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  • Oct 10, 2019

Obituary: Carlos Celdran (1972–2019)

Artist and activist CARLOS CELDRAN died

Makati-born artist and activist Carlos Celdran passed away on October 8 in Madrid, at the age of 46. His wife, Tesa Celdran, stated in a Facebook post on that same day that he “passed from natural causes.” 

Celdran will be remembered fondly for his sharp sense of humor, with which he broached sociopolitical topics such as postcolonial Filipino identity, the possibilities of art, and reproductive rights in the Philippines. At the age of 14, he was already a political cartoonist for Business Day, and later, while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, he further honed his comedic sensibilities with performance art, interning with the comedic troupe Blue Man Group and the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company. He continued to make drawings and collages about his birth country at this time. Upon his return to Manila in 2012, he launched walking tours around the city, which he viewed as a form of performance art to introduce others to the rich history of Manila, while galvanizing re-examinations of Filipino culture. 

In 2018, he initiated the first Manila Biennale in the capital’s old city, Intramuros, to the chagrin of some of the local arts community. “One thing we forgot to do while putting together the biennale was to ask for permission. Apparently, if you use something as heavy as the word ‘biennale,’ you need common consensus,” he explained to AAP. The name of the event was no accident. Celdran had intended to provoke re-evaluations of what biennials—commonly manifest as globalized, costly, and star-studded events—could be like. “When we opened the show it was a statement: look what Filipinos can do with our imagination, our context, our history. That’s all we had at Intramuros to create a powerful statement about war,” he added. 

Celdran’s practice touched not just creative communities, but also impacted broader society. In 2010, he disrupted an assembly at the Manila Cathedral to protest the Catholic Church’s vocal opposition to the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Bill. The bill was passed in 2012, guaranteeing Filipino citizens legal access to contraception, sexual education, and maternal care. However, Celdran was convicted for “offending religious feelings” in 2013 due to his protest—a charge that he continued to appeal over six years. In February 2019, he moved to Madrid, where he organized tours themed around the Philippine national hero, José Rizal—his alter-ego in his performances—who also lived in exile in Spain. 

Since news of his passing, there has been an outpouring of tributes to Celdran. Leni Robredo, vice president of the Philippines, tweeted: “I will always be grateful for his support and appreciative of his contributions to raising the awareness of our fellow Filipinos regarding our history and culture. He will be missed.” Manolo Quezon, journalist and adopted grandson of president Manuel L. Quezon, wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “He was outspoken, he could be rash, he defied convention in all aspects of his life . . . Only when such people pass—because otherwise we are too busy passing judgment on them, moment by moment—does it occur to us (I hope) that there are too few maraschino cherries in our vanilla world. Now he is gone, suddenly, one less thick daub of colourful paint in an otherwise all-too-easily whitewashed reality.”

Chloe Chu is the managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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