Meet the man from Tayabas, Quezon, who brings a slice of ‘Pinas with him wherever he goes
London’s gastronomic epicenter, Soho, recently welcomed a new Filipino restaurant in its fold: Kasa & Kin. It was conceptualized by the owners behind Romulo Cafe, and serves contemporary Filipino cuisine developed by a team that includes a Michelin-starred chef. But those are not the only reasons why Kasa & Kin is being talked about. There’s also the stunning mural that wraps the restaurant interior in kaleidoscopic patterns, harlequin imagery, and the exuberant plumage of an Ibong Adarna, brightening everyone’s meals.
The artist behind the mural is 31-year-old Kulay Labitigan, a rising Filipino visual artist and “experiential” illustrator in London with a knack for storytelling.
Born in Tayabas, Quezon, Kulay finished Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines Diliman and arrived in the UK on a scholarship grant to study MA in Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins-University of the Arts London, one of the world’s top art and design schools.
The mural design for Kasa & Kin is particularly special for Kulay as an immigrant living in the UK. “Adarna symbolizes a multitude of meanings for different people,” he says. “In Francisco Balagtas’ tale, the mythical bird was a healer of the ailing king, a reference to the many Filipino medical professionals who are in the UK’s health service. The bird is also closely associated with nesting, which comes back to the meaning of Kasa & Kin being a home. But what resonates to me more is the bird as an animal of flight and migration. These are powerful reflections for every Filipino and non-Filipino dining in the restaurant,” Kulay muses.
The making of Kulay
Kulay has been making art for the past 15 years, exploring various media and creative areas such as theatrical production, 3D installation arts, and illustrations. Some of his illustrations are featured in select Jollibee stores across the UK including the one in London.
Kulay grew up in Tayabas to a family of handicraft makers, farmers, and entrepreneurs. In a quaint town with deep local traditions, he often spent his childhood replicating the religious imageries drawn on the ceiling of the 16th century San Miguel de Arcangel Basilica and watching plays and shows in the local theater. He says this was when he discovered art.
After studying for two years in UP Los Baños, he transferred to UP Diliman and specialized in industrial design. It was a period when he began designing theatrical sets for independent and professional stage productions.
He would eventually be taken under the wing of top scenographer and production designer Gino Gonzales. In London, he was mentored by the late Filipino visual artist, David Medalla, known for his “auto-creative” artworks and participatory ideas, founder of the London Biennale, and highly respected within Europe’s artistic community.
Kulay likes to use the word “creative talesmith” to describe himself. “As a ‘creative talesmith,’ I find immense joy and fulfillment in connecting dots, developing narratives, and applying them to real-world scenarios,” he says. “I do believe that above anything, story is the universal language. It is the currency of our time. Sometimes, stories do not even need words to be told. From actions to events, carefully sequenced segments trigger our emotion and consciousness, shaping our understanding of our world and ultimately our being. This is how stories become transformative.”
Memories of home
Including the mural in Kasa & Kin, many of the works Kulay is proudest of offer references to the Philippines, his childhood town in Quezon, and musings of home manifested through various media.
Like the set of toys for adults he made to instill a greater appreciation of cultural monuments in Tayabas. This won the UP School of Fine Arts award for Best Thesis in Industrial Design in 2012.
In 2017, he designed the set and identity for a Filipino community festival in Blacktown, Australia called Mahal Kita Future Bayan.
In Tayabas, he mounted his own shadow-in-the-street project during Maundy Thursdays for three consecutive years, creating shadow folkloric images on empty abandoned walls along highways when locals were making the annual hours-long panata walk to the Kamay Ni Hesus Shrine in Lucban, Quezon.
“In 2015 I ventured into a creative soul searching. I packed my whole life in a 30-kilogram suitcase and hopped on a plane headed to the other side of the globe, a place I have never been to but I now call home,” says Kulay, which leads to the current chapter in his story. “Studying design in London afforded me the opportunity to understand my creative voice, fine-tune my artistic style and methods, and discover that everything I have been looking for in this journey are things I already have and already am.”
To hear Kulay say it, moving to London has been a life-changing move. “This extraordinary experience made me realize that home transcends the physical and that my own roots and life story of growing up in rural Philippines – including my anecdotes as a Southeast Asian gay man and all fragments of my personal concept of home – informs my creative practice,” the young Filipino talent explains. “I am proud to see that this has made my work relevant, distinct, and most importantly, a medium that connects and gives people who experience my art a sense of belonging.”