The Philippine archipelago is home to the jasmine flower, Manila hemp, carabao, Visayan spotted deer, ferns, orchids, and a landscape of mountains and valleys. Ocean weaves between the islands. In a globalized world, it is commonplace to see natural land masses: rocks, fauna, and nonhuman elements as static, meant for production or consumption. However, the Filipino American artists featured here bind their understandings of the Philippines and the United States by vivifying their artwork, whether it be through the materials, connections with community, or archives. They trouble Western modes of artmaking, building bridges with their work while questioning what that bridge is made of.
“Filipinos in the US make up the second largest Asian population group … [yet their] art remains invisible,” claims the website of NExSE (northeast US by southeast Asia), a Filipino-American artist collective whose intention is to bridge the gaps among Filipino diaspora artists in the northeast US. Collectives like this are one in myriad ways Filipino-American artists are connecting, creating artistic platforms, and engaging with their history and identity.
Mic Diño Boekelmann, uses the Tagalog kababayan to describe NExSE’s ethos: a spirit of collective responsibility and kinship toward peoples of one’s country. The role of collective memory outlines the work of Boekelmann and Carlo Ricafort, who lives in San Francisco. Boekelman works with manila envelopes reminiscent of the golden Manila hemp from which they were originally sourced, informed by the memory of her mother describing the drying plants in the Philippines. Boekelmann remembers these materials back to the land of their growth. Even though he is a nonactive member of Epekto, Ricafort paints abstracted bacterial shapes of space and memory.
“I always try to create my own experience to feed my art,” Julio Jose Austria told Hyperallergic; lately such experiences sprout from his immigration to New York City. Austria was mainly an oil painter in the Philippines, but due to inconsistent work and living spaces, his parameters are whatever is available to him. In “Nomad Sanctuary” (2018), frames that once held European masters’ paintings are adhered to a lively painted drop canvas, all repurposed from Austria’s jobs as an art handler. Each video and installation subverts the art world in which he works.
Jeho Bitancor immigrated to the US from Manila in 2007 and remains active in both places through paintings, installations, performance art, and poetry. “I like to make images that are poetic and direct,” he said. Like Austria, Bitancor often uses, or refers to, everyday materials to symbolize and contextualize social issues. In a recent exhibition, Filipino-American immigrants’ stories flow from the objects they own. “There is an absence and a presence,” Bitancor asserted. The voices draw the traces of life which are worn into the material.
Both Francis Estrada and Magdalena Arguelles approach artifacts as points of departure. Estrada’s work ranges from drawings to traditional Philippine martial arts and cooking. Using archives, media, propaganda, and cultural objects, he recreates history and memory, reinterpreting the images he discovers. The charcoal drawing series “Anak” (2020), gives Filipino bodies from journalistic and ethnographic images new life. Estrada opens a door from the archive, offering alternative understandings of the past.
Arguelles is a collector of papers and fabrics. Lately she has been activating childhood memories of her immigration to the Chicago area. One series is called Dirty Knees (2019), a comment one of her first American teachers made. “I didn’t realize what this meant until I got older,” Arguelles said. Now her work attempts to reclaim the past. “The people have been the Philippines’ biggest commodity,” she mentioned. Filipinos, mostly women, began immigrating to the US in large numbers in the 1940s, often working as nurses or care providers. After almost an entire career as a healthcare worker and mother herself, she recently recommitted to her art practice. To honor the women in her life, Aguelles adorns their personal objects, as in “Tatlo Ng Lolas (Three Lolas)” (2019), in which she embellished her sister’s dresses.
Intimacy toward materials does not always come from the past. For Bay Area artist champoy — who once explored pineapple fields as a child, colonization in the form of long rows embedded into the land in Bukidnon — this intimacy grows. They are spending time with Indigenous elders in northern California. “I am learning to listen,” they said, in their yard where an artwork turned chicken coop finds a home. They locate the sacred within each object, creating ritual awareness around it, such as in “IncogNative” (2022), a performance created in collaboration with their daughter.
Both Maria Stabio and Eva Marie Solangon consider home in their artworks. Stabio once painted black and white rooms, works she described as vacant. Now she uses an airbrush technique to paint designs inspired by the lush colors on 2014 and 2017 trips to the Philippines, where home is bright, loud, and spacious, and Jeepneys are living color along roadways. “They are a celebration,” Stabio said of the works. Home can be as free, layered, and open as the culmination of a mist of airbrushed paint. In “My Original Nature, Internal Architecture and Dark Façade” (2022), Solangon combines three layers of plexiglass panels, collaging acrylic with papers, pop culture items, and textiles that relate to herself, religion, and colonization. Each theme externalizes Solangon’s multiple identities, separated and illuminated in neon, like a sacred text of self.
Hawai’i based Juvana Soliven speaks the language of objects, subverting and reinterpreting what each material and form signifies. She forges metals and weaves paper, she can hear the stories the metals tell as they are forged, like the links of the 2022 Black Satin Wrought Iron series — cold then hot and then cold again. Soliven recently learned the traditional warp-faced technique, using a backstrap loom, from a weaver in Peru; this practice is also used in the Ilocos region of the Philippines. As if weaving between these places connects Indigenous practices, Soliven entwines her way into her own ancestry.
ReConnect/ReCollect, funded by the University of Michigan, is a project strategizing reparative approaches to the vast store of objects extracted from the Philippines over 100 years of exploitative expeditions. Deirdre de la Cruz, associate professor of Southeast Asian studies at the university and co-principal investigator for the project, manages the conduct of the research. In May 2021, ReConnect/ReCollect hosted three artists, including Francis Estrada, to engage with the extensive collection and create artworks from their experience.
Deep in the halls of an offsite location of the University of Michigan “there is room after room of the same filing cabinet,” said de la Cruz. The extracted objects are secured in a sterile climate, but the artists-in-residence, all of Filipino descent, appeared to sanctify them: a mollusk shell, flora, fauna, diaries, photographs, textiles. “Their beauty can’t be contained, they’re humming,” she said.