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Film credit: Gerard Wood

Filipino visual artist, Rodel Tapaya, is a self-confessed storyteller who draws upon his close connections to his home country for inspiration. Integrating ideas of the sublime and the everyday in his work, Tapaya is recognised as a socially-minded artist who offers insights into the lived experience in The Philippines. Utilising traditional folklore and symbolism as a point of departure, the artist animates characters from mythological narratives, both human and animal, in complex mural-style compositions.

Allegorical scenarios that tap into the primordial imagination are juxtaposed with imagery relating to current-day social issues. His recent 7-metre wide painting “Adda Manok Mo, Pedro? (Do You Have a Rooster, Pedro?)” (2015–16) included in the 20th Biennale of Sydney depicts a rural scene disrupted by soldiers with bird heads and instruments of war, enlivening Catholic-Muslim conflicts within his homeland.

A3 Editorial spoke with Tapaya about the increased critical attention his work is attracting, his working methodology, and his participation in the 20th Biennale of Sydney in 2016.

Why are you so drawn to enlivening mythological narrative and how did this become part of your artistic focus?

I think my interest in the stories, myths, folktales started when I was seven years old. As a young boy I really believed in the the Filipino myth about Bernardo Carpio. This tale is about a giant who tried to stop two mountains fighting against each other, and in doing so, got buried underneath and trapped in the mountains in the northern part of the Philippines in the province of Montalban. People in our village would talk about the handprints that the giant left on the mountains. I personally went to hike on that mountain to see it. As a young imaginative and gullible boy, I was convinced this was true. My interest in this ‘giant’ continued when I went to university where I researched this story and its historical significance. I found out that one of our heroes during the war would go to the mountain to strategize about how to conquer the Spaniards at the time we were under Spanish colonial rule.

I really enjoy reading these kinds of stories not just because they offer another perspective to the way we view our world, but also, because one can consider the origin of these narratives. I am fond of reading stories because they are just words and I am free to imagine the story using my own vocabulary of images.


“I use stories to create another world. Stories guide me, inspire me and enrich my creative process.”


I use stories to create another world. Stories guide me, inspire me and enrich my creative process. A number of stories can act like a seed where a picture can grow and transform and relate with the other parts of the painting. Sometimes I will first make rough sketches, almost abstract, fluid and random. Then I will isolate a story and an element such as a character that is used as the main focus. Most of the time the story becomes invisible.

One artist that saw my work told me that he doesn’t see the stories and doesn’t need to know about them, but senses that there is a tale behind my imagery. He views my work through the formal sensibilities and elements of colour, form, composition, pattern, and repetition. The works stand alone and the stories act as a reinforcement. The narrative aspect is inevitable as the work is figurative.  


Tapaya, Rodel_Adda Manok Mo, Pedro_opt

Installation view: Rodel Tapaya, “Adda Manok Mo, Pedro?” (Do you have a rooster, Pedro?), 2015–16, 300 x 700 x 5 cm, acrylic on canvas, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 20th Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, Australia, 2016


Could you discuss the context of your striking 7 metre wide work “Adda Manok Mo, Pedro?” (Do you have a rooster, Pedro?) that was exhibited recently at the 20th Biennale of Sydney?

This enormous work is basically about war; the constant struggle of power, conflicts in ideologies, and challenging the boundaries of territories. It’s interesting for me to look into this topic in various ways through some current events, myths and folk stories, religious and ideological perspectives, and also through children’s games where power struggles are evident and in constant battle. In the end, war, like games and battles, is a harsh reality where no one ends up the winner.

Within this work I reference four historical events and stories that include:

1. Events that took place on January the 25th, 2015, at Mamasapano, Mindanao in the southern part of the Philippines: Forty-four elite police officers died in a clash between two groups called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Since the 1960’s, the Muslim Mindanao region dreams of having autonomy. It is during the present governmental administration that the lawcalled the Bangsamoro Basic Lawwill be finally passed, which compromises the new proposed autonomous political entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. But because of the deadly clash, this law is now being opposed by many legislators and also the public. This situation illustrates the peace struggles and civil war in the Philippines between various differences in ideology and cultures. 

2. Myth of the Origin of Bird from the Tagalog Region, in Bulacan where I live: The story’s inspiration came from a myth called “Origin of Birds”. The chickens that existed before humans are ones that wage war and fight against people. The god, Bathala, got angry and transformed them into chickens because they are unjust and unruly, but also so that they cannot fly.

3. St. Peter’s Rooster: The rooster is an animal associated with Saint Peter, manok ni San Pedro. This biblical animal was depicted when Peter betrayed Jesus three times with cock crowing. The animal was also believed to guard the gates of heaven.

4. A Philippine game called “Adda Manok Mo, Pedro?” (Do you have a rooster, Pedro?) – specifically an Ilocano game from the northern part of the Philippines. I chose this title because I find it appropriate in the topic of war and the irony of the children playing these ‘games’ while falling victim to conditions of war. This particular game is a game of power where there is a strong assignment of roles. The leader briefs the players on the correct answers to questions he will ask them when the game starts. The players are expected to memorise the answers.  Players who give the wrong answers will eventually be punished by the leader. 

Do you often create such large-scale mural paintings? 

Large-scale mural like paintings, yes, I always see to it I have one large piece in the studio. They act like playground for me visually.

Your compositions are extremely complex and detailed, with many layers and individual scenarios that make up the greater whole. Can you describe your process in developing your compositions and how you are able to harmonise the various elements within each painting? 

Initially, I make rough sketches that do not resemble anything in particular; just lines and biomorphic shapes. Then later, after ‘meditation’, I will discover how I will approach the visual problem by using images from the stories, which I sketch, and then add the main figure and the other details such as plants and animals. However, my “study” is never finished, it is only like a guide in my composition. Additional images will branch out like a Banyan tree, or a mind map as I work on the canvas spontaneously. I often also integrate references to commentary about social issues and historical events. Lately, I have tried working on studies using the aid of pictures of natural forms like mountains, trees and rocks, taking on forms from this process to either retain or abandon in order to complete the picture. It can be a tedious process, but it is also exciting as the work evolves and transforms before my eyes.


Rodel Tapaya

Installation view:  Rodel Tapaya, Bato-Balani, Installation view, Ateneo Art Gallery, Quezon City, Philippines.


You are well known for your paintings, however, this is just one facet of your practice. You also create sculptural work and installations. Could you talk about this element of your work?

I have always been fascinated by dioramas, maybe it is the scenic representation of using painting and objects to create reality. I indulge myself sometimes and make sculptural works and installations to create a more experiential dimension of the work. 

For example in my work “Modern Manananggals” (2013), I think my artistic voice is strong through this installation because one can move around the pieces and reflect on its message. A manananggal is like a vampire, but what is unique about this creature is that it can divide itself into two. Leaving half of the torso on land while the upper body can fly, looking for its victim. It is a famous folk belief that when you see a half torso of the manananggal you can put salt on it and the winged creature could then no longer join its body anymore and it will die.
This piece is my take on the Filipino Overseas Workers. It is a reminder and a warning. As the worker leaves half of its body – his or her family and homeland to look for work and money – one must be cautious to ensure there is a reunion with one’s family. Otherwise, if the person leaves for too long, family relationships can suffer.


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Rodel Tapaya, Deep Thoughts, 2015, reverse painting acrylic on acrylic sheet with wooden frame, 74 cm x 59 cm


Your experimentation with new techniques continues with your recent “under-glass” painting technique which is a reverse style of painting. What other techniques are you experimenting with currently?

Yes, I am still working on reverse paintings or under-glass paintings on the different approach and presentation. I always try to stretch myself to challenge my painting process. I am also currently working on sculptural work that can compliment my folk narrative works, while at the same time looking into the additive and subtractive aspect of paint and form.

You draw upon broad universal topics within your work such as life and death, human rights and politics, religion and spirituality. In this sense your create works with a very human dimension that everyone can relate to in some capacity. Would you agree?

Yes! Universal topics on human relationships and values. For me it is simple, I see there are different forces, some good and some not, just like in society. It is because of our choices we make that we are able to create reality. Ultimately, I believe there is goodness in everyone and in everything.

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