Rosauro Malibiran: Reveling in unschooled art and boundless passion

Roi shows off some of the indigenous artwork at home

By Harvey I. Barkin

CONCORD – They also have the giant wooden spoon and fork. (Although, there’s no man-in-a-barrel from Baguio.) But what makes Rosauro (or Roi to friends) and Isolde Malibiran’s home atypical among Pinoy homes is that indigenous Cordillera, Manobo, Tagbanua, Tausog and Maranao art hang on their walls side by side with indigenous African art from Somalia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique and Kenya.

The Malibiran home is a cozy one atop a hill, housing about 50 acrylic and oil paintings. Not to mention art in mix media with clay, sticks, grass, house paint, sand, cloth and paper. Or the wooden, glass and clay ceremonial beads, amulets, various fertility and protection fetishes and statues, brassware, wooden trunks, implements and even a door. The authenticity of the objet d’arts is such that the thousand-year old clay palayok bears a date stamp from the Philippine National Museum. The African pieces were mostly bought from licensed antique dealers.

Roi is both art connoisseur and practitioner. At first glance, the influences of his favorites Pablo Picasso and Philippine National Artist Ang Kiukok can be seen on canvas: cubism and experimental, biblical and folkloric, and vibrant and somber. You have to look at his recurring visions of nature, creation, the last supper, sea creatures and mythical creatures more than once to take in all the elements and expressions Roi puts into his paintings.

A Pinoy in Somalia after ‘Black Hawk Down’
What is astonishing is Roi had no formal training in art. He intended to major in Architecture but after a year in college, he was forced to set it all aside and be a nurse for the good of the family. In 1984, he worked for his aunt’s printing press business by day and studied by night. Supported by a foundation grant from St. Scholastica, Manila, he took up BS Nursing at De Ocampo Memorial College.

He volunteered as a nurse with the Philippine National Red Cross in the 1990 Benguet earthquake. When he passed the Board Exams, the Red Cross hired him to work for a special project supported by the Danish Red Cross. He worked with the Philippine National Red Cross from 1991 to 2003.

When he was 25, he was sent to Somalia as a Health Delegate under the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to help with the Somali Red Crescent. He was the youngest and the only Asian delegate. He was in-country after the US Forces left Somalia (the situation depicted in the movie, Black Hawk Down). Roi remembers, “It was a shocking moment in my life, seeing 9 to 15 year olds in the militia. Pirating was very common and even Red Cross workers were guarded by armed men. It was against Red Cross policy but it had to be done to save thousands of children dying from famine. The contract for each delegate was for three months. I was the only delegate to stay there for nine months.”

Roi’s compassion and sense of family saw him through the harrowing experience. He ascribes his artistic talent to his carpenter father. His mother was a housewife who also did farm work in their province of Bayorbor, Mataas na Kahoy, Batangas. “But they were able to send all their nine children to school and get college degrees. All the children are now professionals. I am the only nurse and the only one here in the States. In 1977, my family was awarded the Ulirang Mag-anak in the whole of Batangas. In 2011, the town of Mataas na Kahoy awarded my family another Ulirang Mag-anak award.”

First painting sold at David Pomeranz concert
The art bug bit Roi at an early age. His early subjects “were always coconut plantations, nipa huts and agricultural products because these were what I saw. After school, I helped an aunt sell banana-que in our village. With the small money I saved, I bought a single box of crayons which became my favorite.”
“I always wanted to join excursions to visit museums in Manila. But my family could not afford it. The one time I was able to, I was fascinated with the things I saw at the national museum. My first encounter with ancient artifacts was implanted in my mind.”

At Grade 5, he won first prize when he was sent to an inter-school art competition in their town. “It was Nutrition month. My first medium was crayons on bond paper. We could hardly afford to buy a set of crayons. Sometimes, I borrowed from my classmates. I remember my first prize award was PHP5.00.”

In high school, Roi thought of himself as “thin, timid and very inferior. Whenever I was depressed or bullied, later, I’d sketch in my notebook. The only friends I had were my pencil, crayon and notebook. I remember then my drawings didn’t have any color and they were very dark.”

He only came alive at art competitions and when he was doing art work or stage design for the Nursing Department in college. Then his long stay with the Red Cross did wonders for his non-existent interpersonal skills. He realized he was more comfortable relating to older people than people his age. “I also noted I was fascinated with anything old or antique. I am probably an old soul. I started collecting old stuff from my travels. I was exposed to different cultures and traditions in every place I visited.”

But the irony was the more he appreciated foreign art and culture, the more his pride grew as a Filipino. “With globalization you can only compete with your identity as a Filipino. Nobody can copy the way we do it.”

In 1997, Roi had his first exhibit at the benefit concert of David Pomeranz in Manila. He had his paintings displayed at the backdrop of the stage where Pomeranz performed. One painting was sold for PHP 100,000. It was Halik sa araw, oil sunflower on 2 x 3 canvas. Roi donated the proceeds to the Street Children program of the Red Cross.

In December 2003, Roi immigrated to the U.S. He worked as a caregiver in the Bay Area until 2009. He passed the NCLEX and became an RN in 2010 in Florida and worked as an acute dialysis nurse at DaVita Renal Healthcare. In 2012, he moved back to the Bay Area with Isolde. Until 2016, he covered acute dialysis at Kaisers Antioch, Oakland and Walnut Creek, and five other East Bar area hospitals. He resigned from DaVita in January this year and changed specialty to Apheresis. As an Apheresis nurse, Roi would use a centrifuge-like instrument to separate components from whole blood, draw the one separated portion and transfuse fresh frozen plasma to the donor. It is a precarious job that requires specialized skills and quite stressful. Wife Isolde works at the ICU of Kaiser Antioch late afternoon until night. Roi works in the morning. The couple is hoping to be blessed with a baby.

True art and good food done by hand; not by electronic means
Roi sticks to free hand techniques. “This really comes from the heart and the mind. For me, electronics or digital tools are commercial and have boundaries. “He also dabbles in oil but prefers acrylic because it dries faster. He takes from two weeks to three months to finish a painting, depending on canvas size. “I respect different forms of art but I’m just not into digital or electronic. May kasabihan tayong mga Pilipino na mas masarap kumain kung ang ginagamit ay kamay.”

Interestingly enough, Roi treats cooking like his art work. When Roi invites you home, be prepared for a double whammy of eye-arresting art and palate-enslaving Batangas cooking. “When I was young, my mother asked me to help her in the kitchen. I don’t follow the recipe, just my instincts. For me, cooking is an art. I’m a very intense person. When I do something, I put my heart and soul into it.”

Although Roi is unique, he is also a personification of a generation of Filipinos who put self aside and family above all considerations. Like many others, Roi followed the path to duty but talent has a fortuitous way of turning up. Like many Filipinos once comfortable enough to have options in life other than the desperation of poverty, Roi found that art, like passion, knows no boundary. CAD and graphic electronics are only tools; not talent. Mastery of digital art falls short of pure and raw talent. When you don’t have to worry about the next meal or the roof over your head, you become human with thoughts that bear expression.

Says Roi, “My dream is to establish a community-based gallery or museum in our village. I plan to put all my artifacts collection and all of my paintings (including the 100 plus pieces in Batangas) in one place. So it will become a learning institution, focusing on Filipino art, tradition and culture. I want poor children to have free access so they can educate themselves. I plan to have an informal school to teach painting and art. I want to do something meaningful. I plan to sell some of my paintings for a good cause as a start. I plan for my dream to materialize in five years. And finally, yours truly, Uroy, will be recognized in the field of arts.”