An English painter in Davao, 1934

Nonfiction by | September 14, 2008

Head of a Philippine Child (Davou)
Head of a Philippine Child (Davou)

When Ian Fairweather stepped ashore at Santa Ana Wharf at Davao in August 1934 he was a 43-year-old Englishman at the beginning of his career as an artist. He had been a prisoner of war during World War 1, an art student at London’s Slade School of Art, travelled across China, spent nine months painting in Bali, visited Australia and had come to Davao on the proceeds of a painting that was sold to the Tate Gallery in London.

On the afternoon of his arrival he walked south along the coast to Piapi where he found a house and that evening he wrote, “It stands on stilts amongst the coconut trees on the edge of the beach, it looks something like a bird cage – on the ground beneath it – chickens and pigs – babies and land crabs and boats – it’s the sort of place I’ve dreamed of.”

In Bali Fairweather had been inspired by an exotic Asian life and had come to Davao to paint his first solo exhibition. Perhaps he was escaping the tourist rat race that was already engulfing Bali in the 30s, perhaps he was looking for an authentic frontier experience, but what he found was the opportunity to observe and paint people around him, up close.

He was immersed in a place whose culture was as foreign to him as he was to it – an English artist in Piapi painting pictures! From his tiny house he produced paintings of women and children; there was one of a couple of boys carrying a duck, another of a spider fight, and the centrepiece of his exhibition: A painting of a boat seen from its decks as it steamed across the ocean titled “Voyage to the Philippines.” It set the tone for his Exhibition that was held at the Redfern Gallery in London.

While he was in Davao he wrote about visiting the British Consul, who was the Shell Agent. He enjoyed going to the movies, found the walking tracks on the lower slopes of Mt Apo, and explored the mangroves and beach of Piapi. But most of his time was spent painting. He sent fourteen paintings in bundles to London before leaving Davao. He took more with him that were completed in China. Reluctantly he had to leave Davao because he was unable to cash English cheques.

From China he travelled back to Mindanao where he painted his second exhibition at Zamboanga. He stayed for two years in Manila before going to Australia where he became a celebrated artist. But sadly there is little known about the time he spent in Davao where his career as an artist began.

If any one has a memory of his stay in Davao, of the “Americano” in his house at Piapi painting before the war, please share it with me –

Tony Twigg is a visual artist with an interest in history in the Philippines and Australia. He is currently in Davao to retrace the steps of Ian Fairweather.

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