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Neal P. Corpus

Posted on March 17, 2021

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We dive into the work of artist Isabel Santos, the first Filipino to win Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix.

How would you depict your world in one image? This was the challenge posed by Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix, the retailer’s annual t-shirt design contest. This year, the best answer was won by artist Isabel Santos, the first time a Filipino has bagged the top prize.

Isabel’s winning design makes use of both sides of the t-shirt. Titled A Fortune in Jewels Kept in Your Safe, the front features a grid of women’s hairstyles from the 50s, drawn in the style of vintage comics. The back, on the other hand, shows the corresponding faces that complete the hairstyles.

The image is derived from an existing piece of Isabel’s work, which was part of her 2018 exhibition titled Only What I Want to See. The show, which was mounted at Blanc Gallery, featured collages and diptychs that separated and rearranged parts of a painted comic, much like her entry to the UT Grand Prix.

“I learned to draw from comics,” says Isabel. This era of midcentury comics interested her, and the techniques suited her style. “I prefer simpler lines and the colors they use. I also love movies from that time,” Isabel shares.

Isabel's winning design comes from her 2018 show titled Only What I Want To See. Photo from Uniqlo's website

All of Isabel’s work, whether directly or indirectly, are derived from her life and world, which fit Uniqlo’s brief perfectly. In fact, Isabel submitted three designs that she thought would look good on a t-shirt, but it was this one that bested over 10,000 entries from around the world.

This year’s UT Grand Prix was also done in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which made the will all the more sweeter for Isabel. “I had a Zoom call with both parties (Uniqlo and MoMA) and they told me that I was part of their family,” Isabel shares, “I wanted to cry but I kept it professional [laughs].”

Isabel has actually known about her win for about a year now, but the announcement had to be postponed because of the ongoing pandemic. “It was the biggest news I had last year and no one — except my family of course — could know,” says Isabel. “I talk a lot so it was hard to filter what I would say.”

Isabel at her studio. Photo courtesy of Isabel Santos

Isabel comes from a family of artists. She is the granddaughter of the prolific cartoonist, illustrator, and painter Mauro “Malang” Santos, and all members of her family, including her parents Soler and Mona and siblings Luis and Carina, are artists.

Being surrounded by art and artists since she was a child, it’s no surprise that Isabel would become a painter and illustrator herself. But it wasn’t until after she graduated from school that Isabel began to pursue her art. “It was maybe a love-hate-love-again journey,” she says.

Isabel felt boxed in by the notion that becoming an artist was the only thing she was meant to do. When she was freer to explore art on her own terms, she began to appreciate art. “When it wasn’t pushed down my throat, that’s when I saw myself in it,” she adds.

Coming from a family of artists, it's no surprise that Isabel would become one herself. Here she is beside her siblings Luis and Carina. Photo courtesy of Isabel Santos

Like her journey to becoming an artist, Isabel’s creative process is an ever-evolving practice. “I used to not do studies and make it spontaneous,” she says, “Now, it depends on my mood.” Isabel continuously works on the themes and imagery that she’s tackled in the past, just like what she did for her winning entry to the UT Grand Prix.

Her work is, after all, a part of her. “They are the result of my life experience or ‘my world,’” Isabel says, her art constantly growing with her as a person. “They are a part of me,” she adds.

However, this is also what makes it challenging for Isabel to part with her work. It makes for two sides of the same coin: as much as she dislikes saying good bye to her work, “I love to show my works,” she says.

One of the challenging things about creating art is having to say good bye to her work. "They are a part of me," she says. Photo courtesy of Isabel Santos

And now, Isabel is able to share her work through one of the biggest platforms in the world, through the UT Grand Prix and MoMA. “It is one thing seeing my shirt on family members and friends, but [seeing it on] a total stranger is something different,” Isabel says. “When the lockdown is over and I see the shirt in the wild, it would be a thrill.”

And first on her list of places “in the wild” once the pandemic is over? “When I get the vaccine, first spot is definitely MoMA.”

Isabel Santos’s winning design, A Fortune in Jewels Kept in Your Safe, is now available in Uniqlo stores at your nearest Ayala Mall. Follow Isabel on Instagram at @somethingstarwars.

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