NEWARK — Theodore S. Gonzalves, director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center and curator at its National Museum of American History, has called Carlos Villa “the most significant U.S.-based visual artist of Filipino descent of the latter half of the twentieth century.” Yet the exhibition Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision, which opened at the Newark Museum of Art (NMOA) on February 17 and travels in June to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, then to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI, where Villa had studied and taught), is not only the artist’s first major museum retrospective in the United States but also the first ever devoted to a Filipino American artist.
Beyond the Bay Area, where he was born and where he practiced, taught, and organized “art actions” for almost half a century, and apart from generations of Filipino and other artists of color he influenced, Villa remains largely invisible in modern and contemporary art history. Although his works are in the collections of SFMOMA, the Oakland Museum, the Whitney Museum, and elsewhere, they are rarely displayed in (and several only recently acquired by) these institutions.
As an East Coast-based Filipina, I viewed Villa’s work in person for the first time at the Newark show. What’s most striking about the pieces in the exhibition — the wearables, body casts, mixed-media paintings, and ephemera from art actions — is their sense of presence, even in absence.
Hanging by the gallery’s entrance, “Painted Cloak” (1971) commands attention: an unstretched canvas cut in a semicircle to resemble unfurled wings, its surface is airbrushed with a hypnotic, coiling pattern accented by tufts of feathers; a contrasting royal blue and purple taffeta lining bears impressions of the artist’s hands. Like the casts of “Artist’s Feet” (1979-80) displayed nearby, the vestment may be uninhabited, but it’s not inert. Its organic materiality conjures a visceral, even metaphysical awareness. Villa’s invention is on full display in this work, yet it has only received due attention in recent years. (Most notably, his works were included in the 2019 Singapore Biennale by Filipino artistic director Patrick Flores.)
“Painted Cloak” was Villa’s response to his teacher Walt Kuhlman’s assertion that “there is no Filipino art history.” Presented alongside the Villa exhibition is a related installation in the NMOA’s Asian Galleries of Oceanic and Filipino ethnographic art — functional, ceremonial, the kind of non-European art you could encounter at institutions in the mid-20th century. NMOA curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom even posits that Villa may have viewed these objects in the 1967 exhibition Art of the South Sea Islands while he was living in New York.
After an early career as a minimalist, Villa’s turn toward cultural expression in “Painted Cloak” and other works from the 1970s was influenced by his study of Oceanic and African art to fill in the lacuna of Filipino art in art historical narratives. Equally influential on his work was returning to San Francisco in the wake of the Third World Liberation Front strikes, seeing Black and Chinese youth asserting their own style, and recognizing how important that idea of self-affirmation was.
“Becoming” a Filipino American artist meant situating himself in an artistic lineage hailing from pre-contact archipelagic peoples whose trade and cultural networks spanned the continents of Asia and Africa, but it also meant contending with the colonized, hybridized parts of himself. For the series My Uncles (1993–96), Villa built eight-foot-tall wooden structures resembling doorways, which he used to frame assembled vignettes about the “manongs.” Manong is an honorific that refers to older men, used in the agrarian Ilocos region, where many early-20th century Filipino migrants (including Villa’s parents) were from.
Among the works in the series is “My Father Walking Up Kearny Street for the First Time” (1995), which features a gray fedora in the foreground set against towers of black feathers receding into the focal point of a miniature bronze plate engraved with the word “desire.” In this scene, the immigrant chases a distant object of desire through the menacing urban jungle. Stenciled words evoke the immigrant’s internal tension: “ORIENT,” “SILENCE,” “SELF LOATHE,” “PRESSING,” “PRESSURE.”
Just as “Painted Cloak” manifested the Filipino American artist for Villa, fedoras were sartorial talismans for the manongs, who desired recognition as Americans and donned them after work to dance halls. The manongs had slipped through a door briefly opened to the United States: as US nationals under American colonial rule, Filipinos were exempt from the 1924 ban on Asian immigrants and filled ensuing labor shortages in the agriculture and fishery industries.
Instead of freedom, they found their lives circumscribed to Single Room Occupancy housing, like the I-Hotel, in ethnic enclaves like San Francisco’s Manilatown, bordered by Kearny, Jackson, Sacramento, and Montgomery Streets. My own grandfather — disillusioned by California, where signs like “No Dogs and No Filipinos Allowed” were ubiquitous — returned permanently to the Philippines after the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act reversed Filipinos’ status to “aliens” and limited their migration to and from the US.
Villa resisted the label “political” to describe his art. However, his interdisciplinary “art actions” were inherently political, rooted in and deliberately centering communities marginalized by the art and academic establishment. These include Other Sources (1976), which redresses narratives missing from the US Bicentennial celebrations; Rehistoricizing the Time Around Abstract Expressionism in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1950s–1960s, which highlights overlooked contributions by women and artists of color to the titular art movement; and Worlds in Collision (1989–2001), a series of exhibitions, symposia, publications, and other projects resulting from Villa’s conversations with feminist art historian Moira Roth and activist, scholar, and fellow SFAI faculty member Angela Y. Davis about the need for diversity and inclusion in museums and academia.
The erasure of Villa from the annals of cultural history has everything to do with the complications and divergences that his art introduced to the dominant narrative, including a reckoning with American imperialism and white supremacy and the elevation of art actions — that is, community engagements and collaborations around art, performance, and “street scholarship” — as art.
As Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color are rewriting the canon to restore excluded histories through socially engaged art practices, it’s an opportune moment to (re)discover Villa. The original Worlds in Collision symposia were characterized by Chicana artist and scholar Amalia Mesa-Bains as “retrospective and futuristic”; this description applies to Villa’s retrospective as well. After all, now is the moment we’re reckoning with the past and taking actions to advance our collective futures.
Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision continues at the Newark Museum of Art (49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey) through May 8. The exhibition was organized by the San Francisco Art Institute and the Asian Art Museum, including curators Abby Chen, head of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, Trisha Lagaso Goldberg (SFAI), and Mark D. Johnson (San Francisco State University).
The exhibition travels to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on June 17 and the San Francisco Art Institute on September 21.