Northern Filipino tales on a postcard

Like postcards conveying thoughts, John Frank Sabado's art is his take on the tension between nature and progress


The fast-fading practice of sending postcards is revived by Filipino artist John Frank Sabado in his new solo show, Northern Postcards.

His 11 monochromatic drawings, rendered in fine detail using ball pen and ink, do not, however, come in sizes that are mailbox-friendly.

The smallest work measures almost 80cm in length and some stretch as long as 1.8m.

In spirit, though, his drawings are not unlike postcards, a concise method of communicating deeply personal thoughts and emotions.

The drawings depict imaginary vistas of lush environments and man-made concrete jungles that point to the fragile balance, and sometimes imbalance, between both.

These visions, which sometimes also enfold folktales and indigenous customs of the northern Philippines, are subtly layered, one upon another, such that borders sneak and encroach on each other.

This tension between nature and man's progress is an enduring message in Sabado's art - it is a part of his personal history and an issue close to his heart.

The 45-year-old artist grew up in a logging area in northern Philippines from the 1960s to mid-1980s and has fond memories of playing in the forests as a child. Much of his childhood playground, however, has been denuded by illegal logging.

Sabado, who is now based in Baguio City, says: "I often visit the place in my dreams, but it now needs to be completely reforested because of continuous illegal logging."

Glimpses of the glorious hills and forests he once roamed, though, are offered in meticulous detail in his drawings.

The composition of the images draws on the intricate and symmetrical design of traditional tapestry from the Cordillera region in northern Philippines.

The drawings also embody a texture that resembles the delicate woven textiles which inspire them.

To render the minutiae, it takes the self-taught artist no fewer than two weeks, clocking 16 hours every day, to complete one of the smaller pieces in the show. With the bigger works, more than a month of painstaking focus is required.

The pieces on show were all made over the last year.

Indeed, he found it doubly challenging to make the bigger drawings because it was his first time working on a larger scale and doing so in monochrome.

He says: "Drawing in black and white is very meditative and the images are very strong but it is very hard to do because it can get very tedious."

Still, he chose to go monochrome in this series because he feels the palette lends the images a timeless quality.

As for attempting super-sized drawings, he says: "I wanted to challenge my inner being and soul."

His drawings are on show at The Drawing Room gallery in Gillman Barracks and are priced between $3,000 and $8,500.

The gallery, which began in Makati City, Philippines, and continues to have a home there, is one of a handful of galleries in Singapore that specialise in Filipino art.

Artists who have shown with the gallery here include the prominent husband-and-wife duo, artists Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan.

Sabado hopes his drawings will help people call to mind the forgotten paradise of unspoilt nature and face up to the stark picture of what it is today, ravaged to the brink of extinction.

The artist, who has exhibited internationally, says: "It is necessary to recall the forgotten perfect landscape to correct this abusive way of development."