Celebrating Filipino Art & FilAm Identity

Ceremonial deity (bulul), Ifugao people of Luzon, approx. 1930.

Earlier this month, I took my mom to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see their Filipino American History Month celebrations. (By the way, happy FAHM, fam!) I’m abashed to say that it was the first time that I had ever seen Filipino art on display. On top of that, I was visiting with my mom, which deepened another, far more personal and meaningful dimension to the exhibit.

Because for the first time, I was learning about an artistic heritage that I was directly a part of. For the first time, statues and photographs – all of which I had learned about at home, from my parents’ stories –  were placed in a museum as if to prove that they, too, were worth learning about.

I looked into art and saw parts of myself embedded. I had never felt that before. I glanced at my mom; her eyes were glistening.

***

There are many things one can say about growing up bicultural. Many of them have already been said more eloquently, by better and wiser writers than me. Here’s what I can say: When my parents immigrated, I was a toddler, and my memories of the Philippines would start to fade from the moment that we touched down in California. For me, growing up between two cultures entailed, among abundant joy, the messy attempt to knit together two languages, two histories, two ways of looking at the world. My parents’ desire to preserve culture often had to compete with the pressure to assimilate.

So going to the Philippine Art exhibit sparked this magnetic pull toward the half of myself that, as I realized with a start, I didn’t know much about at all. On the far wall hung indigenous weaving, deep brown textiles intercut with thick black lines. A glass case featured indigenous and precolonial artifacts, rendered in wood and stone.

Central panel of a blanket, T’boli people of Mindanao, approx. 1950.

Had you ever seen something like this before? I asked my mom. I’d prompt my mom like that throughout the exhibit, and she would elaborate on those tiny informational placards with vivid stories from her childhood.

There was a small collection of black-and-white photographs from the time of the bloody Marcos dictatorship. Ferdinand Marcos had taken power when my mom was a child; as a college student, she attended marches to protest his reign. These photos sent my mother into a quiet, sorrowful reminiscence; her voice wavered. (“I remember the day he announced martial law. I don’t know how people let him do it,” she said. “People just allowed him to do it.”)

I’ve always thought (and still think) that going to museums is like magic. It’s like entering this enchanted place where art, history, and anthropology converge. But as captivated as I’ve been, there’s always been this safe, intellectual distance between me and the art behind the glass case.

This time – standing in the middle of a museum with my mom, the rush and clamor of San Francisco wheeling around us – and the distance was elided. The artwork elicited this sense of pride and belonging, vulnerability and loss.

The feeling of loss, especially, was visceral: I can name all of the U.S. presidents in this chronological order (seriously, I’m good), but I know so little about where my parents came from. Then again, this exhibit, maybe, is a starting point toward learning. And to start elaborating on this heritage with art and creation of my own. 

***

All this to say happy Filipino American Heritage Month! If you identify as Filipino/a/x American, I wish you some productive self-interrogation of your beautiful and complex ethnic identity, more time with your family, and enough Filipino food to put you in a food coma. While you’re at it, check out this reading list from one of my favorite book bloggers.

The exhibit, Philippine Art: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories is running from now until March 11, 2018. It’s admittedly small and only takes up a small gallery. But it’s meaningfully curated: according to the website, it’s one of the first exhibits in the U.S. that features Philippine art from the precolonial period to the present. The rest of the Asian Art Museum is also impressive and well worth a few hours of meandering, curious and wonderstruck.

Dragon Fortune, by Taiwanese artist Hung Yi, stands guard at the museum steps, in psychedelic florals.

Also, answer the survey at the end of your visit. The kindly employee gave me and my mom a free museum postcard.

And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – especially if you’re based in SF and/or identify as Asian American. What did you think of the exhibit? When have you seen yourself in art? Or imbued yourself into the art you make?

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