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Artist Spotlight: Rafael "Popoy" Cusi

63 year old Mr. Rafael Cusi who is better known as the master watercolorist of his generation in the Philippines was born in Bongabon, Oriental Mindoro.

“Popoy”, as he is fondly called by his friends, helped put himself through secondary school in Mindoro by applying his talent to street art – he painted signs, billboards, public murals, backdrops and even designing lavish carrozas (festival floats) for the many fiesta celebrations in his hometown. At one point, he even made a few extra pesos by painting tricycles, jeepneys and houses!

He has since earned a BFA degree from the Philippine Women’s University, won numerous awards from the Art Association of the Philippines as well as from prestigious cultural institutions abroad, including the European Art for Environment Award for his book “The Philippine Coral Reefs in Watercolor by Cusi” which was endorsed by the United Nations and Smithsonian Institute in 1997.

His home studio is in Pasay which is around 30 minutes away from Mabini Street in Ermita. He regularly had breakfast with his wife in Mabini and some street artists, not knowing that he was a painter, would show him their latest works, and he would give them pointers.

Mr. Cusi is all for a holistic approach to art – engaging your hands (skills), heart (values that nourish the soul), and mind (knowledge in relation to local and global issues).

“It is easy to paint but difficult to become an artist,” he maintains.

As one of the best out of only a handful of watercolorists in the Philippines, 70% of his works are in watercolour. The reason for choosing the medium is because the Europeans are known for pioneering the use of oil in painting, the Americans acrylic paint, while Orientals have ink and watercolour. As a Filipino and an Oriental (Asian), Mr. Cusi takes pride in his heritage. He had the opportunity to reside in Europe and Spain but still chose to come back to the Philippines.

He prices his art based on the effort, skills and time spent on each. “When you put a piece of yourself into your art, it is difficult to attribute monetary value. Whereas others sell by the inch or centimeter, I put value on how much of myself I put into the piece.”

For him, “the proper definition of commercial art is saleable art, and not necessarily cheap or of low quality.”

Whenever an artwork stays on display on the wall for too long and does not get sold, regardless if made by a street artist or a Fine Arts graduate, it is not commercial.

Some “serious artists” hide behind their diplomas but do not sell anything during an exhibit of their works. This also means that the artist is not commercial.”

The advise of Popoy Cusi is to revisit the old and learn from the new to reinvent yourself, sell something that has not yet been sold before – “You cannot sell sand on the shoreline. Do not limit yourself to isms, as a pro-creator, you recreate creation and put a part of yourself into your art.”

While most of his contemporaries are content to rest on their laurels, Mr. Cusi gears up for a new direction - to paint murals, non-commissioned works, which are purely motivated by self-expression, and not for commercial reasons; and to explore sculpture in all its facets, using different materials.


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