Inside The Collaboration Of Jaime Ponce de Leon and Margarita Forés
What Filipinos should know when travelling to Europe and Mexico is that their churches and museums are full of carved ivory artefacts called “Hispano-Filipino.” These treasures were crafted by a prolific Filipino peasant class from the 16th to the 19th centuries, which enabled the country to dominate the ivory trade of the period. Sadly, as there were no regulators then tracking the flow of goods in and out of the country, it also meant that everything went to export.
These days, only a few of these pieces exist in the Philippines; and even then, they are predominantly found in private collections. Here in Manila, Hispano-Filipino is a speciality of the Leon Gallery and its founder and director, Jaime Ponce de Leon. In August, the gallery made history when it received one of the highest bids ever made for a 17th century ivory piece. “When I travel I’m always on the lookout for the best ivory,” says Ponce de Leon. “If you go to Europe, the most expensive crucifixes or ivory sculptures are Hispano-Filipino. They are always priced differently by galleries, and that’s something to be proud of.”
For Ponce de Leon, the work of the gallery is very much a two-way street. “People who love these things have an exquisite taste, which influences both the collectors and the clients,” he says. “In running the gallery, I myself have to be an advocate for the best art. This is precisely why we focus and aim to have top quality Filipino art coming out of our auctions.”
Establishing such a standard also means engaging in significant cultural collaborations, not only with other curators—Ponce de Leon names Lisa Guerrero-Nakpil and the late Ramon Villegas, who curated the “Mid-Century Moderns” exhibition in August—but also with those who are considered masters in their respective fields. There’s Pepito Albert for design, Martin “Sonny” Imperial Tinio, Jnr for houses and architecture, and none other than Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016, Margarita Forés, for food.
For Ponce de Leon, working with Margarita means working with a master of the senses. He firmly believes that this has been the secret ingredient of their many successful undertakings. “An art collector must have a great sense of culture that brings together all of the physical senses,” he says. “Margarita is someone who can show the relationship between vision, taste, and all of the other senses to be very symbiotic.”
The feeling is mutual as Margarita takes her cue from the themes and entertaining styles that Ponce de Leon chooses to highlight, usually with the help of another friend and collaborator, the designer Pepito Albert. “What we do is to transform the space into something different every time,” says Margarita. “But whether the event is done as a high tea or as a light luncheon, the aim is to create a wonderful ambiance that enhances the art in the room.”
For this shoot, she created a menu that she thought would photograph well with the art, and brought heirloom pieces to style each table, including old things collected through the years like precious glasses and silver cutlery that belonged to her grandfather. She was particularly happy to bring out a set of silver 19th-century Florentine plates and serving pieces. “I always look forward to bringing them out and using them, especially today when it’s becoming more rare to find such pieces,” Margarita says. “Collaborating with the Leon Gallery is also an opportunity for me to be exposed to some very precious pieces and to add them to my collection.”
While food has always been her main medium for sharing her creative process and aesthetic, what she has discovered over the years is that she loves seeing things that are artful, regardless of whether they are precious or not. “I think that there is a real connection with everything beautiful,” she says. “When you eat, you dine with your eyes first, right? Apart from making sure that the food tastes good, you also have to create its visual appeal and to place visually appealing things beside the food.” This has led her to non-food endeavours, such as Casa di Marghi (fine living objects) and Fiori di Marghi (flowers), which complement the food she creates. “I have found that the experience of creativity is more complete if I can have input on everything that goes on the table,” Margarita shares. “When I do flowers or table accessories, it is one more way for me to put the food together.”
It is the merging of their various philosophies, developed over years of advocating for a visceral experience of culture, that has built up the collaborations of Margarita and Ponce de Leon into a useful body of work. More significantly, their willingness to be influenced by each other, and by others who have come before them, confirms that they will continue to be pioneering forces in their fields.
Photography: Aldwin Aspillera | Production and Styling: Mia Borromeo