Process Not Product: Redefining the Contemporary Filipino American Art Aesthetic

Published by: Debra Tisoy Pacio / Stanford University | 30-Oct-2016
What do cloaks, feathered shoes, and abstractionist works have to do with Filipino American art? Welcome to the State of the State: Contemporary Filipino/American Art in the Bay Area. The roundtable event, held on May 21, 2015 at the Asian Art Museum, addresses the question of how we define and continue to redefine Filipino American art in the Bay Area.
Venue: Asian Art Museum
Address: 1494 Parkmont Drive/ San Jose, California 95131 / United States of America
Date: May 21, 2015
Time: 7:00 - 8:30 pm
Buy / Ticket:
What do cloaks (Ritual, 1980), feathered shoes (The Artist's Feet, 1979), and abstractionist works (My Uncles series, 1993-1996) have to do with Filipino American art?

Welcome to the State of the State: Contemporary Filipino/American Art in the Bay Area. The roundtable event, held on May 21, 2015 at the Asian Art Museum, addresses the question of how we define and continue to redefine Filipino American art in the Bay Area.

Moderator Thea Quiray Tagle, a visual and cultural performance scholar, challenges us to consider the category. She delineates two trends: one) Filipino American, or "Fil-Am," art as defined by the background of the maker as a Fil-Am or as a Filipino diasporic, or two) if the subject matter of the art relates to themes of this experience, such as migration or the model minority myth.

But the more experimental works of the legendary Filipino American artist Carlos provide a model for how artists are branching out from notions of Fil-Am art as strictly "protest art."

"Instead of thinking about Filipino American art as a sort of fixed genre or fixed aesthetic, how can we actually begin to think about Filipino American art as a method or a way of approaching art-making that is again holistic," asks Tagle.

"Filipino American art is process, not product."

The array of panelists at the table attest to this. Self-proclaimed manang Eliza O. Barrios makes up one-third of the Mail Order Brides/M.O.B. collaborative and is an interdisciplinary artist working in new media and site-specific installation. Jenifer K. Wofford, Bay Area native and M.O.B. member, portrays the experiences of Filipino women at home and in the diaspora. Activist Cece Carpio creates murals, collaborative works, and politically-engaged public art. Michael Arcega and Lordy Rodriguez use mapping and public memory as guides for reimagining Filipino American space and time, though in widely different ways.

Their diverse perspectives come into dialogue as Tagle moderates a conversation around how their works have come to define contemporary Filipino American art.

"I understand that people may have resistance to some of the pigeonholing that can occur around identity-politics, but I don't know, for me, I always found it liberating rather than constrictive," Wofford replies in response to Tagle's question on the usefulness of such a category.

But contemporary Filipino American art isn't just defined by the people at the table. Just as powerfully, it's defined by the people who are not.

"I also just want to bring up at least in my generation, a lot younger than a lot of the other folks, the hip hop generation here in the Bay Area, the Filipinos run the game. Killed it," states Carpio. "Whether it was DJing, bboying, and graffiti artists, folks really took lead in that culture and was running stuff in that culture."

Enter the Filipino American youth who take over the mobile DJ scene in the late-70s to mid-90s, humble beginnings to a music takeover that gifted fresh beats to the Bay.

Oliver Wang, Professor of Sociology at CSU Long Beach, visited the Bay Area in May to revive this recent history in his book, Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area. But most fascinating in his findings beyond the scene itself is the acknowledgement by these young Fil-Am artists that their identity has little influence on their art.

"The Filipino American community in the Bay Area certainly shaped and influenced the contours of the mobile scene, but likewise, the scene itself shaped the contours of Filipino American identity in that particular time and place," Wang writes.

"Yet, despite that, surprisingly few DJS saw the mobile scene as having much to do with ethnicity at all."

Identity Through Art vs. Art/Identity

Defining a contemporary art aesthetic can be a challenge with burgeoning artists of differing views. Between those at the table and those not, there would appear to be two camps of artists: those for whom Thea's question remains relevant (How do we define the Filipino American art aesthetic?) and those for whom the question has little relevance (i.e. I am Fil-Am, but my art isn't.)

Among those not at the table are the youth: emerging artists who are arguably the most "contemporary" of their time.

Lloyd Lucin, founding member of HD Crew, dancer for the nationally-ranked Academy of Villains dance group, and American's Got Talent semifinalist, falls under the second camp of artists. Currently a senior at Stanford University, Lucin identifies as Filipino American and was a former frosh intern for the Pilipino American Student Union at Stanford. Yet, he doesn't find his Filipino American identity to influence his dance and performance.

"I never really thought about it," Lucin shrugs. "My Filipino American identity is separate from my artist identity."

But reflecting upon his dance experience, Lucin acknowledges that his growth as an artist is largely owed to the mentorship by the dance community he was a part of, most of whom were Filipino Americans themselves. Lucin recalls the good old days, dance practices hosted in the homes of his friends and fellow Filipino American peers.

"You feel a bit more comfortable," he says. "It's fun, like at practice you can be silly and we sometimes like to talk like our parents. Like when people aren't watching, you're like hoy shhhtt, pay attention. It lightens the mood a bit. And we could do that because we were Filipino. Lighthearted, inside Filipino jokes."

The comfort of community broadens the artistic spaces for Filipino/Americans by welcoming these underrepresented newcomers.

"It might make dancing less approachable," Lucin admits when reflecting upon the possibility of a lack of community. "Not a lot of people who are like me are doing it, to be honest."

His performances may not scream Filipino American, but his presence does.

The mobile Filipino DJs share a similar story as Lloyd, many of whom thrived in their early music careers thanks to the support of family members.

But why the Filipino mobile DJ scene in particular flourish during a time when Latinos, Chinese, and other communities in the SF Bay Area also had their hand in the mobile music business? Oliver Wang argues that community is key.

Mapping out the Filipino hot spots in the Bay Area, Wang points out how places like Daly City, San Jose, Sacramento, and other towns densely populated by Filipino Americans are relatively far from one another, especially for a fourteen to fifteen year-old teen without a license. How did they get to their gigs? Their parents drove them. And how did they get their gigs? Aunts and uncles would refer them. Young Filipino DJs found mobile DJing a better alternative to other means of income as a teenager ("It beats flipping burgers," reported one interviewee) and families supported their entrepreneurial spirit. And better yet, the culture of the Filipino community served as the cherry on top to a successful mobile music scene.

"Filipinos party more," proposes Oliver Wang. "And their parties are specifically dance parties."

From Makers to Mentors

The Filipino American arts scene isn't only true to Filipino core values of kapamilya (family) and bayanihan (community) "“it thrives on it.

"The Filipino American arts scene would not have existed without Carlos Villa." Dawn Bohulan Mabalon, Professor of History at San Francisco State University, explains how this mentorship led to the Bay Area's development an epicenter for Fil-Am art.

In 1994, Villa coordinated the first Filipino American contemporary arts exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, providing a space for emerging Filipino American artists, including Barrios, to showcase their works. Mentees include Wofford, Rodriguez, and Barrios.

"He took all of these artists under his wing. He was a pioneer."

From makers to mentors, the Filipino American art scene in the Bay Area has grown to be defined by this spirit of collaboration. Wofford states "it's different from scenes in LA or NY that are bit more market-driven. That prevents artists from working with one another."

Despite regional differences, these Fil-Am artists, however, may still serve as models and mentors for one another and open up spaces for Filipino Americans to feel more comfortable with both their Filipino American identity and their art as artists, regardless of whether the two come hand-in-hand.

"It doesn't have to scream, "˜I am Filipino,'" states Professor Mabalon. Referring to Carlos Villa's iconic 1979 work, The Artist's Feet, she asks, "What do feathered shoes have to do with being Filipino American?"

But she believes that finding community will be inevitable in the paths of these artists.

"For younger artists who may not see their identity as affecting their art, hopefully they will find that there is a false dichotomy," Professor Mabalon states. "Art and identity are one and the same and these artists will find a need for community as they enter art spaces in the future."

Produced under the guidance of Jeff Chang, Executive Director Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Stanford, CA

Newsletter Sign Up

Join Our Growing Community

ART NEWS PORTAL is a global crowd sourced art news feed.
Everyone is welcome to share their art and culture related news.