Manila’s political and economic past inspires Filipino artists to reconcile their present. 

By creating works of art about Manila, four artists hope to understand their transnational identities. 

Mel Vera Cruz, 'Rice Boy's Deity,' 2015, Mixed media. In Manila Beyond the Envelope, at Kearny Street Workshop, San Francisco, CA, USA. Image courtesy of Kearny Street Workshop.

Mel Vera Cruz, ‘Rice Boy’s Deity’, 2015, mixed media. Image courtesy Kearny Street Workshop.

Four Filipino American artists explore Manila in the exhibition “Manila: Beyond the Envelope” at Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco until 10 March 2016. These four artists describe Manila as a living, breathing human being susceptible to change, time and history. By travelling back to Manila through their artwork, these immigrants look at how their perception of the city changes in considering their transnational experiences of race, gender and class. This exploration is not just a way to explore and distort perception of this cosmopolitan city, but also a way to delve into their own personal journeys and identities.

1. Carlo Ricofort

Carlo Ricofort‘s artistry is indicative of his own varied interests: history, music and philosophy. He describes his art practice as an amalgamation of images, “hacked” from multiple sources. A central focus in his work are current political and economic events. This coincides with his overall work ethic, an attempt to mine the travails and conundrums of the human experience. His artwork thus explores this tenuous ground through his personal interests. He combines these two by using images and crypts to unlock greater human issues. He states that “picture-making is one way to interweave all these contexts allowing me to explore and play with both content and form.”

Marcius Noceda, Head Hunters, 2016, Mixed media, Courtesy of Kearny Street Workshop

Marcius Noceda, ‘Head Hunters’, 2016, mixed media. Image courtesy Kearny Street Workshop.

Marcius Noceda

Marcius Noceda turned to art to reconcile the loneliness he felt as an immigrant and outcast in the United States. He immigrated to the United States from Olongapo City, Philippines as a 15 year old, and went to high school in Ventura, California at Channel Island High School, which had an excellent art programme and teachers who encouraged Noceda’s art practice. After high school, with no plans of continuing education or art, he entered a local community college where his artistry was recognised. He eventually pursued painting at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) where he studied with Filipino American artist and curator Carlos Villa. There he developed a fine hand for painting, but wondered about the narrative possibilities outside of figurative and realistic painting.

After college, he transitioned from representational painting to abstraction and began exploring his place, time and history as a Filipino American man and artist. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, he is influenced by the Silicon Valley and booming technology industry, but also the racial and economic segregation in a purportedly progressive city. Likewise, he questions how an affluent city can influence a country with colonial ties like the Philippines.

His piece Head Hunters of Hunters Point (2016) looks at the act of survival against oppressive capitalist cities like San Francisco and Manila. Noceda draws directly from the headhunters in the Philippines to the gangs that inhabit Hunters Point in San Francisco. In spite of the rapid cosmopolitanism in both cities, there is a surreal racial and economic imbalance that is ignored. Noceda explains his experience in Manila:

So I was shocked again in remembering what is Manila like, but at the same time everything is relaxed and seems okay. You see a lot of wrong things like children in the streets sniffing glue, and the rich and the poor  – you can really see the unbalance. Its surreal.

Manuel Ocampo, 'Untitled,' 2013, 30x22 inches. In Manila Beyond the Envelope, at Kearny Street Workshop, San Francisco, CA, USA. Image courtesy of Kearny Street Workshop.

Manuel Ocampo, ‘Untitled’, 2013, 30 x 22 in. Image courtesy Kearny Street Workshop.

Manuel Ocampo

Acclaimed international artist Manuel Ocampo uses Baroque and Catholic imagery to disrupt and illuminate the colonial hold over Filipinos in the diaspora. His work shows that in spite of our “post colonial” imaginary, these hegemonic forces still inform our identities. Due to this, he combines traditional Catholic iconography with Western motifs, symbols and references to popular culture.

The Untitled (2013) piece featured in the exhibition shows the all-seeing eye – a symbol of American currency, free market, upward mobility and capitalism – on a figure reminiscent of the robes donned by the Ku Klux Klan. The piece can be read as a quasi-shrine to American capitalism, with a lit candle and offerings of food and money. It is these tensions and disturbances that have catapulted Manual Ocampo to prominence.

Mel Vera Cruz, 'The 12th House,' 24x30 inches. In "Manila Beyond the Envelope" at Kearny Street Workshop, San Francisco, CA, USA. Image courtesy of artist.

Mel Vera Cruz, ‘The 12th House’, 24 x 30 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Mel Vera Cruz

As a self professed “Robin Hood” of art, Mel Vera Cruz uses his art as a way to combat essentialised notions of identity, race, economy and place. Beginning his art practice as a child, over the years Vera Cruz identifies subjectivity through his art creation. For him, art and identity is one and the same. In doing so, Vera Cruz shows that accepted notions of his identity as an artist and Filipino man cannot be taken at face value. As an artist who is told to valorise European canons of art history and making, he turns to artists like Basquiat and found objects to create his artwork in opposition to those notions. This same ideology is used in his conceptualisation of Manila. His artwork interprets the exhibition “Manila: Beyond the Envelope” by looking beyond the façade of Manila as a burgeoning capital city:

You have to go beyond the façade, and Manila is full of the dark, unexpected and bizarre.

By looking at the history of the Philippines, Vera Cruz comments on the colonial history of the country, one that is continually erased by narratives of capital enterprise and growth.

Mel Vera Cruz, 'Payatas Kid Guapo,' photography. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mel Vera Cruz, ‘Payatas Kid Guapo’, photography. Image courtesy the artist.

This is seen particularly in his series of work inspired by the Payatas garbage dump near Manila. Beyond the city, Filipinos inhabit the garbage dump, a sad metaphor for the way capitalism tries to throw away and hide those not benefiting from the hegemonic system. However, in spite of the city neglecting and throwing them away, these people have forged community and resistance. In his Robin Hood-esque manner, Vera Cruz captures these people in photographs and uses them as icons of resistance in his artwork. The photograph of the boy exhibiting toughness and resolve in spite of the stench, shame and abandonment is an image Vera Cruz identifies with as an immigrant.

“Manila: Beyond the Envelope”

The exhibition is a cacophony of perspectives of the city of Manila. In describing the show, artist Marcius Noceda realised that the exhibition itself was indicative of the surreal, confusing and chaotic experience that is quintessentially Manila. He states that the exhibition is like going to Manila in a visual way: it is cramped, noisy, chaotic and divided. But within this confusion, there is a calm delirious and addictive excitement. He says that “If you go to Manila [and the exhibition] you are on acid.” Through the four artists’ work, it is clear that reconciling Manila is not an easy task, but it is one for them filled with pleasure and pain.

Christina Ayson


Related Topics: artist profiles, emerging artists, feature, American artists, Filipino artists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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