BY MANICA C. TIGLAO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ARABELLA PANER
“Irises is the most confusing painting I’ve ever made,” reads the back of a postcard-size piece of canvas, one of many from Gregory Halili’s teenage years that he has kept tucked away in his studio. Gregory, then 14, had scrawled the note behind his rendition of the Vincent Van Gogh piece in 1989. Another “copy” he shows us is a Pablo Picasso painting, also from 1989. “This one I made after seeing the real thing at MoMA, during the one year we lived in New York. I went home, opened our Picasso book, and copied it,” he says.
A warm, friendly presence, Gregory is more than happy to take us on a tour of his home, which, contrary to what one might imagine of an artist’s abode, is remarkably organized and free of clutter. He works between two studios in his family’s house: a painting room upstairs, and an open space below their living room where he carves and does the carpentry work necessary for his installations. “A busy day can be pretty hectic, but for me it’s about balancing my time with my family. My daughters are 5 and 11. They’re still kids. My wife and I are both hands on, so balance is important,” he says.
Gregory has come a long way since his years of attempting to replicate famous works of art. After living in the States for 25 years, he returned to Manila in 2014 and quickly became known for his intricate paintings of carved mother-of-pearl shells. In 2016, he mounted the exhibition “Karagatan (The Breadth of Oceans),” a set of 50 shells portraying the eyes of fisherfolk in coastal villages across the Philippines, at the Singapore Biennale. For almost a year now he’s been at work on his next exhibition for Silverlens in April, “another version of ‘Karagatan,’” he shares candidly. “But for this show, it’s more about taking an individual portrait of the different jobs of these folk close to the sea. Some are fishermen, some are crab catchers, pearl divers, salt makers.” Gregory has scoured communities in Davao and Laiya to find his subjects for the show, which will include Badjao tribesmen otherwise known as “sea gypsies.” He says, “That’s a good spectrum for me. Each eye and shell can be powerful enough to be presented individually.”
Here, the artist walks us through a day in his life.
6:30 a.m. “My wife takes our eldest daughter before goes to work. I wake up to take my youngest daughter to school. She wakes up at 7, but I have to prepare her clothes, food, and snacks. School starts at 8:30, so we have to be out of the house by 8. It’s not too far from home, about 10 minutes away, but we try to get there early so I can come back home to rest.”
10 a.m. “I wake up from my nap and carve my materials during the day. Right now I’m carving shells to find their shapes, and some wood, which I might use as a base. I dip some of the shells in acid, sort of as an experiment, to see what surfaces and textures I can come up with. I have some raw capiz that I sourced from Badjao tribes. This is how they make their living, so I asked them if I could use them as subjects, and in turn I gathered what they were trying to sell.”
“The most difficult part is trying to connect with my subject—capturing the person, her hardships, her life, what she’s going through. I want to be as honest as I can be in portraying all of that.”
1 p.m. “I eat lunch around now, or a little later, at 2 p.m. Just something quick that I can prepare—sometimes it’s the leftovers from the previous night, other times I grab a quick bite out.”
2:30 p.m. “I leave to pick up my youngest daughter. Sometimes she doesn’t get out until 3, so I wait for her around her school. From 3 onwards, lakwacha kami, just the two of us. We have ice cream or some kind of merienda in Solenad, and come home by 5.”
8 p.m. “The start of my day is actually in the evening. I start painting at around 8 or 9, and I continue until 2 or 3 a.m. depending on how tired I am from the previous day. Sometimes, when I really get into it, I’m able to go on until 5 a.m. The most difficult part for me is trying to connect with my subject—capturing the person, her hardships, her life, what she’s going through, through my painting. I want to be as honest as I can be in portraying all of that.”