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Junyee, the revolutionary artist

Standing beside me at Sining Makiling, an art gallery at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) was a man old enough to be my grandfather wearing a graphic shirt and a pair of faded jeans. At first glance, Luis Yee, Jr. would have looked like a fan attending the exhibit. The shirt printed with the names Da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Bonnard said it all: he was an art enthusiast. But could he be the artist? As Junyee extended his hand to introduce himself, I was surprised to know he was the master behind the exhibit. Standing among the audience shaking everyone's hand, he could have passed for a regular guy. But after seeing his sculptures, you’d know there’s more to this artist than what meets the eye.

"Pintados" is Junyee's take on modern civilization and how it's embedded in indigenous culture.
For one, he helped bring a new wave of artistic form in Southeast Asia: installation art. After more than 70 exhibitions and 20 awards, the artist adept in a wide range of media, from acrylic to wood, still sees installation as his most consummate love. Installation art is a relatively young artistic genre introduced in 1969 using a combination of almost all modes of artistic expression, from architecture to painting. The art form gave Junyee a broader range of possibilities. “Feeling ko limited ang sculpture. Feeling ko limited ang painting. With installation, I’m able to combine everything: painting, sculpture, architecture, landscaping, sound, movement, food, kahit basurahan," he said. Functional art As he began to show me his work, I understood what he meant. His artwork became his furniture. His furniture became his art. They were functional, and arresting. From left to right, the pieces were puzzling. Tacks, paint, ink, and wood were smoothly intertwined into masterpieces with titles indigenous to Filipino culture like “Libag" and “Ayaw Ko." “Pintado," a sculpture made of acacia and santol hardwood, served as an expression of the artist’s take on modern civilization and how it collides with indigenous culture. The art combined tattoos of pre-colonial Filipinos from the Mountain Province and Leyte with contemporary images associated with the Beatnik culture and the iconography of American Hip Hop Groups. His need for freedom Junyee admitted his distaste for limitations and his need for freedom. He likes the idea that art can be presented in a space of a few square meters to a hectare. In 1998, his winning entry for the Centennial Installation Competition sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Centennial Commission was “Isang Daan," an elaborate one-hectare outdoor bamboo installation which aimed to forward the cause of environmental awareness. The pioneer of installation art in Southeast Asia said the venture was exhausting, expensive, but empowering. “Kahit mahirap, masaya ako dun," he said adding that most artists choose not to engage in outdoor exhibitions as massive as this. “They’re thinking whether to invest time, money and, effort, considering the project’s very nature. Wala kang kikitain, matagal pang gawin." The happiest moment of his life
The artist who once burned all his possessions found freedom in simplicity.
During the 1970’s, while working with UP's college paper Philippine Collegian at the height of martial law, he burned all of his possessions from awards to artwork, even his diploma, except for three pairs of pants. Junyee wanted to break free from the material world and the superficial. “The Western influence was already so strong. At that point, it was all about creating art that’s original. I think it was the happiest day of my life," Junyee recalled. He said he never felt so liberated. Junyee said the decision was neither a spur of the moment or a calculated move. “In fact, it was a result of a long process of awakening, not culturally or artistically. It's more of a spiritual journey," he added. Until today, the man who brought installation art to Southeast Asia believes in the concept of simplicity. “I still have three pairs of pants. Itong sandal, binili ko 1990, suot ko pa din. Ito lang naman talaga ang dekorasyon ko sa katawan," he said, while pointing to his wedding ring. For 26 years, Junyee has been married to Dr. Marites G. Yee, Director of UPLB's Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts. Unlearning Art “After burning everything, I decided to stop smoking and walk," he said. “I had to be in Los Baños. Sabi ko dati, dito na ko titira someday". The artist said he found the place beautiful from the beginning. He was delivering papers then for the Philippine Collegian at the UPLB campus, when he realized Los Baños was going to be his home. Junyee stopped more than his vices. For three years, he decided not to touch a single brush or a piece of wood or a tube of acrylic paint. “I had to separate from the material world and unlearn everything especially the Western," he said. “It’s not necessarily bad. It was just a part of the whole process (of recreating art)". Creating a language, a philosophy Junyee said, “Walang artist na hindi na-influence." However, he said it’s more of a phase and artists should focus on surpassing and delineating from this sort of control. “Artists need to create their own language, their own philosophy." Evaluating the art scene, he is disappointed in artists who see art as a lucrative enterprise. “Yung akin, ang art hindi hanap-buhay, it’s more of a vocation like the priesthood," he said. “Kung kumita ka, well and good. Pero hindi naman 'yung gagawa ka, paulit-ulit, hanggang mamatay ka na lang." Napoleon Abueva as mentor and father
Junyee's "Maria Makiling" sculpture in UPLB.
Recalling his college years, Junyee was grateful for the influence of his mentor, the so-called father of modern sculpture in the Philippines Napoleon Abueva. “I learned more sa studio ni Abueva than in school," he said. “Nakatira ako sa bahay niya for three years. He taught me how to use the tools, wala 'yun sa Fine Arts." Junyee graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines Diliman. He was conferred the Vinzon’s Award for Art Excellence, the highest UP Student Award for Art. In 1974, Junyee emerged victorious over several major artists - including Abueva, Abdul Mari Imao, and Danny Dalena - as he won the Grand Award, for his elaborate wood sculpture “Mga Kahoy Natin" in the AAP National Open Art Competition. It was Junyee’s first competition outside college. Leaving home for art Despite his talent, Junyee had to overcome many obstacles to pursue his passion. “I had to fight for it," he said. Neither of his parents supported him. His father even had a grim premonition for him, “Mamamatay ka sa gutom." Junyee was supposed to take over the family business. However, the internationally acclaimed artist was determined to fulfill his dream. “It wasn’t as if I didn’t give it a chance," he explained. He agreed to his father’s compromise and tried managing the Awaywas Hotel and Restaurant in Surigao City. “I worked for him for 10 months but at that point, I knew I had to leave." Tragedies and obstacles After a year, Junyee had to go back but it wasn’t a happy reunion. “Hinanap nila ako and they found me in Cebu. My father was dying then. Nung dumating ako, nasa kabaong na siya," he recalled. “We never really had the chance to talk." After his father’s death, the family business collapsed. Junyee had to go back and help. “I had to prioritize my family," he said. Art suddenly became secondary. “Pero hindi ko naman talaga nakalimutan ang pagiging artist," he said. Not long after the business stabilized, Junyee knew it was time to leave again. Winning competitions
A model for Junyee's award-winning sculpture "Open Doors."
Today, he knew he made the right choice. How could a man who never lost an art competition since high school not pursue art? “I know I had the talent. Hindi ko 'yun pinaghirapan. Proud lang ako na hindi ko siya pinabayaan," he said. Today, his work is also prominently displayed overseas, including “Open Doors", a geometric, seven-meter-high sculpture, was built on the 65-hectare Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon LeZion, Israel. “Open Doors" was his winning entry in the Open Competition sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The monument was built to honor President Manuel L. Quezon and the Filipino people for their “open-door policy" that saved 1,200 Jews in 1939. Rejecting Awards “Though gusto ko ng competitions, I never really craved for awards," he said. In fact, Junyee refused some of them, saying that awards are the least of his priority. “Ang importante, ginagawa ko ang gusto ko." Junyee refused two prestigious awards: the CCP 13 Artists Award in 1980 and the “Araw ng Maynila, Patnubay ng Sining at Karilangan Award for Sculpture" in 1989. When asked why he declined, he simply said, “It’s all about pakikibaka." The artist couldn’t accept an award created by then first lady Imelda Marcos when all he did at the time was criticize the first family. He was then the Art Director of the Philippine Collegian, a publication, which remained critical of the Marcos regime despite the risk of censorship and arrest. Starting a revolution of firsts Junyee said the opportunity to explore gives him a tingling sensation. However, he explained, innovators do not survive unscathed. “Kapag bago, hindi pa 'yan maiintindihan ng tao," he said, adding that pioneers, at some point, have to face indifference. “You have to prove yourself first before society begins to embrace you." Junyee said the artist’s duty is to explore the infinite number of opportunities. “You can even be using the same materials and still create an original piece," he added. Junyee continues to shake up the art scene with a series of firsts. In 1983, he established Sining Makiling UPLB Art Gallery, the first in the UP System. In 2008, he worked on building an artist’s village in Baler, Aurora. In 2009, he started working on the University’s first sculpture garden. Today, the multi-awarded artist is working on his third statue, “The Rooster and the Snake", a 35-ft monument inspired by his wife. “She’s still waiting for Taj Mahal," he joked. - GMANews.TV
Tags: art, people