CARLOS CELDRAN, the artist and activist who loved the glorious mess of Manila, passed away at the age of 46 in Madrid, Spain. His death was announced in a Facebook post by his wife, Tesa. “As the family is making arrangements to bring him home, no details can be announced yet. Only that he passed from natural causes,” the post said.
A social gadfly who riled up those in power, Mr. Celdran decamped to Madrid in January 2019 after being convicted of blasphemy. His Damaso performance, a one-man protest against the Catholic Church’s meddling with a woman’s right to birth control, “offended religious feelings” to the point of litigation. “I left the Philippines due to an aggressive political climate and human rights reasons,” Mr. Celdran wrote on his blog.
In February 2018, Mr. Celdran mounted the first edition of the Manila Biennale, an art festival that aimed to revitalize both Intramuros and the art scene by transforming the Walled City into a vibrant arts-and-cultural center. “I’ve always found art to be the most powerful way to change society, change the status quo. I think it’s always better to inspire than to intimidate. Because there are only two ways of making Filipinos change: you force them to change or you inspire them to change. And the best thing to use is art,” Mr. Celdran said in an interview.
He was also known for his Livin’ La Vida Imelda performance, an entertaining but pointed examination of the Marcos years, “a period when geopolitics and contemporary art intersected — sometimes with tragic consequences for the Philippines.” Or, in a more Celdranesque turn of phrase, the one-man show was about “the shoes, the hair, the architecture, and the fascism that was so in fashion at the time.”
His walking tours of Intramuros, which he conducted for 17 years in his signature black bowler hat, allowed him to share his love of Philippine history to a great many people. Mr. Celdran was the perfect tour guide: funny, whip-smart, and ebullient.
Prior to donning bowler hats and bunny ears, Mr. Celdran, at the age of 14, was a cartoonist for Business Day. He graduated with a fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States in 1996.
Mr. Celdran’s energy and optimism will be missed. The Manila Biennale, which turned out to be a polarizing endeavor, was Mr. Celdran’s attempt to rouse the art community from the doldrums. “To save our soul, this is us telling our fellow artists to let’s get our shit together.” We will not easily find another like Celdran. — Sam L. Marcelo