Born in Santa Cruz on September 19, 1924, Nena Saguil would grow up to become a breakthrough female artist of the Philippines. One of ten children to father Epifanio Saguil (a private physician to President Manuel Quezon) and mother Remedios Laconico, Nena would follow a path quite unexpected given her conservative Catholic upbringing.
Refusing to attend Catholic school, Nena instead joined the arts program at the University of the Philippines. During her studies, she worked alongside classmates Anita Magsaysay & Hernando Ocampo. Her instructors included famed artists Fernando Amorsolo and Fabian De La Rosa; however, these artists failed to capture the young student’s ardor. Her passion was committed to the new movement of abstraction and surrealism. Young Nena was drawn to artists like Pablo Picasso, and she would focus her studies on his works and other artists paving the way with exciting new movements in abstraction.
In 1949, Nena received her Bachelor of Fine Arts. The following year, she devoted much of her time to the newly opened P.A.G. (Philippine Art Gallery), a project of Lyd Arguilla’s. Nena exhibited her own paintings at the gallery and worked alongside up-and-coming artists Vicente Manansala, Arturo Luz and Fernando Zobel. In 1954, Nena applied for and recieved the Walter Damrosch Scholarship. Winning this award allowed her to travel to Spain in 1955, where she studied abstract and modern art at the Institute of Spanish Culture. The Institute recognized her unique talent and even awarded Nena a second scholarship, allowing her to continue her studies through 1956.
Nena then made her way to Paris, where she enrolled at the School of American Arts, and soon held her first solo art exhibit at Galerie Raymond Creuze. Life in Paris, however, wasn’t always easy for the expatriate. Nena lived in a tiny apartment in the Saint Germain des Pres district, offering maid services in order to make rent while steadily creating new works. She never pursued a husband or children of her own, and despite her living condition, she enjoyed the city of Paris and would call it home for much of her life.
Her works made in Paris moved through cubism, impressionism and even surrealism fluidly. Her signature pieces over time used recurring themes of geometric shapes repeating into patterns which seem to symbolize either the universe at large, or on the microscopic level, or some combination thereof. These shapes are generally understood to reflect Nena’s interest in mysticism and enchantment with the invisible existence beyond our everyday experience of life. Nena’s art was well received in Manila, Paris and far beyond. By the end of her career, Nena had exhibited paintings in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, England, Turkey, Sweden, Indonesia and the United States as well. In 1974, she was named one of Twelve Outstanding Overseas Filipinos.
After Nena Saguil passed away in 1994, her recognition continued to expand. She was soon honored with memorial exhibitions at the Lopez Museum (1995), at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (1997), and at the Ateneo Art Gallery (2003). Finally, she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Merit in 2006 by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
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