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By Terence Repelente

Page Design by Pinggot Zulueta

The art in Toym Imao’s ongoing exhibition at Galerie Joaquin UP Town Center, “In His Veins,” is primarily an homage to his father, Abdulmari Imao. But according to Toym, collectively, the works signify something beyond the late National Artist. It can also be linked to the narratives of his fierce and brave ancestors.

In an interview with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Toym tells an interesting story about their last name, Imao. According to him, their original last name was Halimao, the meaning of which can be traced as “tiger.” His great grandfather’s name was Halimao Tunggal, who was a respected warrior. He had three sons, Abdulrahim, Abdulmuin, and Abdulhali. “But when the Americans came and the public school system was introduced, these three boys were always the butt of the joke or were always in fistfights,” Toym says. “Because their last name, Halimao, sounded like halimaw, which means monster.” Eventually, an American missionary advised his father’s grand uncle to change it to “Imao.”

Nakakamanghang mga Anino, oil on canvas, 2019, Toym Imao, and Buhay,yakal wood and painted steel, 2019

Nakakamanghang mga Anino, oil on canvas, 2019, Toym Imao, and Buhay,yakal wood and painted steel, 2019

Perhaps shaped by the toughness of their childhood, these three Imao brothers, who were National Artist Abdulmari Imao’s uncles, grew up to lead an armed guerilla resistance, historically called the Fighting 21, against the Japanese in Sulu during World War II.


In the exhibit, Toym intends to play on his father’s vision as a child in a time of war. According to him, it’s interesting that, despite the horrors of war, his father went on to imagine what was beautiful. “When we were kids, he would always tell us stories about that time. I grew up with these stories, these visions, these images,” he says. In the exhibition, Toym takes his father’s childhood stories and style as an artist, and he creates something entirely new—his own way of retelling the narratives.

In the dreamlike works in the form of paintings and sculptures, there are a lot of planes, wings, and bird-like imagery, a product of Abulmari’s early fascination with birds and airplanes. “This is a reflection of their situation during the war,” Toym says. “But he was also extremely fascinated with birds, especially colorful migratory ones. Because they were guerillas always in the forest. They would trap migratory birds.”


Toym’s father has always been known for incorporating, and even popularizing, the sarimanok through his works. But his father never treated it as his own, saying that he just borrowed it from the Maranao. He treated it as a story that needed to be told. This mindset shaped Toym as an artist.

Pagdiriwang, wood and brass, 2019, Payapa at Dalisay, oil on canvas, 2019, Ayon sa Kasunduan, oil on canvas, 2019, Sinaunang Kalayaan, oil on canvas, 2019

Pagdiriwang, wood and brass, 2019, Payapa at Dalisay, oil on canvas, 2019, Ayon sa Kasunduan, oil on canvas, 2019, Sinaunang Kalayaan, oil on canvas, 2019

Working with film, theater, and literature, Toym doesn’t settle for a singular form to tell a story. “I treat my art as a language. I don’t want to be associated with one style. For me, these forms effectively convey the kind of stories I want,” he says. But ultimately, his works focuses on telling the stories of Mindanao.

“My roots are from Mindanao, but I cannot completely say that I am Mindanaoan. But definitely in terms of spirit, in terms of the styles of the works I do, they’re heavily rooted within the region,” he says. “And it’s only now that I’ve had the chance to slowly go back and explore that, not because I’m appropriating it, but because there’s so much to tell about the region. There’s this sense of urgency, because we should let the people know how beautiful the region is besides what the headlines tell us.”

In continuing to render sarimanok in his works, Toym believes he is continuing a visual tradition. “I’m not copying my father’s sarimanok. I’m just introducing another form, which is contextualized in my own visual perception of the myth,” he says. “It can be a necessary vessel of continuing that understanding from the South, as a visual ambassador—an avatar.”

The sarimanok can be interpreted in many ways, with hundreds of existing tales and origin stories in different parts, and even outside, of Mindanao. For Toym, it signifies acceptance and diversity. Next year, he plans on putting up a show that focuses on the sarimanok because its image possesses great potential in uniting the country.

“In this age of technology, with social media, it is necessary for us to identify with powerful avatars that represent ideas or people. It can serve as a rallying point to condense big and complex ideas,” he says. “In a period of renewed bigotry against the Muslim community, we need to have a rallying symbol to represent Muslims and their culture. [The sarimanok] is something that’s deeply rooted within our culture, history-wise. This is ours, but it is also something that is derived from our cultures, a powerful avatar we can use right now.”

Source: Manila Bulletin

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