"Alone" by Niccolo Cosme from “Resplendor: The Blinding Light" exhibit | Courtesy of Niccolo Cosme
“Alone” by Niccolo Cosme from “Resplendor: The Blinding Light” exhibit | Courtesy of Niccolo Cosme

NEW YORK CITY |  Can sensuality be consistent with religious devotion?  Niccolo Cosme, a Filipino photographer, has always thought so even as a young boy growing up in Kawit, Cavite in the Philippines. His new exhibit, “Resplendor: The Blinding Light,” puts forward otherworldly conceptual photographs that embrace an embodied, experiential faith perspective.

“I’ve always believed that individuals have their own realities, and my own reality includes christian icons which are very sensual to me,” says Cosme, a recipient of the “Ani ng Dangal” (Harvest of Honors) award from the National Commission on Culture and the Arts of the Philippines. “These icons make up most of my childhood and the start of my self discovery as a young gay man who practically grew up in the church.”

Filipino photographer Niccolo Cosme
Filipino photographer Niccolo Cosme

The word “Resplendor” is Spanish for “blinding light.” “It is also a term used to call or describe the halo around the face of the statue of the Mater Dolorosa or the sorrowful Virgin Mary,” Cosme adds. The 20 photographs that comprise Cosme’s exhibit, on view at the Philippine Center in New York from August 28 to September 7, 2012, contain messages about HIV and AIDS. Yet in a sense they place a halo of aesthetics and sensuality at the center of Cosme’s Christian-based iconography. There will be a reception with the artist on Friday Aug. 31 at the Philippine Center in midtown from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

His award-winning work, “The Brotherhood of Men,” depicts seven men swirling in the gauzy wave of white cloth, for instance. His photo “Alone” shows a dark-skinned man clinging to a crucified Christ. “The Immeasurable Pain,” another image, explicitly evokes the Pieta and is a tribute to the Maguindanao massacre of 2009 (which the Committee to Protect Journalists consider the single deadliest event for journalists in history).

“The Trials” — (or “Pagsubok”) in which two men locked arm-to-arm with their backs against each other — glamorizes the strain and hardship of being thy brother’s keeper.  Cosme says it was inspired by St. Camillus de Lelis, the patron saint of the sick, as well as of people who provide health care. He dedicates “The Trials” to the brothers and priests of St. Camillus, those who have devoted their lives to people living with HIV and AIDS in the Philippines and around the world.

“I am greatly inspired by the pain and the sorrow of Christian iconography,” Cosme says. “For me the resplendor is ultimately about empowerment, inspiration and the embodiment of positive action despite sorrow and pain that we feel. The pain I feel towards the current situation of the Philippines with HIV and AIDS, most especially among Filipino migrant workers and their families and friends, has inspired me to make a stand and utilize my artworks to inspire others to do the same — to inspire others, too.”

Prior to arriving in the U.S., a number of the “Resplendor” photos have already been exhibited in auspicious places. Several photographs have graced the walls of the House of Representatives, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Asian Institute of Management, all in the Philippines. Others were shown at the Art for AIDS collection of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Three photographs have been exhibited at the United Nations regional center in Bangkok, Thailand. After the New York exhibit, “The Trials” will soon be installed at the UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Without question, the appeal of Cosme’s highly stylized photographs hark to the romanticism and theatricality of Pierre et Gilles (Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard), the French artists (and sexual partners) whose retouched imagery draws heavily from popular culture, gay culture and religion. As a result, Cosme, 32 years old and the son of the TV director Caesar Cosme (“Bampirella” TV series), has garnered awards and accolades for his work. In 2011, Niccolo Cosme won the 7th annual PPA (Professional Photographers of America) Affiliate Asian-Pacific Image Competition in Seoul, Korea with his artwork “The Brotherhood of Men.” This photograph ranked first among more than 400 entries from different countries that included Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and Korea.

"The Brotherhood of Men" by Niccolo Cosme from “Resplendor: The Blinding Light" exhibit | Courtesy of Niccolo Cosme
“The Brotherhood of Men” by Niccolo Cosme from “Resplendor: The Blinding Light” exhibit | Courtesy of Niccolo Cosme

Commenting about the “Ani ng Dangal” award from the National Commission on Culture and the Arts of the Philippines, Cosme says, “I felt honored to have been a recipient of such an award. I was inspired to do what I am doing and inspired to inspire other emerging artists to step forward — to utilize our talents to further great causes, may it be for HIV, the environment and human rights. I just really do what I love to do.”

In combining photography with his advocacy on HIV and AIDS, Cosme admits that many of his photographs do have an erotic quality. “But in reality,” he says, “I am just being true to myself, and being comfortable with my sexuality, hoping to invite others to explore and be comfortable with their own, too.”

Asked how precisely his photographs address the issues of HIV and AIDS among overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), Cosme replies that he sought “to find the pain [experienced by] our brothers and sisters who are affected by the epidemic and find a way to make it relevant to my pain as an individual, as an artist.” He continues, “The photographs may not directly address the message out right. I do want people to think and find a way to make the visual imagery relevant to them, too. My main goal is to make my audience feel the pain that I want them to feel and be inspired to translate that pain into something empowering and beautiful…just like how I see my artworks.”

“The Resplendor” exhibit comes to New York via a San Francisco engagement in early August hosted by the API Wellness Center. The New York exhibit at the Philippine Center is co-sponsored by APICHA Community Health Center. Additional support was made possible by 2GO Travel and 2GO Express in cooperation with Kalusugan Coalition.

"The Trials" ("Pagsubok") by Niccolo Cosme from “Resplendor: The Blinding Light" exhibit | Courtesy of Niccolo Cosme
“The Trials” (“Pagsubok”) by Niccolo Cosme from “Resplendor: The Blinding Light” exhibit | Courtesy of Niccolo Cosme

Cosme uses photography to bring social awareness and highlight the importance of being tested for HIV in other ways. He founded Headshot Clinic, a social networking platform for advocacy and for commercial purposes. Last year he was a goodwill ambassador for Levi’s (Philippines). This year, he served as a goodwill ambassador for the Philippine youth movement “Project Pagsulong.” Together with other HIV advocates, he founded the Red Whistle, an HIV prevention campaign. (For more information about these efforts, visit www.niccolo-cosme.com.)

“My personal battle with HIV as an affected (not infected) individual started back in 2008 when a friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV,” Cosme says. “He came out to me, and I initially thought of collaborating with him to spread the awareness. It was my first time to actually meet someone who was living with HIV. It felt like it was closer to me and to my community during such time when I thought that it was a completely alien thing. As an artist, I have understood that we need to create something that can make people feel the urgency to move and to respond, using visual and auditory symbols as a call to action for intensified advocacy on HIV and AIDS.” — randy gener, in the theater of One World

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