Wendell Capili (JWC):
Have you always been interested in pursuing a career in fine arts? What were
your earliest artistic endeavors?
Napoleon Abueva (NA):
As far as I can remember, save for a bust of Rizal, probably purchased in
Avenida Rizal, we did not have sculptural pieces in the house.
My career actually began when we were
required to do gardening in primary school and high school. Through
gardening, I made my initial contact with clay. As a child I made animal
forms, especially of the carabao, out of garden clay. In my teens, I worked
for Imo Ponce’s machinery in Cebu where I helped build small boats and
handled milling machines.
Somewhere along the way, I got to meet
artists and workers from various disciplines. I also worked part-time
posting movie advertisements in street corners. In exchange, I watched
movies for free. Watching films certainly expanded my vision of the
universe. At some point, I became fascinated with religious images and I met
Fidel Araneta who specialized in it. Araneta, by the way, was a student of
National Artist Guillermo Tolentino at UP. I stayed in Cebu for two years.
My experiences with Ponce and Araneta
empowered me to experiment with almost any kind of media—from iron to adobe,
from steel to coral. My favorite medium, though, had been Philippine
hardwoods: narra, kamagong, ipil, bamboo and molave. Looking back, I think
it was good that I experienced handling machinery.
What happened after Cebu?
immediately returned to my home province, Bohol. In the capital town,
Tagbilaran, I was fortunate to work with Jacob Tagorda, the District
Engineer of Bohol. Under Mr. Tagorda, I was assigned to the concrete
fabrication area where I learned how to use concete in the construction of
homes, roads, and bridges. I also did the “lapida” and other sculptural
pieces in cemeteries. I used white cement.
Around this time, I studied high school at
Rafael Palma College. When I graduated in 1949, I moved to UP Diliman. I
think I belonged to the second batch of Fine Arts students who moved from
the old campus in Padre Faura.
Why did you decide to study in UP?
NA: I made
it to UP Fine Arts because I was strongly encouraged by my eldest brother
Teodoro. He now lives in New York. He was my big influence, my father
figure. He finished Political Science at UP. My brother was responsible for
introducing me to Pura Villanueva, art patron and the country’s first
Carnival Queen in 1908 who later married pre-WWII Batangas Assemblyman
Teodoro M. Kalaw.
My brother knew Ms. Ledesma, Ms. Villanueva-Kalaw’s
daughter. Ms. Villanueva-Kalaw offered me a scholarship and I was able to
study under the tutelage of National Artist Guillermo Tolentino. She had
other scholars, many of them in the field of literature: Andres Cristobal
Cruz, G.Burce Bunao and Morli Dharam. Jose Joya was my contemporary.
Federico Alcuaz was there too but he had decided to study in Spain.
You lost your parents during the Second World War.
How did this affect your subject-position as an artist?
experience allowed me to treat life with greater sensitivity. My father was
a congressman representing Bohol. My mother, on the other hand, was the head
of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS). They were executed by the Japanese
in 1944 for supporting the guerilla forces against the Japanese invaders.
The Kempetai (Japanese Military Police) separated my parents from us. The
Japanese tortured my parents and forced me and my siblings to listen to
their pain and agony. Later, we were taken to a cliff where my parents were
rumored to have been executed.
We sought the remains of our parents from a
field of corpses and items belonging to the members of the resistance group.
It was painful for me and my siblings to unearth the soiled white shirt with
blue stripes, which belonged to my father. We also found a piece of my
mother’s dress as well as her rosary. Later, we found my parents’ bodies and
we buried them. It was very painful. As an artist, these experiences taught
me to see life in a different way. More specifically, I tried my best to
look for new ways of expressing ideas as a way of dealing with the pain.
Your brother solely took care of you when your
parents passed away?
stayed with my aunt Isabel Balce. The Balces took care of me and my brother
Teodoro. She originally wanted me to study at Cebu’s Institute of Arts and
Trades. It was my brother who insisted that I should be taking a regular
high school program. In the long run, it paid off since I was able to take
regular humanities courses that enriched my interest in the fine arts.
You have been so productive from the 1950s onwards,
even more so after your retirement from UP Diliman. What are some of the
determinants that caused these?
Perhaps, I have been blessed with good health (laughs).
Did you have influences to sustain this energy?
Guillermo Tolentino, my mentor at UP. From 1950-53, I had the good fortune
of assisting my Maestro in the creation of some of his works. He was
conservative since he belonged to the old, classical school. His concept and
attitude towards the depiction of the human form is akin to that of the
Greek sculptors during the year of Phidias, where there is always the stance
of the heroic and the monumental epic in portrayal aside from faithfully
interpreting the subject. Eventually, he became involved with the spiritist
school. He challenged me a lot. Tolentino really abhorred distortion and
when “The Kiss of Judas” won a prize, he jokingly referred to it as “the
I moved on, and although we disagreed on many
points, he was nevertheless encouraging. He was a very good teacher and he
was very happy with what I managed to achieve.
Can you kindly explain how you became what critics
refer to as “a pioneering modernist in sculpture?”
the Liberation of the Philippines from Japan, the United Nations sent to the
Philippines a number of experts on arts and crafts. For instance, John
Resley, a sculptor and Mrs. Murphy, the head of the UN delegation and a
relative of American Governor-General Frank Murphy, taught new styles and
ideas to upgrade the quality of design in the country. The UN sent all kinds
of artists and artisans: painters, sculptors, weavers, etc. Resley taught me
how to experiment with wood. Tolentino was more into clay modeling. Resley
was a carver. Resley was so fascinated with Philippine wood and I just got
hooked on it.
Then I moved on and eventually experimented
with adobe and other media. Then I wanted to pay tribute to my sister who
died at stillbirth. I tried to make a floating coffin for her. I initially
did not succeed. Eventually, my experimentations evolved into what became my
“buoyant” sculptural pieces.
After receiving countless awards and citations from
the Art Association of the Philippines and elsewhere, the university
acknowledged your achievements and appointed you to various administrative
positions. Did you ever think of administrative positions as a form of
NA: On the
contrary, they were not a waste of time. They were opportunities to serve
the university that nurtured me. Of course, I will always privilege doing
something creative but being an artist and administrator at the same time
enables you to infuse sensitivity in creating a healthier environment for
students, faculty members, and staff.
Do you see any limitations to your being a
Writers have a great advantage over visual artists because writers can take
down notes anytime, anywhere. Meanwhile, visual artists choose a specific
medium to execute an interesting concept.
Why do some individuals become great artists, while others, unfortunately,
inner drive. A more accomplished artist has inner drive and stamina. Now
this is very important. The plight of the artist is somewhat similar to that
of the long distance runner. You have to cross the finish line. What counts
more in life is the end result. Leonardo da Vinci once said that the
greatest tragedy of artists is when theory outstrips performance (laughs).
Artists are judged by the end result. Theory is important but concepts must
be executed very well for any theory to be realized. The artist must possess
the inner drive, passion, and “loneliness” of a long distance runner to go
Are there other reasons why you think you’ve gone
has something to do with it. Hard work isn’t enough. The death of my parents
maybe. Eventually, I translate emotions and transform these into pieces of
wood, marble, clay, and so on.
What do you consider your most memorable pieces?
At the AAP Contests during the 1950s, “Rice Planting,” “Kaganapan,”
and “Figure” won first prizes; “Mother and Child” and “Father and Son”
placed second. You even did the crucifix of the UP Chapel of the Holy
Sacrifice. In the 1960s, “Allegorical Harpoon” was the Philippine entry
during the XXII Venice Biennale and “Unknown Prisoner” was exhibited abroad.
In the 1970s, “Bagong Buhay” and “Manila: The First Years” won AAP prizes.
You also executed “The Transfiguration.” In the 1980s, you did “Siyam na
Diwata ng Sining” and donated it to my college at UP. Were any of these
particularly striking to you?
Planting.” I think it now belongs to Ms. Ledesma. I heard it was being
exhibited at the Museum of the Filipino People in the old Finance Department
Building. I was greatly inspired by the song “Magtanim ay di Biro” and the
painting depicts two women planting rice with salakots on top of
their heads and santol trees in the background. I also like “Kaganapan”
because the form of a pregnant mother depicts the promise of a new life.
There were other memorable ones for some reason or another. “The
Transfiguration” maybe. And the mural I created for the Insular Life
Building along Makati Avenue corner Ayala…
Which is going to be demolished soon…
The mural, though, is being removed piece by piece. Soon, the pieces will be
put together in the new Insular Life Building in Alabang.
Any new projects?
many projects. The door of a parish chapel, “Diego Silang”, and a memory of
your friend, Maningning Miclat, who passed away recently. One afternoon, I
went to her wake at Funeraria Paz and did her mask. There are many other
projects and they are all over my backyard. Some of these (pointing to some
pieces) will be brought to Bohol, my home province.
How do you wish to be remembered?
Perhaps I can share with you my concept of design. I posted it outside my
house. The inscription says: “Whatever desire is expressed in form, one
conceives in realm of design. The mind in the hand can falter or surpass: if
you answer which one and how much was done by love.”