The programs in American studies and Asian American studies, in cooperation with the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Art and Archaeology, presented an art exhibition and public conversation to the University and local community on Oct. 6, 2021, in honor of Filipino American History Month.
It’s half past four on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in the Colab of the Lewis Arts Complex. A small crowd has gathered around the Filipina dancer Annielille “Ani” Gavino, who dons a delicate dress made from manila envelopes. Her skin peeks out through the negative space forming the dress’s floral patterns, and residual paper cutouts litter the floor around her like trampled marigolds. With elegant, undulating movements, she lifts a slip of paper featuring the phrase “SALAMAT PO” (“thank you” in Tagalog) nested within a constellation of stars. From time to time, she utters the words aloud and bows, keeping her gaze transfixed on the sign in front of her. When Gavino slides out from under the hem and leaves the dress to hang mid-air, deflated and abject, I find myself feeling empty as well, and yearn for the dress to be animated once more.
Gavino’s performance marks the beginning of “300 Years in a Convent, 50 in Hollywood,” an event organized in celebration of Filipino American History month. The exhibition features the works of NExSE, or Northeast by Southeast — an emerging intergenerational collective of Filipino American artists spanning New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania — including Julio Austria, Jeho Bitancor, Mic Diño Boekelmann, Francis Estrada, Ben Iluzada, Ged Merino, Eva Marie Solangon, and Maria Stabio (the paper dress, by the way, is Boekelmann’s work). As the artists explain, the exhibition’s title — “300 Years in a Convent, 50 in Hollywood” — is an idiomatic expression coined by the Filipina journalist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, often used by Philippine locals to describe their colonial history.
After a brief exhibition walk-through, the audience is invited into the Lewis Center Forum, where Paul Nadal, assistant professor of English and American studies, and Anne Cheng, professor of English, moderate a conversation with Patrick Flores, curator and professor of art studies at the University of the Philippines, and the participating artists. To open the discussion, Flores provides a brief overview of how the Philippines’s colonial history has influenced the artistic work of the Filipino diaspora. He emphasizes the role of the international biennale in coordinating an “extensive locality” for Filipino artists abroad and in the Philippines. When modernity and coloniality intersect to create the contemporary, Flores suggests, the work of these artists becomes inextricable from the political turmoil of home. The movement of the Philippine diaspora is embodied in the movement of the art object, as it migrates from one museum or biennale to the next.
The history that Flores charts is a telling of modern art history that diverges from the traditional narrative of formal innovation, and instead focuses on the inherently political nature of art — particularly for those who do not fit the archetype of the white male artist. For the Filipino American artists of NExSE who are descendants of this legacy, the politics of art are made manifest through language. Language, Ged Merino notes during the artist talkbacks, is one of the first obstacles we face when we move abroad and are removed from our native environments. Employing language as a medium for art, then, is doubly political — both in emphasizing the daily struggle of the immigrant to articulate oneself, and also in its provocation that art need not be a descendant of the traditional canon in order to be worthy of our attention.
As an intergenerational collective, each of the artists in NExSE has a different story to tell about language, and thus a different way of relaying its materiality. For Ben Iluzada and Eva Marie Solangon, who were born in the United States and struggled to communicate with their parents growing up, language becomes a means of reconnecting with family and their Filipino roots. Julio Austria and Jeho Bitancor directly comment on the immigrant experience, with works that explore language as a daily negotiation between the self and the other. Mic Boekelmann, who moved to Germany and Israel before finally settling in the United States, speaks about becoming a “master assimilator,” while Ged Merino notes that language for Filipinos provides a means of navigating multicultural identities through code-switching. Francis Estrada, who moved to America when he was thirteen, wrestles with the temporal sensitivity of language in his work, noting that words such as “AmBoy” (American Boy) and “Dream Land” have acquired different associations as he has spent more time in the United States. Maria Stabio similarly tracks the way words develop layered meanings over time by creating her own vocabulary of signs which she employs in her paintings. Reflective of the rich variety of these multi-generational experiences, the exhibition features a vast range of mediums, from ready-made sculpture to the artist book. In their variation, the works form an assemblage that activates language as an central organizing node for the artists of NExSE, and more broadly, the wide- ranging experiences of the Filipino diaspora.
Language presumes the presence of bodies — yet throughout the exhibit, there are few formal representations of the human figure. Where one might expect to find a body, one is instead met with its spectral trace. A black mosquito net, part of one of Ged Merino’s installations, hangs suspended in the air, creating an architectural cavern that seems to await someone’s return. In “AmBoy” by Francis Estrada, the periphery of the painting forms the main subject of the work: a shimmering golden frame adorned with color fauna and flora. The work’s center — an area of the paper boxed in by the painted gold frame — remains white and untouched, as though a portion of the painting has gone missing. From Jeho Bitancor’s readymade sculptures, Tagalog seeps out of everyday objects such as a Michael Kors handbag and scuffed sneakers, hauntingly reanimating these personal belongings and thrusting them into a liminal state of object-being. Language, as a system of signs and symbols that signify meaning, seems to preempt or even replace the body in these works.
By centering language in their art, the artists of NExSE actively reclaim their Filipino American identity and reform history. Language has often been used as a tool of exclusion in American immigrant legislation, such as in the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred “illiterates” from admission to America. By weaving fragments of Tagalog — one of the most commonly spoken native languages of the Philippines — into the gallery, the artists hijack the exclusivity of the modernist white cube to create an exclusive experience of their own. In doing so, they perform a double intervention in both Western art history and American history, promoting an ethos of inclusivity in how we tell these grand narratives. Maricar Almeda ’22, a Filipino American student who attended the event, speaks to this sense of exclusive belonging created by the artists’ use of language. Her response to NExSE’s work beautifully articulates how exclusion and inclusion go hand-in-hand, mediated through one’s knowledge of and experience with a certain language:
“For years now I have yearned to form and reform connections with my Filipino identity and being in a room full of people who were celebrating art created by Filipino artists was a very cathartic experience. I had the insight that I assume many people in the room lacked and that was that I could speak and understand Tagalog. I felt like I was in on something that the others were not. This exclusivity felt special to me and I felt a connection to the art and the artists. I could also hear Filipino as some of the pieces included dialogue played on a speaker. At certain points, I was overwhelmed with emotion like I was finally nourishing a part of myself that I had neglected for so long.”
As someone who does not understand Tagalog, my experience of the exhibition was both exhilarating and disorienting. I recognized the formal characteristics of language, as the works all used English letters, and could maybe even read aloud certain words if I tried, but I could not make sense of their meaning. I felt estranged from these familiar letters, and so I sensed the force of their presence even stronger.
Yet though I was alienated from language, I did not feel excluded. As a fellow Asian American, I related to the experience of feeling estranged from one’s family and marginalized by American culture. But more importantly, as a young person struggling to find my place in the world, I empathized with the crisis of identity that many of these works seem to address through language. By harnessing the storytelling power of art, the artists of NExSE expressed something about the experience of being alive and human that allowed the cultural and linguistic specificity of their work to become a channel for meaning, rather than a barrier to understanding.