Leo Abaya: An Exemplar in Visual and Production Design

THE placid sea viewed through the Buzz Café Galeria where the investigator drops by cannot stay lethargic one sunny afternoon. It is not because of any fanfare or party, but because he is about to meet a luminary who now stands tall both as an artist-mentor and film production designer. I wonder how this exemplar looks like; I only contacted this artist through mobile text message, so after a minute, I look around the café and ask a medium-built man wearing eyeglasses with a black shirt, grizzled hair reaching a little lower than his shoulders. This must be him.

Leo Antonio C. Abaya (b. December 13, 1960) does not anymore stay in Bohol because his flair in both fields requires his presence in the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UP-Diliman) College of Fine Arts where he currently teaches as a Professor of art practice in the undergraduate and graduate levels. Likewise, his art commissions require his proximity to the national art scene. While vacationing in his hometown, one of Bohol’s leading lights in the arts gives his time to share his story.

“I have had a relatively happy childhood,” says Abaya while sipping a cup of coffee. “If ever there were unhappy moments, I think they were normative.” This reflection marks the artist’s beginnings as the fifth child of six brothers, of Dr. Servando Abaya and Beatriz Calceta Abaya – both deceased.

In his teen years, Abaya did not yet start to paint. He had continued drawing and illustrating —there were no art classes at that time. He was then introduced to competitions. Making Abaya join poster-making contests—what his teachers and classmates usually do knowing his colorful specialty—always led him to romp home highest awards. It was so natural. He always won, as everyone expected. And these first prize awards did not mean so much to Abaya because they were always anticipated.

Until a surprise—he landed only second place. That he only got the second prize for the first time became more distinctly memorable to him than the habit of being at the top. He became curious, looked around and saw the entries posted on the walls of Divine Word College high school department. “When I saw his (the first prize winner) work, I thought he truly deserves it. He deserves the first prize because his work was a lot better than mine,” Abaya quips. A lesson he learned: “there will always be someone who is better than you.” Abaya was thankful that this experience led him to value becoming really good, not just by default.

This mindset might have led Abaya to seek another option for a college degree—this time at the University of the East (UE), Manila. He, however, lasted only for a year at UE with a Finance course. He came back to Holy Name University in Tagbilaran City and majored in Economics.

His commitment to the best version of himself gave the limner the drive. Abaya went to Manila, worked several years at the Philippine National Bank and the Manila Electric, Railroad and Light Company (MERALCO) until a significant milestone came to the fore. It was a meet-up with very important people in the film industry—Bing Lao and Jeff Jeturian–whom he met during the first screenwriting workshop conducted by Ricky Lee. At that time, Abaya, riveted with writing, did not yet intend to take a Fine Arts degree. Through a circle of friends, he was introduced to Dante Mendoza (named Brilliante Mendoza when he became a director years later).

“From there, as an art director,” the artist affirms, “I worked for several films until I got a big break: I became a production designer for films and also works for TV commercials.” That money was saved for another course: Fine Arts.

He financed his fine arts degree in UP Diliman because he did not want to burden his parents anymore. The UP College of Fine Arts curriculum was laddered; a higher course cannot be taken without its prerequisite–the reason he finished the second degree in four years. “I was having courses in Studio Arts and I also had courses in Art Theory and Art History.” He took a double major but managed to complete the painting. “I am 9 units short (thesis included) of my Art History major.”

Dealing with the local artists’ Gordian knot, for Abaya, takes a community of artists working as a group and a program that gives awareness to the public about the visual arts field. Moreover, local artists need to prove to the locals that their art is really good and is accepted, even on the national level. Joining national contests is a strategy; aggressiveness in exhibiting works in Manila is another. Abaya illumines: “Once you get some form of acceptance in Manila and you exhibit there, you have some form of credibility, whether that ought to be the case or not. That is how it is; you have to develop some form of credibility.”

As a multi-media artist, Abaya uses different approaches. He does not just paint and sculpt; he also makes installations, video art and moving images—each requiring a different presentation. There cannot be a singularity of approach, according to Abaya. If there is something common to all his oeuvres, it is the attitude towards materials. He likes to play with materials.

Speaking of materials, the artist points out that they are not just the physical aspect like the use of oil or acrylic. “Just because you have them does not mean you have a painting,” Abaya remarks. He further explains: “Part of your material is your resources. What is your source of the image? Where do you get it?”

These are the views of one who has made prodigies in the visual arts field. Abaya mounted five solo exhibits in Metro Manila. Moreover, he had international group shows including the one curated and arranged by the National Heritage Council of the Government of Singapore—the “Land of the Morning: the Philippines and Its People” at the Asian Civilizations Museum (Singapore). He also served as a juror in several national art competitions like Metrobank Art and Design Excellence in 2015 and the Ateneo Arts Awards in 2012. In addition, many years past, before his entry into the visual arts, Abaya chalked up Best Production Design awards: two from the Metro Manila Film Festival, two from the Star Awards for Movies, two from the Gawad Urian; and one each from the FAMAS and the Iloilo Film Festival. He designed for films like José Rizal and Muro-Ami, which were shot in Bohol.

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