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How Lilianna Manahan found beauty and hope in isolation

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 20, 2021 5:00 am

For Lilianna Manahan, at the peak of her career, a great part of her life was spent outside the confines of her studio. 

If she was not meeting artisans and craftsmen, from bone china potters and indigenous weavers around the Philippines to metalsmiths in New York and glass blowers in Czechoslovakia who would teach her and help bring her ideas to life, she was attending gallery openings in Paris where her work would be exhibited or design shows like the first Maison & Objet Asia, which awarded her as one of the six Rising Asia Talents. 

Back home, she would be creating pieces for gallery exhibitions, the CITEM FAME show, the Art Fair and private clients, when she was not at the beach surfing and gathering ideas for her next project. 

A lockdown must have been nothing short of a nightmare, we told her during a recent conversation. But apparently, it wasn’t so for Lilianna, who has been busy in quarantine, working for her upcoming exhibition.  

 Artist Lilianna Manahan, who will present her fourth solo exhibit, “Unlimited” at Modeka Art.

“A lot of my projects were cancelled but I was a little relieved,” the artist said, followed by a giggle, betraying the relaxed and cheerful disposition that has carried her through the most trying times.

Her pre-lockdown life was actually just a bit too fast-paced, so the pause was an opportunity to do all the things she had set aside and a chance to go back to drawing.  She had always kept a sketchbook on hand throughout her life, doodling as a child, drawing when she was in school taking her Foundation Studies in Art and Design at Central Saint Martins in London, finishing her BFA Industrial Design degree at the University of the Philippines, and later working in the research and design team of Kenneth Cobonpue in Cebu. 

  “Post Tenebras Lux XV,” paper and metal leaf 

The visual diary was a record of all her imaginings as she drew plans for functional objects and art pieces that she designed at her studio, where she has been creating for the past nine years. With the pandemic, there was more time to spend with her beloved pen and paper.

“I was looking forward to just observing things, and listening to quiet,” she says, citing Monet as an artist that came to mind — how he was able to observe the same thing at different times of the day.

It was a thought that excited her, bringing her attention to the nuances of the everyday, which we take for granted: The different cloud formations and shades of color at sunset, the colors and sounds that surround us throughout the day, shadows indoors and outdoors and how we respond to them. 

  “Bright Shadows,” black iron light sculptures

“Even daily routines and habits I formed, how people act — some funny, some unbelievable, and the humor I found in being locked down,” Lilianna recalls.

These would be the starting points for a collection of works that she would call “Unlimited,” her fourth solo exhibition that will open on March 27 at Modeka Art in La Fuerza Plaza in Makati.

“It was going back to basics, drawing to tell stories rather than dictate plans. After all, we had all the time in the world to listen,” according to Lilianna. 

 “Chex Mix, Cinnamon Swirl,” art jewelry in gold-plated and casted silver

Just as she would see the same thing in many permutations throughout the day, she wanted to do something that would show material in different ways, “with all of them rooting from one source, which were my drawings.”

In the beginning, she just wanted to challenge herself to the limits that she had, with the title and process coming later. Her growing interest in metal and her recent studies in smithing techniques made it the material of choice for the collection, which would showcase its versatility.

For her works on paper, titled “Post Tenebras Lux,” the Latin expression meaning “light after darkness,” she worked in metal leaf, showing the different ways that it can be layered and oxidized, revealing different sheens and lusters depending on which angle you view it from.

 “Lady Lounge 1,” art jewelry in gold-plated silver and casted silver

They are somehow like pockets of light that Lilianna wants us to see during these difficult times by changing our perspectives: “The longing we have means that this is not all there is and that these glimmers of hope we experience point to a bigger and eternal hope we can look forward to.” 

A similar vein runs through the black iron light sculptures called “Bright Shadows,” which were created around CS Lewis’ “baptism of the imagination” after he read Phantastes by George McDonald.  An essay in the book, “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life and Imagination in the Work of CS Lewis,” relates how the author, as a boy, experienced “Northernness, a bright shadow, a glimpse of the beauty of another world that awakened a yearning both for that world and for the experience of desiring that world.”

Lilianna relates that “at that time CS Lewis did not know that the bright shadow he was talking about was eternity and the kingdom of God, but it definitely added to his understanding of holiness.”

For Lewis, the world is full of bright shadows but we have to use our imagination to perceive the brightness, “the holy otherness,” in the shadow.  

Shadows brought by limitations actually fired her imagination and expanded her mind beyond limits to make new discoveries and create wondrous objects of beauty to bring the light of hope to our world.

Her sculptures started out as paper maquettes, exploring how manipulating paper easily translates to metal. In these pieces, metal’s flexibility is seen again, this time showing how you can create different textures and depths using sheets of the material. Addressing the idea of the paradox of needing darkness to see brighter lights, the artist plays with light and shadow, “where shadows are part of a composition rather than an aspect to be eliminated.”

“Lady Lounge, Chex Mix, Cinnamon Swirl” is a collection of art jewelry or what Lilianna calls “mini artworks that the body can carry,” in gold-plated silver and casted silver, exploring the different ways to shape, color and join metal through the smithing techniques she started learning a year and a half ago. Like the light sculptures, she started out with paper models then translated them to metal since she finds that paper and metal work in a similar way in terms of construction.

The figures used take off from her ongoing exploration of telling the story of creation in action, based on Genesis 1:1-3 — that split second between unformed things in darkness and the time they are called out of light and become something. 

“I have been interested in the tension of that time and illustrating it,” she says.  The “Creation” series actually had their beginnings pre-pandemic when she would collect objects like shells and microorganisms from nature and examine them under a microscope, revealing forms that she would draw and recreate in brass, gold and resin.  “But this time, the application of the theme resulted in a collection that is more intimate, more hands-on, something I really enjoyed doing,” she qualifies.

She hopes that the exhibit will encourage others to keep on creating. “I think art and design has a huge influence on culture and how people live, helping them live in a certain way, whether it’s in the form of a breathing apparatus, a new layout for architecture, even tabletop accessories that enhance the user’s experience, or artwork that a person can connect with in ways they can’t express with words — all these bring sustenance to the soul.”

It’s exactly what we need now, more than ever, when dark clouds always hover above us with the pandemic and the restrictions imposed on our lives. In Lilianna’s case, the shadows brought by limitations actually fired her imagination and expanded her mind beyond limits to make new discoveries and create wondrous objects of beauty to bring the light of hope to our world.  

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“Unlimited” by Lilianna Manahan runs from March 27 to April 24, 2021 at Modeka Art, 20-A La Fuerza Plaza, 2241 Chino Roces Ave., Makati City.  Book a private viewing: [email protected] +639561749185.