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MaARTE, The Extraordinary Artisanal Fair

There has been a renaissance in the interest in Philippine arts and crafts over the past six years. The growth of the Art Fair at the Artlink and Art In The Park are salient manifestations of the emergence of the new collector. The auction houses are doing great business selling off heirloom art, furniture, and silver at all-time highs. These collectors have such an insatiable appetite that they buy art before it is made, much like the fashion buyer picking up a style book before the first “de file.” But what is even more prevalent is the emergence of private trunk shows purveying locally made, one-of-a-kind pieces in clothing, homeware, and jewelry. And one cannot discount the food markets that have overpriced ditty for the foodie. As we come closer to the holiday season, their numbers grow, and the ubiquitous “pop-up” will come to exclusive enclaves and non-traditional venues. I will not discount the sponsored bazaar or the tiangge, but the buying market is tired. They have also been overpowered by cable shows, making their decisions more informed. 

The largest of these artisanal fairs is truly where art and craft collide. MaARTe, with its fledgling beginnings made possible by a grant from art supporters, has grown to become the premier event of craftsmanship in the country. It was once the private domain (yet public because it is a government concern) of CITEM and Manila Fame, and now, local craftsmen strive to join these export fairs for that big break. The opportunity to make it to the big leagues—for sales in Bergdorf Goodman or that a call on your booth by Kim Seibert or a touch of the hand of Josie Natori —may mean distribution in boutiques in Europe or a show in New York. But with the world economy on a spiral, these two fairs are not as big as they used to be, and the promise for that big account has been whisked like a monsoon cloud, and rained on the hope and dreams of the local artisan.

This is where MaARTe stands ground. Of its eight-year development, stalwart and head of the pack Maritess Pineda says, “We are what the craftsmen are looking for, when the export shows refuse to sell (They were snobbish in the past mind you, “for export only” signs all over the place), we have opportunity to show the marketplace world-class products, readily accessible, and at reasonable pricing (reasonable is, of course, relative).” The #titas and #titos of Manila are really the ones driving sales. 

The key to reinventing and making MaARTE more relevant is really in the hands of the artist/maker. The team pulled in top minds such as PJ Aranador, Eric Paras, Rhett Eala, and Carlo Tanseco to give meaning to this year’s theme: “Evolving the Filipino craftsman.” They have become the mentors of these craftsmen, encouraging them to collaborate or simply work together.  The organization, which was formed to generate proceeds for the National Museum, is a group of proud Filipinos looking for the best the nation can offer. In many respects, we are fall behind Indonesia when it comes to recognition of wares and clothing. Malls in metro Jakarta have fully visual merchandised stores. MaARTe has gotten bigger yearly, and this one in particular will be the largest compendium of exhibitors thus far.

A standout in community development is Zarah Juan, whose “Great Women,” recently exhibited at Rockwell, has the fashion world abuzz. She has managed to use many indigenous materials and transform bygone techniques in embroidery and beading. She worked with Rhett Eala, and used these techniques in crafting more easy-to-use pieces.

There are those that have reinvented themselves all together—Tisha de Borja-Samson's E. Murio has moved beyond the traditional rattan business and made it more comfortable in the local market. Len Cabili’s Filip+Inna has hit center stage, with her offerings in New York. Ding Perez, a fixture at MaARTe, uses local materials to merge fabric and material design in a more modern twist.

The key to the success of MaARTE is its ability to innovate. “MaARTe Finds,” a subset of upcoming designers (and where this writer began), helped these designers by making them part of a tableaux of choices that show the merit of craftsmanship. MaARTe will never be a bazaar, because it just isn’t. Like its major donor,  The National Museum and other museum-worthy endeavors—it is a collection of art pieces that the makers themselves have a hard time parting with. Each item is branded  with passion, history,  and soul. 

Photographs courtesy of MaARTE

This article was originally published in Metro Society. Changes have been made for Metro.Style.