Uniqlo has just announced artist Isabel Santos as the grand winner of the clothing brand’s annual UT Grand Prix, which is done in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Santos’s work was chosen over 10,000 entries, making her the first Filipino to win the prize since its launch in 2005. This year's theme is “Draw Your World.”
Santos’s winning design is fashioned after vintage comics — an ever-present visual theme in her work. Titled “A Fortune in Jewels Kept in Your Safe,” the design features cutouts of retro Hollywood hairstyles in front of the shirt. The back, on the other hand, bears faces of women in varying emotions —from vexation to sorrow. The design originated from her 2018 exhibition “Only What I Want to See,” whose subjects were also taken from old comics.
“Culled from collected reproductions of comics I have acquired, the images used are cut up and rearranged, suiting my own version of reality, selecting only the parts I want to see. There is an emphasis on a taking away of the inessential, a separation of parts to bring focus to what is meant to be seen. The result is my attempt at communicating my own version of events,” Santos says.
In her Instagram post, Santos revealed that she has known of her win for over a year now. However, because of the postponement of the awarding brought about by the pandemic, she had to keep it a secret.
We spoke to Santos about her win and what draws her to comics.
Congratulations on your win! What drew you to join the UT Grand Prix?
It was the end of 2019 when I saw someone share the competition on Facebook. I knew about the Grand Prix from previous years but hadn’t related to the subject or topic of those years. I saw this time around, Uniqlo partnered with MoMA, and that made me think I can maybe fit in this category since I make art. Partnering with MoMA opened up the categories of what the T-shirt design can be, for me. It was interesting, and of course, nag-baka sakali lang ako.
Your winning design was part of your 2018 show “Only What I Want to See.” What led you to revisit the work? And why this piece in particular?
That work was made in 2018, but I’ve been continuously playing around and developing along these themes and imagery for a while. I submitted this along with two other works I felt can be translated into interesting T-shirt designs, but I’m happy this is the one that won, because it has been one of my favorites.
Can you tell us more about this piece?
I use the practice of rearrangement and reconfiguration as ways to make sense of things, manipulating existing material in an attempt to mold them into pictures and images that resonate more with me. Culled from collected reproductions of comics I have acquired, the images used are cut up and rearranged, suiting my own version of reality, selecting only the parts I want to see. There is an emphasis on a taking away of the inessential, a separation of parts to bring focus to what is meant to be seen. The result is my attempt at communicating my own version of events. Art is always an extension of my person, even if the result is not always obvious. Through these collected images, my rearrangements become ways of communicating what I want to say, a way of delivering my vision to others.
The impetus for this piece was a gallery show. Hence, I imagine this piece was made with the thought of its existence in that particular space. Did you ever imagine it would be printed on a shirt? What does it mean for you as an artist to turn something usually confined within galleries and private collections into something mass-produced or more accessible?
Hmm, I’m not sure. Space is definitely a factor in presenting a work. It can highlight or enhance it, or even change its meaning. The feeling of seeing my work in real life and on a shirt, I can imagine, would be different. I usually buy shirts now as a souvenir or remembrance of something significant. I hope people who buy my design would feel the same or, actually, I don’t mind if at surface level they like it and buy it.
I think long-standing Uniqlo’s collaborations with artists provide an accessibility for many people who love the artists or are moved by their work. For me, it’s less about commercializing art and more about providing a way for them to be enjoyed by many more people who couldn’t, say, go to the MoMA or see Ryan McGinley’s photographs in real life.
Your work, like this one, usually involves images from old comics. Can you tell us more about your interest in those images? When did you start using them in your work? And why are you drawn to them?
I love comics. I learned how to draw using copying comic books. The ratio and shadowing are usually correct. I remember drawing Superman from a shirt over and over again until I got things right. Recently, I have been playing around with cutouts and images to make them somewhat new yet still familiar. I remember those games where you jumble the letters in the middle of the word and still recognize what the word is. It is playing with uncanny compositions and placing objects or figures within an image that isn’t supposed to include it. I like to cut out images and order them in a certain way to look different or challenge the mind in thinking about it in another way.
Isabel Santos’s design will be available in Uniqlo stores globally starting Feb. 26.