Curating the Filipino: The ‘Bayanihan Philippine Art Project’

Balik Bayan, exhibition installation detail, Blacktown Arts Centre, 2017, with (from left): Ala Paredes, ‘Power Pose’ series, 2017, articulated paper puppets; Alwin Reamillo, Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, 2015–17, mixed media, courtesy Urban Theatre Projects; Marikit Santiago, installation of paintings and sculptures, 2017; Melissa Ramos, Distant Memories, 2017, 3-channel video transferred from super-8 film, 6 mins 41 secs duration; image courtesy Blacktown Arts Centre; photo: Sharon Hickey

Balik Bayan, exhibition installation detail, Blacktown Arts Centre, 2017, with (from left): Ala Paredes, ‘Power Pose’ series, 2017, articulated paper puppets; Alwin Reamillo, Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, 2015–17, mixed media, courtesy Urban Theatre Projects; Marikit Santiago, installation of paintings and sculptures, 2017; Melissa Ramos, Distant Memories, 2017, 3-channel video transferred from super-8 film, 6 mins 41 secs duration; image courtesy Blacktown Arts Centre; photo: Sharon Hickey

The largest survey of Filipino art yet held in Australia gives voice to emerging and established Filipino and Filipino–Australian artists. Centred around Sydney and titled the ‘Bayanihan Philippine Art Project’, it marks the seventieth anniversary of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and Australia. The program reinvigorates the Tagalog concept of Bayanihan, the traditional practice for communal work, through mixed media, painting, moving image and performance-based practices.

The Blacktown Arts Centre’s ‘Balik Bayan’ show (until 2 November) is curated around community and dialogue where Manila-born Alwin Reamillo’s collaborative Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House is a reference to the Filipino tradition of moving a, mostly, bamboo house from place to place, as a communal practice. Commissioned in 2015, it has been travelling between participating galleries – creating space for conversation.

Bringing together 10 contemporary artists, ‘Passion and procession’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (until 7 January 2018) draws on symbols rooted in the Philippines’s religious, colonial and animistic identity. Works such as Crusade (2015), Norberto Roldan’s candle-draped installation with fluorescent lights positioned like crucifixes, weigh heavily on the gallery’s prominent white walls.

The vast body of work brought together for ‘Bayanihan’ delicately weaves the personal, political and purposefully humorous narratives defining the sociopolitical reality of present-day Philippines. More than 7000 extrajudicial killings in the state-led ‘war on drugs’ have taken place since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year. More recently, martial law was declared in Mindanao, the large southernmost island, in response to escalating violence.

The current state of affairs provided a new perspective on J. D. Reforma’s single-channel video Confidently Beautiful, with a heart (2017), a critique on American influence in the Philippines shown at the Mosman Art Gallery (which closed 10 September). Similarly, Marikit Santiago’s tape-wrapped sculptures at Blacktown deliberately take on President Duterte’s authoritarian leanings.

Notably absent, however, is a critical voice exploring Filipino–Australian relations. Consider the controversies surrounding the presence of Australian mining companies and Australian military in the Philippines. Under what conditions is Australia operating in the Philippines? While lacking in this respect, the ‘Bayanihan Philippine Art Project’ sets the tone for a stronger long-overdue Filipino voice in Australian art circles.

Jake Atienza, Sydney