4 Bikolanos named national artists

By Kristian S. Cordero


Two days before the country’s celebration of Independence Day, the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) through its chairman, Arsenio Lizaso named new eight National Artists as approved by outgoing president Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Of these eight national artists, four traces their origins and affections in Bikol, namely, Nora Cabaltera Villamayor aka as Nora Aunor of Iriga City, who is named as National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts, Ricky Lee of Daet, Camarines Norte who is named as National Artist for Film (initial public announcements cited Lee as NA for Literature), Salvacion Lim-Higgins, (posthumous) who is named National Artist for Fashion Design and Fides Cuyugan Asensio who is named National Artist for Music. Lim-Higgins was born on January 28, 1920 to Margarita Navera Diaz (a native of Legazpi City) and to Chinese trader Luis Samson Lim Katiam while Cuyugan-Asensio’s mother, Jacinta Lachama Belza is from the town of Buhi, Camarines Sur.


The other artists honored by what is considered to be the highest recognition given to a Filipino artist are UP Professor Tony Mabesa for Theater (posthumous), literary critic and poet Gemino Abad for Literature, Agnes Locsin for Dance and Marilou Diaz-Abaya for Film (posthumous). It should be recalled as well that Abaya-Diaz’s last film was Ikaw ang Pag-ibig which talks about the devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia and was screened during the tercentenary celebration in 2010.


The conferment is set on June 16, 2022, at the Malacañang Palace.


Originally established as an award in 1972, it was elevated to the status of an order in 2003 and is administered by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. This award comes with a monetary compensation, a monthly life pension, medical and hospitalization benefits, life insurance coverage to those who are still insurable, a place of honor, in line with protocolar precedence at national state functions, and recognitions at cultural events and a state funeral and burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The first recipient is the visual artist Fernando Amorosolo who also hails from the same town as Ricky Lee.


Of these four national artists, Nora Aunor and Riky Lee enjoy mass popularity due to their high stature in Philippine film industry as an actor and producer in the case of Aunor and as scriptwriter in the case of Lee. Aunor who is widely acknowledged as the country’s most important actor is also a film and television producer. Fondly called as the Superstar, she has acted on several important films including Himala which was written by Lee and directed by another National Artist for Film, Ishmael Bernal, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, Banaue (directed by NA Gerry de Leon), and Bona (directed by Lino Brocka) (all three films were produced by Aunor), and after her long hiatus in the US, she returned to the Philippines and played major roles in films that tells the stories of the regions, like Brillante Mendoza’s Taklub and Thy Womb where she won again major acting awards in Venice, Hongkong and Australia, Mes De Guzman’s Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti, where she spoke Ilokano and in Kristian Sendon Cordero’s Hinulid where for the first time she spoke her mother tongue, Rinconada. In 2015, Aunor received several recognitions for her invaluable contribution to Philippine arts and culture from the University of the Philippines and the Ateneo de Naga University Press.


Ricky Lee, who is the quintessential Filipino scriptwriter is also a celebrated fictionist and essayist. Aside from writing some of the most important films of what critics call as the second golden age of Philippine Cinema, Lee, is also a novelist and a teacher to several generations of upcoming and established writers and artists who join his annual scriptwriting workshop called Trip to Quaipo. Lee as a novelist has written best-selling works like Para kay B and Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata which will have their respective sequels soon. Lee has also written pioneering essays on the life stories of those considered peripheral, tragic, and revolutionaries.


Salvacion Lim-Higgins who is popularly known as Slim established the Slim’s Fashion Art and School, which many consider as a pioneering fashion school in the country. In a short biographical note about her and her works in the 2009 retrospective show in the National Museum, the curator writes, “Casting off literal interpretations of Filipino and Western fashion, her work helped define modern Philippine couture with three characteristic elements. The first was inventive, often audacious, construction. Her trademark draping accented the female form, yet she also often altered it, through whimsical or geometric shapes.” A commemorative book about her work documents the fascinating life story of Lim-Higgins who is considered to be revolutionary in fashion design.


Fides Cuyugan Asensio is a soprano, a librettist, and a professor in the University of the Philippines-Diliman. Most recently, she delivered memorable performances in the following independent films, Aparisyon (2012), Nino (2011) and Mana (2013). Cuyugan-Asensio who will receive the award at 90 years old remains active in the music circle where she is considered as a driving and inspiring force by many musicians and fellow artists. In bestowing her the highest accolade, the Palace cited her great contribution in the opera and in the renaissance of the classical theater in the country. Like Lee and Aunor, she also received the CCP Gawad Para sa Sining in 2015. No awardee for visual arts and architecture was named for this batch.


To date, Bikol has several national artists which include Manuel Conde (Daet) and Lino Brocka (Sorsogon) for Film, Fernando Amorsolo (Daet) Larry Alcala (Daraga) for Visual Arts and Ramon Obusan (Camarines Norte) for Dance. On behalf of Bicol Mail and the Savage Mind Bookshop which curate the essays featured in this special issue, we salute our new Bikolnon National Artists Nora Aunor, Ricky Lee, Salvacion Lim-Higgins and Fides Cuyugan Asensio!