Mar 02 2018

Obituary: Napoleon Abueva (1930–2018)

by Elizabeth Wang

“Father of Philippine sculpture” NAPOLEON ABUEVA passed away on February 16 at the age of 88. Courtesy the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Napoleon Abueva, one of the foremost modern artists in the Philippines, passed away on February 16 at the age of 88. He had been staying at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Quezon City, after being hospitalized due to pneumonia on December 31, 2017. Often called the father of modern Philippine sculpture, and affectionately referred to as Sir Billy, Abueva became the youngest recipient of the Order of National Artists at age 46.

Abueva was born in 1930. When he was a teenager, his parents were tortured and murdered by invading Japanese forces, an experience that led him to seek out creative outlets as a means of channeling his pain. He won a number of scholarships that enabled him to study at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts in Manila—where he was mentored by a National Artist, Guillermo Tolentino—and, briefly, at Harvard University in the United States. Abueva first made waves in the Philippine and international art scenes with his minimalist sculptures in the 1950s, and remained a trailblazer throughout his long career, working with a diverse range of materials that included wood, granite, bronze, steel and marble.

Some of Abueva’s most celebrated sculptures are Nine Muses (1994), formerly in front of the now demolished Diliman Faculty Center of the University of the Philippines, The Transfiguration (1979) in the Eternal Gardens Memorial Park, Sunburst (1994) above the Peninsula Manila lobby, and Blood Compact in his birthplace, Bohol. Abueva sculpted Blood Compact as tribute to the friendship between Spanish explorer Miguel López de Legazpi and Bohol chieftain Datu Sikatuna, which was sealed by blood in 1565, celebrating harmony between two races, religions, cultures and civilizations.

The artist’s passing was solemnly mourned, with many taking to social media to express their condolences. Chris Millado, vice president and artistic director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, announced Abueva’s death on Facebook shortly after the family confirmed his death to news media. Subsequently, major national organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Manila and the Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts, shared posts in recognition of the sculptor’s influential career. Malacañang Palace conveyed its deep remorse for the “renowned virtuoso,” with presidential spokesperson Harry Roque stating, “Mr. Abueva’s unparalleled contributions in the realm of arts will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of every Filipino.”

With many public works across the Philippines to his name—including the door handles of all the National Museum galleries—Abueva will continue to live on in the visual culture of his native country.

Elizabeth Wang is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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