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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Pulumbarit

Sarimanok to sarifish and other stories of Abdulmari Asia Imao

Ayala Museum recently released a #KnowYourNationalArtist video featuring the late National Artist for Visual Arts Abdulmari Asia Imao.

The video entitled "The A to Z of Abdulmari Imao" uses the iconic Imao Obra font to tell the story of the prolific artist who was a painter, sculptor, photographer, documentary film maker, and writer, to name a few.

The beautiful Imao font, launched in 2019, can be downloaded at

Unforgettable interview with Mr. Imao

The Ayala Museum video reminded me of the stories that Mr. Imao shared during my three-hour interview with him in 2014, a few months before he passed away.

In my work as a writer for almost 30 years, I have been fortunate to have interviewed a number of interesting personalities. Most of them were in the fields of business and politics and some were in the arts such as the late Mauro Malang Santos and his son Steve; Bencab; Ramon Orlina, and Manuel Baldemor.

Among the artists, the most unforgettable and fascinating interview I had was with Mr. Imao, who was the father of our UP batch mate Toym Imao, himself an artist.

My interview with Mr. Imao almost didn't push through as my husband and I figured in a car accident on our way to his workshop in Marikina City. A 10-wheeler truck hit the rear of our car.

We were unhurt but I was still "bleeding profusely" when we arrived at the Imao workshop, not because of the accident but because of endometriosis, a painful reproductive issue.

It was not the most ideal way to meet the artist I have admired from afar but my memories of that afternoon with Mr. Imao were happy because he was such a gracious, generous, humble, and humorous person.

Mr. Imao hardly talked about the arts during my three-hour interview with him. He spoke of pre-colonial life in Mindanao, conspiracy theories, his life in Sulu before he moved to Manila to study art.

He recounted how he started as a fisherman in Jolo but dreamt of a better life so he moved in with his aunt and uncle in another town. He studied at the Sulu Trade School while doing odd jobs.

In my interview with him for the GMA News Online article in 2014, he said, "“Nagtitinda ako ng popsicle, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola,” adding, “Nagkargador din ako sa pier, bente-singko isang biyahe."

He then used his earnings to watch movies. His son Toym said Mr. Imao was a fan of the movies.

There were times when Mr. Imao would be gone for hours and his family would only find out later that he was out watching movies.

Mr. Imao also shared how a local art exhibit caught his attention and moved him to pursue art. He was fascinated as it was his first time to see large works of art.

The curator noticed how he carefully studied the paintings everyday and encouraged him to study in Manila.

When Mr. Imao moved to Manila, he hoped to receive a presidential scholarship but collapsed while waiting in line at the Palace.

Thankfully, a government official sponsored his studies at the University of the Philippines where he flourished as an artist.

He became famous for his works that had Muslim motifs such as the ukkil, the sarimanok, and the naga.

About the sarimanok and sarifish, Mr. Imao said the two are basically the same as the sarimanok was always carrying a fish in its mouth.

Lastly, he also spoke of his wife, who was his student. She was a Catholic and he was a Muslim but they fell in love. "To Sir, with Love kami," referencing the 1967 British movie.

It seemed he really was into movies. I should have told him that his life was like a movie, he went through so many hardships and challenges and overcame all of them. A story of love and triumph. That movie would have been a big blockbuster.

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