Filipino artist Wawi Navarroza is a photographer with a collagist’s heart. She is a forager of material, gathering inspiration from a lineage of artists while burrowing deep into her innermost rhythms. In her playfully skewed photographs, we chance upon the marbled victims of Medusa’s gaze, the commanding side-eye of Frida Kahlo, and even Balthus’s Thérese cooling down from the Manila heat. Flirting with a variety of personas, places, and histories, Navarroza’s body of work emphasises her role as both actor and director: she edits and assembles, poses and stares, and finetunes lighting and costume.
As Wild As We Come is Navarroza’s latest solo exhibition with Silverlens Gallery in Manila. Inspired by her relocation to Istanbul as well as the transformative experience of motherhood, the show testifies to Navarroza’s desire to return to art in the midst of all these changes. It asks that we meet Navarroza on her own terms: as a mother, migrant, artist, technician.
A showy strangeness
Within these tableaus, Navarroza pursues a controlled kind of mess. A birthday cake is embellished with gems—and is that a baby snake slithering underneath it? In another, a barefooted Navarroza sits poised while holding different vases, spliced in uneven fragments, drawing attention to its own construction.
In a previous interview with art historian and curator Dr Roger Nelson, the artist said,
“I retract and reveal in order to remind the viewer that photography is malleable and is very much a contemporary art medium to construct the image, to propose interstices, to break and tear.”
How do we encounter Navarroza’s world? In these new works, we are never quite sure where we are, or how we got there in the first place. Instead, we are tasked with accounting for the sheer array of things. Our eyes hover over each tableau, mesmerized but restless.
Portals / Double Portrait finds our subject in two guises. On the left side, she is draped in a bevy of colours, primed for a night out; to the right, she assumes a more conservative dress in uniform tones. A child sits on her lap. These two versions of Navarroza look at each other expressionless, separated by a drapery bearing flowers and fruits. Hard-boiled eggs form a loose grid on the floor.
Embracing life’s mess
This tendency for maximalism seems to be the prevailing principle of the show, and it betrays an artist caught in a transitional moment in her career, basking in the complexity of unfixed identities, determined not to let anything resolve into a single notion.
Previously, Navarroza’s self-portraits hinged on a specific concept (the tropical gothic, for instance) which brought her prismatic worldview into focus. But in As Wild As We Come, the artist sought refuge in the expansive but vague idea of wildness. From the show’s perspective, wildness can come to mean just about anything—from Eurocentric connotations of savagery, to the enigmatic display of Filipino horror vacui, to explorations of motherhood and female power.
For instance, Navarroza tries to cram as many details as possible in Mouth of Pearls / Oryental & Overseas, which appears as a jumbled attempt to comment on the state of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). It’s a picture of excess that depicts Navarroza in a luxurious robe, holding up a mirror to look at herself as she clutches a pearl necklace with her mouth. A balikbayan box, a package usually filled with gifts and practical items brought home by returning OFWs, is used as a makeshift table holding up even more pearls.
The Navarroza we find in this tableau is distanced, fixated on the mirror—perhaps trying to discern what lies beyond it and seeking, like so many OFWs, a future of prosperity. Taken altogether, the work has the feel of an impenetrable fever dream, keeping us viewers at a remove.
Deconstructing the muse
“For me, making self-portraits is a way of bravely asserting my own self-determination and representation as a woman, Asian, transnational [and more],” Navarroza remarked in an email exchange. She has also previously been open in sharing how artmaking has allowed her to unsettle Western and patriarchal conceptions of the gaze.
Beyond confronting the gaze’s traditional role in photography and portraiture, Navarroza has also spoken plainly about the struggles of working as an artist while dealing with the duty of being a new mother—particularly in light of expectations imposed by a productivity-obsessed culture.
In a world that often pits the two roles against each other, Navarroza wanted to actively resist that binary mindset:
“I’m claiming that one is not mutually exclusive; it’s in a dynamic interplay now. It informs and strengthens the work. More than that, my self-portraits don’t just belong to me, it’s for every woman who has innately in her heart of hearts to create.”
The interplay of those two roles coming into contact undergirds many of the tableaus in As Wild As We Come, most explicitly seen in Portals / Double Portrait. The tension is also apparent, though more veiled, in Todo Lo Que Tengo / Bottomless / Bereket, which sees Navarroza holding vases and vessels layered on top of each other. Obviously Photoshopped, the work foregrounds the artificiality of that label of woman as a vessel.
With the artist also telling us that “Todo lo que tengo” in Spanish means “all that I have” and “Bereket” in Türkçe means “abundance, blessings, bounty, plenitude,” the work’s many titles call to mind regeneration and bounty, but also dislocation and alienation.
Navarroza’s self-portraits, smothered in imagery and allusions, live in these states of confusion, where one meaning can easily be capsized by another.
A detached homecoming
By describing her latest show as a “homecoming exhibition,” Navarroza, who has spent some time away from the Philippines after moving to Turkey, also asks something deeper: what does it mean to return to creativity, and in effect, what does it mean to return to one’s source of power?
Her self-portraits can thus be read as attempts to interrogate a woman’s many desires and complexities in the face of both internal and external difficulty—where the mishmash of daily life assumes a potential to unravel straightforward meanings. As Wild As We Come follows this vein of reclaiming power by avoiding logic and reasoning, albeit pushing that philosophy to its breaking point.
Confusion and perplexity can no doubt be compelling, especially when these are directed with intention and specificity. However, Navarroza’s show lacks such anchoring and suffers as a result. We are led to wonder to what end are this grandeur and obfuscation aimed at exactly, given all the heavy themes the show wants to tackle.
The show’s sense of detachment is made even more palpable due to Navarroza’s facial expressions, which never rise above the air of what seems like rude boredom. La Bruja II / Vagus (Self-Portrait Rebirthing the Self), an otherwise energetically detailed tableau, is dulled by Navarroza’s blank posture; she looks like a model struggling to find the right angle.
Homeing, alternatively captioned self-portrait of a new mother, is afflicted with the same issue, showcasing her hair wrapped up in a towel with the rest of her body cloaked in tropical imagery, such as palm trees and the sun. But her stare here is arctic, her sense of reality completely inaccessible to us.
Looking closely at these self-portraits for some time reveals their suffocating flatness. They are at first dazzling displays, chaotic and full of vigour, but this impression soon sours, to the point that they fail to elicit any reaction at all. The sumptuousness of the textures becomes cloying, and the lustrous colours wash up into a muddle.
One gets the strong impression that beneath the show’s veneer of calculated busyness lies an indeterminacy at its core, that despite the urgent and overdue interventions Navarroza advances in her practice, the work itself does not quite live up to her maverick talent.
Feature image: exhibition view of As Wild As We Come. Image courtesy of Silverlens Gallery.
As Wild As We Come runs at Silverlens Gallery Manila until 5 April 2023. Click here for more details.