Reclaiming heroes: Toym Imao adds a twist of bitter to true, good and beautiful by Inday Espina-Varona

Multi-media artist Toym Imao

There is a boyish light in Toym Imao’s eyes as he talks of an age of innocence.

The tall, robust multi-media artist has been honing his craft and balancing the demands of a growing family and the passion for politics and social convulsions handed down by an activist mom. Thirty years he’s been at it, yet you wouldn’t know it as he bounces with childlike flee from one installation piece to another in a wonderland of clashing concepts and fancies trying to lift off from ground zero.

In this sprawling Marikina compound, Imao, the child and namesake of national artist Abdulmari Asia Imao and the acitivist artist Grace Bondoc De Leon prowls around bigger-than-life sculptures of cement and bronze and wood and anything he salvages while roaming the country.

Imao is a big man and he makes huge art. Monuments: The Bonifacio Shrine in Manila, Tandang Sora in Quezon City, the Cordillera Freedom Monument.

But he’s not one-dimensional, not a bull, not the hulk.

There is a grace to Imao that belies his physical bulk. And on tables and shelves and window sills sit the delicate works of the artist.

There is the bronze-colored sculture of a man, a veteran, maybe, handing a child the end of a piece of string. It looks like a baloon, colored, like the others clutched in his other hand.

But the primary hues aren’t what they seem. The tiny baloons are actually clenched fists, the sacred symbol of activism, something familiar to the boy of ten who joined his mother and national artists Alejandro Lopez stomp for the quixotic 1979 Batasan Pambansa elections.

There is an imp inside the man who makes monuments.

“I like experimenting with the decorative arts, what’s ornamental, present a slice of the bucolic life,” says Imao. The smallness draws people near. A flash makes one squint, do a double take.

“It’s reality. Beyond the pretty, it can be grim,” Imao adds, his eyes darkening at the recollection of salvage victims dumped on a grassy knoll in front of his elementary school.

Imagine—the trees, the breeze, pockets of flowers, the cry of birds … and three bodies sprawled on the grass.

The young Toym thought they were vagabonds sleeping off the effects of madcap night. Coming home, he learned the truth.

He traces one finger delicately over the hat, smaller than the nail of my pinky finger, that covers the head of the child receiving the balloon.

It’s Imao’s leitmotif, the soul in the shadows of his mammoth shrines.

It’s Voltes V. It’s Manzinger Z. It’s every super robot that tumbled across the skies. It’s very 70s, the era of Imao’s childhood. It’s also very current, the theme that blares from the speakers of rallies, the theme of censorship, of the mailed fist crushing the lifeblood of the nation.

The many references to pop culture doesn’t spell fluff. It’s more like lithe stretch as you crane to see a baloon launching into flight.

The lightness and sense of wonder dances through Imao’s conversations. It is only hours into the chat that you begin to wonder about the academic disciplines that underpin the laughter and whimsy, and the contrast of glow and shadow of his world.


There towering mini-monuments beside a fragile Christmas tree. The tree is fashioned of colorful, delicate weavings from Marawi; the baubles are  spent bullet heads from all kinds of weapons.

A sarimanok replaces the star on top of the tree. The brass, says Imao, whose father hails from Sulu, hews to cultural truth. Marawi and many Muslim communities have always walked the tightrope, ethereal grace on one side, brute force on the other.

Brute force, of course, has won out, leaving the Islamic city a wasteland. Imao says the bullet heads and projectiles on his tree depict the ego of leaders and politkos, local or national.

Another Christmas tree flickers with light, the gradients of blue leading the eye to Darth Vader’s headgear.

Contrasts and tension are Imao’s specialties. A bright-clothed figure of a robot,  the icon for his upcoming “Super Robot, Suffer Reboot” exhibit that opens at the UP Library cheekily raises an armed salute, atop an antique table where national hero Jose Rizal once supped in the Bulacan house of Maximo Viola.

The exhibit is a collection of the last ten years of Imao’s themes and works. It is, he says, a reclaiming of childhood heroes and dreams. It is also, he adds, a defiant message to a monstruous father figure presiding over the construction of a “necropulis.”

It is a soft voice that talks of the anger he feels, not only at the killings laid at the feet of Tatay Digs.

His main installation is a temple to fascist patriarchs, using GI roofing as a reminder of the rot behind Imelda’s true, good and beautiful. There are a series of rooms, including one with a funeral barge. At the end is a row of doors with bullets holes, many, many bullet holes.

Even in scale size and cardboard, you have a sense of the massive bulk. But amid all that flicker the essence of the wide-eyed boy who thrilled to talk of pioneer spare craft, Voyager 1 and 2, the Skylab, SETI radio signals, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Battle Star Gallactica, Star Trek Logan’s Run.

“It was a wonderful time to be a kid because everyone was looking up to the stars,” Imao recalls.

“At the same time, it was the time of tyrants, banana republics, pocket wars in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia,” he adds. “As much as we were advancing with our gaze scouting the heavens, there was trouble in paradise.”

Now, he says, the world has come full circle. The former child is now a man, a famous painter, and he intends to breathe the life of hope and the passion of defiance into the city of the dead of Duterte.




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