By Sherry Tenorio

Darwin Guevarra, or commonly called “Japat”, had tough times in breaking through Dubai’s critical arts circle. However, his creative mind, talented hands and passionate blood for the arts did not stop him from pursuing his great love. Now, that he finally succeeded, Japat’s masterpieces brought himself and the rest of the budding Pinoy artists to a different place in this city – it opened a space where Filipino artists would be accepted, respected and honored.

He is the embodiment of the stereotypical Pinoy artist. He speaks softly, mostly in Tagalog. He wears worn out Converse, simple clothes. And, he has long hair. But, Darwin “Japat” Guevarra is more than being ordinary. He simply is an award-winning Filipino artist and the first Pinoy to have a one-man show in Dubai’s renowned art gallery Tashkeel.

Japat’s works have captured the critic’s attention including the royalty. Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, daughter of the ruler of Dubai, owner of the gallery Tashkeel, was quoted, “Guevarra’s exceptional ability to communicate his innermost emotions coupled with his unique use of traditional and unorthodox materials makes his works most intriguing. He jumps in head first, giving all that he has for art. His technique could almost be described as ‘scavenging’ — finding small ordinary everyday objects and literally embedding them within the artwork, giving them a ‘Darwin Guevarra’ signature touch.”

Sheikha Lattefa spotted Japat after his participation at the Dubai Ladies Club Shaikha Manal New Signatures Young Artists Award where he gained the Grand Prize in Fine Arts Category, and she encouraged exhibit more works in Tashkeel. Japat’s winning masterpiece, “System of Humanity,” was sketched after an evening stroll during a time when he could not pay for electricity in his home. Recalling Sheikha Lateefa’s comment about this particular artwork, she said, “When first confronting a Guevarra piece, it can be overwhelming in the best sense of the word; the work is overpowering, with many ingredients to sift through in order to decode the stirs of Darwin Guevarra’s life.”

The same award led him to the prestigious one-man art show, an exhibition of Japat’s art work which expresses himself through surrealism, using superficial substance to portray the deepest meaning of humanity. The exhibit—called “Time of Humanity”— opened in May and art lovers in the United Arab Emirates were hooked by his paintings. A total of 40 artworks of mixed media were displayed to exhibit the uniqueness of Japat’s artworks that lies in the mixing and putting together into one art piece anything that he finds in scavenging.

Series of Serendipitous Events

The spotlight may have been turned on Japat’s presence in the arts circle now, but the man had struggled a lot to gain recognition. He remembered those times when he used to ask on how to hold an exhibit, he usually got the reply: ‘Ah, no, no, no. Asian is not allowed. Especially

Aside from the blunt discrimination, Japat was also frustrated when he first came to Dubai. ““In our country, I can paint, sculpture and photograph nude women and men. Here it is not possible. I found no room for my style here since the culture is different from that of my homeland,” he said.

However, Japat is not a man who was easy to put down. Plus, he found inspiration from his wife Melissa, who is also an artist; 16-year-old son Mico; and two-year-old son Mac James, Guevarra gradually acquainted himself with the local art scene. He began notable works by helping in creating the ice dragon sculpture in the famous tourist spot Ski Dubai, and co-designed one of the horse statues in Dubai’s main highway Sheikh Zayed Road. Also, since many of his pieces are in mixed media, not just purely oil on canvas but also using materials like light bulbs, wood, metal, he utilized this style in participating in various competitions.

In 2006, Japat joined the Red Bull Art of Can Contest whereby he finished his entry that won the 2nd Prize in mere two days. He used all the available materials he could lay his hands on, and defined his work as “You don’t have to go far to find solutions to your problems.” Then, he won first prize to the Dubai Ladies Club Shaikha Manal New Signatures Young Artists Award last year, which led him to a promising future.

Yet, the rest is not history in Japat’s colorful beginnings.

Back in the Philippines

Japat is not the sophisticated artist you find in the Dubai society. He hailed from Taytay, Rizal in the Philippines, born of a carpenter father and a seamstress mother. His family’s difficult financial situation almost robbed him off schooling. But, the self-taught artist used his skills in helping classmates and teachers finish school projects thus resulting to free food and free tuition.

After graduation, a friend introduced him to his art mentor Godofredo Zapanta, an award-winning Filipino artist. However, he had to earn a living so he worked at Uniwide Marcos Highway as a salesman. He was moved to the Art Department of the same company when his co-workers found the beautiful sketch he did for the shop’s customer. When the mall got burned, Japat lost his job but he did not lose his aspirations as an artist. He continued on his pursuit of his passion, and learned the how to mix colors and carve using wood, Styrofoam and fiberglass. Soon, he joined exhibitions.

In fact, he was slated to join the 13 other artists in an art exhibit in New York at the time he needed to leave for Dubai. He was quite disheartened yet he had to sacrifice for his family’s cause. Their house was demolished and his parents moved to the province. He worked as a company photographer in Artxtra when he first came in the city.

It had been over six years when he arrived in Dubai in 2004. It took him five years to finally open doors for the likes of him who could not break down the barriers of the elegant art community in Dubai. But, the times are changing, and Japat has helped create the change. But, as the humble artist that he is, Japat has been noted saying, “‘You work in the morning until evening, then you divide and sacrifice your extra time to sleep, you have deadlines constantly. Nobody can help you, only yourself. You need to be a machine or you need to have more strength than the others.”

– First Published in Illustrado – August 2009

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