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Art as unburdening, according to Jel Suarez

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Jel Suarez's show “small bones, holding a mountain,” shortlisted for this year’s Ateneo Art Awards, consists of artist’s books, assemblages, and her familiar collages. Photo by TOUKI ROLDAN/Courtesy of JEL SUAREZ

Jel Suarez’s profile picture on Instagram is not of her face but of a burial object. It’s a rock bearing a prehistoric rendition of a stoic face: two holes for the eyes, another two for the nostrils, and a slit for the mouth. She came across the curio two years ago, when she volunteered to make an archive for the collection of the late Ramon Hofileña, the father of heritage conservation in Silay, Negros Occidental. And ever since she took a photograph of it (after paying respect to the spirits in a ritual called halad), Suarez’s attraction to it hasn’t waned.

She doesn’t know what it was that has drawn her to the rock. The history the object bears in its pores, perhaps? “Siguro,” Suarez says over a video call. But the artist’s inclination towards objects of all sorts is already a given. After all, hers is a practice built on material things.

Suarez is a “collector, hunter, gatherer, de/constructor, arranger” before she is an artist. As a child, she spent her summers stacking stones in Batangas and other days gathering debris from a construction site next to their home in Caloocan. Thus, it was natural for her to do collage and assemblage. Plus, “I don't really draw or paint. My strength I think is in how I perceive things and how I transform things.”

Her practice of collecting might suggest a tendency of hoarding. But after a personal struggle that led to losing many of her things in 2019, Suarez has learned the value of letting go. This realization also coincided with her move to Bacolod, which proved that she couldn’t take all her possessions with her.

“Biggest learning ko siya nung umalis ako sa Manila,” she says. “'Yung physical things fleeting and replaceable siya, hindi mo kailangan i-hoard. To trust in carrying kung ano 'yung kaya i-hold ng kamay mo.”

Her ruminations on all these things as well as the pandemic resulted in an exhibition called “small bones, holding a mountain.” The show, which is shortlisted for this year’s Ateneo Art Awards, consists of artist’s books, assemblages, and her familiar collages. All of which were built with found objects she culled and made — lemongrass stalks transformed into sheets of paper, for example — after being unexpectedly locked down in Manila last year.

Suarez can’t expound on the presence of a comma in the title. She says the decision was made after the recommendation of her exhibition notes writer Michelle Esquivias. “Siya 'yung nag-encourage na mas may bearing kapag may comma,” Suarez says. “I guess to stress the ‘pause.’”

"Letters in Fragments" collage on handmade paper, reclaimed wood. Photo courtesy of WEST GALLERY

Punctuations, especially those that signify pauses within a sentence, add weight to a statement. Without it, the title tells us of a single action. But interrupting the words with a comma is an acknowledgement of a possibility: That there are perhaps other things surrounding the act of “holding the mountain.”

Explaining, like what I attempted above (and what I’m doing here too), is something that Suarez doesn’t like doing. She says she’s not good with words. When probed about the exhibit, she tries to tell me something only to stop the words from arriving. It might be too personal, she says. But Suarez is not trying to evade explanation. The artist, who in the very act of making her own paper from scratch, cutting them up, and rebuilding them, has unraveled what she needs to through her labor. This material process is already her way of explaining.

In this interview, the artist talks about what belongingness means to her, reviving her childlike senses through art, and what guides her process of collecting now.

You mentioned on your website that you’re based between Manila and Bacolod. So, nasaan ka nung nag-lockdown?

Nung na-lockdown, nasa Manila ako. Nasa process ako of moving here to Bacolod. Most nung stuff ko is already here. Since nag-lockdown sa Manila, doon ako nag-stay sa Green Papaya kasama 'yung partner ko.

Are you originally from Bacolod?

No, Manila talaga. 'Yung partner ko 'yung from Bacolod.

Before settling sa Bacolod, moving from one place to another din ako. 'Yung question mo na nakita ko sa e-mail na parang, how has juggling life between Manila and Bacolod affected my practice? I don't see it as an act of juggling. If anything, being in between places even before the pandemic happened, I think it taught me to slow down and be more introspective na feeling ko it shows in my work. I think there's a renewed sense of self when you're in different places, when you're meeting new people. I guess I'm lucky to have that privilege kasi as an artist hindi naman ako restricted sa isang place. I think huge 'yung effect sa akin nung pandemic when I was locked down in Manila because 'yun nga I was in the process of moving here. Malaking change 'yun in the landscape of my work.

Nung nasa Manila kasi ako it was ALT or Art Fair season, so pumunta lang ako doon for the show and then babalik na sana dito. Since nangyari 'yung lockdown, wala akong dalang anything for art making. Just a small cutting mat, a pencil case with basic tools like scissors, blade cutter, and pens. I wasn't living with my family anymore so 'yung stuff ko is kung ano lang 'yung dala ko.

"Folding a Landscape," artist’s book (56-page accordion with drawings and collages). Photo courtesy of WEST GALLERY

When I was staying in Manila, it affected my work in terms of materials. Before, it's always collages and then when I got locked down in Manila, naging challenge kung paano ko i-figure out kung ano 'yung gagamitin kong materials kasi may show ako ng October. I started making my own paper and shifted to going to surplus [shops] near the areas to figure out my work. I guess it forced me to create more portable pieces and explore a lot of skills during that time. 'Yun, 'yung space and movement affected how I began building my works for “small bones, holding a mountain.”

You mentioned that you're used to moving from one place to another. Is that a conscious decision for you even before?

In 2019, something happened that led me to go to different places. Hindi naman siya conscious decision na iikot-ikot ako. I guess moving changed me. My overall mood, perspective, and goals. Nakakatakot siya but as long as you have the courage to leave your comfort zone, it expands with you. Fear can be good because it leads you to do things that are meant for you. Natutunan ko na if something feels beyond my threshold, then it’s capable of empowering me.

But is there a sense of belongingness?

I guess nag-expand 'yung idea ko of home. I saw the possibility and may deeper understanding na ako of what home is and how I make sense of it. It doesn't have to be a specific place. Pero ngayon kung nasaan ako, huge help na mas naintindihan ko 'yung Ilonggo kasi hindi naman talaga ako Ilonggo-speaking. The length of time that I'm staying here helped me understand 'yung language para hindi ko ma-feel na alienated ako. For me now, it's a matter of how I position myself.

May mga works ka na bang nagawa sa Bacolod nung bumalik ka dito?

Wala, I started everything sa Manila nung lockdown.

Pero since 'yung mga gallery show planned beforehand, did you already have an idea of what you wanted to do?

No, the pandemic totally changed 'yung landscape and scope ng work ko. Initially, the show was supposed to be in June but nag-move siya nang nag-move indefinitely hanggang naging October na siya.

So, how did the idea come to you? And what was it like working on it then?

When I start building works for a show, hindi siya nagsisimula with the idea. It starts with the materials that I collect. It depends on the physicality of the materials that I accumulate. So, 'yun 'yung nag-di-dictate how my process will be.

For example, 'yung show sa West, I think 'yung first na prompt sa akin, gusto kong mag-collage nung time na 'yun but I didn't have the materials to build my collages. 'Yung first instinct ko since long days 'yung lockdown, naisip kong i-figure out how to make paper for the collages. It's a very organic process. Sinusundan ko lang kung ano 'yung instinct at pwede kong gawin. I was attracted to the idea of bookbinding din. I had a few books with me, but kailangan kong i-expand ang materiality niya because wala ako masyadong materials. So, ginupit ko 'yung papel and I turned them into new books. I feel like translation din siya of my experiences. When I was moving kasi to different places, ang dami kong nawalang gamit at libro. 'Yung idea of object making was more like a projection or reflection of myself and rebuilding what was lost.

"I think this is my way of rebuilding myself. Parang tiny process siya of rebuilding myself kaya siguro nag-ta-transform sa paggawa ng books at movements na hindi ko kailangan madaliin. Parang same with healing. I guess what I want to show is kung paano binubuhat ng maliit kong kamay 'yung nangyari sa akin. How I map myself in different directions, and how I draw or sketch out a space for it."

I'm not familiar with the process of making paper. 'Di ba 'yung iba they make paper out of old paper? Is that what you did?

At first, yes. Since Green Papaya is an office, marami siyang surplus of papers. I explored din materials as simple as stuff sa kitchen like lemongrass stalks. Basically kung may available na material, ginoogle ko kung pwede for papermaking.

Also, when I was collecting stuff from the surplus shops, may binili akong old Japanese frames. Marami silang layers of paper inside na handmade din. Intact pa rin siya kahit mga 80 years na. I dismantled them. I got all the papers inside and then sinort ko 'yung colors and then I made them into new paper. Ang galing lang na nag-ta-travel 'yung paper. Itong materials ko for work, exciting sa akin 'yung idea na may gumamit, gumagamit, at gagamit pa.

That explains why 'yung mga landscapes na makikita doon sa work seem Japanese.

Siguro. 'Yun nga nag-di-dictate sa trabaho ko kung ano 'yung kino-collect ko, so I guess malaking factor na Japanese surplus shop siya. I guess it also translated my longing for the mountains or to travel back sa Negros.

Just out of curiosity, what’s the intention behind the comma in the title?

'Yung nagsulat ng exhibition notes ko and tumulong sa title is Michelle Esquivias. Lawyer siya at art writer din. Malaking bagay 'yung presence niya during that trying time. She translated my works into words beautifully because she understands. Maybe because she had utmost knowledge of what I was going through.

Pinakita ko sa kanya 'yung title tapos iba pa 'yung pagka-term. Siya 'yung nag-encourage na mas may bearing kapag may comma. I guess to stress the “pause.”

The exhibition view of "small bones, holding a mountain," which ran from October 29 to November 28, 2020 at West Gallery. Photo courtesy of WEST GALLERY

‘Yung title, “small bones” kasi 'yung una kong intention diyan is kamay. Lahat ng ginawa ko for that show were all small hand processes na nag-te-take ng time.

Feeling ko sobrang heavy ng nangyari sa akin even before the pandemic. I think this is my way of rebuilding myself. Parang tiny process siya of rebuilding myself kaya siguro nag-ta-transform sa paggawa ng books at movements na hindi ko kailangan madaliin. Parang same with healing. I guess what I want to show is kung paano binubuhat ng maliit kong kamay 'yung nangyari sa akin. How I map myself in different directions, and how I draw or sketch out a space for it.

Artmaking is always thought of as a way of processing things. For this one, do you feel that it ultimately led to healing?

I can't say naman na totally healed. I think itong show na 'to is an exercise of recovery, rebuilding, and unburdening. Siguro nag-increase 'yung self-awareness ko by reclaiming the time na nawala sa akin. Healing is a long, long, long process. Hindi ko masabi na tapos na 'yung healing. Siguro nakatulong 'yung small bones exercises na 'to into reclaiming myself na parang kaya ng sarili kong kamay buhatin ‘yung sarili ko.

In an interview with Girls Club Asia, you described Metro Manila as “a fragmented place to live in” and both “the city and its people are furious, restless, but never boring.” Has your description of the capital changed now?

I think it really changed. I think the fragmented part changed in a sense na nakita ko siguro na 'yung perception na 'yun ay reflection din ng detachment ko sa community. In that interview, na-relate ko 'yung energy and restlessness sa creative scene. Siguro nung time na 'yun I was asking myself, "why am I not part of anything?" I guess it's a conscious awareness of how I belong in the city I'm in. Fragmented siya maybe because I was too.

Why did you feel that detachment?

I'm describing my detachment to the art community in general kasi 'yung mga ka-age ko or ka-batch ko na artists they came from the same school, same class, or same teachers na artists din, so there's already a sense of community within them. Since sila 'yung kasabayan ko, somehow I felt na may understanding sila na hindi ko naiintindihan. I guess parang 'yung detachment na 'yun is more din ako because I don't engage.

And how would you describe Bacolod?

I think it’s perfect to describe this place as very chill. Even if I'm in the city, malapit lang siya sa kabundukan. Lumabas ka lang ng kaunti, nandoon ka na sa magagandang parts ng Negros. Mas tahimik at mas mabagal. Mas nakakatingin ako ng matagal sa surrounding environment at nakakatulong ‘yun to breathe better.

May napansin ka bang changes sa habits mo?

Yes. I think 'yung pinaka-different is kapag nasa Manila, feeling ko parang kailangan kong gumawa ng something lagi. Na dapat parati kang may ma-accomplish. Para kang pressured. Or ano bang tawag doon?

Para kang laging may hinahabol?

'Yun. Dito, yes may deadlines, pero it's not the same. You feel present at ramdam mo 'yung bawat oras.

I think we could attribute that to the design of the city here in Manila kasi when you look at places here, there are always lines going to the train for example. Parang inherent sa kanya na dapat may habulin ka?

Totoo. And the traffic also nakakaapekto siya sa totality.

"Box 01 & 02," reclaimed wooden box with artist’s books, found stones, and handmade objects. Photo courtesy of JEL SUAREZ

You describe yourself as a collector, hunter, and gatherer. Where did the interest to collect come from?

I think naturally drawn lang ako sa mga bagay. I didn't grow up with material things. Hindi siya binibigay lang sa akin. Siguro as a kid, 'yung collection ko ay nanggagaling sa mga nakukuha ko lang, kung ano 'yung pwedeng ibigay ko sa sarili ko.

When did you begin considering art in relation to your practice of collecting?

Naging conscious ako kasi 'yung act of collecting it takes up so much space. If you don't have the physical space, it's really difficult to sustain. Malaking factor din nga 'yung part of moving from one place to another kasi na-realize ko 'yung uselessness of hoarding stuff. Right now kung ano 'yung kino-collect ko ready din akong i-give up. Kung may kukunin ako, iniisip ko 'yung guiding principle ko ngayon: Ano ba 'yung pwede kong magawa sa kanya na ma-expand 'yung materiality niya na eventually ma-le-let go ko ulit? Hindi ko siya kailangan i-keep nang i-keep. Biggest learning ko siya nung umalis ako sa Manila. 'Yung physical things fleeting and replaceable siya, hindi mo kailangan i-hoard. To trust in carrying kung ano 'yung kaya i-hold ng kamay mo.

But you used to be sentimental?

I think. Malaking factor ng collecting is that you're sentimental with the stuff. Natutunan ko to let go of that sentimentality. Mag-breathe ka rin. Ang laking bagay na marami akong nawalang gamit. Parang hindi ka attached to some place.

So now collecting is always related to your art?

Right now yes kasi nga difficult 'yung storage and space. Before kasi hindi eh lalo na when I was starting pa lang. Feeling ko lahat magagamit ko. But now, filtered na 'yung idea of collecting kasi mas naging discerning ako.

In the same way, do you collect ideas before making art? Or do you jump into it right away?

'Yung nabago nga na process ko since nagsimula 'yung pandemic kino-collect ko muna lahat. May upcoming show ako sa Drawing Room this November. 'Yung stuff na gagamitin ko for that show, I've been collecting them for a year now. Parang accumulation siya of different objects. Malaking effect ng collecting sa kung anong mabubuo doon sa show. Mahaba siyang process. Hindi siya kapag nakuha ko alam ko na kung anong gagawin ko sa kanya. It's a long long process na i-di-display ko muna siya diyan tapos pag-iisipan ko kung anong gagawin sa kanya.

What's your first memory of art? And when did you realize that what you're making is art?

For as long as I can remember I think drawn ako sa kahit anong creative pursuit since I was a kid. But you know, growing up in a very traditional family and 'yung generations ng kids before hindi naman katulad ngayon na ang daming source of opportunities. Before, it was all about making good drawings or being skilled in painting. 'Yun lang 'yung traditional sense sa schools. Naisip ko noon 'yung ginagawa is more of crafting. Sabi nga nila weird 'yung ginagawa kong collecting ng kung anu-ano lalo na nung grade school. Nalaman ko na art 'yung ginagawa ko kapag binabati ng mas nakatatanda na artistic ako. Pero it will end up with them asking you na gawan mo naman ako ng portrait. Ma-di-disappoint sila kapag nag-drawing ka kasi it's not what they expect. I'm not really skilled with painting or drawing. Actually I don't really draw or paint. My strength I think is in how I perceive things and how I transform things.

Hirap akong sagutin before kung bakit collage. Aside from the fact that I function according to the physicality of materials or based sa images na meron ako, 'yung materials 'yung prompt ko for working. I think collage as a process reflects my sensitivities din and understanding. 'Yung act ng collage ganon ko nakikita 'yung surroundings ko. I'm particular with details. I'm obsessed with arranging and assembling things. I think kaya rin natural na nag-shift into assemblage making 'yung collage process ko. Kapag nag-co-collage ako I feel the most powerful kasi I feel in control. Organic process siya and I feel at ease with myself. Same thing din siya with how I approach objects. Parang reflection siya ng sarili ko na visually ko lang kayang i-articulate.

"Stone Cabinets," artist’s book with rubber-cut prints and collages, found stone. Photo courtesy of JEL SUAREZ

And before this, you used to be an educator. What led you to that path?

Nung pumipili ako ng course for college, very practical 'yung parents ko. They wanted me to get a course na free ako to enter a school or the corporate scene or the medical scene, so I thought psychology 'yung best na option for that. When I graduated, nag-lean ako towards teaching sa pre-school. Nung time na 'yun, I was finishing my masters in special education. Different field talaga siya. Before nakikita ko siya as separate fields hanggang sa na-realize ko na habang tumatagal ako sa artmaking bumabalik sa childlike senses 'yung trabaho ko. I don't think I was capable of shifting to art completely before. Nagkataon din siguro na I was quitting 'yung huling full-time job ko as an educator. And I was fortunate na tuloy-tuloy 'yung projects hanggang sa na-realize ko na ang tagal ko nang walang trabaho pero okay pa naman. Pero na-realize ko na artmaking is also a full-time job. Demanding siya na trabaho.

Art and education are both laborious fields that I think are underappreciated here. But do you still see yourself teaching again?

That's true. Ang mahal ng education dito pero sa pagtuturo hindi compensated enough 'yung teachers. Teaching is also a care work because well-being ng kids 'yung involved. Hindi ko naman nakikita na I left teaching totally. I try to get myself involved in creating programs for kids.

For example, Ateneo Art Gallery, nakipag-collaborate ako sa kanila in giving workshops for kids. Kapag may oras, I find ways of how I can bring art into the lives of kids na hindi sa classroom setting. One thing I also learned is that I don't need a formal classroom to teach. Life is a school in itself.

Right now, I'm part of this project supported by Asian Cultural Council in collaboration with Museum Collective PH, artist-run space SaSa Art Projects in Cambodia, and our very own Load na Dito. Basically the objective of that is to memorialize sensitive truths in history. 'Yung ginagawa is para siyang cultural programming and education din. 'Yung audience niya soon will be students from Cambodia. They will be invited to respond sa works namin. In a sense leaning towards educational programming pa rin. I'm very happy to be given this opportunity kasi kahit hindi na ako nagtuturo formally ganito pa rin 'yung projects na nagiging available.

How do you determine if a piece is already done?

'Yung creating is really a personal experience. With anything that involves making things, I think it's done when you're happy enough to abandon it or let it exist elsewhere.

Is there a guiding principle when you approach art?

'Yung guiding principle ko is not to force ideas or not to overthink. Nakikita naman siya sa process ko na I go with my instinct lagi para kung ano man 'yung lalabas sa work is just my truth. Also, to stop when I'm tired and do something else.

"Inscribed on Poems," artist’s book (26-page accordion with collages). Photo courtesy of JEL SUAREZ

So what do you do when you’re not making art?

When I'm not making art, I'm just surviving in general: doing the laundry, basic responsibilities. I think when I'm not actively creating, I still unconsciously feed myself with other things that lead to ideas. Whether it's talking to another person or watching a new movie. Stereotype siya na you're only making art kapag nasa studio ka. It helps when I talk to other creatives I understand art as a way of living or seeing the world. So, 'yung unique expression in the way we do, nag-ta-translate siya to, for example, cooking or arranging things at home.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for artists right now?

Siguro 'yung shift ng landscape. It's a challenge to retain the spaces and keep the community alive. Ang daming nagsasarang places. Not only galleries, but also places kung saan tumatambay 'yung mga artist like sa Future. As these spaces die, parang nabawasan 'yung feeling of community. It's a challenge to keep spaces and engagement healthy in a time of social distancing. But then again, parang ito rin 'yung nag-bre-breed ng new ways of exhibiting and connection. Nag-e-extend siya outside event spaces and the white walls of the gallery. If anything, I think art is what's sustaining most people ngayon while they are stuck at home. It's also what's keeping them busy and distracted sa stress ng pandemic. I think shifting 'yung landscape ng art. Problem siya pero at the same time opportunity to innovate.

For my last question, what’s the last great work of art you’ve seen? Why is it great?

It's not exactly an artwork in visual form but I've enjoyed reading these art essays published by Load na Dito. As you know, male-dominated pa rin 'yung cultural work and art management sa Pilipinas. Especially in the provinces. I think the project provides a strong women's perspective on the current landscape and possibly the future of exhibiting here in the Philippines.