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Filipino artists tackle diaspora and identity in Hong Kong

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Etched on Jill Paz's cardboard pieces are faded depictions of paintings by the late 19th century artist, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. In photo: Jill Paz, Untitled (After Hidalgo, Las Jovenes Christians Expuestas al Populacho). Photo by NICOLE SORIANO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Amid a maze of white walls displaying blue-chip artworks from 242 galleries across the globe at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, I found myself dwelling in a small booth covered in fragments of balikbayan boxes, starkly contrasting the ubiquitous gloss of Asia’s biggest art fair.

Fragile and fading, the cheap cardboard medium almost felt subversive in a place flooded with polished works worth millions of dollars. The familiar material served as a subtle reminder of home, isolated in an atmosphere that almost felt alien in its global glamour.

On display were the works of Filipino-Canadian artist Jill Paz, represented by Manila-based gallery 1335 Mabini. Paz migrated back to the Philippines only a year ago after living in the U.S. and Canada since the early ‘80s. Since coming home, she has confronted the tensions of rediscovering her roots and understanding the unfamiliarity of her home country. Her works draw from her unresolved conflicts in migration and memory, employing the iconic balikbayan box as an invaluable material to symbolize Philippine diaspora.

While Hidalgo and Paz are personally linked as ancestor and descendent, they also expose the collective, overlapping realities faced by Filipino artists from over a century ago up to today — artists who share similar struggles in diaspora, rootedness, and the inevitability of foreign influences. In photo: Jill Paz, After Hidalgo (La Barca de Aqueronte). Photo by NICOLE SORIANO

Jill Paz looks at Félix Resurrección Hidalgo

Etched on her cardboard pieces are faded depictions of paintings by the late 19th century artist, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. Recognized as the romantic painter that brought pride to the country by winning prestigious awards in Europe, Hidalgo is also Paz’s great grand-uncle. As a child, Paz grew up surrounded by his masterpieces, many of which were destroyed in the Second World War and salvaged by her grandfather.

In an effort to reclaim her identity as a Filipina, Paz reinterprets these works that resonated with her as a child, maintaining the worn quality of the paintings and highlighting their difficult story of almost being lost in history. While museum workers go through painstaking efforts to preserve and immortalize the paintings of Hidalgo and his contemporaries, Paz’s renditions of Hidalgo on cardboard are hazy, punctured, and refreshingly imperfect — laying bare the reality that pieces of the past persist to be unstable, transient, and broken.

Paz’s works appear as an intimate, unfinished conversation between the two artists. While Hidalgo and Paz are personally linked as ancestor and descendent, they also expose the collective, overlapping realities faced by Filipino artists from over a century ago up to today — artists who share similar struggles in diaspora, rootedness, and the inevitability of foreign influences.

It is thus fitting that such a conversation unveiled in Hong Kong: a place where hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers have been displaced in hopes of earning a living, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have kept and transported their own pieces of home in cheap and faded balikbayan boxes.

Pacita Abad's works on display came from her 1980s series, “Masks and Spirits,” which are intricate depictions of the tribal masks that enamored her throughout her wandering lifestyle. In photo: Pacita Abada, On Reaching. Photo by NICOLE SORIANO

Entering the colors of Pacita Abad

Another Filipina artist showcased at the fair is no stranger to the realities of migration. Having travelled to over 50 countries and lived in places from the U.S., Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sudan, to the Singapore, Pacita Abad built her artistic career on her exposure to diverse cultures and traditions around the globe. Abad’s works inspired by her travels were highlighted in a special exhibit by Silverlens Gallery.

Juxtaposing the nostalgic and monochromatic works of Paz, Abad’s works radiate with color and vitality. Her bright and bold style is steeped in having traversed a myriad of landscapes and histories, where she drew inspiration from the unique skills and indigenous materials she encountered in the communities she immersed in.

Known for her mesmerizing colors and patterns, Abad experimented with forms and mediums that broke artistic boundaries in the ‘70s and ‘80s, eventually developing her own distinct trapunto technique, wherein she layers a mix of stones, sequins, buttons, mirrors, and printed textiles on quilted canvases. The results are large, visually arresting pieces that exude the excitement of cultures brimming with pulsating life and energy.

A departure from depicting solely Filipino themes, Abad’s works reflect her courage in diving in and dwelling in the traditions of others. Her works on display came from her 1980s series, “Masks and Spirits,” which are intricate depictions of the tribal masks that enamored her throughout her wandering lifestyle. At first glance, her canvases are evocative of Picasso’s iconic cubist works, which were similarly inspired by the tribal masks of Africa.

But, moving closer to Abad’s canvases, one detects her sensitivity to the local materials and techniques she weaves in her works, reflective of one deeply immersed in the crafts of tribal heritages. Abad appears to refuse staying comfortable in the safe and familiar; fully absorbing the contrasting cultures she experienced and expressing them with compassion and compulsion on her canvases.

Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan's work on display came from a series entitled “The Left Wing Project,” wherein the couple originally collaborated with local artists, blacksmiths, and farmers from Yogyakarta, Indonesia to create wing sculptures made of sickles. In Photo: Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan, Left Wing Project (Belok Kiri Jalan Terus), Wing 10. Photo by NICOLE SORIANO

The stories behind the wings of Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan

Moving to the booth of the Singapore-based Yavuz Gallery, I stopped in awe before a large wing containing sickles as feathers. Powerful and piercing, the work was created by the distinguished Brisbane-based Filipino couple, Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan — who have, like Abad, made their mark on the international platform for their radical experimentations on themes of migration and the plight of marginalized groups.

Their work on display came from a series entitled “The Left Wing Project,” wherein the couple originally collaborated with local artists, blacksmiths, and farmers from Yogyakarta, Indonesia to create wing sculptures made of sickles. The works initially confronted a dark period in Indonesia’s history: the mass killings of half a million alleged leftists during the mid- ‘60s. Since the series’ inception in 2015, the couple has traveled around Asia and used their work to open themselves up to the grim social realities faced by other rural communities in Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Unearthing and exposing difficult stories often left buried in collective memories, the Aquilizans offer a vital way to stand in solidarity with oppressed groups from neighboring countries, using their journeys across underrepresented communities to remember, provoke, and forge ties through art-making.

Silverlens' Kabinett booth at Art Basel Hong Kong featuring works of Pacita Abad. Photo by NICOLE SORIANO

Reconciling migration and identity

While each unique in their own right, the Filipino artists being given a voice on the international platform today are undeniably linked through shared struggles in movement, migration, and identity. Filled with curiosity and care, they revisit personal and collective pasts to feel rooted and dive in rich traditions, cultures, and histories to build connections with others. But, perhaps the most pervading sentiment among all is the inherent longing to belong — whether to places, persons, or stories — in a world often too cold, too big, and too harsh to bear.

Waiting alone at a gate in the Hong Kong airport with dozens of other Filipinos, I watched as people grumbled at the 45-minute delay and second time gates were changed. I overheard one fantasizing about eating warm, home-cooked meals; while another was eager to get home just in time to catch her child’s graduation.

I could not help but think that among Filipinos displaced around the globe, the feeling translated by these artists remains real and urgent in the present: lured in by the illusion of color and life overseas, we often find ourselves struggling to stay afloat, relentlessly searching for the warmth of the places we call home.