I was originally a student of Spanish in the University of the Philippines in 1986. My dream then was to work in the United Nations. A course in the Humanities, titled Art and Society, changed that game somewhat. My teacher was Felipe de Leon, Jr, a charismatic professor who was passionate about the art and its place in a teeming social life, broadly to be sure but also in the particular Philippine context. I was struck by his wide sympathies: one moment he was talking about science; another, he was playing the piano. I hence decided to take more electives from the Humanities department and got into courses in modern art and the cinema. Again, my teachers were equally sanguine: Brenda Fajardo for the former, and Virginia Moreno for the latter. Fajardo, of course, was already an accomplished visual artist in print and painting. She walked the class through the history of western modern art and introduced us to our own modernity; I remember interviewing Julie Lluch for a paper on expressionist tendencies alongside Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio. Moreno lived up to her nearly mythical stature as priestess and poetess, holding court with stories of cinema and Paris; we viewed films of Chaplin, Deren, and Tarkovsky, whose Andrei Rublev was especially memorable, a film on a limner of Orthodox icons. Fajardo and Moreno had disparate dispositions: one was a cultural worker and student of agriculture, the other an aesthete and a connoisseur who would spend a freezing winter day staring at a Cezanne. One had method in teaching, being an educator by vocation and an advocate of grassroots theater training, the other was nearly all atmosphere, tarrying for several sessions on a Brueghel painting to make a point on perspective. Both were in their own way inspiring. Their affection for the arts was without doubt profound.
I would consider these first figures in my academic life my mentors. In the course of my studies, I would be guided by their kind. Norma Respicio was a reassuring presence, with her constant patience and generosity. She supervised my undergraduate thesis on the filmmaker Mike de Leon, an abridged version of which was published in National Midweek, thanks to another wonderful teacher Cheree Quizon. And she went with me to her hometown Ilocos Norte to visit the churches for my master’s in colonial art history. Though I was never a student of Alice Guillermo in my college years, she was my mentor in the field of writing. I would read her, even clip her essays. Here I thought was writing that was urgent, vital, and evocative. What turns of thought and turns of phrases! Guillermo wrote in a style that wove the social and the aesthetic intricately; I could only aspire to that achievement. And I would never forget her steadfast support when as Chair of the Department she stood by me, a fledgling instructor, who was besieged by a rather unfortunate manifesto against criticism.
When I began to work across Southeast Asia, two important people became my informal mentors, shadow professors, as it were, and friends. I first met T. K. Sabapathy in a conference in Singapore in the mid-nineties and has since been a prevailing presence in my intellectual horizon. John Clark came to Manila in the late nineties to be with his wife Phaptawan Suwwanakudt. I took him to collections of colonial art, the start of a continuing conversation on art history. Finally, when I decided to thicken my Humanities learning with the lessons and the crises from the other disciplines, I was drawn to the efforts of Maria Luisa Torres Reyes, Priscelina Legasto , and Eufracio Abaya, initiating me to the rewarding labors of the dialectical, the comparative, and the ethnographic imagination. I will be forever indebted to the lives of their mind.
I would say that colleagues, peers, and friends are our mentors for life. And to this list I add students who semester in and semester out would pass through our classes in Diliman. They, too, have shaped my sensitivities and have kept me alert to possible epiphanies in light of both necessary impertinence and cherished insight.