In the book, Amorsolo 1892-1972, Alfredo Roces cites an article of the March 10, 1929 edition of Tribune Magazine in discussing the form of foreign patronage in Fernando Amorsolo’s works: ‘Explaining that “60 pictures of typical Filipino life done in the Impressionist manner” was scheduled for exhibition at the Grand Central Art Gallery of New York, the report observed: “It is said that of thirty-two pictures of [Amorsolo] exhibited in the same gallery two years ago only two were not disposed of and those do not treat of the essential Philippine scene.”’ (emphasis my own)
The quotation helps inform this exhibition ‘Other’, which examines ideas of stereotypes, exoticization, authenticity, and their consumption. Set in the context of a hotel which day-to-day regularly acts as collision space of the foreign and the local, the show features artworks, books, a film, Mabini art and tourist items in a self-conscious consideration of typical images of the Other and their mechanisms of circulation.
Yee I-Lann’s work Sulu Stories: The Landmark (2005) features an image of Sulu inhabitants lined up on the beach. Their dark ash-coloured skin and simple clothing form a startling and picturesque contrast to the stunning ultramarine blue coastline which they are positioned by. The work is actually digitally manipulated; the original image source of the locals was a black and white photo taken in 1926 by Lieutenant (j.g.) Leonard Johnson, an American navy surveyor. The photo, inscribed at the top with, ‘A tribe of natives near Jolo’, was a part of coastline surveys which are now a part of the collection of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in America. Taken during the American colonial period, the photo profoundly reflects a moment in the assessment and inspection of foreign lands and its people, as the colonizing force came to discover their newly possessed terrain and its inhabitants. Yee sees continuity from this point to the present day in the idea of territory and tourism. She noted, ‘I see the colonial geographers and surveyors as the front line of violence and penetrators of place…. American naval history in the Sulu region has had a huge affect on its history. The history of the Sulu region, the desire for autonomy, has led to a unique situation whereby the area is essentially closed to outsiders.’ Outsiders, however, can easily avail of miniaturized and bottled versions of a Vinta, ‘a small sailboat…[which] has
become a symbol of the Sulu province’ in Philippine souvenir shops or Filipiniana stores. Purchasing one from the Filipino department store which is fittingly named The Landmark, Yee incorporated the Vinta souvenir’s price tag on the digitally altered image, the subjects now colored and set against an idyllic and pristine beach. Indicating ideas of travel, borders, trophies and signposts, Yee I-Lann’s work looks at invasion and resistance in the engagement with the foreign. The Landmark also finds tension in current contexts, such as in a recent article on plans to lure tourists to Sulu, for those ‘wanting exciting vacations.’ In exchange for consumption of its place and people as destination, Sulu bids for, as its governor has said, greater ‘income and revenue for the province and its people’.
Yee’s work also finds resonance in the 1937 film Brides of Sulu, which has been of especial interest to the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA). Directed by a John Nelson, the American film, featuring Filipino actors and set in Sulu, is without dialogue and is entirely narrated by a single American voice. It is hypothesized by SOFIA that Brides could be an American mask utilizing, in part, Moro Pirates, a silent film work of Filipino director Jose Nepomuceno, and Princess Tarhata, another Filipino silent film (director unknown), both no longer existing films which had been shot in Mindanao and produced in 1931. Perhaps editing two originally Filipino films together and shooting new scenes for a coherent storyline, the Americans packaged the story for an American audience through a patronizing voice-over. While the film is a love story, much of it is also introductory and documentary to the island’s culture. It reflects imperial prejudice, describing the natives as barbaric, never having seen a camera before, and thinking the purpose of soap was to be eaten. As Teddy Co of SOFIA has said, ‘It was reedited to fit the Americans’ colonial designs.’ In a symbolic gesture, SOFIA has attempted to reclaim the film to its probable Filipino origins by showing it as a silent film, even using it as the opening movie for the 5th International Silent Film Festival in 2011. For the ‘Other’ exhibition, Brides of Sulu is again shown as silent but makes available its sound through a separate listening station, playing in disjunction with the film. Hearing it alone allows one to isolate the storyline then imposed by a prevailing power, captured through the projection of the imaginary onto these natives.
This history of colonial invasion and projection then precedes and perhaps underlies the tourism of today, where a culture of difference is now easily packaged as travel mementoes. It is in this light that the show fashions a self-aware Souvenir Boutique, with items purchased from various Filipino souvenir shops. A number of these were bought from the souvenir stores in Manila’s international airport, where the shopkeepers identified their most popular or ‘mabenta’ items. The boutique acts a showcase of the image tropes of the country, what have come to be symbols of ‘Philippines’ or ‘Filipino’ through items for sale. While these may be bought during the duration of the show, no two items are alike and the shop is only replenished weekly and with different objects. The difference in articles posits a sign towards the irreplaceability of cultural heritage, which the empty spaces in the shop, as items are bought and carried off, are also meant to convey.
Among the first items available at the boutique is a miniaturized version of a most popular Philippine icon, the jeepney. From the street to the souvenir shop, this representation has become an emblem of the country’s colonial heritage, native ingenuity, and propensity to decorate. The jeepney image proliferates too in a painting by unknown artist T. Cristobal, bought recently in Mabini – the area notorious for artworks catering to tourists and churning out Philippine archetypal images. The cluster of colorful jeepneys is meant to recall Manila’s traffic bedlam, also probably influenced by Vicente Manansala’s famous Jeepneys (1951). In another Mabini artwork, by another unknown, Rey Calma, a dramatic sunset forms the background to a tropical landscape. These works bring to the fore clichéd images which continue to permeate and perpetuate due to its easily marketable, packaged and sellable identity.
Iconography is also looked into in Jevijoe Vitug’s Classical Scandal (2006). Vitug examines the ideal Filipina beauty through Fernando Amorsolo’s images of the Filipina nude. Amorsolo, whose artworks dominated the Philippine art scene and market for most of the 20th century, had definitive ideas of Filipina beauty, which he had actually described at length. But his idealized images of the native – of woman and country – also find deeper implications in his American patronage and his willingness to cater to market demands. The writer Alfredo Roces indicates as much in the Amorsolo book, ‘The shape of Philippine painting was molded by the hand of foreign patronage explaining the direction of Amorsolo’s art in later years and that of the subsequent horde of his followers who became known as the Mabini painters.’ Vitug reacts to this consumption of the ideal through a different present-day form. In his single-channel video, he blurs footage featuring nude Filipinas in homemade porn which had been collated from different sources. They are shown in slow motion, while images of classical Filipina nude paintings quickly flash between. The haunting accompanying melody conjures a hypnotizing atmosphere, indicative of trance and captivation in the fulfillment and ingestion of the idealized Filipina native.
Taking us through the show, Dina Gadia’s collages (all 2012) brashly portray this perception and desire of the Other. She shows it in the association of gaze and land in Observations of Tropical Disorders. From photography with the locals in The Etcetera Etcetera Exploitation Spree to the dangerous exotic female in Oriental Special, the clash of differing cultures falls far from innocent. The artist is also careful to demonstrate that attraction and beauty ideals can very much be an exchange, a two-way street which finds meeting points in mutual allure. She includes white men as ultra macho and colossal figures (The Unearthly and Gonna Git That Man), exaggerated representations which are also themselves idealized and Othered by locals. It makes a point that the Other emerges in the contact between two distinctive cultures, on to each other rather than from one side alone. Stereotypes on both sides may exist, be produced, and significantly, be demanded and satisfactorily met.
This is the sentiment of Manny Montelibano’s Let’s Do It Philippines (Café Havana) (2012). In the single-channel video, documentary footage of Greenbelt 3’s Café Havana is played. The dark and blurry video features the restaurant cum bar in the late evening, a where and when of exchanges of the Other, a preceding stage which leads to agreement and quite likely, consummation. Figures drink, walk, linger, dance and sometimes leave together. Hands are shaken in exchange. Adding heat is the café’s own music: Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot and Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling. Montelibano excerpts part of the lyrics of the latter song, hinting of the sexual overtones impressed on such a space.
It may also be the effect in looking at the work of Mark Salvatus. Happy Hour (2012) features an LED sign of the common marketing term for the limited period in which restaurants/bars offer discount on their alcoholic drinks. Only this time, the letter ‘h’ of ‘hour’ does not light up, spelling out happy our. The reworded expression may simply refer to the Filipino tendency to be joyful despite rampant poverty and calamity. Yet, it could also designate something more insidious in its lighted form, pointing towards nightclubs, extra services, cheapened merchandise, and even ‘happy endings’ in the context of this show.
Bomba (2010), a work of Kawayan de Guia with JJ Villamarin, denotes that the impact of two cultures crossing over is more complex and intense than simple sexual relations. ‘Bomba’ is the Filipino term for being naked but it could also refer to actual weapons of destruction. Implicitly, it refers to the widespread bombing of Manila by the Americans during World War II, resulting in its widespread destruction. In greater depth, it suggests the confrontation and force of different cultures colliding, a long-term event vigorous, cluttered and commanding. The work is made of various clips collated from different Western and Filipino films, images suggesting that transference between cultures, both rendered vulnerable, is a violent, random, and chaotic affair.
Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons, a book by Margarita Holmes and Jeremy Baer, compiles the Q & A advice columns they have dished over the years. Specifically advising Filipino-foreign relationship troubles, they encounter stereotypes, chauvinism and motives for relations which do not fall strictly for love. Never judgmental unless the asker aptly calls for it, this couple, who themselves are in a cross-cultural relationship, deftly address situations and assumptions with frankness and good humor, correcting prejudice and offering sincere advice.
In its eclectic mix of artworks and objects, the exhibition is a reflection of ‘essentializing’, a practice of which occurs in travel and encounters with the foreign. It can be the projection of the foreign to the local as Other, the local to the foreign Other, and even the local’s willingness to Other themselves. Through a variety of items and art, ‘Other’ as an exhibition works less as a narrative but as initial gesture in examining preconceptions, interactions and methods of consumption. With a long and wayward history, the yearning for the different and the exotic continues to exist in old, new and diverse ways.
– Clarissa Chikiamco, exhibition curator
Altro Mondo and Picasso would like to acknowledge Pablo Gallery for its support of the exhibition and Drawing Room, Silverlens and Valentine Willie Fine Art Kuala Lumpur for loaning artists Mark Salvatus and Kawayan de Guia (Drawing Room); Dina Gadia (Silverlens); and Yee I-Lann (VWFA).
The curator would like to acknowledge Oliver Ortega in helping purchase the items for the Souvenir Boutique. Thanks also to Liza Ho, Snow Ng, Jun Villalon, Sidd Perez, Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo.