Bernardo Balagtas raises the banner for Angono

DRAWING from the community is an important part of the creative process for Filipino artist and 2024 International Prize Phoenix for the Arts awardee Bernardo E. Balagtas.

Under the Fondazione Effetto Arte, Italian critics and curators Francesco Saverio Russo and Salvatore Russo announced their selection in March, sending out e-mailed letters to the recipients all over the world, one of whom was Mr. Balagtas.

“I had my works shown in Singapore in 2022, about four paintings of stilt houses. I guess they liked it; I’m not sure what the process [of selection] was. I was just surprised to receive the e-mail this year saying I was chosen,” he said in Filipino in a phone interview with BusinessWorld.

The recognition for his paintings depicting stilt houses in his hometown of Angono, Rizal, is also more than a personal achievement. When he goes to Venice to receive the award in person in June, he will be thinking of the people in his community.

“I always thought my main form of art would be public service,” Mr. Balagtas said. For decades, his world was the local politics of Angono — where he went from youth council chairman to barangay captain to municipal councilor, among other roles — totaling over 20 years as a public servant.

In 2003, he drafted a resolution declaring Angono as an art capital of the Philippines, being the home of two National Artists (Carlos “Botong” Francisco for visual arts and Lucio San Pedro for music) as well as around nine artist groups. “That is still the battle cry of Angono today,” he said.

These days, he has put public service in the background to focus on his art, a decision that seems to have paid off with this latest achievement.

The International Prize Phoenix for the Arts, according to the Effetto Arte foundation, is awarded to artists who have “distinguished themselves over the years for their artistic research and for the stylistic value of their works.”

The award is given to painters, sculptors, photographers, video artists, performers, and digital artists.

THE ANGONO ARTS SCENEBorn in Angono in 1972, Mr. Balagtas was exposed to art at a young age. He grew up in a family of artists, most notably his father, the late Angelito Balagtas, a founding member of the Angono Ateliers Association.

“There are many artists in Angono. It always starts within the family and the community. I won my first competition in 1977, at five years old. Parang pinapakain sa amin pintura (It’s like they feed us paint),” he said.

In his family, he and two other brothers took up Fine Arts degrees. This made him the odd one out for eventually going into public service, though he would eventually return to the arts.

“Wala akong regret sa ‘pag-iwan’ sa art world. May balik iyan kapag minahal mo, kaya binalikan ko. (I don’t have regrets over ‘leaving’ the art world. There are benefits if you love it, so I went back to it).” he added.

Mr. Balagtas’ Stilt House works — which are mixed media and stainless steel on canvas pieces — echo the cubist style of his father, who was an apprentice under Vicente Manansala.

Each house is composed of overlapping shapes, using stainless steel rods and shafts. For Mr. Balagtas, the analytical approach to cubism helps achieve a three-dimensional effect to the “painture,” meaning it is a mix of colorful painting and geometric sculpture.

“But it’s really inspired by the area in Angono that’s next to the Laguna de Bay. It’s a community that’s mostly stilt houses,” he told BusinessWorld.

Above the houses in the paintings is a round, moon-like figure. Mr. Balagtas explained that this represents abundance and harvest. “It’s a harvest moon, which is a good omen for the people,” he said.

Beyond being a record of traditional habitation, Stilt House also reflects the resourcefulness and adaptability of Filipinos amid harsh conditions.

“Isipin mo; hindi sila aabutin kapag tumaas ang tubig, pero kapag tuyo ang lupa sa baba ng bahay sila kumikilos. (Think about it; they are above the water when it floods, but when the ground is dry, they are able to use the space below their houses),” said Mr. Balagtas.

However, he credits his sensibilities as an artist to the various figures and forces that shaped his life. It started with his father, then his Fine Arts teachers Roberto Chabet and Fil Delacruz at the University of the Philippines, then, finally, his changing perspectives when he entered politics.

It is a mistake to consider him a “complete artist,” though. “Artists always evolve. Sometimes I focus on figurative work, sometimes on displacement. There’s always more to come,” he said.

Mr. Balagtas hopes that Angono continues to thrive as an artist village. As a small municipality, having two national artists, five active bands, and nine active artist groups is an admirable feat, but it doesn’t mean the development stops there.

“We have to keep showing what we’ve got, so we can proudly say that Angono is an art capital. We have to do it as a community,” he said.

The 1st International Prize Phoenix for the Arts awarding ceremony will take place in Venice, Italy at the Scuola Grande of San Teodoro on June 12. — Brontë H. Lacsamana