To protect and preserve: the challenge for Malang’s children

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By Giselle P. Kasilag

ALMOST two years after his passing, Mauro “Malang” Santos remain a formidable figure in Philippine art and the broader Asian scene. His works continue to be featured regularly in local and international auction houses with bond paper-sized works on paper fetching anywhere between P200,000 to P500,000 and small works on canvas being sold upwards of P1 million.

There is a demand for his works, Malang’s youngest son Soler told BusinessWorld. And the demand is steady despite no extraordinary effort on the family’s part to promote his art. News items announcing his father’s works changing hands for sizable amounts would often come as a surprise. So, too, were requests from art venues to exhibit his works.

One such requests came from Trickie Lopa, organizer of the Art Fair Philippines. Slated for Feb. 22, this year’s edition will include a special exhibition featuring Malang’s women — a theme very closely associated with the artist. It will showcase about 22 to 25 drawings that have never been exhibited before. Soler Santos is curating the show.

It is a theme that Malang worked on throughout his lifetime, admitting to the influence of the strong women in his life — particularly his mother, Juliana, and his dear wife, Mary. The drawings are essentially studies that could give both collectors and art scholars a better understanding of his process, in this case, a peek into the development of his iconic women figures.

It is fitting that this favorite theme will be highlighted at the Art Fair Philippines which attracts a diverse market — from students to buyers. It can serve as a reintroduction of the beloved artist to a wider audience.

Pag art fair, kahit five days lang ’yun, ang daming tao! So magandang venue talaga para sa father ko (When it’s an art fair, even if it’s just for five days, there are always so many people! So it’s a really good venue for my father),” Mr. Santos enthused.

He, himself, is no stranger to art fairs and its power to deliver an audience. His own works have been sold in the same fair in the last few years, along with those of his wife, Mona. Malang’s grandchildren, Luis, Carina, Isabel, and Mik have also pursued art and have participated and benefitted from the fairs.

Buhay na buhay ang art scene sa Asia. Hong Kong ang sentro. Ang Singapore medyo mahina. More of investment ang tingin nila. Mas malakas tayo sa kanila pero mas marami silang pera and mas malakas ang economy nila. But in terms of the art scene, mas exciting dito (The art scene in Asia is so vibrant Hong Kong is the center, Singapore is a little weaker. They really focus more on art as an investment. We have a stronger base of collectors but they have more money and their economy is stronger. But in terms of the art scene, it’s more exciting here). It’s a good time to be an artist!”

His father, Mr. Santos added, would have been so proud to see his grandchildren pursuing art as a career. Admittedly, he does not see Malang’s strokes in the younger Santoses’ art but that is exactly what his father would have wanted.

In their youth, Malang was adamant about not influencing the styles of Soler and Steve (Soler’s older brother) — giving them absolute freedom to explore their artistic side without interference. He would have given his grandchildren the same space and breathing room.

’Wag niyo kong gagayahin! ’Yun ang sinasabi niya. Kasi, kung hindi, walang mangyayari sa amin kung parehas lang. Kawawa ka kasi in the long run. Dapat maghanap ka ng sarili mo. ’Yun ang exciting. Mag-experiment ka. Mga anak ko, ganun. Tinitingnan nila na wala silang kapareha. Aware sila hindi lang sa style naming but in the art scene in general (Don’t copy me! That’s what he would say. Because, otherwise, we won’t improve if we do the same thing. That would be a pity in the long run. You have to find your own. That’s exciting. You have to experiment. My children are like that. They make sure that they aren’t copying anyone. They’re very aware of the styles — not just ours but the art scene in general).”

His involvement with his children’s art is exactly the same as his father’s with his — access to art supplies, especially to more expensive paints that budding artists would often not be able to afford.

But being the son of Malang, and following in his footsteps as an artist, was never a pressure point for Soler.

’Pag sinasabi ng mga tao, ‘O anak ni Malang ’yan!’ okay lang! Eh talaga naman! Mas mahirap ’yung sabihan ka na hindi ka anak ni Malang!” he said laughing. “Proud nga ako. Anak ako ni Malang. Tapos, magkaiba kami ng style. Magkaiba ang ginagawa namin. That’s okay (When people say, ‘That’s Malang’s son,’ I’m okay with it. It’s true! It would be more problematic if they say that I’m not his son! I’m very proud. I’m Malang’s son. Our styles are very different. What we’re doing are different. That’s okay).”

Achieving this distinctive style is an important aspect of what made Malang a force in Philippine art. Soler is very confident that his father’s contributions will not be forgotten. Being both very particular and massively prolific, Malang’s body of work consists of more than 10,000 pieces. He painted every day — even when he wasn’t in the mood or feeling well. And he was constantly drawing on his sketchpad or any piece of paper he could find including tissue paper in restaurants. Fans who would approach him for an autograph would receive a simple sketch along with the signature.

With his passing, however, there is a different kind of threat to Malang’s legacy that the Santos family has to contend with. Instances of forgery are on the rise.

Ang daming fake na Malang!” Mr. Santos said with much frustration in his tone. “Problem talaga. May gumagawa tapos nagpapa-authenticate. Pero hindi magaling. Minsan sa auction tapos naka publish pa sa catalogue! ’Pag ganun, sinasabihan ko talaga! Kilala naman nila ako. Kahit ipakita lang sa akin muna para sigurado (There are so many fake Malangs! It’s really a problem. Someone is making them then they try to get it authenticated. But they’re not good forgeries. Sometimes fakes show up in auctions and then gets published in the catalogue! In those cases, I really tell them. They know me. Really, they should show me first just to be sure)!”

The printed catalogues are particularly worrying because even if the fake piece is pulled out of the auction, unscrupulous dealers may attempt to re-sell the piece in the future using the printed catalogue as reference.

The Santos family is now undertaking the difficult but necessary task of documenting Malang’s works. Each piece in their collection has been photographed and numbered. Collectors who present their Malang’s to Soler Santos for authentication get their pieces included in the catalogue as well.

But Mr. Santos is well aware that when he passes away, there might not be an authority who can identify a Malang and be capable of authentication. He is hoping that one of the grandchildren will take on this role eventually. But for now, documentation is his main tool to protect his father’s legacy.

Indeed, the significance of Malang’s legacy cannot be overstated. While he was a cheerful man and was always joking around, art was never a laughing matter for him.

Seryoso siya sa art niya. Seryoso siya. Galing siya sa komiks pero makikita mo ’yung transition — dahan-dahan at hindi pilit (He was very serious about his art. He was a serious man. Comics were his roots but you can see the transition — it happened slowly and organically, and was not forced),” said Soler.

Indeed, his strongest memory of his father was not of the opinionated man that the world has come to know, but a quiet man with very simple wants and needs.

Naalala ko lagi yung pag nagbibiyahe kami. Buong araw kaming dalawa lang. Sobrang simple niya. Buong araw, punta kami ng museum. Tapos ’pag dinner na, saging at sandwich lang, okay na. Yung iba, sa mga sosyal na restaurant. Kaya naman niya pero mas gusto niya talaga yung simple. Sobrang relaxed (I always remember our trips together. It was usually just the two of us the entire time. We would go to museums. Then at dinner time, he would be okay with a banana and a sandwich. Others would choose to go to an expensive restaurant. He could afford it if he wanted to but he really preferred the simple things. He was very relaxed).”

Curating his father’s exhibitions has always been a fun challenge for Mr. Santos but since Malang’s passing, it has also become an emotional experience.

“’Pag may humihingi ng pictures, tapos kailangan ko i-check ’yung photos niya, naiiyak ako. Naaalala ko siya at naalala ko yung time na kinukunan ko siya (When people ask for pictures, and I have to check his photos, I get teary-eyed. I remember him, and I remember that moment when I took his photo).”

But behind the tears were wonderful memories of Malang as his father, and Malang as an artist. And it is this legacy that Soler and the entire Santos family are working very hard to preserve and protect.

The Malang exhibit will be part of the Art Fair Philippines 2019 at The Link Makati in February, which is National Arts Month.