In 2016, when then presidential candidate of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte joked about how he should have been the first to assault a woman whom he considered beautiful and who had been gang raped, his audience roared with laughter. Two months later, he became president.
As president, he commented on checking out the knees of Vice President Leni Robredo, ordered soldiers to shoot women communists in the vagina, and kissed an overseas Filipina worker (OFW) on the lips – on stage, on camera. Each time, he was met with the same soaring cheer from his supporters, emboldening him to keep at it with his crass jokes and actions towards women: it’s all for entertainment, he claims. He has to make his people laugh.
“As long as there are many beautiful women, there will be more rape cases,” he said in a speech last year, in response to criticisms about the crime rates in the city where he was formerly mayor. His words sparked outrage among women and feminist groups, yet his supporters quickly came to his defense: again, it’s all a joke.
Artist, feminist, and activist Nikki Luna did not laugh. Instead, she took his words, stuck them on a mirror, and made it art – such that when visitors confronted his words, they confronted themselves.
President Duterte is but a reflection of the society that put him in power – a society where women are harassed and catcalled on the streets everyday, where children are molested or trafficked by their own relatives, where one woman is raped every hour and, oftentimes, blamed for her rape, where women are suffering in silence, and people are laughing.
Known for fearlessly fighting against misogyny and championing women’s rights, Nikki Luna refuses to stay silent, and communicates the suffering of these women in the best way she knows how – through intensely personal, powerful art. Her process involves immersing herself in the daily lives of Filipino women, then carefully choosing a specific, intimate part of their stories or their very own bodies to expose the myriad forms of violence and oppression Filipino women endure. In the past, she’s dug up the worn bones of female labourers, revealing the toil of their work and the weight of the burdens they carry; used the actual blood of mothers to challenge the stigma that still surrounds female blood and displayed the clothes of women vulnerable to being harassed or objectified – from babies and children to adult professional women.
Most recently, Luna represented the Philippines in the Cairo Biennale, where she boldly tackled the disturbing injustices facing migrant Filipina domestic workers living in Egypt. As thousands of Filipino women leave their homes in hopes for better opportunities and to support their families, many of them end up finding themselves trapped in terrible, almost inhumane conditions. In Egypt, some of the women Luna spoke to have had their passports and identities stripped away from them, suffer mistreatment and abuse from their employers, and remain unrecognised by the labour laws of the land. In her work, Luna sewed in actual strands of hair from these women into a cowhide rug, where the words “Lady of the House” were embroidered in cursive. Their hair could barely be seen against the threads of the rug, emphasising how invisible these women and their struggles are, both in the foreign homes where they serve as well as in their own homeland.
The work is quintessential Luna. As much as she exposes and protests the words and actions of perpetrators in power, she amplifies, most of all, urgent stories that have been silenced, sidelined, and forgotten – stories of women who have long been reduced to objects or numbers, yet keep the world running nonetheless; all while carrying a pain that many of us will never know.
Luna’s first taste of patriarchy
Luna’s profound concern for women and their struggles, however, comes from a personal place. She reveals that her own experience growing up in a patriarchal household was what made her aware of the many layers and forms of violence against women.
“I started to look at my grandmother’s and my mother’s generations, and what opportunities or choices they lacked – what were the things that denied them power, and their place and freedom in society,” Luna recalls.
She witnessed how the women closest to her loved and lived with men, and how they accepted structures and norms that inherently confined them. As she looked deeper, she saw that what they fundamentally lacked was economic self-sufficiency, preventing them from having meaningful careers that allowed them to grow and transform as women.
Breaking away from this limiting culture of patriarchy in her family, she chose to pave her own career as an artist and, through her art, challenge what the women she loved had long considered normal.
Moving beyond the personal
Luna soon learned just how deep-rooted and widespread the problems of patriarchy and misogyny were, hurting the lives of Filipino women far beyond the walls of her own home. She studied at the University of the Philippines’ Women and Development Studies and learned from some of the country’s most respected feminist scholars. They deepened her understanding of women’s issues, which she now believes must be considered within the wider issues of class, race, geopolitics, and, particularly in developing countries, neocolonialism. She worked with communities and organisations that centered on marginalised women and children, where she became exposed to the women who were most vulnerable to these systemic forms of violence.
The weight of their struggles urged her to look beyond her own personal experiences: “It was crucial I listened to these women’s stories. Their voices became more important than my own.”
Navigating ethics and responsibility in telling women’s stories
Telling painful stories that are not our own, however, comes with great responsibility. One must carefully and constantly contemplate ethics, especially when exposing the very deep and private wounds of living, breathing women suffering from trauma.
Earlier at this year’s Art Basel (Basel), for instance, artist Andrea Bowers received harsh backlash for her work that documented the #MeToo movement, in which she used graphic photographs of a woman who had been sexually assaulted, without her consent. While she may not have intended to cause harm, Bowers’ work appeared deeply inconsiderate and bordered on exploitative to critics, especially within the highly commercialised setting of an art fair.
As she transforms the delicate stories of the women she interacts with into art, Luna is well aware of these pitfalls. “I do not want to contribute to another layer of ‘using’ or exploiting women. I refuse to treat them as subjects or another statistic just to accomplish an artwork. I do my best to guide myself into my own accountability; my own obligation not just as an artist, but as a woman caring and standing for the interests of other women.”
Luna stays in touch with many of the women she works with, perpetually disturbed by the fact that their struggle never ends.
“The heartbreaking thought that haunts me each time is after all the hearing and listening to these women who have generously shared their stories with me, I have the convenience of leaving anytime. Meanwhile they need to live, survive and thrive.”
In spite of the profound difficulties and emotional weight Luna bears in order to create her works, she perseveres in order to provoke people into questioning what they can do to fight unjust social structures that violate and oppress women: “I would like them to ask themselves where do they stand in all this.”
She says one way people can start to do their part is by taking time to listen to the stories of victimised girls and women, who find great comfort in finally being heard after having long been ignored: “Really listening and letting them know you believe them is the first big step we all need to do.”
Luna points to the paths paved by the women she greatly respects, who fight with courage for marginalised women and refuse to compromise their integrity as they expose difficult truths: journalists Maria Ressa, Glenda Gloria, and Beth Fondroso; feminists and activists Chang Jordan, Twyla Rubin, Faye Cura, Kamla Bhasin, Judy Taguiwalo, and Pia Perez; and art world personalities such as curator Eileen Legazpi-Ramirez and artist Alice Neel.
In 2017, “Womanhood is weapon” was written on a wide white wall of one of her solo shows, in which cast bullets formed the letters of its words. They resembled the shape of .45-caliber bullets used often by cops and vigilantes involved in the drug war bloodying the Philippines under President Duterte – killing over 5,000 men and leaving thousands of women widowed or orphaned. In the same room, a video of a woman cleaning up the blood of her husband’s corpse played.
In a world darkened with senseless violence, alarming apathy, and burdens we shouldn’t have to carry, Luna and her art are lights in the darkness – moving us to care and turning bullets that wound into piercing reminders that one woman’s pain should be everyone’s pain. She does not flinch as she works to leave no woman carrying her weight alone.