Napoleon Abueva in Alabang

January 12, 2020

Growing up, we used to walk pass by Makati’s iconic Insular Life Building going to places like Greenbelt, Landmark and SM, not to buy anything really but to window shop and to escape the searing heat during the summertime. We used to save up to watch movies at Quad cinema or play arcade at Glicos. OK, I better stop before I lose the younger readers.

Insular Life’s bas relief, illustrating the Filipino’s history and diligence, has fascinated me long before I took an interest in arts and history. It was in college that I found out about Napoleon Abueva’s contribution to Filipino art history. The Insular Life mural became so recognizable that it became the symbol of the company. As one of their executives puts it, “the company’s most distinctive signature.”

Abueva everywhere

My first office job was in a call center located right beside the Insular Life Building in Makati. The building’s bas relief greets you whenever you cross from Ayala to Paseo. This was before they built the underpass. They went on to renovate the building but retained Arch. Cesar Concio’s masterwork design. The structural design was restored but they did away with Abueva’s frieze—a decision that confounded many. They later transferred the murals to their new Alabang headquarters.

As luck would have it, Abueva’s work would grace my life again. In 2009 I landed a job as an IT support supervisor; the office was in Insular Life Alabang. One of the first things I did was look for the murals. I was disappointed to find out that these were positioned at the back (an architect friend insists it’s actually the facade! What? How can it be?), in front of the parking lot, where employees would take their cigarette breaks. It’s a pity, hardly anyone notice the artwork that was so appreciated when it was in its former location.

Since relocating here in Singapore, I never thought that I would find a permanent Abueva sculpture until I read an online feature about “The Fredesvinda,” a fragmentary sea vessel sculpture situated in Fort Canning. We frequent that part (it’s near our parish church, Good Shepherd) and was not even aware that there’s a modern Abueva piece in its garden. Fort Canning is a vast hilly area, so there’s my alibi.

Insular Life art collection

It is speculated that most of Insular Life’s art collection is in Alabang. I would not be surprised if this is true. In the 70’s many of their art pieces were ruined when the floor that served as their art depo was consumed by fire. In Insular Life Alabang, they would occasionally exhibit their collection in the lobby. They have several Amorsolos for the Ayala’s were a patron. A regular during Independence Day observance is the “confeccion de la standarte nacional”, a painting depicting the stitching of the flag. This Amorsolo usually hangs behind Insular Life top honcho Ting Ayllon’s Alabang office. I remember being annoyed seeing employees completely ignore the artwork! It’s an Amorsolo! How dare you people!

My favorite frieze in the series is the one on the left. Morong Church, with its people, depicted to be carrying the image of the Virgin Mother. If you look closely, a small portion of one of the bearers’ right cheek had fallen off.
A bas relief of the Concio masterpiece, the Insular Life Makati. This is the one mural in the series that Billy Abueva signed since all were part of the series.
The frieze in the area were all taken down to undergo repair.
The bas relief was made to tell the Filipino story, how we went from the ancient small boats to migrate to one island to the another, to the giant galleons that opened our shores to international trade! the first of its kind during its time.

Last month, after Christmas, I stayed for a week in a hotel in Alabang. In the mornings, I ran in a futile attempt to drop some of the pounds gained from the holiday binging. I would pass by Insular for a few days before I noticed that some of the frieze were missing. So, I went to the security staff at the lobby to inquire. I was told that some of the murals were taken down for restoration work. I did observe that some of the existing pieces have visible cracks. I’m relieved that they were not pilfered or relocated. These were my first thoughts.

Napoleon Abueva’s works are more important now more than ever. He passed away two years ago. I invite everyone, especially people from Muntinlupa (Insular is only the second structure, next to Bilibid prisons, where a national historical marker has been installed in Muntinlupa) and the south metro to visit and appreciate Abueva’s murals, while it’s still there. As they say, they don’t make them like they used to.

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