Finding rebirth in Zachary Alcoseba’s art

RAGING horse sculpture made out of magkono wood.

This exhibit is a fitting way of drumming up excitement for the NCCA’s celebration of National Indigenous Peoples’ Month in October.

Zachary Alcoseba gives new life to the lowly driftwood in “Stories from the River,” a one-man exhibition that is on view from 5 to 30 September at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Gallery in Intramuros, Manila.

As he transforms wooden debris into functional forms and works of art, Alcoseba also pays homage to the Subanen, the riverine people of Mindanao, particularly in Usugan in the town of Bonifacio, Misamis Occidental. His creative process involves magkono wood and the Subanen indigenous community in his home province in northern Mindanao. This exhibit then is a fitting way of drumming up excitement for the NCCA’s celebration of National Indigenous Peoples’ Month in October.

The naturally rare magkono (Xanthostemon verdugonianus), otherwise called Philippine ironwood, is known to be found in Samar, Leyte, Palawan and Surigao. Highly prized for its durability and rot-resisting characteristic, it has been assessed as vulnerable by the IUCN or International Union for Conservation of Nature (and Natural Resources) under its Red List of Threatened Species. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation has also declared the magkono specie as rare and endangered because of extensive loss of habitat.

However, according to Alcoseba, who is a retired agricultural engineer, such trees may also be found on Mount Malindang, along the Usugan and Lantawan rivers. Rains bring floods, and with them come the magkono driftwood for which Alcoseba and his family search each time they trek to the rivers around their locale. Although he would also harvest pine driftwood, magkono is his favorite because the wood provides a variety of colors and, amazingly, can be identified through its distinct smell.

Magkono wood is heavy and one of the densest in the world. Alcoseba refers to it is as a “sinker” so it is usually submerged in water, buried under sand or rocks and sometimes found in between boulders. When floodwaters carry it along the river, weathering brought about by abrasion results in unique textures and colors such as black, brown, and shades of gray.

He also prefers driftwood found in rivers over those from the ocean. According to the artist, although driftwood found on beaches have better forms, driftwood sourced from rivers have better quality.

DRIFTWOOD turned into a working chair.

The search for the precious driftwood eventually turned into some sort of a treasure hunt and now includes members of the Subanen community and rightly so because Subanen literally means “people of the river.”

The “treasure hunt” has since been a source of livelihood for the Subanon as Alcoseba rewards them for their finds. But what is more precious for Zachary are the priceless stories the Subanen bring to him along with the driftwood—the long walks, the strange encounters and their commune with mother nature. The engineer-turned-artist now fondly refers to them as driftwood hunters and storytellers.


Like a jigsaw puzzle

Never in his wildest dreams did Alcoseba think he would be making these sculptures, let alone be called an artist or a sculptor. At first, he said it was enjoyable, just like child’s play—putting pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. He would even have children from the community join him in his art-making by giving them art workshops for free.

Then the challenge grew because he found out soon enough that the outcome of the life-size sculptures could not be predetermined. At any given time, it could be a horse, a hippo, or a buffalo, depending on the pieces of driftwood found and how they turn out after the finishing process.

ALCOSEBA’S collection features endangered species.

“Today a particular wood may be good as a horse’s head but tomorrow it may look better as that of a water buffalo,” Alcoseba describes.

Form will follow after one has thrillingly and patiently searched for each piece of wood that would fit perfectly together—piece by piece and part by part.

Alcoseba’s animal creations are made of 80 percent magkono driftwood and are all hollow with no armature. The structural support for each sculpture relies solely on the trusses as base and wooden nails or trunnels as fasteners made from the same driftwood. Each large work, depending on the size and availability of materials and time, may be completed in approximately eight months.

Some of the pieces presented in the collection are part of his horse series including “The Raging Horse,” “A Horse with No Name,” “Tikbalang” and “The Daredevil.” Also featured in this exhibition are “Tamaraw,” “Philippine Eagle,” “Philippine Eagle Owl” and “Bertha,” his homage to Manila Zoo’s oldest inhabitant, Bertha the Hippo. Bertha died last year at the age of 65. His latest obra is “Storytelling Chair” in honor of the Subanen.

Through this exhibit, the artist hopes to increase the public’s awareness on environmental concerns such as deforestation and the plight of our endangered species; promote environmental sustainability through recycling; and encourage local alternative income-generating activities through skills, artistic development, and capacity-building.

Truly, Zachary Alcoseba’s passion defines his art and his works embody the definition of creativity and rebirth.

“Stories from the River” runs until 30 September. The NCCA Gallery is located at 633 General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila. For inquiries, call (632) 527-2205 or email

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