Brushstrokes By The Untouchables

One of the first questions asked of the Dimasalang artists is how they derived their name, “Dimasalang.“ Philippine national hero and freedom fighter Dr. Jose Rizal used Dimasalang (Untouchable) as a pseudonym in revolutionary essays and poems he wrote during the Spanish regime in the late 19th century.

In Manila, there is a street named Dimasalang after Dr. Jose Rizal’s pseudonym, and it was in a small corner shack on Dimasalang Street where co-founder of the artists’ group, Sofronio Ylanan Mendoza, better known by his initials SYM, lived and began his career.

 Vilco Applied Arts Shop with SYM and family, 1960s (Photo courtesy of Ely Mendoza)

Vilco Applied Arts Shop with SYM and family, 1960s (Photo courtesy of Ely Mendoza)

The Daily Mirror Editor-in-Chief Emilio (Abe) Aguilar Cruz came into SYM’s life in the mid-Sixties. Abe frequently visited SYM‘s Dimasalang home/studio workshop. A “slum flophouse in Sampaloc“ was the colorful description of the place by noted author and historian Nick Joaquin, which he wrote in his biography on Abe Cruz.

  Dimasalang Interior I , 1970 Oil on Canvas 18“ x 20“ by SYM (Photo by Stuart Dee)

Dimasalang Interior I, 1970 Oil on Canvas 18“ x 20“ by SYM (Photo by Stuart Dee)

Co-founders SYM and Abe Cruz, together with artists like Romulo Galicano, Ibarra de la Rosa and writer Andres Cristobal Cruz, would often be seen painting en plein air in scenic venues in Manila and its surrounding suburbia. “It was just a group that desired to paint outside. It was a happy group mostly talking about the principles of art, (various) artists and about our old masters,“ SYM states. They captured on canvas street and city scenes, seascapes and any subject matter of interest to them. Through the years, they formed a solid bond. In 1968 the Dimasalang artists’ first exhibition marked the official birth of the group.

 Original Dimasalang artists, 1974 (Poster photo reproduced by Andy Naval)

Original Dimasalang artists, 1974 (Poster photo reproduced by Andy Naval)

The current Dimasalang III International Artist Group, now based in Vancouver, has transformed the group into a registered not-for-profit organization in British Columbia, Canada. With SYM’s steadfast leadership 48 years from its birth, the group continues to gain respect as one of the more prestigious Filipino artist groups worldwide. Last year, the group was invited to exhibit at the Surrey Arts Centre and it recently participated at an interaction painting session with visiting Filipino artist Manuel Baldemor at the Philippine Consulate in Vancouver.

“Working together with fellow Dimasalang members and other artists established a symbiotic relationship with everyone involved. We learned to respect each other’s space, talents and artistic styles and still managed to produce the melding together of out artistic expressions into one cohesive singular work,” artist Andy Naval comments on the recent activity.

“It's an interaction between the artists and will further enhance awareness of our culture,” adds artist Edgardo Lantin. Dimasalang III has evolved and taken a more dynamic and progressive approach; it is a more diverse entity, different from the previous Dimasalang I and II groups.

 Interaction Painting Session, July 2015 at Vancouver’s Philippine Consulate (Photo by Sandie Gillis)

Interaction Painting Session, July 2015 at Vancouver’s Philippine Consulate (Photo by Sandie Gillis)

The original Dimasalang group promoted impressionism and figurative art on the Philippine art scene in the late Sixties through to the Seventies when modern art was at the height of its popularity. SYM's influence led a “quiet revolt” in the art movement, challenging the predominance of modernism by re-introducing the beauty of traditional art. The Dimasalang artists bridged the gap between these two movements and established its eminent niche in Philippine art.

  En plein air  painting in Manila by Dimasalang Artists, 1970s (Photo courtesy of Ely Mendoza)

En plein air painting in Manila by Dimasalang Artists, 1970s (Photo courtesy of Ely Mendoza)

Teaching and nurturing a group of young aspiring artists in the Philippines, SYM encouraged the formation of the second group of Dimasalang artists in the mid-Seventies. Dimasalang II comprised primarily of his students in Manila, namely, Nestor Villanueva, Carlos Cadid, Godofredo Mendoza and Vic Larosa.  

SYM immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia 1981. “The essence and passion in me of the (Dimasalang) group was still there. I was thinking that someday my students would do the same as we did in Manila,” SYM states.

The first set of Dimasalang III artists were primarily his students in the mid-Eighties, which included Edgardo Lantin, Rod Pedralba, Noel Trinidad, Simeon Dee, Maria Apelo Cruz (the first female Dimasalang member) and Jess Hipolito. The group painted natural landscapes in the Greater Vancouver area in outings similar to the treks that the original Dimasalang artists enjoyed doing in the Philippines. The Dimasalang III slowly grew as other students in the late-Nineties and early turn of the century, like Andy Naval, Leo Cunanan Jr., Brooke Anderson and Arlene George, became part of the respected group.

 Canadian Dimasalang III Members taken in 2006 (Photo is courtesy of Sandie Gillis)

Canadian Dimasalang III Members taken in 2006 (Photo is courtesy of Sandie Gillis)

In 2004 the Dimasalang III International Artist Group officially became a not-for-profit organization in Canada, governed by a board directors dedicated to promoting awareness of contemporary visual arts and culture in the community. The group offers arts-related educational interests by way of life drawing sessions, outdoor summer and workshops that include constructive criticism of artwork by SYM and senior members. These activities motivate and encourage aspiring artists to improve their work. “It is enjoyable to draw together, learn and get inspiration from one another,” says artist Leo Cunanan Jr.”

The members appreciate opportunities to exhibit artwork with the group. Committed to its vision of fostering a positive impact and contribution to the arts, Dimasalang III aims to pursue a high standard of artistic excellence.

The Canadian Dimasalang, as the current Dimasalang III was referred to in SYM’s book entitled “SYM: The Power of Struggle,“ continues to grow and remains active. From its humble beginnings in Manila to its foothold in Vancouver, Canada, SYM’s Dimasalang lives on.

*Video follows


 Sandie Gillis

Sandie Gillis

Sandie Gillis is based in Vancouver, Canada. She is the co-author of SYM: The Power of Struggle, a biography on Filipino-Canadian artist SYM Mendoza. She holds a degree in Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines at Diliman. Aside from writing, she enjoys traveling and has a passion for producing documentary short films. 


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