8th 2007
ART OF THE ‘CARPE DIEM’ – Mia Herbosa seizes the day

Posted under Articles

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Victoria T. Herrera

THE HOLLYWOOD FILM “Dead Poets Society” (released in 1989) popularized the Latin phrase “carpe diem” to the youth of the 1990s as a call of admonition to live life to the fullest.

Mia O. Herbosa, now in her 30s, belongs to that same generation to whom this call had perhaps the most meaning then. In her exhibition at the Alliance Française de Manille, she appropriates this phrase as title but with a different twist.

Now a young mother, Mia has further developed into an introspective artist. Instead of adopting the authoritative tone to “seize the day,” she quietly “takes a journey” (the literal translation of the Latin word “carpo”) to reflect over her life story.

The artist’s personal introduction to the exhibition relates a particular fascination over her great-grandfather, Alfonso Ongpin, whose personal art collection was instrumental in introducing her to the arts. She writes:

“Growing up, I often stared at the many wonderful oil paintings on the wall of my lola’s home… Though his (Alfonso’s) beloved collection is now no longer intact, I feel, in a great way, his passion for art and beauty has left its mark on his family… He captured his world to share with us today. In my own way, I try to capture mine. In this way, both worlds come together, bridging the gaps of time, sharing a place in the fourth dimension. Carpe Diem.”

Ongpin is recognized for his contribution to Philippine art both as a collector and a gallery owner. He was one of the founders of the first commercial art supply store in the country. He later opened his own store and art gallery. Ongpin was also self-taught in painting restoration. Some works traced back from his collection still have the inscription “Restaurado por A. Ongpin” on the reverse of canvases.


In this exhibit, Mia gives us a glimpse of another of Alfonso’s interests—photography. His grandchildren—the artist’s mother Elaine O. Herbosa, and aunts, Deanna Ongpin and Cynthia O. Valdes—remember the many self-portraits in photographs their grandfather had accumulated through the years.

And it is from this collection of autobiographical images that the young artist had selected two portraits to recreate a connection with her Lolo Poncho.

One of these shows Alfonso carrying his first-born son Luis. Both are dressed to the hilt, possibly for the infant’s baptism.

The other portrait is more intimate in scale and candid in pose. Alfonso, wearing a white hat and shirt, looks away from the lens. Curiously, Mia frames his image in an eye-shaped inner frame.

She adds a new element in these portraits—a fabric collage in the background. One may think of the crafty techniques in scrapbooks but her handling is subtle and refined, almost blending with the painted surfaces. It may be to remind one of the very personal roots of these images.

We actually see the subject—Alfonso—through his own eyes as well as through the eyes of his great-granddaughter, three generations later. These portraits are not merely copies from existing photographs but are Mia’s personal projections of a beloved ancestor.

Mia trained for 12 years in the Art Students’ League in New York. There she earned three certificates for completing full programs in painting, printmaking and sculpture, each four years long. She felt most comfortable in the League’s informal teaching approach—“where a beginner paints beside advanced colleagues.”

Her journey in art school developed a keen mastery for human subjects and their distinct personalities. The head drawings and nude paintings on exhibit show Mia’s talent to capture individual characters.

The five graphite drawings are especially engaging even with minimal details. They are not simply facial and anatomical studies. She imbues in them a state of mind and a sense of place.

Lessons from past

Mia continues to value lessons learned from the past. In this exhibit, she incorporates ideas and techniques of European artists. In her “Self-portrait at Thirty-six,” she employs the reflected image on a mirror to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, reminiscent of elements in the works of Jan van Eyck and Diego Velasquez. Unlike her earlier self-portraits, she is more candid with her image as an artist by showing herself in action and directly gazing at us. She depicts her mother, Elaine, also an artist, in a similar fashion, without the mirror but with canvases hanging and cropped in the background.

Mia also pays tribute to Dutch and Flemish masters known for their tradition of still life painting in the 17th century. Popular among private collectors, these paintings were ideal for domestic spaces. They were carefully composed to look ordinary—a disheveled fabric covering the cloth or draping diagonally from the wall, a jar or bottle lying diagonally on the table, fruits scattered or dangling at the edge.

Her still-life paintings are autobiographical, like a personal essay. It brings us viewers to ask what connections can be made. It assumes the importance of the everyday and the ordinary. Objects in each canvas were carefully chosen and composed. They may seem common things but they are her “precious necessaries” that represent a phase in the artist’s life, a season of the year, or a time of day. A pair of red shoes and a row of summer hats introduced to us her 4-year-old daughter Lana. The choice of flowers may refer to different times of the year spent in her studios in New York and in Manila.

Traditionally, still lifes were viewed in Northern Europe then as symbols of material wealth. For Mia, however, it is more of a wealth of blessings. Still life as a subject matter is also taken as a memento mori. It reminds us of our mortality and of time fleeting away. And this brings us back to the idea of carpe diem. Making the most of the opportunities, Mia captures what is before her—a life blessed with family, a career, and a past that has connected with her present.

Mia O. Herbosa’s works are on view until Jan. 12 at Alliance Française de Manille Total Gallery, 209 Nicanor Garcia St. (formerly Reposo), Bel-Air II, Makati City. Call 8957441 or 8957585 (Olivier Dintinger/Earl Parco) or 0917-890-1219 (Elaine Herbosa) or visit miaherbosa.com

The author is assistant professor at the Department of Art Studies, College of Arts and Letters, UP Diliman.