Meet Ryan Villamael: The Filipino Artist Who Turns Paper Into Fantastical Sculptures
In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.
Ryan Villamael makes intensely detailed, fantastical sculptures out of paper—but he only started working in the medium by accident. Since choosing to use paper because of its cheapness and accessibility, he has established himself as one of the Philippines' leading contemporary artists, and has exhibited extensively around the world, including at the Singapore Biennale, Art Basel Hong Kong and the Biwako Biennale in Japan.
Here, he describes his work in his own words.
I don’t think I really had a choice in my career. This is probably the only thing I can do or want to do. It wasn’t an “if” but a “when” for me. There wasn’t any other option.
I started working with paper cutouts more out of necessity rather than choice. After college, I worked as an assistant for different artists, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to paint and sculpt, but I couldn’t afford to work with those expensive media. I ended up with paper because it was what I could afford. I discovered that I could say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do with a very simple material. I think we all have a very personal relationship with paper—we played with it as kids, we write on it, we shape it. I realised I didn’t have to paint or sculpt; paper on its own can be expressive.
I’ve stuck with it since then because the medium has so much potential. In the last few months, though, I’ve been experimenting with different materials—metal, mirrors, even sand. We’ll see where that goes. For now, I’m having fun experimenting.
In a lot of the countries where I’ve had the privilege of exhibiting, it was really interesting to see how much they had—the institutions, the infrastructure and the funding. Everything was readily available and accessible in terms of production and seeing your ideas materialise. Seeing all of that, of course, you end up wishing [the Philippines] had as much as they do.
At the same time, given the lack of resources here in the Philippines, we learn to be ma-diskarte—or resourceful—to make the most of what we have, to come up with creative solutions in dire situations, to make things work. It’s not ideal but a lot of great work has come from that. The richness of our culture, the diversity, the history—those are things you can’t fabricate, and those are things that make us who we are, in spite of what’s happening in our country.
My favourite part of the job is that I’m able to make a living doing what I love. That might sound simple, but in this day and age and economy, that’s powerful. Coming from where I’m from, it’s a privilege.
In 10 years, I will still be making art. Hopefully, I’ll be working on more ambitious projects, doing more interesting collaborations. In other words, a bigger world of art-making.