Childlike Wonder: A Look Into Reen Barrera's Universe

The man behind “Ohlala” and “Duge,” Reen Barrera offers works of hope for the future, each inspired by his childhood experiences.

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Asia’s October 2023 Issue.

Another Filipino artist gets to shine in the Land of the Rising Sun! Reen Barrera has extensively exhibited his in-demand works in the Philippines and abroad but this is his first solo exhibition in Japan. His solo exhibition will encompass two floors of over 30 works ranging from paintings on canvas and paper to sculptures to automata (a moving mechanical device imitating a human being). 

Barrera's "Find My Way Home" automata
Barrera’s “Find My Way Home” automata

This major show is in Root K, a gallery based in Shinjuku, Tokyo. This was arranged by his Philippine Gallery, Vinyl on Vinyl, who were introduced to the Root K people during a group exhibition that included Barrera’s work organized by another Filipino gallery, Galerie Stephanie.

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His show is entitled Yes, Can Do! The exhibition will showcase a comprehensive range of Barrera’s works; from the artist’s universally beloved “Ohlala” and “Duge” paintings to his kinetic automata wooden sculptures and experimental abstract works. Both “Ohlala” and “Duge” have been painted and made into an automaton. 


The internationally celebrated artist has held solo exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout Asia, Europe, and America. He has recently collaborated with Philippines’ largest provider of mobile money services, GCash, on an “Ohlala” NFT Collection. Gaining great traction over recent years, the artist has amassed a great following of international collectors as a leading emerging artist. Barrera’s works are compassionate at heart. Perceptive and benevolent, his works are both a work of soft social critique and a letter of hope for future generations. 

Barrera's acrylic on canvas work, "Off The Bat"
Barrera’s acrylic on canvas work, “Off The Bat”

He grew up a “toy-deprived” child and spent his childhood repairing wooden church statues. He would keep the excess wood scraps and use them as material for making toys. This fuelled his creativity in using other kinds of available material, such as carton boxes, paper and sticks, to build his handmade toys. This has strongly influenced his work. His paintings are crowded with images, with colors taken from the streets. Sculptures in wood, resin and cloth, still completely handmade, have a charming art brut sensibility. In retrospect, these childhood activities would subsequently bear fruit to the creativity and imagination sublimated in his current work. Inspired by the artist’s very own childhood experiences, one driving appeal behind Barrera’s works is their reflection of the artist’s conviction to create his own destiny, overcome socio-economic barriers, and leave his mark behind. 

Reen Barrera with Ohlalas
Reen Barrera with Ohlalas

Barrera’s work features his signature characters: “Ohlala” and “Duge.” Ohlala’s face is decorated with symbols and patterns, based on the idiom “it is written all over your face.” He explains that facial expressions can communicate beyond words. The doll’s name comes from an oft-heard French exclamation of surprise, sometimes with sexual connotations, delivered by his father who is based in Paris as an overseas worker. Barrera was born in Paris, France but returned to the Philippines as a child where he was raised. His work is drawn from childhood memories and words he would constantly hear. “Duge” is the Visayan pronunciation for “dog,” a tribute to how his family would pronounce the word.

Another acrylic on canvas entitled "On The Go"
Another acrylic on canvas entitled “On The Go”

Read more by purchasing a copy of the Lifestyle Asia October 2023 magazine via or select newsstands in National Bookstore and Fully Booked. Subscribe to the E-Magazine via Readly, Magzter, and Press Reader.

Photos courtesy of Vinyl on Vinyl.

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