibili. Baka magamit na ebidensya sa kanila yung mga nabili sa junk shop,'' Arrogante says. To discourage thieves who get electrical lines during power outages, authorities have been strictly implementing a law that (targets junk shops and) limits the sale of old electrical wires at one foot per customer.

Even non-artists are rivals in junk shops. ''One of them was the son of a junk shop owner who kept the materials that I reserved for myself. After three months, the caretaker told me, 'Pwede na niyong kunin. Hindi alam ng anak ng may-ari kung anong gagawin sa mga materiales na ipinatago niya,''' Arrogante recalls.

Modern and efficient junks shops with forklifts have no time for small-time buyers.

They fast-track moving copper and brass to PASAR, a recycling company that has an annual target production of 215,000 metric tons of grade A copper.

''Junk shops don't need me, I need them,'' confesses Arrogante.

Copper and brass don't rust

When he was young, he began to worry about his growing pile of junk at home. ''It was my bright idea then to create art out of things that I should be throwing away, but couldn't. I started art-making that way,'' he narrates.

An early assemblage for a first one-man show at Ayala Museum in 1986 included spark plugs and metal scraps that turned rusty. ''Duon ko na-realize na hindi ko gusto yung mga materials na kinakalawang. So I decided to concentrate on brass and copper. For me, talagang malakas ang dating ng copper,'' he says.

Mastery of tools

Proud of mastering the tools of a sculptor, he says, ''I started with an ice pick-like puncher until I got hold of a drill. I used only long-nosed pliers until I graduated to round and flat-nosed pliers of various sizes. Natuto akong gumamit ng maliit at malaking gunting ng yero. Sa pagputol ng alambre, I began with a hand cutter and improved with a lever-aided cutter. Nakaimbento rin ako ng mga tools.''

''When there were no more obstacles to art-making, nakaipon ako ng mga trabaho for several one man shows,'' he says.

After finishing a four-year course in commerce at St. Louise University in Baguio City in 1971, his activities were not art-related. He sold drugs for Abbott Laboratories; managed Charlestone Hotel on Abano Street in Baguio; worked for an export company; and became assistant to the commercial attaché of the Swiss Embassy.

After traveling extensively, he decided to become a full-time artist, at 42 in 1990. Now, he heads the Society of Philippine Sculptors; an active leader of the Art Association of the Philippines; and an active member of EarthArt, a group of ecological artists. Although a devout Catholic, he is with the evangelical mission of Ligaya ng Panginoon Community, a Protestant-based group.

He is married to Patrocinio ''Patty'' Garcia. They have three children: Anthony Liam, 34; Franco, 26; and Raphaella, 24.