Renato Orara, Drawer.

I was searching through the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collection last night, out of curiosity, for a Filipino artist and found only two names. The first one is Lino Brocka. The original film of the movie “Bona” is currently kept –luckily–in the MOMA Film Archive of the world’s best movies. I think there is no existing copy of the film here in the Philippines except at the UP Film Institute, which could also be a copy of the one from MOMA.

The second and only Filipino visual artist is Renato Orara.

Renato Orara who?

Before this search, I didn’t know much about Renato Orara save for the fact that he works in Drawings and was born here in the Philippines in 1961. He is now an American Citizen so technically, we only have one Filipino artist inthe MOMA collection but in a seeming homage to his country of origin, Renato Orara came to the Philippines last January 2009 and did a very special series of works. He also gave an artist talk although done via video conference from New York.

This special series called “Library bookworks” is for me, his most interesting oeuvre of drawings.  In this series, Orara creates his signature intricate and laborious ballpoint sketches on pages of books taken from the Library. The drawings he made are of human ears.

And if you’re just about to ask how he pulled it off,  let me stop you right there. No, I don’t think the librarian would allow that so I guess he did it without permission from the library.

Orara then returns the book with the drawings on an inconspicuous page. Since the book must be returned, the only evidence of his work are photographs (which were exhibited in SLAB last year) and a list of call numbers in Dewey Decimal marking the existence of these books. The Dewey Decimal numbers also serve as the titles of the drawings and also serve as hints of the location of the book. He says  that these drawings are his “most public exhibition and (yet) also the most hidden”.

The works he says are now all over the Philippines. It is fun to think that unsuspecting library users might have already encountered Orara’s precious piece of contemporary art and yet not know of their significance.

Perhaps, this is part of his intention– to hide this drawings in books bound to be rarely leafed through in their lifetime in order to show how “presences” are embedded or submerged and then subsequently resurfaced through the attention given to them by the artist and the viewer (in this case, the reader). The ear drawings can easily be interpreted as a multi-faceted visual metaphor, mainly of a relationship between the text and image and the hidden book and the  library user who has found and salvaged it from disuse in the bookshelf.

Orara has said that his works are all about “smuggling presence”.

His works are figurative but he points to a more abstract comprehension of his works. The language is very refined in the way he made ballpoint sketches mean so much more than just markings on paper. He fondly calls his sketches “ten thousand things,” alluding to his approximation of the number of layers of ink on the paper before he makes things like drawings of hats or shirts or blood appear or call them to have “appeared”.  He is said to have worked on a single drawing for months.

Renato Orara’s other series of drawings are “Drawer Drawings,” “The Iraq Memorial,” “Bookworks,” “Marked Bills,” and “Bloodworks,” another interesting series. Why interesting? View the video above or search for it via google.

Orara’s ideas may come out simple as the look of his drawings may impress someone but what he conveys in his art and his mode of presentation makes this simplicity a very powerful thing. His technique is subtle but engaging in the manner that they won’t be as predictable or closed in meaning. The interpretation is endless and always profound for Orara.

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