Norberto Roldan: The Sacred Art of History, Politics and Faith

Norberto Roldan is an artist and a cultural worker. His practice is rooted in socio-political issues which cover a wide range of interests that include history, religious belief systems, wars, pop culture and anthropology. He founded and co-founded independent art initiatives such Black Artists in Asia, VIVA EXCON (Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference) and Green Papaya Art Projects. He has worked at the forefront of cultural practice in the Philippines and is a seminal figure in its artistic landscape. Read our interview to find out more about his work and practice.



When did you know you wanted to be an artist and do you remember the specific moment in your life that inspired you to follow this path?

I grew up in a family of architects (grandfather, father, brother) and pursuing a creative career early in life became a natural trajectory. But it was at the height of the political upheaval against the Marcos dictatorship in the early 1980s that made me realize how art plays an important role in society. That encouraged me to practice art and become a cultural organizer.

What would you call your style of art?

Maybe it is not about style, but I do installations, assemblages and paintings from found objects, found images and found texts.

You mainly use assemblage technique to create your pieces - do you already have a story in mind when you create your work? 

Most of the times my work is dictated by what I want to communicate. Then I go through the process of determining what form would be appropriate and what materials to work with. Sometimes my work is motivated by objects I find during my regular jaunts to the thrift shops, or materials that may have been lying around in my studio.

Do you have a particular routine when creating your pieces?

These days I do a lot of computer simulations and studies, trying to see how the end product will look like even before I start the actual work. My studio assistant helps prepare the physical and other technical components, and then I take over and complete the whole process.

It seems that Catholicism is a primary subject matter in your work - why?

Religion is an issue that is so close to me. I grew up in a family environment steeped in Catholicism. I had an uncle who was a priest, an aunt who was a nun, and a cousin who is currently a chaplain. I studied in the seminary for eight years and was supposed to become a priest myself. But instead of proceeding to Theology, I decided to swerve and took up Fine Arts as a second degree after Philosophy. During this period, my brother was taking up his Architecture studies in the same university.

Can you share three pieces of work that you are most proud of with a short description as why you chose these three in particular.

My Brother and the Order of the Knights of the Moonshadows (2011)

This assemblage is one of the few pieces I have done which directly relates with my family history. Though personal in context, it carries the same problematics about how our collective Christian memory and religious practices have come into play into the Filipino class struggle. Middle class families and the more affluent ones in the province of Capiz where I was born and raised have always made use of their connection with the local church's hierarchy to gain additional trappings of "power," "invincibility," and "nobility." This illusion separates them from the herd of ordinary masses. These families take pride in having family members become priests, nuns, and knights of some order, creating an impression of impregnable loyalty to the Catholic church. During our teenage years in Capiz, my brother kept a select company of friends called The Moonshadows. This elite group of boys grew up under the fantasized and imagined shadow of power, invincibility and nobility. (excerpt from artist’s notes)

Between Salvation and Damnation (2014)

This installation straddles between contemporary art and anthropology. It borrows anthropology's focus on the interpretation of artifacts or objects as material culture. It employs anthropology as a strategy in constructing new perspectives and narratives out of material culture. The installation explores this dialogue between two disciplines. While contemporary art practice has always been a process of negotiations between ‘life’ and ‘art’ within the context of certain discourses and aesthetic standards, anthropologists on the other hand approach this negotiation in relation to a wider public context. Contemporary Asian art tends to be more personal and intricately enmeshed with everyday life while anthropology is expected to be socially and historically contingent. The installation finds comfort in the thin line that separates these two positions that are neither absolute nor passive.  (excerpt from artist’s notes)

Himagsikan (2018)

This series of pseudo-religious banners revisits the Philippine Revolution against Spain. The uprising began in 1896 after Spanish authorities discovered the Katipunan, the underground organisation that served as catalyst of the revolutionary movement. As an underground organisation, it made use of different strategies to expand its influence and gain support from the people. Among this was operating behind the infrastructure of the Catholic church that was under the Spanish hierarchy. By practicing as Christian converts and becoming part of the laity, Filipinos aided the insurrection unsuspected. Himagsikan (revolution) is banner that made use of parts of Catholic ceremonial vestments re-embroidered and re-embellished with symbols of the uprising. They mimic and subvert the pompous display of colonial power. Signifying made-up churches like Iglesia de la Revolution, the banner is likened to a battle flag rallying resistance against Spain.  (excerpt from artist’s notes)

You do a lot to help budding artists get a foot in the door, how do you pick which artists to showcase? 

I don’t believe we do a lot because we lack resources. But I am happy to be able to help and provide a platform for under represented artists through Green Papaya Art Projects. It is not difficult to find artists to support. You only have to identify their curiosities, aspirations, trajectories, attitude and hardwork. With them, your effort and whatever limited resources you provide are always worthwhile.

What is the art scene like in The Philippines? 

This is a developing story and it’s hard to provide a clear picture of what it is becoming to be. Suffice it to say that there are good and bad things to watch out for. Having started my practice in the 80s through the 90s, and knowing what it was like then, I think today’s art scene lacks political impetus to be able to launch and establish a historical art movement such as the Philippine Social Realist movement.

How has you art developed over the years? Do you feel you need to be more sensational or less? 

Through the years I have continued to explore different materials and ways to express myself. I have become more rigid in my research and understanding of certain issues. I don’t believe there should be a conscious effort to be sensational. But there is a constant challenge to be always socially and politically relevant.

What or who are influencing your work?

The socio-political conditions provide the stimulus for an engaged and meaningful practice.

Any artists we need to watch out for?

I am watching out for those who are in periphery of the art market like Martha Atienza, Mark Salvatus and Cian Dayrit and see how they navigate through and deal with the pressure from the commercial gallery system.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working for my first major solo show at Silverlens opening on September 15, 2018.