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March 03, 2009

REINERIO A. ALBA

In October of 2008, artist Kublai Millan dropped by almost unnoticed at the Marco Polo Hotel where the very first School of Living Traditions Summit organized by The National Commission for Culture and the Arts was being held. Not until one learned that he created the large and impressive durian piece outside the Davao International Airport that one took a second look. But an encounter with Kublai at the family-owned Ponce Suites later in the night did prove to be quite an experience for this Manila visitor, a visit which undeniably shored up respect for Kublai, the Artist.

One rode a cab going to Doña Vicente Village where the hotel could be found between corner Roads 3 and 4. Approaching the hotel, this visitor made a mental note of a black car with white spots parked by the side of the hotel. Alighting, one’s eyes at once beheld the massive sculptures that hemmed the three-story hotel like potted gargoyles waiting to take action. First, there was the giant eagle beside its chick forming an archway over the entrance with its outstretched wings completed by a descending snail man at the other end. Next to it bristled a durian as large as one would have imagined, and split open giving forth six naked maidens huddled in blissful sleep inside its flesh. The durian sat next to a burst of orchids, again with women nestling in sepal-like shoots behind it. Then there was the Bagobo man sculpture, with three pair of hands simultaneously playing the kutyapi (two-stringed lute), gong, and drum. The man’s music though seemed to have fallen on the deaf ears of a figure of a seated young man in an ankle-length sleeping gown, who seemed to have punctured a sheaf of papers with a pen, surrounded by children with daisies for hairs. One’s eyes further widened towards the Atlas-like figure next to it, but instead of the world on the man’s shoulder, a boulder of a coconut weighed him down. Checking the other side of the hotel, one would find a tree near the snail man and, amusingly, a figure of a man seated on a toilet bowl, hidden among the bougainvilleas.

One thought it all to be made of bronze but would be corrected later by the artist himself who was by then already drinking a cold bottle of beer across the narrow street. Kublai said that it was all made of Portland cement, prompting a much closer inspection of the figures again. “It’s a difficult process but we’ve (referring to his team) already perfected it,” explains Kublai.

Intrigued and beguiled already by the all-too palpable creative energy given off by the giant sculptures outside the hotel, one gingerly entered the lobby, clueless as to what further lay inside it, enveloped by a feeling akin to entering a cave for the first time. Greeting visitors was a transparent wall filled with square canvases colorfully themed around the letters of the alphabet, and tackling ideal states of being: “H”(Be Honest); “I”(Be Ingenuous); “J” (Be Just); “K” (Be Kind), “L” (Be Loving), etc. At the base of such works was a line of paintings of mask-like profiles. Proceeding to the second floor, one could not help but linger by the nude photographs on the wall captioned with poetic commentaries — Kublai, after all, claims to have the biggest collection of nude photographs anywhere, always bringing his models outdoors. On the way up, one’s eyes would naturally be drawn to the humongous black ants (totaling 365, according to the hotel web site), that had started to crawl up the entire length of the ceiling, which was dotted as well with what looked like bits of fruits. At the second floor landing, the green wall was filled with two-dimensional paintings of figures that seemed to be struggling out of or stuck permanently in viscous paint. From end to end of that floor, one would find out that not a wall in the area had no painting in it, that even the toilets in the floor had become exhibit spaces. Interestingly, it was also by the toilet that one came across Kublai’s “Art Manifesto.” The third floor brimmed as much with Kublai’s works, and one would likely be amused by the Warholic rendering of a popular Christ Jesus’face. Ascending to the roofdeck, one would be further overwhelmed by art objects that seemed to have literally sprouted from all available spaces. The roofdeck area proved to be a fitting climax to a quick tour of the hotel and one would be grateful just for a chance to be allowed to sit in the Gaudi-like lizard staircase at the center of the area.

Davao‘s best kept secret

These days, Kublai is easily known as the artist behind the giant sculptures at Davao’s People’s Park. Entering the gate along Camus street near Apo View Hotel, visitors are at once greeted by a huge Kublai sculpture of the Philippine eagle atop a tree trunk with Bagobo children playing underneath it. The figure is just one among the other Kublai-created sculptures strategically spread in the four hectare city park. Since it opened in January this year, the park has become an instant favorite among the locals and visitors alike.

Kublai’s tallest creations are the sword or “ikampilani” of Sultan Kudarat located in Sultan Kudarat Municipality, Maguindanao Province, and the Risen Christ figure at the church of Tagum City, which both measures 50 feet tall.

Kublai was born Mujahid Ponce Millan on July 8, 1974 in Cotabato City. He finished schooling at the University of the Philippines with a degree of Fine Arts.

In her Road Map series, Davao-based writer Tita Lacambra-Ayala sees Kublai as an “elfin sculptor” and looks at his work as “energetic sculptures.”

“Looking at some of them, one is apt to wonder whether these are not spirits of all the huge ancient fallen trees that have disappeared into the rivers of commerce, recaptured and come to life again in a different form, to oversee the natural landscape and remind us of the lost presences that had wandered through the dead rivers and forests: the diwatas, the babaylans, the ninunos, the spirits of land, sea and air that have been banished by a new wave of culture and religion in the history and mythology of Mindanao, embraced into a resurgence of memory and identity,” writes Lacambra-Ayala.

Undeniably, Kublai’s hands have been busy with a string of work commissions but he admits that, one day, he will turn his back from all of it, divulging that he has already started creating a “haven” for his family in the mountains where, he says, his “truer” art will reside.