Portraying the soul of people | Sunday Observer

Portraying the soul of people

After the state banquet the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had a surprise gift for President Maithripala Sirisena when the latter visited the archipelago several weeks ago.

It was a brilliantly hand painted portrait showing President Sirisena with a euphoric smile.

The painting was a sweet surprise to the Lankan delegation and also President Sirisena but Duterte’s gesture was a tradition that he has been following for some time. The maestro behind that work of art is a shy self-taught painter, Ronilo Abayan – a character much adored in his country.


Ronilo Abayan is no stranger to Filipino Art lovers as well as the ordinary people; his ingenious works include breathtaking landscapes, congregation of colourful tribespeople, naturalistic wildlife and a host of portraits of prominent world leaders - Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, King Abdullah of Jordan, Mahathir Mohamed, Narendra Modi, Lee Kuan Yew, etc.

The ‘maestro’ as he is famously known in Philippines, was in Sri Lanka a week ago. President Sirisena who admired his work and his unique talent, invited the famous painter to see the beauty of Sri Lanka. He and his wife Evangeline together with three others travelled around Sri Lanka. During the three days of their stay which included a visit to the historical Kandy and President’s ancestral town – Polonnaruwa, the group fell in love with the country’s beauty.

“We really had fun going around the country, he loved the sceneries, he is an avid painter of landscapes as well,” Art enthusiast and friend who was also his interpreter Jobe Nkemakolam said.

The Filipino maestro is not from a family of renowned painters, and he never attended an elite school of Visual Arts. Instead he had humble beginnings. As a seven year old he used to draw on walls of his modest home using a piece of charcoal fished out from his mother’s kitchen.

“My mother took no offense of my behaviour, about ruining her walls with my charcoal sketches which initially had no precise shape or meaning, but instead she admired them.”


As a youngster he kept on drawing his dream images on whatever material he can get hold of - paper, walls, pieces of wood, etc.

As he entered adulthood, he found a job as a security guard, then as a construction site helper.

He was not ecstatic about these jobs and could not find energy to please his bosses as his mind was completely elsewhere. Soon enough he was fired from his security guard job when his supervisor caught him painting pictures while on duty.

Then a friend introduced him to a job where he was supposed to draw hoardings for movies, getting a step closer to realising his dream. He mastered his painting skills on the job. Later as a hobby he started doing on-the-spot caricatures and portraits at public places. Later he found a permanent place to do his painting in a department store.

About 10 years ago, Nkemakolam found him doing just that. Abayan and a friend were doing spot caricatures for shoppers at the store. “The paintings he had done were so real that they looked as if they were about to jump off the canvas, I was so impressed.” A thought flashed in Nkemakolam’s mind that this guy deserves to be introduced to an elite audience of Art enthusiasts and let them privy to his amazing talent.

“A lot of people can draw but the characteristics, resemblance of the actual person, in other words the soul of the character in the portrait - is hard to capture,” Abayan says.


In Philippine, young millennials are becoming art lovers and collectors, there is a flourishing industry. But Mestro Abhayan is not interested in money, he wants to sell his works of art to people who truly love Art,” Nkemakolam explained.

Nkemakolam who was a university student at the time had the right connections to help him. “I showed his paintings to one of our Senators, he got him to draw a few portraits and had put them up on his office wall. Shortly after the word spread about his talent,” The Senator helped him to get to know influencial people – politicians and businessmen.

“President Duerte’s son is my friend and I introduced Maestro to president through him. He was immediately struck by his talent and was full of admiration for his work,” Nkemakolam said.

Already maestro Abayan’s portraits of several world leaders had been presented to them by President Duterte. The Maestro wants to finish portraits of 20 more world leaders including that of US President Donald Trump in the coming days. It was learnt that he simply takes three to four days to finish such a piece of art.


“He wants to encourage the next generation of artists that Art is a profitable profession, and he wants to advise the youngsters to keep pursuing their dreams till they reach the pinnacle,” Nkemakolam interpreted Maestro Abayan’s thoughts.

His two daughters and the son too have taken after the father and are talented painters. Maestro presented two portraits, one of President Sirisena and the first lady during his encounter with the President during the current tour.

“It is priceless for an artist to be recognized by the people and be admired. We are so happy that President Sirisena invited the Maestro to his beautiful country to spend a few days.” Nkemakolam said putting Maestro Abayan’s feelings into words.