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An Interview with Eloisa Guanlao.

Will you describe your current project, Noli Me Tangere, which was awarded the 2016 SECAC Artist's Fellowship?

Noli Me Tangere is a return to childhood, not just mine, but my father's, and all Filipinos who have immigrated abroad. It is a two-part project, and it is truly a family affair. The first part is a documentary film about my father's life as a comic book illustrator in the Philippines, his eventual departure with us for the United States, my brother's and my journey back to the Philippines after thirty-two years of absence, and the larger backdrop of Filipino immigration (fig. 1). The second part is one wearable and one paper jeepney (a mode of transportation in the Philippines) decorated with old comic book pages that my father illustrated.

The documentary film is a collaborative project with my brother that follows our journey as we search for original comic books that my father illustrated in the Philippines. My brother is creating the animated portions of the film (fig. 2). We are also interviewing my father's family, friends, and colleagues in the Philippines. The more intimate story of my father's life is set against the pervasive subject of OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) and Filipino immigration, which touches practically every Pinoy's life. I would like to know the motivation behind the large number of Filipino immigrants. I also designed the wearable jeepney out of green pliable bamboo and my cousins oversaw its construction. Every year a local family in my childhood barangay sponsors a sagala, or town procession celebrating the local saint. Over time, the sagala devolved into a local beauty and wealth pageant. This year one of my younger nieces donned the wearable jeepney as part of the spring procession. Costumed as Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, my niece pulled and wore the jeepney as a reliquary karosa, a ceremonial carriage (fig. 3). Many onlookers called to her, "Mama Mary," thinking that she was a life-sized moving statue of the Virgin Mary. Some older people ran up to kiss her and be blessed by her. I was surprised the day after the procession to discover that the flowers adorning the jeepney were gone. My relatives explained that they were probably removed in keeping with the tradition of taking the flowers home from the karosa that carried the Virgin Mary in order to receive good luck and blessing (fig. 4).

As this project deals with your father as an artist in the Philippines, did his artwork influence your own work?

It is mainly my father's work ethic that influences my art practice. Masipag, or untiringly hardworking, is a word everyone uses to describe my father. Before working for a comic book house, my father worked as a shoeshine boy in Manila. And when we immigrated to the United States, my father usually had a second freelance job alongside his full time animation work for Warner Brothers or Disney. When I think about how hard my father worked, I cannot really allow myself to be lazy. The way he composed scenes on the comic book pages also influences my work. He taught me how to angle scenes in order to illicit a dramatic point of view.

How much does your memory of living in the Philippines as a child play a role in Noli Me Tangere? Having left there when you were only nine years old, how much do you remember, and how will that be featured in your Jeepney recreation?

Noli Me Tangere is my childhood revisited, dissected, and reconstructed. Looban, Sulok, Panapaan, Bacoor, Cavite is the name of the little corner of the Philippines where I grew up. I had a magical childhood filled with extended family and surrounded by nature. My cousins were my playmates, and the fields our playground. I like to say that I remember everything because I believe I do. I remember buying Sarsi Cola at the sari-sari store. I remember eating puto bong bong with tsaa after Christmas mass and kamotecue for merienda. I remember elaborate street processions during town fiestas. I remember digging up blocks of dried earth, picking out pulid, and cooking it in a found empty and rusty tin can in the bukid. I remember tricycles and jeepneys as the only mode of transportation, back when traveling to Manila only took half an hour unlike the two-hour commute of today. Although the fish ponds and horizon have now vanished, replaced by dismal wall to wall cinder block houses, my cousins have remained my playmates in art and life. My project became a collaborative effort whether or not I wanted it. My cousins, aunts, and uncles all gave their input. I could not have accomplished half as much in my short time in the Philippines without their time, creativity, and care (fig. 5). The paper jeepney consists of pages from my father's old Filipino komiks (fig. 6). Then, as now, the stories featured in the comic books are being recycled in the popular Filipino movies and soap operas of today. To be honest, in my experience there is really no difference between the fictional histrionics portrayed in movies and the melodramatic reality lived by Filipinos.

Because this project addresses issues of colonization, were you aware of that while you were a child living in the Philippines and if so, did it have an effect on you growing up both there and then when you and your family came to the US?

The Philippines maintains an ambivalent attitude toward its colonial history. For example, every school age child in the Philippines, myself included, learns to laud the martyrdom of the literary and political Filipino hero Jose Rizal, but Filipinos are just as quick to claim and glorify its oppressive and grandiose Spanish Baroque connection. As a child I was awed by the idea of revolution and independence. I distinctly remember watching on television the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino in the Manila airport after his return from political exile for vocally opposing the authoritarian rule of then President Ferdinand Marcos. For many, he became the modern embodiment of Jose Rizal. My uncle, who lived with us, took part in the mass demonstrations against Marcos and the pro-Aquino rallies that filled the media. After immigrating to the United States, I followed with fascination the election of Cory Aquino, the Philippines' first female president, in 1987. At the age of fourteen my first political painting of Columbus crucifying himself and Native Americans was inspired by a definite spirit of revolution and recognition of history's cycles.

While I was visiting the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected President was under fire from the global community for his extrajudicial killings of alleged shabu dealers and users. I was still there when he declared martial law in Mindanao. Every Filipino I spoke to appreciated how Duterte has "cleaned" up the streets of drug dealers and users. They speak of how much safer the streets are. Long accustomed to dealing with strong-man types and corruption at every level of government and quotidian life since the time of Spanish colonial control, the Filipinos I know are able to reconcile contradictions in their daily existence and make sacrifices, such as emigrating abroad or foregoing civil rights.

Are you constructing the jeepney while you are in the Philippines on your upcoming trip? Can you discuss the construction process?

I had originally wanted to construct the cast jeepney in the Philippines, but the shipping logistics were challenging, so the paper jeepney was made in the United States. I constructed the wearable jeepney karosa in the Philippines with the help of my cousins.

Do you already have a plan for where the paper cast jeepney is going to be viewed?

Parts of the documentary were projected at Columbus College of Art and Design's Beeler Gallery in the Fall of 2017 (fig. 7).

This project is autobiographical and also dealing with your father, but how and when did you come up with it? Is it something you have wanted to do for a long time?

The initial conception for Noli Me Tangere came soon after my father's death in 2011. Right away I wanted to get my hands on Gumamela, a komiks serial that my father worked on in the eighties, because this is the serial that I so vividly remember watching him create. For me the komiks became a physical reincarnation of his life. They also represented my childhood and how I viewed life in the Philippines--tragically dramatic and difficult. The project simmered for six years on the back burner and the funding from SECAC provided the extra gas to begin. My brother and I did not find any Gumamela pages while in the Philippines, but after leaving for the U.S., our father's first publisher, Cil Evangelista, sent us the original komiks that my father penciled and inked from 1961-1965. We were fortunate to attend a small lunch reunion-draw-a-thon with some of my father's komiks friends and colleagues, including Tiyo Enzo, Danny Tolentino, Ernie Patricio, and Abe Ocampo (fig. 8).

How does your deep knowledge of art history affect your work?

Art History and History as disciplines provide the intellectual stimulus for my work. I view my practice as part of a larger ongoing dialogue with artists from the past. I am interested in the problem of the relationship between art and life that Modernists, such as the Bauhaus and the Constructivists, pursued and grappled with. The work of artists like Mary Kelly, David Hammons, Hans Haacke, and Adrian Piper, and their use of material culture to criticize society and its structures, act as barometers for my own approach. The social science and performative aspect of my work are inspired by the work of dancer-choreographers like Yvonne Rainer and Bill T. Jones. I appreciate how effectively dancers use space with a strong awareness of the human body.

I am also a keen student of history. As such I like to use identifiable forms and matter that constitute our material culture because I want other people to trace the history of these forms and weigh their significance. For example, the jeepney was adapted from the WWII-era Willys that were left behind by the U.S. military after the war. They are still the most popular mode of public transportation for Filipinos. The early jeepneys were called auto calesas, the Spanish word for carriage. I specifically chose Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage as my project's iteration of the Virgin Mary because the original statuary, now housed in Antipolo, was created in New Spain during the seventeenth century and travelled to the Philippines aboard one of the Manila Galleons that sailed between the two Spanish colonies for four centuries (fig. 9).

How do you prepare for the creation of a work?

I love research. I feed off of research. The ideas for my work come after having learned about a certain issue. I continue conducting further studies during the course of the actual project. I am just as concerned not only with the current state of an issue, such as seawater rise, as with past events that have led to the problem. For instance, Holo Mai Pele deals with seawater rise, but I also researched the sociopolitical and economic systems, such as colonialism and private enterprise, that have contributed and continue to aggravate the present catastrophe (fig. 10).

Part of my research also involves quiet observation and experiential learning. For the project Darwin's Finches, I drew from regular hikes and camping excursions with my husband and kids. At the time of the project we also lived in a house with a woodsy yard in Alabama where various native birds fed or made their home. My daughters intimately knew the native birds I was sewing from our yard and from our hikes. They also recognized the way I photographed, arranged, and presented the birds as akin to displays of stuffed bird specimens in natural history museums.

One of the things that I love about your work is that you are extremely versatile in what you create with regard to both subject matter and medium and this new project of yours proves that. What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Noli Me Tangere is part of Talk Story, a multipart interdisciplinary series of installations and documentary/ performances that examine and question the historical archives of human migration-forced or voluntary, territorial expansion, and natural resource extraction in three continents over a span of six centuries. The projects in the Talk Story series perform as physical counter-monuments incorporating familiar architectonic designs and material cultural forms that are recognizable, but reconfigured so as to elicit re-examination about the very real problem of human displacement and ecosystem disruptions. The series seeks to counter the disparity and community disruption that arise as groups cling or gain access to prime land and resources during the process of migration and settlement.

I choose the media for a project very carefully. As I stated before, I mine material culture for its social and historical connotation. For instance, the jeepney for Noli Me Tangere is made out of paper from my father's komiks pages. Like the pervasive jeepney, paper komiks were ubiquitous as form of entertainment and were used as wrappers for fish and meat at the local palenque. Komiks also illustrated the hopes and disappointments of Filipinos. I used my daughters' outgrown clothes for the stuffed birds in Darwin's Finches because of the project's connection to the natural history excursions that we took as a family. As part of Talk Story, my next project Indian Territory will incorporate detritus from the nineteenth-century European-American westward expansion to tell the story of Native American displacement, genocide, broken treaties, and survival.

Caption: Figure 1. Eloisa Guanlao, stills from Noli Me Tangere, 2017. Photographs by Eloisa Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 2. Eloisa Guanlao, still from Noli Me Tangere, 2017. Animation by Douglas Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 3. Eloisa Guanlao, still from Noli Me Tangere, 2017. Photograph by Eloisa Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 4. Eloisa Guanlao, still from Noli Me Tangere, 2017. Photograph by Eloisa Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 5. Eloisa Guanlao, Noli Me Tangere stills of Jeepneys, 2017. Photographs by Eloisa Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 6. Pages from Popular Klasiks' Komiks, 1961-1965, Courtesy of Cil Evangelista (Publisher). Pen and Ink by Ernie Guanlao, written by Renato Mendoza and Purita Malolos-Ondoy.

Caption: Figure 7. Eloisa Guanlao, Noli Me Tangere Paper Jeepney in progress, 2017, 200" x 84" x 78". Photograph by Eloisa Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 8. Eloisa Guanlao, Noli Me Tangere stills of Abe Ocampo, Ernie Patricio, Danny Tolentino, Larry Bonifacio, and Cil Evangelista (Komiks colleagues and friends in the Philippines), 2017. Photographs by Eloisa Guanlao.

Caption: Figure 9. Eloisa Guanlao, still from Noli Me Tangere, 2017. Photograph by Eloisa Guanlao. Caption: Figure 10. Eloisa Guanlao, Holo Mai Pele, 2017 205" x 144" x 144". Photograph courtesy of Allys Palladino-Craig (FSU MOFA).
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Author:Bushman, Karissa
Publication:Art Inquiries
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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