Chati Coronel’s UnPortraits


O generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.
Salutation, Ezra Pound

Chati Coronel recently opened an exhibition of new paintings, entitled UnPortraits, at Silverlens Galleries in Manila. The large works were inspired by a compassion meditation from the Dalai Lama. In the meditation (and in Chati’s paintings) we are invited to zoom in on details of another person’s body in order to appreciate the things that we have in common with each other, as opposed to looking for the things that make us different and set us apart from other people.

Individuality is such a sacred cow these days that few people would even think to question the ever-present advice—on television, in self-help books, on lifestyle websites and at workshops and seminars for personal development and growth—that urges them to be unique, to emphasize their singularities, to stand out (and away) from others. This obsession with one’s Self is part of the cult of the ego, the offspring of Western philosophies that valued the clever intricacies of mind over the simple honesty of heart and soul. The ego is a fire that gets hungrier as you feed it; it can blaze up and out of control, laying waste to everything around it, and still never feel satisfied. Feeding the ego will help you stand out, but whatever rewards the ego manages to attain seem to lose their lustre very quickly, and the happiness and contentment you thought would come with reaching these goals will always seem to lie just beyond the next mountain. It’s like navigating through life using mirages as landmarks.

The cult of the ego has spread and rules most of the world, now. It has become dignified, respectable, sacrosanct. Whole industries are devoted to it, and if there is a problem or a feeling of lack in our lives it is suggested that we aren’t pampering our Selves enough, aren’t getting enough Me time, aren’t celebrating our own special and unique qualities enough, aren’t doing what we love or aren’t buying ourselves enough treats. So off we go, improving ourselves, competing with each other for rare prizes, indulging ourselves, promoting and calling attention to ourselves, adding pages and pages to that book called The Story of Me.

Many decades later, our race is unhappier than ever before. We are afraid of and despise each others’ differences; those traits that make each one of us unique also make us strange to each other. The higher we go, the lonelier it is. We are falling apart—mentally, emotionally, spiritually—as a race, as a people, as a species. The great and hallowed Cult of Me doesn’t work. We’ve taken it, we’ve tested it, we’ve assimilated it, and it has proven ineffective. The emperor hasn’t got any clothes on, but only the mad or the very young are happy to say it.

I don’t think Chati is mad, so she must be among the people whose hearts have managed to stay very young. I suspect it helps that she lives with a very fearless, very sage 6-year old daughter, who keeps her on her Zen toes every day with a wide-open heart and a lion’s spirit.knees

I was very happy to be asked to write the introduction to Chati’s painting exhibit. If you find yourself in the teeming metropolis between now and the 6th of July, please drop in and have a look. For a more intimate experience of UnPortraits you may want to schedule your visit for 3 p.m. on June 15th, and join Chati and others in a meditation session.

Silverlens has three Manila exhibition spaces and new space in Gillman Barracks, Singapore, showcasing contemporary art from the Philippines.

2F YMC Bldg 2,
2320 Don Chino Roces Avenue Extension,
Makati City 1231, Philippines
T +63 2 816 0044


via Ordinary Meditations: New Year Restart Meditation

Powder Blue Rainbow by Chati Coronel, 2012. From her SkinSkin exhibition.

I thought I would maybe start writing a post, now and then, about some of my friends. Hopefully they won’t mind!

My friends. You would like them. They are artists, directors, writers, art therapists, graphic designers, journalists, travelers, extreme sports enthusiasts, singer/songwriters, filmmakers, dancers, actors, playwrights, social workers, doctors, musicians…and they are all visionaries, aces in their fields, risk-takers and question-askers, ecstatic poets, seers and mystics. I feel extremely lucky to know these amazing, fiercely individual people.

There were nights, years ago and in Manila, when we would all manage to turn up at one place together: the energy, the vitality in the room would be a palpable force. Many a time, at these magical events, a quiet mood would settle over me and I would sit back from the conversation, look around the room at the faces of my friends, and be aware that I was witnessing one of the happiest moments of my life. At the time, I was convinced that the sheer concentration of vision, talent, quality and character gathered there would, most certainly, change the world…how could it not? I also knew that we would find it harder and harder to come together as we got older…that we would scatter, that we would each go off alone (or go in pairs) and grapple with the narrowed-down parcel of life before us.

Of all the things I had to leave behind when I moved to Australia, the nearness of my friends is what I most deeply miss and feel the loss of.

In all my group of friends, I am the underachiever. No, really, I’m not kidding and I’m not being self-effacing.


Artist Chati Coronel on

“Soft human, open heart, mind on fire, walks with tender feet on the earth, laughing.”
Chati describes herself.

Chati is a painter. A fantastic one. She is also a living doorway into stillness, mindfulness, cosmic harmony. She radiates joy, she treads the razor’s edge of the present moment, and being near her puts all your mind’s chattering, falseness and discontent to rest (and yet she is not some naive and prudish saint…her works are sensual; they revel in being alive, in womanhood, in wildness, in playfulness).

She also keeps a quiet, luminous blog, Ordinary Meditations, about her “quest for everyday enlightenment.”

The reason I wanted to introduce you to Chati, actually, is that she’s written a lovely end-of-the-year post about how she and Edber prepare for the New Year. She has, since publishing this post a couple of days ago, gone completely offline, as they begin a process of mind, body, and spirit cleansing, meditating, reflecting, and space clearing—of both physical objects and “old affirmations, old dreams, old goals. Melt away old pains, old issues with breaths. Go to zero.” I thought I’d share her post with you, in case you wanted your New Year’s rituals to amount to a little bit more than noise-making and a hangover on the first day of 2013.

Via Ordinary Meditations: New Year Restart Meditation.

Oh Shoot…

From the perspective of memory, photography appears
as a jumble that consists partly of garbage…

—Siegfried Kracauer, Photography

I’m going to be in Manila soon, for a month’s visit to see family and friends, and of course I’ll have my camera with me, though I didn’t use it much the last time I was there (in 2007.)

I did a search for some sort of “list of things to shoot while you are traveling” on the internet, and found a few that were sort of what I was after, though because these lists are guidelines for all travellers, to all countries, they’re pretty broad. There were basic topics like water, old people, young people, religion, sports, socializing, rich, poor, economy, food, art, history, views, architecture

There was one category called “Odd/whacky/other”—like, huh? Why would you want to take anything else?

Investigating a camera. Butbut, Tinglayan, Kalinga 1948And there was that ever-popular theme (embodying everything there is to deplore about hackneyed National Geographic fodder) called Modern Vs. Traditional. One is assailed immediately by images of a water buffalo and farmer against glass skyscrapers in the setting sun…or hot young things walking leggily past wrinkled old women hunched over rice paddy mud…or lion dancers in full costume taking a burger break at McDonald’s…or (this one was offered by my friend Jan Carter) the photographer and his camera, with a zillion ragged members of the tribe (take your pick…Peru, Sakhalin, Kalinga, Angola) gawking behind him. The clichéd ‘cultural anthropology’ photograph.

I realized that if I took the lazy approach and followed someone’s internet list, I’d end up with a collection of mediocre photographs, good for little more than some cheesy Visit The Philippines website, a low-budget travel agency’s brochure, or yet another educational DVD marketed to schools (like this photograph, which was used to illustrate the geographical event “A river” As in, a generic river. Oh boy.)

So I got off my lazy butt and wrote a hit list of my own:

  • meat and fish markets
  • the slums
  • prostitutes
  • transvestites
  • the stark, the raving, the mad
  • street children and beggars
  • funeral parlours and tombstone carvers
  • the train tracks and the slums along the tracks
  • Chinatown and Muslim town
  • signage
  • the heartbreaking and nightmarish Manila Zoo
  • the pedophiles
  • the animals: horses pulling the carts, the alley cats, the pigeons, the dogs…
  • street food and street vendors
  • pedicabs and jeepneys, because they’re awesome
  • portraits
  • canals
  • Jesus
  • salesgirls
  • clergymen
  • plus many of the conventional topics I mentioned at the beginning of this post, of course…

In the end, it’s all garbage, anyway, but if I’m going to collect garbage, it may as well be different from everyone else’s garbage, no?

I think that because it was My Home for 31 years, I have never bothered to photograph The Philippines seriously. Took it for granted, as one does those all those familiar, everyday sights and places. This time around, however, I feel a real desire to take pictures of the things that make her distinctive (perhaps this is my way of gently acknowledging or announcing, to myself as well as to others, that Manila is no longer My Home…nor is the Philippines my ‘homeland’ anymore, for that matter. I have grown estranged from her, I have grown away. I could not go back there to live, and be happy, again.

Sad, yes, but hopeful, too…it is a re-enactment of the ritual of the child who grows up and walks away from the place where she was raised, this way that human beings have spread out into the world for centuries: driven away by conditions at home…or in search of conditions that couldn’t be had at home.

There are those who choose to stay—if you take them away, they wilt like Dutch flowers at the equator, their hearts are so emotionally woven into the soil of their families and homeland—and there are those who cannot wait to get out, desperate to shake off the ties that bind them to a place.

Kris and I were born the latter: he built his first wooden boat—in the dirty courtyard of their Communist-era apartment in Prague, and having never seen the sea— at the age of 10. And the first time my mother found me gregariously engaged with strangers, several heart-stopping blocks away from our Makati City apartment, I was three years old.

I’ve been wandering off, further and further afield, ever since. So much that I approach this upcoming trip to Manila like a tourist (with a list of subjects to shoot!), having moved so far away from it in my heart. Is this what Eliot meant when he wrote “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”?