Celebrating Beauty | Agnes Arellano

Words Sam L. Marcelo. Roundtable discussion moderated by Joan Orendain. Photography Jonathan Baldonado assisted by Arvin Somera. Hair and makeup by Genstein Yuzon-Griffin.


“Old” is having a moment. Writer Joan Didion added “face of Céline” to her résumé at the age of 80, when the French luxury house known for its cool minimalism used her slight countenance, swallowed by a pair of oversized sunglasses and a black sweater, for its 2015 spring campaign. That was also the year that Wang Deshun, a 79-year-old grandfather with a full beard and flowing white locks, sent hearts into tachycardia when he strutted shirtless down the runway during China Fashion Week. Last year, Iris Apfel, 94, was tapped for an advertising campaign by Australian fashion label Blue Illusion. And this year? Carmen Dell’Orefice, 85, closed the show for Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei in a blood-red ensemble that crowned her queen of the Parisian catwalk. Take that, Gigi Hadid.

To figure out this “trend” — if one can call it that — which has Millennials asking gray-haired grandmothers where they got their hair done (they didn’t), High Life invited sculptor Agnes Arellano, writer Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and painter Betsy Westendorp to a chat moderated by author Joan Orendain in Annabel’s Restaurant along Tomas Morato. All of them are over 60, considered to be retirement age in the Philippines; and all of them are still making, doing, and waging a war against idleness. On the agenda for that Sunday afternoon in April: finding out what fuels their creativity and where they find beauty.

AGNES ARELLANO

At a sprightly 67, sculptor Agnes Arellano, in present company, is a young pup wet behind the ears. She arrived dressed in a Chinese-style robe with her signature topknot on her head and her partner, artist Billy Bonnevie, on her arm. Just this February, Arellano’s life-sized goddess sculptures were featured in a special exhibition at Art Fair Philippines. Many-breasted or otherwise, these embodiments of the sacred feminine are casts of Arellano’s body, some of which she made in the 1980s.

Her recent sculptures required her to recast parts of her present self. In the process, she discovered how the years have changed her anatomy: “My hands are much bigger,” she admitted with a laugh, which is effervescent and ready to escape at the slightest provocation (a surprise given her serious mien and her fondness for black clothing). “I had to shave off several millimeters from each joint because it just didn’t match the body,” she continued, “the body was young.”

Inanna, Kali, Magdalene, and Dakini, a quaternity of goddesses from Project Pleiades by Agnes Arellano. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Working with wet plaster has also taken its toll on a few of the sculptor’s fingers, which have been bent by arthritis. She is thankful for small mercies: the pain that sometimes wakes her in the middle of the night never bothers her when she works. “Sculpting is like a state of oblivion — all your research, all your ideas, everything in your brain just goes down and flows out through your fingers. That’s the best part. You don’t have to think, you don’t have to decide. It just comes out spontaneously into what you’re doing,” she said. “The pain comes after — when you’re trying to sleep.”

Arellano has known pain worse than this. Many moons ago, she lost her parents and her sister in a fire. Out of that tragedy came the most personal of her sculptures: a sarcophagus in honor of her father and mother. Designing Recumbent Yab/Yum Sarcophagus, a white box topped by a couple in an intimate embrace, was difficult. “At first, I made a beast and it just didn’t work, ” she said. “I took an ax and I hacked it to bits until I realized that the best thing to do was to make a representation — an actual cast — of two people making love.” That experience taught her to persevere: “You don’t let it [a work of art] go until you’re satisfied. You destroy it if it’s not good,” she said. “There’s so much ugliness in the world. Why add to it? For myself, I really have this impulse to make things beautiful.”