Maia Cruz Palileo, “Nochebuena” (2013), oil on canvas, 33 x 48 inches (courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Early in her career, Brooklyn painter Maia Cruz Palileo sought to translate her family’s history into fine art. Working with photographs from the 1960s and ‘70s, she painted a visual memoir of their emigration from the Philippines and resettlement in Chicago. During this time, she discovered several public archives from the Philippine-American War, colonial period, and World War II that portray Americans as noble saviors. Further research into these events revealed an absence of native Filipino perspectives prior to the country’s independence, due primarily to generations of Western omission. 

Seeing her culture fragmented in this way, Palileo came to terms with her identity as a Filipina- American. Since then, she has ventured to untether Filipino history from American exceptionalism. Eschewing Western narratives, her work recontextualizes the diaspora on its own terms, pulling customs from colonial clutches and realigning them in robust color palettes. Broad brushstrokes and thickly applied paints result in expressive scenes that exist somewhere between representation and abstraction, as if drawn from memory. 

Maia Cruz Palileo, “The Visitors” (2014), oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches (Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne)

Palileo’s latest exhibition, on view at American University’s Katzen Arts Center, charts this journey from self-discovery to political awakening. Her family portraits exhibit thick, sinuous line work against rich shades of pink and turquoise — colors she recalls from childhood trips to Manila. In “The Visitors,” she conjures a memory of her great-aunt, who had visions of deceased relatives at the end of her life. Sitting casually on her back porch, the elderly woman gazes at two men in trench coats slightly obfuscated by foliage. Their ghostly presence is made more illusory by the sweeping brush and broadleaves throughout the scene. Much of the empty space around them dissolves into translucent white, resulting in a composition as intangible as a dream or hallucination. 

Maia Cruz Palileo, “A Luzon Thicket (Even Generals Rest)” (2016), oil on canvas over panel, 60.5 x 24 inches (courtesy of the artist)

More recent paintings and graphite rubbings unwind ethnographic stereotypes popularized by American zoologists, who viewed Filipinos as savages in need of civilizing. “A Luzon Thicket (Even Generals Rest)” references archival photographs of American soldiers seated beside dead Filipinos, which looked to the artist like macabre versions of Édouard Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l‘herbe.” In Palileo’s rendering, military men laze indifferently across a sprawling yellow landscape, with some bodies only partially formed and faces devoid of features. Dark splotches of paint in the foreground resemble skulls and stray body parts, underscoring the soldiers’ nonchalance. 

One of the smallest paintings in the show, “Burying Teeth,” reinterprets a Filipino folktale in which children throw baby teeth on rooftops to grow stronger new ones. Huge teeth descend from a slanted roof as a distressed native toils at the earth. Nearby, a pale white man in business attire observes from an elevated perch. One inters symbols of hope as the other sits comfortably, making direct eye contact with the viewer. This is an apt metaphor for the history of American colonialism in the Philippines, misrepresented as an earnest attempt at cultural reform. Palileo’s work challenges this collective ignorance in Western thought, instead highlighting the resilience of ordinary people and setting the stage for greater discussions of postcolonial heritage. 

Maia Cruz Palileo continues at Katzen Arts Center, American University (4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.) through August 11, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Isabel Manalo. 

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.