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Embark on a Philippine Odyssey at Gajah Gallery

From the website of the Philippine Embassy, “an estimated 200,000 Filipinos live and work in Singapore and actively contribute to the economic development of both the Philippines and Singapore.  Approximately 60% of Filipinos in Singapore are professionals and skilled workers, while the rest are employed as household service workers.” 

Popular artistic points of reference in Singapore tend to reflect this statistic, with works speaking to the Filipino migrant experience being well-received and critically- acclaimed in our popular culture. Examples include  Anthony Chen’s award-winning film ilo ilo and  Balli Kaur Jaswal’s latest literary whodunit Now You See Us. In the visual art realm, most in the know are well-acquainted with Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s stylised slippers and reconstituted balikbayans

A new art exhibition however has rolled into town, offering a different lens through which we can think about Filipino art and society. Gajah Gallery re-opens the regional conversation this month with its newest offering In Excess: An Exuberance of Philippine Art.

Curated by Joyce Toh (some may remember her as the driving mind behind Thrice Upon A Time: A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines Singapore Art Museum’s seminal exhibition over 2009-2010), In Excess aims to interrogate the idea of the “aesthetic of excess” in the art of the Philippines, both in terms of the work on display and in the blockbuster selection of artists featured. 

As Toh ruminates, “every country and society will invariably have an array of stories and narratives – and the Philippines certainly does. The migrant worker experience is a vital one to be told and heard, but it doesn’t capture or represent the vast richness of any one society, and it shouldn’t be expected to.”

“When we encounter the works in In Excess, I hope the astonishing creativity, the resourcefulness, and the emotional and aesthetic sensitivity of the Philippines, come through. Crucially, these are stories – some highly critical – told by Filipinos, about the Philippines, to a wider audience,” Toh explains. 

It’s quite frankly, a museum-grade show without the confines of institutional boundaries, and Toh goes so far as to posit that this may be the first time that all artists in the show have exhibited together. 

Here’s a selection of the works to whet your appetite :

1. Mark Justiniani’s Portal

Born in Victorias, Negros Occidental, Mark Justiniani grew up in a small town surrounded by sugar cane plantations and mills. Coming from a family of engineers and artists, he established himself as a professional artist known for his figurative paintings and jeepney assemblage using stainless steel, stickers and decals. Most notably perhaps, Justiniani participated in the 58th Venice Biennale in Italy in 2019, where his compelling work entitled Arkipelago was the anchor presentation for the Philippines in its official Pavilion. Singapore-based kids and adults alike might also recall teetering on the brinks of his endless optical illusions in the 2017 installation Firewalk: A Bridge Of Embers at the National Gallery Singapore. At Gajah, Justiniani revisits the themes of infinite possibilities and mystical gateways with the work Portal which allows viewers to look deep into an imagined mine shaft complete with wooden tracks and rows of lights.

Mark O. Justiniani, Portal, 2017. Mirrors, Lights, and Wood
Mark O. Justiniani, Portal, 2017. Mirrors, Lights, and Wood. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

Here, viewers will see clear references to notions of physical work. The installation effectively conveys a sense of endlessness to the fatigue and labour associated with blue collar toil. But the portal is not without its own magic and whimsy. 

As Toh succinctly explains, mine shafts “allow for the excavation of coal, gold, gemstones or other prized natural resources. For the artist, it is allusive to the quest for knowledge or even the artistic process – it is a process of searching and slow extraction, at times, frightening and not without risk. Through the corridors of our imagination, there can be a whole new universe of ideas, but acquiring real knowledge is achieved through labour and effort.” 

 2. Charlie Co’s Too Much is Never Enough, Death Scare , Black Moon Over Troubled Waters and Contemplation

A well-known name in Filipino art circles, Co was a founding member of the 1980s group Black Artists of Asia (BAA) and was also pivotal in establishing VIVA EX-CON (Visayan Visual Art Exhibition and Conference) in 1990, which is currently the longest running biennial in the Philippines.

In her 2009 essay A Century of Contesting Realisms: The Power of Story in the Art of the Philippines for the Thrice Upon a Time catalogue Toh explained: 

“Charlie Co’s works propel the viewer into a magic reality – a dreamworld where the imagination remains unfettered, and fact and fiction jostle to take each other’s place. Rejecting restraint in favour of more direct and emotive appeal to the senses, these extraordinary apparitions abound with magic and fantasy, and may be understood as a resurgence of the fantastical world of folk narratives, as well as pre-colonial myth and legend recurring in a more contemporary context.”

Co’s surrealistic acrylic paintings in In Excess appear at first glance as a chaotic mess and profusion of primary colours, rendered in an-almost primitive, tribalistic style. Upon closer inspection, Co’s nuanced use of semiotics comes through. His paintings Too Much is Never Enough, Black Moon Over Troubled Waters and Death Scare are packed with secret references and artistic easter eggs which range from Mexican Día de los Muertos festival motifs, to symbols of the troubled history of sugarcane farming in the Visayas region of the Philippines, to insect emblems favoured by contemporary fashion label Alexander McQueen.  Here’s a look at the paintings:


Death Scare. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.
Too Much is Never Enough. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.


Black Moon Over Troubled Waters. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

Contemplation in contrast, draws the viewer into the literal and metaphorical world of the Bible.

 Contemplation. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

Unlike the more conventional depictions often found in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, this portrayal notably lacks the presence of a cross. Instead, the crucified figure hangs suspended in the boundless blue void with its head hanging down as Co wanted to emphasize the quality of “facelessness. “There is no head, it’s humanity as whole,” he explains. 

There’s an understated yet ominous detail at play here too : above the figure, an avian form emerges, meticulously sculpted from modelling paste, taking the shape of a crow—an entity which is both harbinger and messenger. Here, Co prompts viewers to remember the stresses of the recently- concluded pandemic and reflect on how dramatic life changes can take place in the blink of an eye.

3. Annie Cabigting’s superfluous

The Catholic imagery in In Excess comes through once again with Annie Cabigting’s superfluous. Here, we see a nail rendered in 18-carat gold displayed in manner that both confuses and confounds. Thanks to some clever spatial manoeuvring and tweaks in the physical display, gallery staff have managed to create a layered viewing experience that results in gallery visitors being unable to determine where the shadow of the nail truly falls. The juxtaposition between quotidian nail and ornate gold, prompts many questions and there are different ways to read this work. It could be as much a commentary on the complicated  excesses of the Catholic church, as it is a general interrogation of the boundaries between the ordinary and the extravagant. Is a humble nail any more or less of an ordinary object because of its elevation in a white cube art space? One gets the sense that the same topical concerns addressed by  Maurizio Cattelan’s controversial banana taped to a wall underpin Cabigting’s work, but with a sense of minimalist elegance and subtlety that the former sorely lacked.

Annie Cabigting’s superfluous
Annie Cabigting’s superfluous. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

4. Victor Balanon’s Congress of Crows 

A self-taught artist based in Quezon City, Victor Balanon is well- known for his interest in film and animation.  Currently, he co-organizes a moving-image centred artist-run initiative called Lost Frames, where programs focus on providing a platform for screening video works, discussions and artist talks. Singapore viewers might remember his work The Man Who from the Singapore Art Museum’s 2018 exhibition Cinerama.

In the present show, Toh explains that Balanon presents Congress of Crows from his Parliament of Rooks series.

Victor Balanon’s Congress of Crows
Victor Balanon’s Congress of Crows. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

The work takes its name from a collective noun given to corvids, the family of birds known for their intelligence and also aggression and playfulness. Typical of wordplay in the Philippines, the title is also a double entendre and points to the behaviour of a ‘lawless’ legislative and governmental system. Rendered in stark blacks, whites and greys, the painting is instantly eye – catching with its profusion of figurative images of the police breaking up a demonstration. There is violence here but also jubilation — these scenes are a familiar sight in the Philippines, reminiscent of events like the EDSA Revolutions, protest marches, and the massive gatherings during festivities like the Feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo. Through skillful brushwork Balanon captures this intense whirlwind perfectly in his painting, creating a vivid and action-packed portrayal of a fierce political encounter that could just as easily be a scene from a rock concert.

5. Geraldine Javier’s Food

Geraldine Javier’s installation Food sees the artist reuniting with curator Toh. As Toh explains, “Geraldine Javier has longed explored themes of mortality, as entangled with the vastness of the natural world. Some audiences will be more accustomed to seeing these in her paintings, which were presented in the Thrice Upon A Time exhibition at Singapore Art Museum. In the In Excess show, those similar ideas are explored in a mixed-media work comprising a suite of meticulously embroidered placemats and runner on a dining table.”

Geraldine Javier, Food, 2023. Preserved Leaves, Imitation Gold-Leaf, Threads, Rust, on Mono-Printed Fabric
Geraldine Javier, Food, 2023. Preserved Leaves, Imitation Gold-Leaf, Threads, Rust, on Mono-Printed Fabric

Indeed, Javier has set up a unique dining experience that’s all about indulgence and introspection. Imagine this: as you take your seat at her artistic table, you’re greeted by a human skull grinning from your placemat, while the table runner features the skeletal remains and bones of commonly-eaten animals like chickens, cows, pigs, and fish. What makes the installation especially fascinating is the way that it has been crafted. Javier has painstakingly incorporated techniques in her work like embroidery and mono-printing, and used a variety of delicate materials like fabric, gold leaf, and rust.

Those leaves covering the skulls? Javier had personally gathered them from her home in Batangas and spent days processing them
Those leaves covering the skulls? Javier had personally gathered them from her home in Batangas and spent days processing them

In Javier’s work, bare skulls stripped of flesh and empty eye sockets, act as a reminder of life’s impermanence. Placed in the familiar context of a dining table, viewers are confronted with a collision of the eerie and the everyday. Indulgent feasting sits side by side with considerations of  mortality, and the dining table, usually a symbol of homely warmth and good food, suddenly becomes a place for some deep and considered (albeit macabre) reflection. Food is quite literally a visual feast that encourages us to relish the present and acknowledge the constant presence of death and decay, lurking just beyond our joyful celebrations. 

The last time that art from the Philippines caused such a stir in Singapore was arguably in 2017 when the National Gallery Singapore organised its blockbuster show Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna. If you missed it then, don’t miss this next opportunity to get some rare insight into the exciting world of Philippine contemporary art. 


Header image: Bagong Nobena Kay Isidro Labrador (New Devotion to St. Isidore, The Farmer / Labourer) by Imelda Cajipe-Endaya. Image credit: Gajah Gallery

In Excess: An Exuberance of Philippine Art runs till 22 Oct with a curator tour led by Joyce Toh coming up on 8 Oct. Visit the Gajah page for details. 

This article is produced in paid partnership with Gajah Gallery. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.

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