Maria’s skill as an artist has been recognized with awards from respected institutions like The Royal Society of British Artists and The Pastel Society UK at the Mall Galleries in London. She has also been praised for focusing on the themes that provoke thoughtful discussions about the Philippines. The US-Philippines Society’s Hank Hendrickson said, “Maria’s work captures the faces of rural life, especially among tribal communities in the southern Philippines.” He also noted “the importance of her efforts to preserve the vibrancy of those rural traditions in art, even as the Philippines embraces globalization and the growth of modern urban lifestyles.”
The word “liwanag” means light in Filipino. That word was carefully selected for the title of her collection. Maria elaborated that she was “putting a spotlight on some scenes that otherwise would remain in the shadows of the unknown.” At the launch of the exhibit, Consul General Pedro O. Villa said that her work “shine the light on regions that seldom receive the positive attention and recognition that they deserve.” Adrian Calo of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London noted that “within these images lie more hidden issues that need to be discussed as well but at the same time giving homage to such wonderful expositions of art.”
The representation of light is also an important aspect of Renaissance art, explained to Maria, who studied Renaissance-style art in Florence. It is not surprising that one of her favorite Filipino painters is Fernando Amorsolo, known for paintings suffused with sunlight and glowing women. Maria then showed me how she incorporated light and shadow to her portraits – giving them more depth.
The paintings – mostly in black and white – were striking. I have seen them on her website, but seeing the poster-size paintings lined up one after the other had an overpowering effect. Maria collaborated with the Rene Demafeliz Atelier, a group of craftsmen from Zamboanga, to create the wooden frames with elaborate carvings for the collection. It was a thoughtful touch, adding more character to the artwork. Within the frames were images of the men and women Maria met when she traveled around the Philippines, visiting places like Baler, Zamboanga, South Cotobato, and Albay. Accompanying the paintings are maps to show the location in the Philippines and descriptions for viewers to learn more about each place Maria visited.
Maria originally meant to stay in the Philippines for three weeks but ended up staying a year, falling in love with the people and the landscape. She joined the National Anti-Poverty Commission and visited fishing communities along the west coast of Luzon. Together with her cousins, she traveled to Sarangani and South Cotobato and met the T’boli people who impressed her with their powerful relationship with nature and their land. She also visited Dibut Bay in Quezon. She trekked through the Sierra Madre mountains to meet the Dumagat people who live along Dibut Bay. She spent a few days with them, living in a tent, spearfishing with the children and learning their traditions. Today, Dibut Bay is a popular dive site, but during World War II it served as the landing site for US submarines.
From her early collection “Impromptu in White Chalk” that first established herself as an artist in London, Maria has always shown a fascination with the human figure. Maria also pointed out how she used the “contrapposto,” a pose made famous by Michelangelo’s David when she drew the Filipino male figures. Vividly drawn, Filipino men are seen performing manual labor – husking coconuts, harvesting rice, carrying wood, or bringing in large tunas from the sea — showing the masculine form at its very best. Even though Maria finalized these drawings more than a year after she left the Philippines, they are wonderfully detailed. When she returned to London in 2016, she got married and became a full-time mom, focusing all her energy on her child. But it also gave her a lot of time to think, and she thought of the people she met in the Philippines and how she “owed them this exhibit.”
Women also play an important role in the exhibit. Maria admires the natural Filipina, finding the dark skin tone and wide noses, similar to her mom’s features, as beautiful. She subscribes to the precolonial notion of beauty. My favorite painting in the collection, “T’nalak Girl in a Nipa Hut Window,” shows a T’boli girl in traditional clothes made of “T’nalak cloth. Sadly, the painting did not make it to DC because it was purchased in New York by Loida Nicholas Lewis. The only oil painting in her collection is “Woman Carrying Chicken for Pancit Canton in Zamboanga.” It is a portrait of a woman with leprosy. Maria said she was impressed with the way the woman “carried her life with such dignity.”
When I met Maria at the historic Philippine Chancery, the Filipino-Spanish artist was surrounded by her family, showing the very Filipino trait of family closeness. Maria introduced me to her mother, Carmen Murga, who hails from Zamboanga and her father, Antonio Mari, who is from Alicante, a coastal town in Spain, and her cousin and niece. Her husband, Leif Miguel Martinez, who curated the exhibit had left earlier that day to head back to their home in London and to their son, Leo, who was with his parents.
It was my first time to meet Maria, but she treated me like an old friend as she gave me a tour of her exhibit. Maria explained her affinity with Filipinos. She felt immediately welcome when she came to the Philippines in 2015. Her mom did not allow visits to the Philippines because of concerns about Maria’s safety. Her mom’s brother was killed by kidnappers in the 1980s [Here is an account of the kidnapping: http://www.lazamboangatimes.com/majo_story.html], and Maria had a dengue scare when she left the Philippines when she was a child. However, she grew up in a home surrounded by Yakan clothes, seashells, and Maranao sculptures. Maria grew up hearing stories about her mother’s idyllic childhood where she rode carabaos and dived to see corals in Santa Cruz Island. Maria also learned about her maternal grandfather, Abelardo Murga, a World War II veteran who survived the Bataan Death March. Her grandfather made his way back to Zamboanga by boat, and “was generously fed by Filipinos he randomly encountered.” Her grandfather was later granted American citizenship.
Maria found an enthusiastic response to her work by Filipino Americans encouraging. She was deeply touched when they told her how her artwork “inspired fond memories of their provinces.” She is also honored that a few of her paintings are now part of the collection of Filipino American collectors.
Now traveling between London and Alicante, Maria is excited about her exhibit’s next destination. “Liwanag” will be at the Manila Peninsula Hotel in February, thanks to the US-Philippines Society. Maria looks forward to presenting her collection to the very same Filipinos who inspired it.
To learn more about Maria Mari Murga and her work, visit http://www.mariamarimurga.com/.
Titchie Carandang-Tiongson is a freelance writer. Her articles have been published in Northern Virginia Magazine, Working Mom, Asian Journal, Metro Home and Vault. She and her husband Erwin are the co-founders and co-creators of the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC) Project where they document landmarks of Philippine history and culture in Washington, DC. She lives in Fairfax with Erwin and their children, Nicolas and Rafael.