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Norma Liongoren: Portrait of a culture-heroine

By IGAN D'BAYAN, The Philippine Star Published Feb 13, 2023 5:00 am

Hours before Norma Liongoren passed, she summoned all of her living siblings.

Norma comes from a big family (the Crisologos of Dagupan, Pangasinan) and became the matriarch when her parents died. Her siblings were all based in the province, but they managed to make it to Norma’s bedside just in time to say goodbye.

Norma’s daughter Hannah says, “In effect, my mother was still mobilizing people even towards the end of her life.” Hannah—who is currently based in Rhode Island and currently working as an educator, designer and illustratorvwas in New England at that time with her daughter Lumen and husband Alex. She immediately bought a ticket back to Manila for her mom’s wake.

Whenever Hannah is asked as to what her fondest memories of Norma are, she cites anecdotes that have this recurring theme of activism.

Norma Liongoren: Truly one of one

“My favorite stories are the ones where she’s emboldened to speak up and advocate for social justice. My mom’s approach to issues can be unorthodoxvlike sheltering 20 people in the gallery who lost their homes to typhoon Yolanda. When I worked with her, we had to set aside a day during the week for social work because many people would approach her with their problems.”

Designated by her peers as a “midwife of art,” Norma Crisologo Liongoren was the guiding spirit of Liongoren Gallery along with her husband, artist Alfred Liongoren. She was—as described by her friend and sculptor Julie Lluch—“an initiator, instigator, organizer, social activist, community worker, soul winner and culture-heroine.”

Norma’s non-art background provided her experiences that informed how she ran the art gallery as Fred focused on his art.

According to Alex Hornstein:

“Norma and Fred had been a fixture in the Philippine art scene since the Sixties. Fred began his career as an abstract painter in UP under the mentorship of National Artist Jose Joya. Norma started far from the arts, as a nursing graduate from UP, but she was drawn to the lively art scene in Manila. The couple met in 1971 in the Red Gallery, an artist-run gallery in Cubao, and a few months later, they were married. As newlyweds, Fred continued his prolific painting, establishing a place for himself at the forefront of Abstract Expressionism in the Philippines and continuing his study abroad at the Byam Shaw School of Art in England, while Norma worked in her first profession as a researcher at the Philippine Center for Population and Development. Fred’s work as an abstract painter connected the young couple with other Filipino artists in the nascent fields of Impressionist and Social Realist art, sparking lifelong friendships with established masters and emerging artists from around the country. After a decade of living at the edge of the art scene, Norma’s relentless and gregarious nature led to a breakthrough for the young couple, as they created the Liongoren Gallery in Cubao in 1981.”

And afterwards it was a lifetime of art and activism. Hundreds of artists in the Philippines are now grateful to the Liongorens and their gallery for the opportunities the gallery provided.

Hannah explains, “I think her most significant contribution to the Philippine art scene is her enduring advocacy to educate the public of the unseen and the under-appreciated culture of the Philippines.”

Norma was a champion of indigenous weaving.

“She started wearing Filipiniana and malong daily since I was a child," recalls Hannah. “It became part of her identity. My mother told me that when she went travelling in Europe, she brought a suitcase filled with local woven fabrics and would trade objects and services with her goods in every place she visited. She said it allowed her to talk about our country in a way that was tactile and visual—and the exchange also let her learn about other people’s cultures and stories. Her knack for networking was impeccable. She integrated her fashion with her passion for our culture.”

Alay sa Manghahabi (Tribute to the Weaver)

According to Norma’s friend, Imelda Cajipe-Endaya: “Norma as a gallerist does not just sell what is saleable, but cultivates sincere, fun-filled friendship with gallery viewers in order to educate holistically on the art and its context as it relates to her social advocacies that help advance environment preservation, Filipino identity, upliftment of street children and workers condition, natural healing. Indigenous peoples’ art and crafts are close to her heart and she would put up market mechanisms to help sustain them.”

Another seminal work that she is known to have pioneered is her annual exhibition “Walong Filipina” show that features all-women artists, cultural and social workers from the early ’90s until the year of her passing in 2016.

In the Art Fair tribute exhibit, featured are portraits of Norma in the nude and as a pregnant woman by Fred and family friend Danny Dalena, respectively. They are visual anchors of the selection. Made 10 years apart, the nude drawing was sketched immediately after the birth of Erik the first child in 1975, while the portrait by Dalena was painted while Hannah the youngest was in her mother’s womb in 1985.

According to the exhibition statement, “These two works, wherein the in-between spaces will be interpolated with digital renditions of transitions created via artificial intelligence, will set the tone for the exhibition as a revelatory exercise unfurling more narratives that were representations of the Philippine societal conditions from the 1980s to the late 1990s.”

“My mom dedicated her life to the national building of the Philippines. Now that I’m in the diaspora, I’ve grappled with the immigrant experience of dealing with the challenges of adapting to a new culture. My lived experience in the gallery and my mother’s way of life has been part of my moral compass in navigating how I live and advocate for our people,” says Hannah.

Ah, Norma Liongoren: the woman with colorful outfits and equally colorful tongue who loved Fred’s mad and earthy palette the most.

To be exhibited at the Art Fair are works from Norma’s personal collection that she kept close to her heart. These are works that moved with the Liongorens from Cubao to Antipolo. These are works that she kept in her room and around the house.

Unique objects that orbited around a unique, madly elegant being.

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“Norma Liongoren: Reading Between the Lines” is on view at the 7th floor of The Link at the Ayala Center in Makati from Feb. 17 to 19, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.