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Murals of the mind: The many lives of Dr. Joven Cuanang

Along the sleepy slopes of the Antipolo mountainside lies a microcosm of Philippine society. Stretched out over a 40-foot acrylic canvas and painted by the 16-artist Salingpusa collective, Karnabal looms like a grave question mark over all the visitors of the Pintô Art Museum. In it, every aspect of the Filipino is bared in strange and exaggerated hues: a pole-dancing Darna, a jester confessing to a priest, a monkey on a machine with accusing fingers pointed in every direction. It is a sight to both behold and dread. 

Karnabal is one among the museum’s galleries of provocative paintings, all gathered by self-confessed “accidental art collector”, Dr. Joven Cuanang. Over the course of 20 years, the neurologist’s residence in Antipolo transformed from an idyllic home to a center for Philippine contemporary art. Yet, lavished with praise for his artistic patronage, Cuanang objects. “I’m a [medical] doctor primarily. I’m not an art gallery owner per se,” he says. “[In fact], I am more like a gardener because that’s my passion.”

But, like Karnabal’s massive multi-faceted mural of Philippine society, all these disparate passions can be tied together in Cuanang’s legacy—Pintô. Here, neurology infuses itself within the white facade of Pintô’s galleries and the lush arboretum hidden behind. To understand this is to delve deep into the life of Cuanang.

And it all begins with a waterfall in desperate need of saving.

An ecological revolution

The year is 1986. As the flames of People Power continued to spark change, the professionals of Antipolo who had marched for democracy had gathered together to see how they could help the nation. Among them was Cuanang. “Everyone agreed we would do art, culture, and ecology. That was the catch,” he shares.

Combining the efforts of a research team and the local community, they developed a project to rehabilitate the polluted tributaries of Hinulugang Taktak, a distinct waterfall embodying the cultural and natural heritage of Antipolo. As a part of their fundraising campaign, they collaborated with the Cultural Center of the Philippines to set up plays, concerts, and art exhibitions near the waterfall, achieving widespread recognition and success.

Behind these art exhibitions were Antipolo-based artists—fresh graduates unable to be featured in prominent galleries as they lacked an established reputation. “I sort of adopted them informally,” Cuanang says, recounting how he had offered his home as a studio for these young artists after recognizing their potential. “Mayroon na silang shelter, mayroon na silang pagkain. Hindi na sila gala.” Under his patronage that sought to feature and cultivate Filipino talent, these young men would eventually come to be called Salingpusa, a revolutionary collective that features renowned artists such as Mark Justiniani, Karen Flores, Ferdinand Montemayor, Neil Manalo, and Anthony Palomo. 

(They had shelter. They had food. They were no longer just roaming around.)

Eventually, Cuanang decided to organize an exhibit featuring their artworks in the backyard of his house. “Doon sa likod, sampay natin mga trabaho niyo,” he remembers telling them. In the rich and long-winding history of Pintô Art Museum and the Salingpusa artists, this came to be affectionately known as “sampayan art”—a defining moment in their humble beginnings.

(There at the back, let’s hang your works.)

A tale of two museums

The first visitors to these makeshift exhibits came from Cuanang’s network of friends—many of whom bought the paintings and spread the word about his collection. Heeding requests for a location more accessible to interested patrons, he eventually turned his apartment on Boston St. in Cubao into a gallery. “Boston Gallery became the center for neo-expressionist Philippine art,” Cuanang says, explaining that it housed the early artworks of some influential contemporary Filipino artists such as Tony Leano, Jim Orencio, and Elmer Borlongan. “And whatever was not bought, binibili ko.” 

(I would pay for whatever was not bought.)

Through the years, what began as a way to support the careers of the Salingpusa members grew into an expansive collection of artworks from subsequent generations of artists. In 2000, the gallery had enough visitors—from patrons to artists alike—that he decided to build what would come to be one of the grandest repositories of Philippine artistic and cultural identity: the Pintô Art Museum. “Bakitpinto’?” he muses. “Because it’s the beginning of the new century—so we can go ahead with new creative ideas, so we can accept new people to come over. Basta, new things will happen here. That’s why it’s called pinto. It’s a door; it’s going to be an open door.”


The biology of art appreciation

Even with the astonishing success of the Boston Gallery and Pintô, an unease tugged at Cuanang. After all, he had served as a leading neurologist in the medical field for decades, and collecting art felt like a far cry from exploring the intricacies of the brain. But this all changed when Cuanang came upon the research of Semir Zeki, whom he describes as a pioneer in studying “the neural mechanisms [of] what happens to the brain when you behold art [that] you consider [as] either bad or good art.” Through using functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and monitor the brain, Zeki identified the areas of the brain that were activated when individuals perceived beauty in art. 

To Cuanang, this budding field of neurology bridges his two passions. “I was no longer uncomfortable dealing with fine arts,” the doctor says. He now takes a keen interest in contemporary neuroaesthetics research, exploring the ways in which art forms—be it visual, auditory, or kinesthetic—can heal the mind. He furthers, “You realize [that art] has a healing process because it produces the feel-good neurotransmitters. [Art can become] therapeutic.”

“…NEW THINGS WILL HAPPEN HERE. THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED PINTO. IT’S A DOOR; IT’S GOING TO BE AN OPEN DOOR.”

Dr. Joven Cunanang

After seeing research by Dr. Jacquiline Dominguez on how regular dancing sessions could improve people’s performance in psychological memory tests, Cuanang made a decision to “fuse being a neurologist to look at a non-pharmacological way of treating patients with neurological disease,” referring to interventions outside of mainstream medications. 

This led to the birth of the Pintô Academy of Arts and Science, which brands itself as the “Philippine center for neuroaesthetics”. Cuanang hopes that founding the school will spark a curiosity for neuroaesthetics in the Philippines. “I believe that if you build, people will come, and they will understand what you’re doing,” he conveys.

Though neuroaesthetics draws art and science closer than ever before, the field has its limits as well. Even with the power to quantify the brain’s reaction to beauty, neuroaesthetics cannot set an objective standard of beauty. As Cuanang elaborates, “Your appreciation of beauty is dependent upon your cultural background and not [an] organic [one]. Neuroaesthetics just talks about what happens to the biology [of] the brain when you appreciate beauty.” This mysterious allure of art is the reason why people flock to the museum to stand in awe of unconventionally beautiful—some may even say menacing—pieces.

The art and science of learning

Pintô’s collection of diligently curated masterpieces can draw in many visitors, especially the youth. Yet, what most spectators don’t realize is how the galleries stand for more than just artistic milieu. 

Cuanang notes that the pieces he selects actually represent sociopolitical themes. “So the paintings should evoke a question. Kung it’s just for beauty, edi doon ka sa bulaklak,” he stresses that no one should create a painting mainly for ornamental purposes. Rather, he believes that “what makes art useful” is its capacity to accentuate meaning and depth in its subtleties, stimulating not just the eyes but more importantly the mind.

(If it’s just for beauty, then stick to the flowers.)

Looking at art in this light, Cuanang thus encourages the youth—whom he believes holds the country’s future—to never stop learning. “My advice is to enrich your brain. You have a multitude of experiences, and for you to be able to achieve a life that is good, you have to learn how to balance things,” he says, having shown through decades of work that flourishing in this world is a matter of continuous learning.

For this reason, he has poured much of his life into the Pintô museum, developing it into a space for learning—a legacy for the youth and for the Philippine community. “If it’s something that I feel is worthwhile, I do it and give it my best, whether it’s for a person, or whether it is for a community,” Cuanang expresses. “It’s about love. If you love somebody, you give everything that you have.”

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