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Cartography, Cartoons and Colonialism in New Work from the Philippines

A group show at SOAS, London, explores the complex, often violent, cultural legacies that have shaped the country 

Isaac Newton’s thesis Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) contains a poignant moment of uncertainty. Citing the observations of astronomer and voyager Edmund Halley about the Philippine island of Luzon, Newton is perplexed by the movement of the ocean surrounding it. Curated by Merv Espina, Renan Laru-an and Rafael Schacter, ‘Motions of This Kind’ – a phrase lifted from Newton’s treatise – finds fuel in this void in his understanding. Newton’s blindspot – his inability to conceive of the part of the world furthest from his European home – is used to consider the wider erasures that characterize Philippine history in relation to dominant global narratives.

Cristina Juan and Delphine Mercier, Informal Empire: Philippine-British Entanglements until the 19th century, 2019, archival display. Courtesy: the artists, SOAS Library, UCL Ethnographic Collection, London, and Sir Richard and Lady 
Hyde Parker of Melford Hall, Suffolk; photograph: Agnese Sanvito

The multiple legacies of imperialism in a country that has passed through periods of British, Spanish, American and Japanese control are foundational to the show, which presents newly commissioned work by 11 artists from or working in the Philippines. For Cian Dayrit, Cristina Juan & Delphine Mercier and Michelle Dizon, it is archival matter that matters: its function and utility is questioned, new materials are created and others alienated from their context and given counter-interpretation. Dayrit corrupts 18th-century European cartographic tradition with Northern Conquests in Oriental Soil and Sea (2019). This upturned embroidered map – with lurid colours, mythical creatures bobbing in the ocean and doctored colonial emblems, bordered by feathers – attempts to establish a geographic perspective more closely reflective of those who populate the land. Colonial place names are made redundant; instead, the names of indigenous groups are stitched into the map in decorative lettering with small golden trinkets dangling from the land. The vitrines accompanying the map consolidate this rebuff to a European conceptualization of time and space. Chronologically disordered artefacts jostle together, confusing their provenance and telling a warped tale of Filipino identity. This is somewhat ironed out in Cristina Juan & Delphine Mercier’s faithfully museological presentation of letters, books and images from the Ifor B Powell Collection, Informal Empire: Philippine-British Entanglements Until the 19th Century (2019).

Michelle Dizon, The Archive’s Fold, 2018, multi-image slide and sound installation with texts, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and SOAS, London; photograph: Agnese Sanvito

This literal work jars with Dizon’s anti-preservationist stance. Understanding the endurance of archives as an instrument and fiction of the state, The Archive’s Fold (2018) flings material from the Philippines’ period of US occupation (1898–1946) into the future and exposes its violence. Two fictional letters written by Dizon’s great-great grandmother in 1905 and her imagined future descendant in 2123, frame a flow of photographs, sounds and slide projection. This fictional intergenerational conversation extols a connection between the two periods, which Dizon also implies in the use of archival photographs. Women pictured in one image come to represent the 16,000 who migrated to become prostitutes for the American military; a photo of people using banned pesticide suggests the disease that eventually infected the farmers.

Eisa Jocson, Princess Studies, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artists, Koppel Project Central, London, and SOAS, London; photograph: Agnese Sanvito

Other artists loosen themselves from administrative paraphernalia and find colonial residues in the Philippines’ entertainment and leisure culture. Mark Salvatus’s Blue Moon (2009), for instance, restages an obscure carnival that took place in his hometown of Lucban in 1910 during a transitional period between Spanish and American rule. Elsewhere, Eisa Jocson appropriates the quintessential princess and childhood icon, Snow White. Her two-screen video, Becoming White (2018), documents rehearsals for a public intervention in which she played character in a mock parade through Manila, from the Cultural Centre of the Philippines to the US Embassy. Accompanied by Colouring White (2018) – framed colouring-book pictures of Jocson as Disney’s heroine – the work highlights the contemporary phenomena of classically trained dancers migrating from the Philippines to work in Hong Kong’s Disneyland where they perform ‘happiness’ in marginal roles assigned on the basis of race. For Jocson, these are colonially embedded values that proliferate the service industry, perpetuating a closed system of white desirability. As a comprehensive offering with historical rigour, the show captures the melee of ideas that have converged, at times violently, in the Philippines.

‘Motions of This Kind’ runs at SOAS, London, until 22 June 2019.

Main image: Cian Dayrit, Northern Conquests in Oriental Soil and Sea (detail), 2019, tapestry, 2.1 cm × 2.3 cm. Courtesy: the artist and SOAS, London; photograph: Agnese Sanvito

Dr Cleo Roberts writes on contemporary Asian art. She has contributed to Art Asia PacificArt Review Asia and forthcoming books published by Phaidon and Thames & Hudson.

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