One of the grand old men of Cebu, namely Martino Abellana (fondly called “Noy Tinong” and known to some as Martin Abellana), was born on January 30, 1914. His hometown was Carcar. An educator by profession, he taught at the Cebu Institute of Technology-University when it was just a group of Quonset huts on Ramos Street. Another noteworthy educator from Cebu was the similarly named Martin Abellana; however, this other man was born earlier, in 1904, and was known for his writings.
As mentioned in Martino Abellana’s profile from the Cebu Artists Inc. (CAI) Art Gallery (the Philippines’ first online art gallery, which features an exhibit of his works), he was an artist born into a family that loved art in its various forms. His father Teofilo was a sculptor as well as a school principal in Carcar. Older brother Ramon, who was a dentist by profession, was also a sculptor, musician, and composer. Saloy Abellana, who was Martino and Ramon Abellana’s grandfather, was an apprentice to sculptor Isabelo Tampinco in Manila. A versatile artist, Saloy Abellana was a composer, a painter, an embroiderer of liturgical vestments, and a martial artist in arnis de mano, too. Other artists who happen to be members of the Abellana clan from Carcar are Gonzalo Abellana, Martino Abellana Jr., Gabriel Abellana (Martino Abellana’s nephew and Dr. Ramon Abellana’s son), and Sindulfo Abellana.
On a full scholarship, Martino Abellana gained his formal art education in the 1930s at the School of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines in Manila, where he was taught by the gentlemen artists of the Old School: National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, Guillermo Tolentino, Irineo Miranda, Ramon Peralta, Vicente Rivera y Mir, and Pablo Amorsolo, brother of Fernando. Among his classmates were Carlos Francisco, Cesar Legaspi, Ricarte Puruganan, and Simon Saulog. Following his graduation in 1938, he taught freehand drawing and rendering to architectural students at CIT-U. He also taught at the University of Southern Philippines.
He joined a group of artists who were doing mural paintings with muralist and architect Enrique Ruiz as contractor and designer. The group included Arsenio Capili, Victor Loyola, Vicente Manansala, Lu Ocampo, Recarte Puruganan, and Marcelino Sanchez. They finished two large murals before World War II ended their activities. One mural was for the San Marcelino Church, and the other was for the Time Theatre, which was owned by the Aranetas. Both of these were in Manila.
During the war, Abellana’s artistic works were confined to sketches, studies and a few portraits. With the coming of the American liberation forces, he was often in demand to paint portraits, especially with American officers. In the 1950s, Abellana garnered a number of awards. Among these were back-to-back first-prize awards in the Art Association of the Philippines’ annual art contest in 1952 and 1953.
After leaving his position at a university in Manila, Abellana painted in earnest. Investing hundreds of man-hours into creating his art, he produced more than a hundred works.
Abellana is considered the greatest of the portrait painters among the third generation of Cebu’s old masters in painting and sculpture. Few of them were into portraiture, but Abellana pursued portrait painting anyway. Together with his friend and contemporary painter, Professor Julian Jumalon, he facilitated the local development of art in Cebu. Abellana is also recognized as “the dean of Cebuano painters.” He helped establish the fine arts program at the University of the Philippines Cebu and served as the head of the program, where he influenced an entire generation of Cebuano painters.
Though he was mainly a figurative impressionist, Martino Abellana’s later works indicate a desire to bring together the figurative and the abstract. He used charcoal, oil, and pastels as his media. His painting Job Was Also Man, a stark portrait of a starving beggar, won first prize in its category at the Art Association of the Philippines’ competition in 1959. Other notable works by Abellana are The Farmer’s Son, Korean War, and Rocks. His influence continued to be felt in the works of the later Cebuano painters that emulated his landscape style.
Martino Abellana died in the latter half of the ’80s. The Martino Abellana Annual Art Competition in Cebu is just one of the ways in which the artist is remembered. The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. facilitated a three-part series of retrospective exhibits in 2009, at the Casa Gorordo Museum featuring paintings and other artworks by Abellana. The second exhibit was titled “Martino Abellana: Artist and Father,” with the artist’s works featuring his children. The first exhibit included his early works done during his trip to Europe, and the last showcased works of Martino Abellana’s students who went on to become noted Cebuano visual artists. Each of the artists put up two sets of their work: one set created during their apprenticeship with Abellana and the other set with their recent art.