KURI-KURI: Lanao Art Makes A Splash in The Big Apple

I follow the night
Can’t stand the light
When will I begin
My life again?
(“One Day I’ll Fly Away”)

It is perhaps providential that an art exhibit that showcases the exquisite artistic tradition of the Philippine South would soon be mounted no less than in New York City. After all, a specific region – Lanao – has suffered its fair share of bad press owing to the fighting that had been ongoing in the area for months now between the Philippine military and the Maute-ISIS group.

Anna Leah’s portraits of Meranaw women.

Come September 25-October 6, visitors to the Philippine Art Center on 556 Fifth Avenue, New York City, will be introduced to the art of Anna Leah M Sanson: “Kuri-Kuri – NYC.” The curated exhibit features some 30 art works divided into three sets, all highlighting not only the artist’s own proclivity to engage in kuri-kuri but also the industry that is required to create traditional craft – the subject of the paintings. In Sebuano, kuri-kuri loosely describes the activity of very productive hands.

The artist, Anna Leah, hails from Iligan City, once dubbed The Pittsburgh of the South because for a time it was the most industrialized city outside Manila. Smokestacks and silos do not form the backdrop of Anna Leah’s works, rather, it is the rich tapestry of the Higaunon-Meranaw culture pervasive in the area that serves as wellspring of her inspiration. The intriguing okir (a general term used to describe the set of art motifs based on plant forms prevalent in the Lanao region and Sulu), intricate bead work, the mosaic weave of the banig, the burst of colors – they all jump from Anna Leah’s oeuvres rendered in oil and pastel.

One painting nuances a pining for the seemingly elusive peace in the region while another displays her feminist slant. In the banig series, Anna Leah hopes to educate the viewer that traditional art forms are mainly communal effort, as opposed to the more individualistic European artistic traditions. In the past, practically everyone in the village had a role to play in the process, be it the gathering and the drying of the natural supplies to the actual weaving, storing, and selling of the finished products.

Anna Leah never dreamt that one day she would share the limelight with respected names in the Philippine art scene who had earlier held exhibits at the art center, reputedly the place where Imelda Marcos had once held court.

Friends never expected Anna Leah to leave home to work as a caregiver in the USA. After all, she owns two very successful business enterprises in Iligan – MarRo’s Cocina (a popular bistro) and a flower shop favored by many wedding planners. But she followed her emotional compass, heading for New York perhaps feeling a tad of existential dread.

Anna Leah

New York City is home to a good number of Iliganons and Anna Leah never wanted for good company. But, pretty soon, like most first-time expatriates, she felt lonely and homesick. Not to mention a few life’s questions needed closure. She found solace in creative activity. She picked up the brush and started to paint – furiously. Anna Leah painted so many canvasses soon these attracted the attention of her employer who practically cajoled her into doing something purposeful with her paintings.

Friends impressed by the beauty of the paintings also ganged up on her: she has to hold an exhibit. Inspired by the appreciation and support of friends, Anna Leah gave in. There was no better place to hold her first exhibit than her beloved Iligan.

Anna Leah didn’t have to look far for inspiration for her paintings. She soaked up the vibrant colors and intricate designs of the native culture in Iligan. She had no formal schooling in art theories and techniques. She is raw talent. It helped that she grew up in a creative environment, helping her mother – a kindergarten teacher – prepare visual aids.

Orphaned of a father at age 13, Anna Leah had to help her family eke a living at such a tender age, designing wallets and selling them to classmates. She expanded her enterprise at age 17, running a bookstand where she rented out pocket books. It was at St. Michael’s College where Anna Leah met a mentor, Faye Goyena, who noticed her artistic promise. It was Miss Goyena who convinced her to take her creative gift seriously and go beyond making trinkets.

If ever she learned a few art techniques, Anna Leah accomplished this by helping an uncle – Adolfo “Ngangay” Lacuna, a master of the art of papier-mâché – create the masks and headdresses of the characters of Iligan’s famed San Miguel commedia, one of the few of this dying genre in the Philippines. Adolfo himself apprenticed under the esteemed Iliganon artist, the late Dionisio Orellana, who was among the earliest from Mindanao to study Fine Arts in UP. (His illustrations of the okir and Tugaya brassware designs were the first to be published; a landscape painting of the iconic Maria Cristina Falls hangs at the National Museum.)

Anna Leah’s major artistic break came when she was asked to design and create the costumes and props of IPAG (Integrated Performing Arts Group) with its Mindanao-themed productions. She was introduced to IPAG while studying Bachelor of Arts at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, home of the internationally-renowned theatre group. IPAG Artistic Director Dr. Steven Fernandez acknowledges Anna Leah’s designs as excellent, earning praises from the various international audiences of IPAG.

Pretty soon Anna Leah became the most sought-after designer of costumes, stage, and props for street dancing festivals and other artistic productions in the area.

In New York City, Anna Leah made the acquaintance of some of the most droppable names in American society, personalities who have either noticed her artistic pursuits or have come to learn about her advocacy. One day, she received an invitation for a Fourth of July dinner at a penthouse of a condo close to the United Nations Headquarters. Her Filipino friend, who is in the employ of the hosts, had passed on the invite to Anna Leah without mentioning the names of the hosts. Perhaps it was meant to avoid making Anna Leah uneasy or even intimidated.

Victoria Newhouse (middle) listens intently as Maria Cristina Vios Macapagal (left), a major supporter of the Artist who flew from Iligan City, explains the three-series paintings.

This dinner will surely be the artist’s dinner of a lifetime – dining alone with the billionaire Samuel Irving “SI” Newhouse and wife Victoria, owners no less of Condé Nast (Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc.). By accident, Mrs. Newhouse came across a brochure of Anna Leah’s first art exhibit where her dream of establishing a youth camp was mentioned. Famous for her many charities, Mrs. Newhouse was curious about Anna Leah and her plans.

Long after the experience, Anna Leah loved to recall to friends how she rushed to buy prêt-à-porter evening dress upon seeing women in gowns at the lobby of the condo (thinking they were also dinner guests of the Newhouses – but they were not); of how she was quietly amused at watching fireworks above the East River at eye level from the penthouse while everyone else below had to crane their necks.

Through her new network, Anna Leah was also introduced to the family of the industrialist Peter Brant. The family administers The Brant Foundation Art Study Center which is known for promoting education and appreciation of contemporary art and design by making works available to institutions and individuals for scholarly study and examination. Anna Leah had been invited to the events of the Brant Foundation and in turn she has invited the Brant family to Kuri-Kuri –NYC, as she did SI and Victoria Newhouse.

Noting the quality of her work and her prolific output, The Society of Filipino American Artists has waived it usual requirements for membership and admitted Anna Leah into their roster as a regular member.

The next few days will surely be heady for Anna Leah. It’s truly something for someone who started designing wallets as a teenager to see her paintings hang in the gallery of the Philippine Art Center. She confided to this writer: “I really wish my paintings would sell. Then I will have seed money for the youth camp I had always dreamt of establishing for the needy youth in Iligan. There they will not only learn livelihood skills but also develop character – they will learn to be self-sufficient, among others.”

Anna Leah had made it a requirement for young people from nearby barrios who applied to work in MarRo’s Cocina or the flower shop for them to finish an education. She is proud to say all her employees completed higher education (with bursary from her, of course) as if they were her own children. “Naka patiwas na ko sa ilang tanan,” she proudly said in Sebuano.

Anna Leah followed her heart. Hopefully, her dreams will come true. (Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen / MindaNews contributor)