From Filipino Object to American Subject: The Struggle for Filipino American Art

The Filipino community [in Delano, CA] was pretty good size you know? And they call it Chinatown. Why? I have no idea why they call it Chinatown instead of Filipinotown.
–   Paul Chavez, Delano Manongs Film Interview (2014)

“I entered a restaurant [in Los Angeles Little Manila] and heard the lonely sound of my dialect, the soft staccato of home. I knew at once that I would meet some people I had known in the Philippines.”
–  Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart (1946)

“The eastern chrysalis from the Orient is emerging from its cocoon.”
–   Jose Rizal, “Brindis Speech” in Honor of Filipino painters Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo`s dual triumph in Madrid, Spain (1884)

“They have been the artists who challenge us, the educators who keep us informed, and the laborers of our growing economy.”
–  President Barack H. Obama, Special Message during Filipino-American History Month (2016)

FILIPINO MURAL

One sunny Sunday afternoon at Unidad Park in Historic Filipinotown, I was taking a good friend and his family to view the 1995 Filipino mural. I chanced upon a group of college students who heard about the Filipino mural from their Filipino Club. I explained that my intention was to visually contextualize and humanize the Filipino farmworkers, who toiled the vast fields of California for over five decades. Referred to as “manongs”, these early settlers were consistently objectified and dehumanized, as chronicled in Carlos Bulosan’s seminal work, America is in the Heart (1946). Filipino farmworkers were often viewed and dismissed as “just Mexican” or “just Chinese” – their enclave in Delano CA was referred to as “Chinatown”.

I proceeded to explain that although the central figure on the wall may seem to be Philip Vera Cruz, in reality, Larry Itliong is the foremost honoree. Art, like nature and life itself, is constantly transformed and ever shifting. The mural is not literal and is built on several overlapping layers of meaning and narratives; a journey, not a destination.

Most visitors assume that the mural is about Cesar Chavez. I had placed Manong Philip strategically because his facial features are closer to Chavez than Itliong’s; and I intentionally went further to modify his facial features to resemble Chavez. Upon closer inspection, the students noticed that a Babaylan (ancient Filipina spiritual leader), with arms spread wide, held a lighted presentation dish directly above Larry Itliong. This image signifies his foremost place in the mural and completes the visual circumvention – challenging the comfort zone and expectations of most, surprising those who are unfamiliar with Filipino American heritage and history.

The foreground consists of the dual bust portraits of Itliong and Vera Cruz with a scene from the Delano Grape Strike. This tableau is essentially the mural’s focal point. All else is background, contained within a giant bird (representing Filipino American History) and a fish crossing the ocean (representing Philippine History). Both the bird and fish are the two elements of the “Sarimanok”, a mythical Maranao creature that symbolizes the convergence of the heavenly and terrestrial domains of the Filipino universe. The bird (heavenly domain) soars toward the right side of the mural, where the scenes contained within the fish (terrestrial domain) are located.

Thus, the mural reads from right to left, even though the entire composition is camouflaged as a traditional timeline. In addition to the visual switch from Chavez to Vera Cruz and from Vera Cruz to Itliong, another intentional rearrangement is the placement of two stellar Fil-Am Athletes, Pancho Villa and Vicky Draves, on both sides of the “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” 1940s Hotel entrance signage in Stockton, CA. Carlos Bulosan is depicted on the right side of Pancho Villa, who was well-known during the 1920s-1930s, and Bulosan is perceived to be an earlier historical figure.  The author of America is in the Heart appeared in history much later than the iconic boxer, who is set on Bulosan’s left.

HI-FI WESTERN GATEWAY

After the Filipino mural and Unidad Park, one of the recent landmarks I co-designed with community input is the “Hi-Fi Western Gateway” on Temple Street and Silverlake Boulevard. This uniquely Filipino marker welcomes visitors to the district and embodies the argument that the first officially sanctioned “Filipinotown” outside the Philippines is like an artifact in a museum. Historic Filipinotown is not deemed to be the dynamic, living enclave heralded in other Asian communities such as Thai Town, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Bangladesh, Little Saigon, Little Taipei, Koreatown and Cambodia Town.  By adding the word “Historic” to the name of the Filipino section of Los Angeles, the city implied that it is only Filipinotown in the past, and not in the present.  Thus, Filipinotown is no longer a subject, but an object or a historic artifact.

To counter this impression, I minimized the font for the text of “Historic” and enlarged the font for “FILIPINOTOWN”. In addition, the Barong Tagalog-esque designs frame the text on the front while the Bakunawa (Maranao/Filipino dragon) are depicted on both sides of the stone marker.

I stylized the Bakunawa and the Barong Tagalog designs, to reference the two golden ages of Filipino culture: the “Indianized Kingdoms of the Philippines” (900 AD-1565) and the “Generation of 1896/1898”. These two iconic designs of Filipino culture engraved in stone are intended to manifest our shared humanity with the rest of Angelenos.  Furthermore, these public art projects, which directly address what I call the “visual dehumanization” of Filipinos and Filipino Americans, is most effective when the same intervention infiltrates the walls of American museums. Thus, “Buklod: A Gathering of Filipino and Filipino American Art and Artists” was conceived.

BUKLOD

The artists of Buklod aim to assert the arts and culture of Filipino-Americans in the Western Canon. Their work challenges and disrupts in order to energize, while reimagining and re- contextualizing the Filipino as an object into the Filipino as a subject in the US cultural landscape. Although many Filipino-American artists have been recognized in the art world, their cultural heritage is rarely highlighted nor has there been a body of work categorized as Filipino- American masterpieces in the 600 years of the history of painting. In addition, as a historic first, the show contextualizes their art with Filipino and Filipino-American masters, liberating them from being surrogates of other ethnicities. Artistic lineage should always be traced back to its own cultural heritage –  their very artistic fingerprint.  This way, when the visitors to the show decide on experiencing and eventually owning original work from the artists of Buklod, they will also be aware that they are indirectly taking a piece of Filipino masters such as Botong, Manansala and Luna, and even perhaps Filipino-American greats such as Villa, Abad and Ossorio. Oftentimes, most artists in the United States who focuses on painting Filipino and Filipino American images, are assigned simply as surrogates of masters from any other culture besides their own.

This exhibition gathers contemporary Los Angeles-based Filipino artists, who anchor their work in their heritage and maintain active community involvement to further their respective passion projects as artists.

Hana ACBD is one of the new artists in Los Angeles. Her painting “Filipiniana” is one of the multiple highlights of this collection of over 80 works of art from six Filipino and Filipino American artists. The title and theme of Hana’s piece is culled from the term pertaining to anything and everything Filipino, and portrays the larger themes of wellness and centrality. On the surface, Hana’s work seems to be an affirmation of ethnic pride; however, it re-imagines the idea that anything inherently Filipino is consigned to the margins (unfashionable, irrelevant, backwards, and kitsch).  All that is foreign to the Philippines takes center stage, recasting Filipino imagination and culture as "The Other". “Filipiniana” challenges us to think seriously about objectification and the implications of internalized oppression encroaching on an entire people. “Filipiniana” propels us to rethink the idea that imperialism and colonial education uplifted or enhanced the civilization of subjected people. Some of her work recalls watercolor and wax on paper paintings by Filipino artist Alfonso Ossorio, such as “Rose Mother”, most evident in the painting titled “Alon”. Hana’s figurative pieces channel the works of Pacita Abad, recalling the 1991 Abad painting, “Filipina: A Racial Identity Crisis” in her 9x12 miniature painting “Lihim na Hardin (Secret Garden).

In terms of culture as an object, three artists – Diyan Bukobomba, Champoy and Nicanor Evangelista, Jr. – transform artifacts such as coconuts, the Rice Granary guardian sculptures or Bulol, and everyday found objects, infusing them with meaning, content and character. All three artists have paintings included in the show as well. Diyan creates a straight path from her ancestors to identifiers of her Bicolano roots and Filipino culture through solar art.  By channeling the multiple deities populating the ancient Filipino universe through the rays of the sun as her paintbrush, Diyan magnifies silenced voices into megaphones that speak to a wide audience, giving these voices new meaning and life. Champoy re-arranges reclaimed materials into relics of his personal cosmology and imagination. His works are in constant flux and combine pop surrealism with street art. Champoy’s assemblages recall the work of David Medalla, originator of the Bubble Machine, with participatory and communal experiences being pivotal to his practice. Both Diyan and Nicanor Evangelista, Jr. share an affinity with Medalla’s playful, inventive and expansive universe of art-making. Their work shows the primacy of play, ideas, nature, non-traditional materials for art-making and found objects, inherent in the art of Roberto Chabet, the father of conceptual art in the Philippines. Nicanor is similarly multifaceted in his output as a musician, cinematographer and artist. He creates art inspired by Filipino indigenous tattoo art and shares new work in this show, which adds another dimension by featuring the quintessential form of Filipino sculpture, the Bulul or Rice Granary guardian figures. Nicanor`s section of the exhibit takes us straight into the creations of the leaders of the Indie-genius Art Movement such as Roberto Villanueva, Junyee and the Father of Independent Filipino Cinema himself, the legendary Kidlat Tahimik and his equally prodigious son and my fellow PHSA (Philippine High School for the Arts) alumni- Kawayan De Guia. Nicanor’s ancestry – Tagalog, Kapampangan, Macau and Visayan – shapes and drives his passion to create his own sacred geometry lifted from his own imagination.

Another Buklod artist born in America besides Diyan, Lyn Pacificar traces her Philippine roots to her Waray and Ilonggo heritage. Lyn takes us deep into the vast underwater realm of the Philippine oceans, which have mostly been preserved and undisturbed for millennia. Her trip to her ancestral homeland in 2015, combined with the passing of her late father, informed her technique of creating multiple layers in oil and mixed media on canvas to reveal images both real and abstract into an engaging, healing and contemplative experience. Her work enhances the collection and reminds us of Pacita Abad’s series of underwater-themed mixed media paintings, known as “Underwater Wilderness” (1983-1989), covering multidimensional aspects of Filipino culture, touching on land, sea and sky.

Finally, my new work for this show embraces sparring ideas and intentionally disrupts the expected in order to bring attention to new ideas or to begin conversations. In the painting entitled “Sixto Lopez Arriving at Manila Village in 1903”, I re-imagined a largely unknown, yet historical, landmark event in Filipino America. The painting is a reconstruction of the icon of American painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. This is the first of several in a series that directly infiltrates American painting and depicts them with lush Filipino American landscapes, portraits, urban scenes, domestic interiors and historical events; channeling what Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo accomplished during the 1800s utilizing Spanish painting with Roman themes as stand-ins to represent Filipinos.

Accompanying BUKLOD is a collection of color prints culled by curator Edwin Ramoran from the works of Filipino American Masters, many of whom have successfully synthesized their practice to become part of museum collections in the United States. Entitled “OBRA PINTURA: PinoyArtWork (Filipino American Masterpieces from Alfonso Ossorio to Maia Cruz Palileo, 1953-2015)”, this accompanying exhibit was part of last year’s Larry Itliong Day celebration in Historic Filipinotown. Another accompanying exhibit is comprised of monumental sculptures of National Artist Napoleon Abueva and Filipino master Solomon Saprid from the collection of Linda Nietes-Little.

In 1884, while delivering his toasting speech celebrating the dual triumphs of Filipino painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo in Madrid, Spain, then 22-year-old Jose Rizal likened the colonial and subjugated Filipino as a curious object, a cocoon. Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo won the gold and silver medals respectively, which was truly a landmark event. “The Filipino as artist” then was the first to set the Filipino on the world stage, The First Filipino.

That same year, Rizal began writing his first novel, Noli Me Tangere. It was the literary embodiment and manifestation of the Luna and Hidalgo epic canvases, depicting the dehumanization of Filipinos, as 1) spoils of war deep underneath the Roman Coliseum, and 2) female virgins being sold to the mob. Rizal’s writings have been credited as foundational texts of the Philippine Wars of Independence and the establishment of the first Republic of the Philippines. Thus, the prophetic toasting speech or “1884 Brindis speech of Rizal” precipitated fertile ground for Filipino culture and a sovereign modern Filipino state to flourish. This is the harbinger of the destiny of Filipino art and artists. Rizal’s writing challenges us to transform the Filipino as object into a subject worthy of imagination, culture, dignity and civilization.

Aspirations that were ignited in their motherland 133 years ago are the same that the Filipino artists of Buklod intend to propagate and continue in the United States.