Out of


Isabel Santos’ Statement of Intent

by Jonty Cruz

Photos courtesy of Isabel Santos

The artist on her work, winning the Uniqlo UT Grand Prix, and what could’ve been.

Isabel Santos couldn’t be bothered to count her rejection letters. The one she received in October of 2019 could have been her fifth or sixth. She had been applying to several residencies abroad that year, and none of them turned out the way she was hoping. She was exhausted. It all seemed like a waste. So much so that it was hard not to think of yet another rejection letter when she heard about Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix (UTGP), a t-shirt design contest in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. MoMA’s involvement motivated her to submit, but it was difficult to be optimistic when she couldn’t even get her work to upload. “Muntikan na talaga ako mag-give up,” she says. With the deadline fast approaching, her submission eventually got through. But Isabel’s stress was far from over.

The uncertainty of waiting was worse than anything. And after months of radio silence, Isabel finally got her first email back from Uniqlo. She had been shortlisted. However, she needed to keep her potential win a secret—making what should have been a piece of good news just another source of stress. “Nung time kasi nun, hindi mo pa rin alam kung failure ka pa rin or what,” she jokes.

A couple of months later, another email. It said Isabel had won. But she didn’t exactly know what she won: first, second, or third place. This was important; the grand prize included an invitation to New York for the awarding ceremony—not to mention a heftier cash prize. At the risk of appearing too eager and losing all hope, she decided not to press Uniqlo for more details. She waited. For a couple more months, she waited. Would there be a follow-up email to clarify things, or was that it?

Then in June 2020: a new email with nothing in it but an attached file. And there it was. Isabel had won the grand prize. After almost a year of waiting, a year of trying not to get her hopes up, there it was. There she was in her bedroom, celebrating at two in the morning, reading an email over and over and over.


Isabel has been an artist since 2013. But she didn’t want to be one at first. She took up European Studies in Ateneo de Manila University and thought of herself as an “aspiring diplomat.” She was apprehensive about becoming an artist, given her last name and how people would always see her work through the lens of her family history. Her grandfather, Mauro “Malang” Santos, was an artist as well as a prolific cartoonist whose career spanned decades. Her father Soler, mom Mona, and siblings Luis and Carina are also artists in their own right.

You would be hard-pressed to find an interview of Isabel’s that doesn’t mention her family history. The Santoses are, after all, arguably some of the best Filipino artists today. Isabel is perhaps the most keen to carve her own path. That’s why winning the Uniqlo UT Grand Prix was special for her: it felt different. Something she could fully claim as her own.


It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. It wasn’t supposed to be a series of emails and Zoom conferences. The first announcements for the Uniqlo UT Grand Prix said that there was supposed to be a huge event at the end—a culminating celebration in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, no less. The kind of party Isabel says she only saw in movies. While the pandemic had already changed certain things, those plans for the event were still up in the air. There was still a chance that she would fly to New York for the awards ceremony. As long as Uniqlo didn’t fully announce its cancellation, she still held out hope it would push through. “I was still like, I’m packing my bags!”, she says.

In February of this year, local publications finally broke the news: Uniqlo announced that she had won. So while things didn’t turn out exactly as originally planned—she wouldn’t be going to New York after all—she said she still appreciates what this win did for her career. “It still reached people who aren’t as immersed in art,” she says. “I still felt a change.”

Over Zoom, she talks more about her UTGP win, the difficulties of working through the pandemic, and what could’ve been.

The following interview has been edited for publication.

Out of Print: What do you think would’ve happened kung natuloy ‘yung event sa New York?
Isabel Santos: Oh my god! [Laughs.] I think ‘yung pinaka-lugi ko ‘yung hindi ko na-meet ‘yung mga judges ng contest like si Lawrence Weiner. Like I’m sure they wouldn’t have shown my work in MoMA but ‘yun nga, I would’ve loved a selfie with Lawrence. I think if natuloy, baka they would’ve invited other artists also and some other galleries maybe? Inisip ko talaga, “Was that my chance to finally meet the art community there?”

Do you think having an event like that would’ve changed you in any way? I mean I guess, getting to experience that would’ve been a really huge form of encouragement.
‘Di ba sa mga movies or whatever you’d see there are these exclusive events sa MoMA? It’s not like that’s my number one goal pero how many opportunities can you get like that where, in a way, ikaw ‘yung “bida”? And of course, like if there would have been more press about it, baka it would’ve reached Roger Federer pa since he’s with Uniqlo and I heard he’s interested sa UT. [Laughs.]

And you said it would’ve been in June, which is also your birthday month.
Oo, and I was turning 30 pa then! “Time to be alive!” ‘di ba? Feel ko sasabog ‘yung humility ko nun. [Laughs.]

Would you say winning the Uniqlo competition is your biggest success to date?
Feeling ko yes, just because MoMA was part of it and it reached other countries. And wala rin naman akong awards kasi here. Kaya hanggang ngayon impressed na impressed ako sa dad ko and even si kuya nano-nominate. But yes, ‘yun na nga, I think it's the biggest but I hope it's not the last one. [Laughs.]

Okay, I guess a better question would be, how would you define success?
I think kasi ‘yung career ko is very connected to my family. Everyone’s going to put a sort of glaze on what I do na, “Anak kasi ‘yan ni…” or “Apo kasi ‘yan ni Malang.” And I get it, I totally get it. But I guess kaya why I consider winning the Uniqlo competition to be a success for me is because there’s no connection to them at all. It’s my work. The judges had no idea about my history here or my family. Successful siya kasi base lang talaga siya sa work ko. Like self-earned talaga siya.

Isabel Santos photographed by Joseph Pascual.

Let’s talk about your work. In an interview you did with CNN Philippines Life, you said about your work that “there is an emphasis on a taking-away of the inessential, a separation of parts to bring focus to what is meant to be seen.” Since your work tends to be a showcase for deconstruction, I’m curious to know: what are you deconstructing, exactly?
Sa mga pictures meron laging bida. Like if there are people in the photo, sila ‘yung bida, sila ‘yung emphasis nung photo. When I started, I was just cutting out the human parts or body parts and then I started cutting out the background objects na rin. That was when I felt that they were as interesting or more interesting than the main objects. So ‘yun ‘yung gusto kong i-highlight. It’s sort of like rethinking the objects in it. I want to disassociate their meaning from the original image.

Is there a “problem” from the original image that you’re trying to correct in a way?
Hindi naman problem. I’m a fan of the styles I use but I want to make it my own.

In a lot of interviews you did, they mention your family nga—and rightfully so—in relation to fine art. Even when they mention your lolo, it’s mostly for his paintings. But he was also a prolific comic artist. I’m curious if there’s a connection there for you, as someone who uses comics in her art as well.
Well, I liked comics kasi it wasn’t an intimidating piece of literature. [Laughs.] So ‘yun, it started as light reading for me. And then, when I saw the comics of my lolo, na-amaze ako how he could do a full story in four panels, ‘yung ganun ka-simple? Dun ko nakita how to make a cartoon na mukha pa ring tao, if that makes sense. ‘Yung ability to convey gestures, ‘yung ability to illustrate anger through simple lines. Sa comics ako natuto how to draw.

You mentioned Lawrence Weiner as someone you admire and look up to. Can you talk about him a bit?
Yeah, in some ways I want to be that confident in how I use words in my art. May friend nga si Carina who saw my work, and the friend told her like okay na ‘yung work ko pero bakit ko po raw nilagyan ng words. Sana raw wala na lang words.

insecurity ko pa naman ‘yun! Minsan I think ang emo-emo nung mga sinasabi ko but I still like it. I like the texture of words.

What do you mean by the texture of words?
Minsan kasi I find what I do too plain. And gusto ko lagyan ng element that isn’t an object, alam mo ‘yun?

Pre-knowing Lawrence mismo, I was already a fan of his work. I remember I was at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], meron siyang work dun na I was just drawn to. Kaya when I heard he was a judge sa Uniqlo UT Grand Prix I was like, “Fuck!”

Isabel on Lawrence Weiner: “Nung bata pa ‘ko isa kong gusto about his work is that minsan may patama siya e. I love that. Kinikilig talaga ako when I see his work.“ Photos taken at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Isabel Santos.

So kung nakilala mo nga siya dun sa Uniqlo event sa MoMA, how do you think it would’ve gone?
Feel ko I’d be sweaty the whole time. [Laughs.] Just thinking about him and kung ano’ng sasabihin ko sa kanya, and all that. I mean you don’t want that first interaction to be the only interaction, ‘di ba? I’m hoping he would have been one of those older artists who are kind and would welcome you into their lives. Like I don’t know what his temper is like naman and I’m really not someone who asks a lot, but I will not leave without my selfie. [Laughs.]

Well, at least you know na at one point this past year or so, he saw your work, and for a brief moment alam niya na may Isabel Santos sa mundo.
Oo, tapos pinili niya pa ‘ko! Alam mo ‘yun? Can you believe that?

But it’s also heartbreaking in a way, because even if you do meet him one day, the context would be different. The one you were supposed to go to and where you’d assume he’d be at as one of the judges, he would have been in the right frame of mind to talk to you and get to know you.
That would have really been the perfect night for me.

Is showing your work abroad still a goal of yours?
I just realized nga that, the art scenes abroad, I think it’ll just be similar to what’s here? So I feel like not everything that’s shown abroad is a victory? Baka nga it will lower your self-esteem pa if panget ‘yung gallery abroad or ang panget ng treatment nila sa ‘yo.

I guess that question came from your Preview interview when you said that you hope to get to do shows abroad or you wanted to do some more international residencies. I was curious what the thinking behind that was?
By showing abroad, I guess there’s a sense na hindi lang limited sa Philippines ‘yung success mo? Iba pa rin ‘yung opportunity na ma-broaden ‘yung audience mo. If your work will translate in different cultures or not. I guess nga dito, masyadong tali ‘yung name ko sa family ko. And to show abroad would be a sign that my work can stand on its own. I guess ang gusto ko lang naman, ayoko lang mamatay and nobody remembers my work.

You don’t feel like accomplishing everything here is enough?
Like you know how in sports, may mga Pinoy who excel abroad based on their work alone? Feel ko ‘yun ‘yung kulang dito for artists.

‘Yung question mo nga about my goals, I was just telling myself recently, “‘Di ba may goals ka naman? E ‘di just work on them. Just go.” [Laughs.]

To bring it back to Lawrence a bit, he said in an interview that his only obligation as an artist is that what he presents is “understandable within the context of where it’s being presented.” That to me says that the setting is as much part of it as the work. Is that something you consider as well? And for someone who mainly exhibits in enclosed spaces and galleries, how do you define setting?
Ngayon pa lang ako nag-iisip how to work outside of canvas. Hindi kasi ako natuto how to work with other materials, so usually I just think about how I can fill up a gallery space. Also, I don’t know rin yet how to work with other people who can set things up for me, if I work on something different or in a different kind of setting.

I guess what I got from what Lawrence said, he really considers the time and the setting as context for his art. What do you consider context for your art? Especially since for the most part, your setting is always in a room in a gallery, which is essentially a constant.
‘Yun nga, I feel na ang gulo-gulo nga minsan—not just ‘yung setting of where I show but even in how I work. Feeling ko nga naso-slow down ‘yung process ko kasi nga ang sikip-sikip where I work now. I don’t have space to play around with my work. ‘Yung considerations ko of my context naman in terms of setting, ‘yung dream ko is for my show to be an experience. It’s not just about filling up walls.

Legacy of My Youth, Isabel Santos, 2018, Acrylic on canvas

Why do you feel limited or even restricted by where you’re working now? What are the challenges you’ve been encountering?
Dati kasi I was able to work on different things at the same time. Doon ‘yun sa studio ng lolo ko, I’d have three to four canvases at the same time. And if I didn’t like what I was doing with one thing, pupunta ako sa isa. Dito kasi one at a time, tapos liligpitin mo pa, and by then makakalimutan mo na rin ‘yung original idea mo or wala ka na sa mood. I don’t want to complain about it too much but ‘yun na nga.

So how do you solve that when it happens?
After two weeks… [Laughs.] I mean like ‘yung last show ko, ilang beses siya na-postpone because of quarantine. I got into such a pissy mood. Kapag wala ako sa mood, wala talaga ako sa mood. Everything is just so painful to do when you’re not in the mood, alam mo ‘yun? Like ‘yung last show ko, January dapat siya originally. And then it got delayed and delayed. At one point I was like, “I hate this! I hate this! I don’t want to see this anymore.”

This will be my last thing about Lawrence, I promise. [Laughs.] So one of his works is called “Statement of Intent” and you talked about how you often find it difficult to come up with your artist’s statement. What’s the struggle exactly for you?
Okay, first kay Lawrence, like nung bata pa ‘ko isa kong gusto about his work is that minsan may patama siya e. I love that. [Laughs.] Kinikilig talaga ako when I see his work. I mean may scale kasi ‘yung appreciation over time. Kahit na you—if the first time you see it, you like it kasi may patama, you grow to like it rin on its own eventually. Hindi lang siya quotes for your Instagram captions.

Okay, so back to the question on your struggle with artist’s statements. [Laughs.]
You know how it is naman. There’s always a struggle to sound smart. Kaya it gets to the point where kahit ako, I ask myself, “May meaning ba ‘to?” ‘Yung isa pang problem, if you write too much or explain too much, baka may mawala for the audience. I want na when they see my work for the first time, may sariling meaning for them. Add-on na lang ‘yung notes ko.

So for you, the work should be enough?
Okay na sa’kin ‘yung emotional reaction to my work. Kasi for example, matagal nang patay si Van Gogh. So who knows kung ano talaga ‘yung feeling niya? Most of the info is by scholars who never met him. So in a way, it’s anyone’s guess what he really meant to say with his work.

I understand everything you just said pero natuwa ako na in a roundabout way kinompare mo sarili mo kay Van Gogh.
[Laughs.] I mean I’m not trying to say that the artist’s statement isn’t important. It is important. Pero there’s this pressure to sound scholarly? And there’s a fear of sounding repetitive also. When I look at my work from before compared to now, I’d like to think I’ve matured as an artist. I think I’ve improved on my skills. Pero ‘yung sa write-up, doon ako napre-pressure na dapat laging may new thing. Like now, I’ve been home the whole year, anong new thing ang gusto nilang sabihin ko? 

“I guess ang gusto ko lang naman, ayoko lang mamatay and nobody remembers my work.”

Is it fair to say iba ‘yung audience you have in your head when you make art and iba ‘yung audience mo when you write your artist’s statement?
Art kasi is so personal. When I have a show nga and people come up to me to ask what does it mean, I want to say, “Please don’t ask me.” I had a show once na ang daming nagtanong sa’kin what it means, and umabot sa point na napagod na ‘ko. So I said, “Kung ano man ‘yung na-feel mo, ‘yun ‘yon.”

If you go to certain houses, ‘yung work that they have of your lolo’s are the ones that feature women. Arguably those are the pieces he’s most famous for. Right now sa family mo, it’s your work that predominantly features women. Is there a connection there? Or coincidence lang?
Walang connection but I do like the coincidence. I just find women more interesting subjects. Kaya if ever there’s a connection, it’s purely based on interest, pero ‘yung output is totally different. ‘Yung tito ko, at the start of his career, was painting similarly to my lolo. Sabi ng lolo ko, “Don’t do that. Find your own thing kasi gugutumin tayong lahat kung ganyan.”

I know you started your career fairly recently, but as someone who’s been part of that world for decades now, how does the current art scene compare to the ones when you were a child, or even in the early 2000s?
Naalala ko ‘yung isang sinabi ng brother ko dati kasi na-turn off siya sa art scene na parang, “‘Yun lang ba ‘yun?”

Around what time was this?
Nung ‘90s when most of the shows were in malls. Nung time na ‘yun sabi niya ayaw niya maging artist kasi ayaw niya ‘yung ganung life.

What kind of life?
Hmm… I guess kasi nung time na ‘yun hindi rin naman flourishing ‘yung art scene. ‘Yung lolo ko, I feel, was an exception but ‘yun na nga. I remember sabi ni Papa, na after martial law ang hirap makabenta then. I mean ngayon mas maraming artists na nakakabenta pero mas marami na ring sketchy ngayon.

What do you mean by sketchy?
Umm…. the middle men? The fakers? [Laughs.] Ang dami rin kasing intriga ngayon. Well, I’m sure meron na rin dati and I was just naïve then. But mas fun nga ngayon kasi now it’s opened up. Dati kasi, like nung mga ‘90s, ‘yung mga masters lang talaga ‘yung nakakabenta.

I don’t know if this is a touchy subject for you but how important is the financial aspect of being an artist? Does creative success go hand in hand with financial success?
Financial success is a bonus. It’s not your goal as an artist. Sometimes madami naman may gusto ng works mo pero walang pera. [Laughs.] Now, I find a show successful if people (whose opinions matter to me) like it. But if someone says selling a work isn't fun, they’re lying. It’s a fun surprise or maybe an extra nugget you find in your 6-piece nuggets. That happened to me once and I still can't believe it.

You’ve had a really good year for yourself so far, and ‘yung Uniqlo has been a huge accomplishment for you. Is there already another goal you have in mind? Or what are some things that you want to do in the near future?
I mean gusto ko sana tuloy-tuloy ‘to but I don’t know how or I don’t know what form yet? Sa art kasi, how can you know what your career will be, alam mo ‘yun? But I do want to show in a museum. I hope I can continue working with Uniqlo pa rin. And I still want to meet Lawrence. [Laughs.] ︎


Jonty Cruz is a writer and a creative consultant.