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Sunday, March 23, 2014

ONE of the most provocative exhibits to hit Cebu in a while, Jose Antonio Nigro’s Tales from Our Skin, has been polarizing, drawing both shock and admiration from its audience. But then perhaps he’s given us just what any town bored out of its wits desperately needs: a contentious subject to get the blood pumping and the tongues

If you hope to understand Jose Antonio Nigro’s artistic psyche, consider this: as soon as the artist got settled in Cebu, he went to Carbon Market for what he calls “a bath of culture.” Moving around town as unceremoniously yet as systematically as a keen scholar, he navigates high and low, rubs elbows with whomever he wants and calls his vicinity a “zero tag zone” where labels, social class and other restrictive ideals are off-limits. 

And it shows in his work. With his latest exhibit, “Tales from our Skin,” the artist asserts his libertarian view and delivers his message in your face: that the only thing taboo to him is the hypocrisy of the human situation, where truth is told in layers rather than up front. “When we are naked with other people we have no social class,” he says. “We are all human beings and we interact properly.”


Yet during his opening day, he tells me, there were some who did a 180-degree turn as soon as they walked into a room full of nudes, covering the eyes of their children as they scurried away. “I love to work with the human figure. It is a fantastic thing to explore,” he explains. “I find this discomfort in my Asian audience, Filipino and Korean in particular, strange.” Even then he is quick to assert that he is merely there to express his vision: “They don’t have to like it.” At the other end of the spectrum, there were those who lauded him for his bold move, thanking him for giving Cebu “something more than nipa huts and coconut trees”.

As the response has indeed ranged from ecstatic praise to outright revulsion, the artist seems pleased with what he has accomplished. Nigro, who plays Maria Callas as he works and fills his home with blood red roses, is an exuberant character, and he enjoys both appreciation and disgust in equal measure--anything but a neutral reaction is flattery to him, it seems. 

He goes on and on about Spencer Tunick’s nude installations. Tunick gathers thousands of naked subjects to produce his powerful and riveting images—his seas of nudity, as many have had the privilege to observe. Tunick is one of those artists who push the boundaries of social order and collective erotica. He has had his brushes with the law for his massive orchestrations, and yet nothing he is doing may be considered technically illegal. This blurring of lines between legality, and decency, morality or modesty constitutes the great success of his photographs, and Nigro draws from his sense of ambition to fuel his own art.

Nigro’s aim is more intimate, though. The exhibit, which is as much about tattoos as it is about nudity, tells of their messages and connection to personal and family heritage. He is struck by the reasons and stories behind some of them. One of the most poignant stories the artist has heard about a tattoo is that it reminded its owner of a suicide attempt. 

He also wishes to show the rawness of ink over human flesh, how in itself it can be a powerful message unattached to its own story. So there is the story of the bearer and the story which the viewer attaches to the image. 

When asked how he has chosen his subjects, he says the process is very organic. It may be someone he bumps into in a cafe, an old friend, a chance encounter on the street.

He just needs to be struck by a particular aspect--something powerful behind the individual or his ink. The artist has also worked with couples, gay and straight.

“The ladies are a bit more difficult to work with,” he remarks. “But the couples, as they get comfortable, are wonderful to watch. When they get accustomed to their nakedness, their interaction is beautiful. You see the love.” 

I tell him that the emotions are indeed palpable—whether love or tension or tenderness or hesitation. But wait, does he censor his work? I don’t see genitalia.

Nigro is firm about his limits. “Ah, that is where I draw the line,” he says. “To me the showing of genitalia distinguishes art from porn so I stay away from that. I do not erase or crop them intentionally out of my photographs, though. I do it through the poses of my subjects. The poses need to be natural yet just along the lines of sensual. I want my work to be tasteful. I shun vulgarity.” Which is what I find is rather unique and debatable about this artist. Many have no qualms about exhibiting genitalia. His own icon openly shows it, in the thousands. For someone who advocates freedom, why stop at the precipice? 

As we discuss notions of vulgarity, I realize that his views are very personal and that he is probably just asserting his own aesthetics. Rather old-fashioned for a freedom fighter, I must say, but in a way, charming. Then I think that it is this “almost”—the almost-seen in his photos--that gives his work edge. Is it fear? Is it an act of holding back? Or is it to eliminate the hypersexual element in his art?

I urge you to ask yourself this question, dear viewer, as with other questions about honesty, social norms and distinctions. There is a vivid power in his art that forces you to confront your own inhibitions, as well as your ideas of taste and malice. To me, it is an exercise in discomfort--to not look away from people who are revealing themselves at their most vulnerable. Many of us are afraid of intimacy—real intimacy—because it renders us to scrutiny and opens us to rejection. 

As an observer you wonder whether you are capable of the same kind of revelation as the artist’s subjects have shown. They are brave, very brave. This is not about the skin, after all, but the soul. (Michell Varron)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 24, 2014.


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