Philippine Star 14 March 1998, Saturday Lifestyle Section
by Ching M. Alano


Yolanda Perez is the soul behind SouMak's hand woven baskets and other native beuties: "the works of our indigenous tribes are sadly forgotten and ignored. We have to educate our people to love our own products."

If you see Yolanda "Yola" Perez's baskets, you're bound to go crazy (as in become a basket case?). They're so beautiful you'll say Yola doesn't just make baskets - she weaves dreams.

Turning a dream into reality, Yola's baskets and other native beauties have found their way into posh shops in the US, London, Australia, and Japan. Why, even Prince Charles is a proud customer of SouMak!

"He bought this rug," Yola relates. "His order read: 'Please make this rug perfect."

Another VIP customer is a sheik from Jeddah. Yola's products are certainly fit for kings and sheiks.

Helping Yola scale heights and flights of artistic achievement are the Ifugao people of the Cordilleras and the Mangyans of Mindoro.

Unearthing the richness of our indigenous materials such as our abaca, nito and rattan, it is not just the hand that weaves, carves and molds. Undoubtedly, it is also the soul.






Unearthing the richness of our indigeneous abaca, nito and rattan: Native baskets line an abaca rug at the Soumak showroom in Makati.








Since you and I can't go to the mountain, Yola has brought the mountain to us via her SouMak (short for South of Makati) Collections with its showroom located at 101 Bormaheco Condominium on Metropolitan Avenue corner Zapote Street in Makati. Look what she found!

"I was in search of materials and I stumbled upon our Filipino artisans," says Yola, her eyes gleaming with pride. "When I graduated from UP Fine Arts in 1972, I went into the arts-visual arts, exhibitions, installations, artworks. Then I went to France on a scholarship grant to study museums and museum procedures. When I got back, I wanted to go back to the arts so I started looking for materials. I sought the mountain tribes of the Cordilleras. I went as far down as Davao Oriental. I sat with the tribal folk, talked with them and wove with them."

She breathed the air they breathe, ate the food they eat, and yes, dreamed their dreams. Only beautiful works of art can come out of such a fine meshing of lives as shown on this spread.

"This is really a labor of love for me," Yola gushes. "The satisfaction get from my work is enough compensation for me."

She adds: "We give everything back to the people. For them to continue working for you, you have to give them an incentive. But sometimes, if you pay them too well, if they have the money, they don't want to work anymore because for them it's not important to have so much. Their lives are simple. All they want is to send their children to school and have a roof over their heads."




Filipiniana fit for shieks and kings: Native furniture and accessories handcrafted by the Ifugaos of the Cordilleras and the Mangyans of Mindoro.





The Ifugaos have their own traditional crafts, "most of which are surprisingly sophisticated," Yola points out. Pointing to fine handiwork on display at her shop, she enthuses: "Look at this Ifugao desk-look at the way the handles were designed. Look at that barrel over there. It's all very modern and yet it is supposed to be primitive art."

The hardy Ifugaos are so receptive to what's new they may well be as resilient as bamboo. They're very modern, not constrained at all. "I saw these life-size carvings of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe up there in the mountains," a bemused Yola recounts.

At the same time, they're such sticklers for traditional practices/rituals. For instance, if somebody died or got married, they have to kill a pig.

"What I really found awesome is the fact that they put their hearts into what they're doing," Yola heartily observes.





Basket craze: "The weavers are addicted to the process," says Perez. "The oil in the abaca has a therapeutic effect on the body."





And thus does Yola continuously discover new materials and old souls. It's amazing how such an old art has survived the ravages of time and technology. "Yes, everything is done by hand," says Yola. "Actually, the weavers are addicted to this process, it's very meditative. In fact, if there are no orders, they get sick. I was told it has a very therapeutic effect. I think it's the oil in the abaca that has a therapeutic effect on the body."






Native granary carved with modern lines.






There are those unbelievable stories people love to spin. One story goes that there were two maidens with their face full of pimples. After three months of working the looms, their pimples disappeared. Yola hastens to explain: "They say it could be the oil in the abaca because when you weave, you hold the fibers and comb them with your hands. The weaver continuously touches the abaca for like eight to ten hours."

Then there was this talk going around that one weaver who was mute from birth was able to talk after weaving for several months. "They were so shocked when he started to talk," says Yola. "At first, he called out the name of the person beside him. And then he pronounced his name. Now he can converse with people."



One of the popular baskets for export abroad.

Yola's SouMak continues to weave miracles out of our indigenous materials. Among the bestsellers abroad are the abaca rugs. For instance, some of these rugs have stepped into man a sophisticated home in New York.

Always a step ahead, the Binding Fibrous Matting weave, which Yola designed, swept for her the grand prize for floor covering at the ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) at the Jacobs Javitts Center. Today, Yola covers floors all over the world with her abaca-raffia mats.

"A 6ft. by 9 ft. rug would take a single weaver one month to make if he works for 10 hours a day," says Yola. "A bigger one could take three months."

Visit SouMak and stumble on a gold mine of native products. Sitting in a conspicuous corner is a long table designed by Yola's daughter Popi Laudico, an architect. "It's made of wood from an old, old house in Binondo that was torn down," says Yola. "it's very, very old and very, very hard. In fact, it's the only existing piece of supa this wide. And even if its thin, it is so heavy because of its density. It took seven to 10 men to lift it. Malacanang has a collection of this."




Perez leans against a native chair: "For our wood, we only choose fallen trees that have cut their cords from the earth."





The environmentally conscious Yola adds: "For our wood, we only choose fallen trees that have finally cut their cords from the earth. The government has given the people of the Cordilleras the right to cut down dead wood because it's their livelihood."

The Ifugao carver painstakingly etches forms echoing the send to the rain forest, converting the lowly wood into an object desired by kings.

Then there are the nito baskets. Go ahead, open the baskets. They're not only decorative but functional, too. "Some are used by Ifugaos for storing their rice," Yola says, pointing to a big circular basket. "Our nito baskets are fast becoming popular here and abroad. And they're not that expensive compared to those Indian baskets which were auctioned off at Sotheby's for a princely price of US$19,000 apiece."






Baskets of nito and abaca are not only decorative but functional, too, used by the Ifugaos for storing rice.







Yola rues: "The works of our indigenous tribes are sadly forgotten and ignored. I think Bea Zobel tried to push the nito baskets of the Mangyans but they were just ignored by the public. We have to educate our own people to love our own products. And because our colonial mentality is so ingrained in us, I think we should let people outside see our products first so our locals can appreciate them."

According to Yola, she has young designer clients who are forever in search of things outside the country. When they come back, they see those things here. Bewitched and bewildered, they ask: Dito pala yan ginawa (So it was made here)?

Yola's works adorn many a tony office and home in Makati. Yola's clients include Maritel Nievera of the Cabalen chain of restaurants, lawyer Tunting Cruz-Matters, Lizzie Zobel, Reimon Gutierrez, Doris Magsaysay-Ho and Gretchen Barretto.

"Not that we cater only to the rich and famous," says Yola. "I want every Filipino to be able to afford us."

Aside from its Makati showroom, Artemis also carries SouMak items.

"It's been a learning experience for me," Yola waxes ecstatic. "I've learned a lot a from our very talented local artisans."

Keep on dreaming, Yola!