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Blood and stone: A feminist artist’s latest work is drenched in maternal blood

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The artist Nikki Luna's latest piece, "Ideal Woman," portrays the image of the "original woman" propagated and promoted by the Church. Regarding her idea of an ideal woman, Luna says, "We come in many shapes and sizes, thoughts, and beliefs; it is a dangerous proposition to think there should be an 'ideal.'" Photo courtesy of NIKKI LUNA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Nikki Luna’s life revolves around a marriage between her art and advocacy, colored by the joys of her own matrimony, and the smiles of her younglings. A proud mother of two along with the sportscaster-model and “feminist dad” Mikee Carrion, Luna enjoys a relationship of respect and equality, worth mentioning not because she is defined by it, of course, but rather because she talks very openly and with zest about her familial life, centered on a mission to “smash patriarchy” together with her husband and daughters.

To understand her subjects better and firsthand, Luna immerses herself in the households of oppressed women everywhere — from the bittersweet hectares of Hacienda Luisita to the traumatized corners of Sierra Leone. An advocate of art therapy, she brings art programs and workshops across the nation through her non-profit organization, startARTproject, to help human rights victims, children of political prisoners, and the abused. In a previous interview with CNN Philippines, Luna says, “[I want to] help them visually articulate the past, because I believe that art is something that you can share. It feeds your soul.”

Luna draws from household experiences, both in her own home and that of others, to create her art, which consists mostly of installations in all sorts of mediums. Her work largely deals with themes of gender equality and also includes topics of oppression, poverty, and human rights. Asked to define what a feminist is, she explains, “If you’re for equality, if you don’t want anyone oppressed, if you don’t feel that women should be subordinates. It’s as simple as that.”

Luna is on a mission to "smash patriarchy" together with her husband, the sportscaster and model Mikee Carrion, and their two daughters. Photo courtesy of NIKKI LUNA

Her latest work, called “Ideal Woman,” portrays the image of the “original woman” propagated and promoted by the Church — the Virgin as a narrative of the feudal patriarchal tradition instilled by the Spanish colonizers through a religion that is, until now, omnipresent over Philippine politics and culture. The set of identical sculptures is currently being exhibited as part of the “A Very Thin Line” exhibit at The Cera Project in London until the Aug. 20.

CNN Philippines Life spoke with Luna about being a woman, her thoughts on the ties between her art and her feminism, and her thought process for “Ideal Woman.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

When was that point in your life where you realized that you wanted to make art that spoke to and for women and the oppressed? What was your driving force behind that?

My first shows and exhibits were cathartic. They had very personal pieces, of course, since I am a woman and I experience and have gone through many struggles being one. But it was after doing outreach programs — where I usually teach art to 18-year-old girls and younger — that I realized we all have something in common with other girls and women, quite parallel despite the differences in background, culture, and identities. As women, we share the same silent struggle.

How does it feel to be a feminist (and as one who makes art for that matter) in this day and age compared to the past? Has there been a shift in terms of how feminist artists are viewed and how they view the world in turn?

Right now, with the help of mainstream media, the term “feminism” has become quite popular. But there’s still a long way to go. We are just scratching the surface. People and many women are still afraid of the word or of being labeled as feminists. This is quite frustrating considering the efforts of the women’s rights defenders who paved the way for us to enjoy everything we have now. We go through our lives along the path that women freedom fighters now and before have given. And yet people tend to forget this.

"Ideal Woman" is made of marble dust, resin, and maternal blood. The set of identical sculptures is currently being exhibited at The Cera Project in London. Photo courtesy of NIKKI LUNA

How did your childhood experiences with the Church contribute to your views on religion and, in turn, to “Ideal Woman?”

My relationship with religion stems from my mother. She is a devout Catholic, fiercely loyal to the Church. She brought me up under the guidance and teachings of the Church. But as I was growing up, I realized it wasn’t enough for me to rely on “faith.” More importantly, I saw that the Church is a patriarchal institution.

How was your creative process for this particular piece? How did you come up with the idea to incorporate maternal blood?

I work with anything I see appropriate with my concept. When I was deciding which images or symbols would be best suited for this work, I couldn't compromise with any other medium. It was calling for the use of maternal blood with an image such as Mary, being sacred or holy as well as the stigma surrounding female blood. The whole process of how women give so much of this natural body fluid, figuratively and literally. With this medium, the heaviest of burdens can only be felt, as blood pulsating throughout the body that one was given and one has lived with but never owned.

It must have been quite a feat collecting the blood. Where exactly did you get it?

I had asked permission from Fabella Hospital. I could have used any other public hospital, but it’s been reported that Fabella is the busiest maternal hospital in the world, delivering 60-100 babies over a period of 24 hours. In the Philippines, we have a total population of about 98 million, wherein 66 million live below the poverty line. Fabella Hospital leads in our staggering national population growth rate of 2 percent, the highest in Asia.

"Tiempos Muertos," meaning "Dead Season," is an installation featuring diamonds cast from raw sugar sourced from Tarlac, Bukidnon, and Bacolod. Luna wanted to show the irony of the sweetness of sugar, and how it comes from the harsh and bitter conditions of sugar plantation workers in the Philippines. Photo by TAMMY DAVID

Your art largely draws from raw materials and symbols that come from the marginalized, and so it negotiates and interacts with its audience. How would you like people — women especially — to interact with your art?

I hope it can speak to them. Perhaps help them in some way. To move them to question their situation, have some realization.

I want the audience, both men and women, to hopefully reflect on their stand on how women and girls are seen in society, how more often than not they are forced to comply with traditions and then castigated if and when they simply don’t “follow.”

The absence of the woman is prevalent in your installations as a symbol of the woman’s lost voice. On the other hand, what is your opinion on art that promotes sex positivity or the kind that exposes or celebrates flesh in an attempt to exude sexual empowerment?

Women can and should enjoy power play but it is another thing when you are merely seen and used as a sexual object. The same thought comes to mind when most people wonder why we get excited about someone we like who is being playful with us, but we get creeped out by some random catcaller guy on the street. There is the lustful playfulness and wanting to reciprocate your partner’s desire but it is not the same and can’t be compared to the disgusting gaze of a stranger trying to harass you. There’s that big difference between knowing and owning you, as a woman with a consciousness, and just being the “object” or a piece of meat.

In the context of your own philosophy and principles, what is your “ideal woman” like? Is she a feminist?

We come in many shapes and sizes, thoughts, and beliefs; it is a dangerous proposition to think there should be an “ideal,” but if I need to answer this, I would say an “ideal” woman would be someone who would want to care and work for the interests of other women and not only for her own success or self-interest.

"Rebel Woman" includes casts of real AK-47s made of lace from old wedding dresses Luna had collected from women, and was exhibited at the 5th International Beijing Biennale. Photo courtesy of NIKKI LUNA

Can you share your struggles with funding both your art and your nongovernment organization (NGO), while at the same time raising children? Do you think women still face a heavier burden today and therefore have to go for that extra hustle?

I’m not raising children on my own. I am very much married to a man who embraces my feminist values and who has been my ally in providing a gender-fair, non-sexist environment for our daughters. He is actually so supportive; I must be honest that I wouldn’t have been able to do many of my art and passion projects without his help and genuine support. To answer the question about NGO funding, it is hard. Sometimes I end up offering my artwork to collectors to provide more for those I would like to help. I don’t believe in charity because I want to create more “chances” for people. For most women the daily grind is there. Especially for the marginalized. There are multiple burdens women face — imagine if you’re a peasant woman, who has so much more to deal with. Many also don’t recognize that “housework” is unpaid work and mothering or being a homemaker or housewife is a tough and unpaid job.

Is there anything you would like to say to young artists aspiring to make a difference through altruistic art?

I only hope more artists would continue to talk about the world we live in though their art. As artists, we help shape our culture, our society, our nation, and the world.

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“Ideal Woman” is on display as part of the “A Very Thin Line” exhibit at The Cera Project in London, United Kingdom, until Aug. 20, 2016.