Art and Social Activism in Southeast Asia: Stealing Public Space

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Black and white map of Baguio City with the projectís market stalls indicated in red

Image Credit: Angel-Velasco Shaw
The Markets of Resistance project description and a map of the locations in Baguio City where our market stalls were located during the exhibitions.
Many of the images in this presentation will be reprinted or appear in the forthcoming book Markets of Resistance.

Angel Velasco Shaw, Director of the Institute for Heritage, Culture and the Arts, Philippines Women’s University School of Fine Arts and Design •

Thirty-one years ago, I began a labyrinthine journey – back and forth from New York to the Philippines – that I naively thought would eventually come to an end. I’d just graduated from California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles and felt, intuitively, like I had to purge myself of all that I’d just learned in order to discover what kind of artist I wanted to be. Little did I know that this initial five-month stay in the Philippines would have such a profound impact on me and continue to influence every aspect of my life as a visual artist, video maker, writer, educator and cultural organizer today.

Consequently, I cannot separate the diverse, multi-layered and interconnected things that I do as a cultural practitioner. Every thought and action is part of a convergent artistic and intellectual continuum that is born of life experiences. My ideas translate into whatever medium is best suited to their implementation. The body of work that I have been producing continues to evolve through a series of explorations into the legacies of colonialism, empire building, war, cultural representation, identity politics and the postcolonial condition.

The Philippines’ nation-building endeavors do not include a critical analysis of its inherent Spanish and American, postcolonial, multicultural status. Perhaps this exclusion is a result of two particular colonial rulers’ suppression of Filipino and ethnic indigenous cultures and the resultant internalized belief that those cultures are unimportant or inferior.

One crucial yet widely unacknowledged aspect of the Spanish and American colonial legacies for Filipinos is the ongoing erasure of parts of our cultural history that, if recovered, could shed vital light on how this history is alive and continues to impact Filipinos today.

The highland city of Baguio, though free from Spanish domination, developed out of the U.S. government’s obsession with building a “Little America” – a colonial hill station in the midst of the Philippine-American War. Confiscating thousands of hectares of tribal land and displacing its rightful owners over a 30-year period, the Americans built Baguio into a flourishing city, home to a crucial military outpost that served as a lush American playground. In the process, they secured Baguio’s place as a major tourist destination.

Baguio’s traditional markets, which are representative of Cordillera ethnic indigenous cultural identities and commerce, are the mainstays of various local communities. The stalls that comprise each market are not merely filled with staple foods and goods or tourist souvenirs that reduce indigenous culture to a series of culturally bankrupt objects. They are also spaces where locals congregate, gossip and keep oral traditions alive; places where they can buy and trade the latest trends, black market items and relief goods. These markets represent a waning cultural tradition that signifies resistance to greedy mega-supermarket chains and mall developers, and they can be seen as a casualty of American colonialism.

People at Hilltop Market

Image Credit: Angel-Velasco Shaw
Hilltop Market, where the local indigenous and non-indigenous people buy their daily needs. Two of the Markets of Resistance stalls were located in this area, as well an outdoor poetry reading and performances.

The Markets of Resistance project, which I am presenting today, began in June 2014 and ended in November 2014. It served as the inaugural multi-disciplinary artistic and cultural project of the Institute for Heritage, Culture and the Arts at the Philippine Women's University. It was a collaboration between the Institute, the School of Fine Arts and Design, the Communication Arts department and Ax(iS) Art – a Baguio City-based collective of indigenous and non-indigenous artists, scholars, poets and community workers.

The project was inspired by my desire to highlight the cultural diversity and richness of Baguio’s hybrid artistic communities. It explored issues such as the appropriation of Western cultural practices, the impact of local/global tourism, the effects of globalization on indigenous and non-indigenous peoples who co-inhabit a place and whether or not traditional Filipino markets may represent convenient and/or exotic consumption for some consumers while remaining an oppositional tradition for others.

On a more subjective level, my inspiration and motivation to embark on this elaborate project were both personal and sociopolitical; both individually and collectively driven. I was once told that my great-grandmother and grandmother walked from village to village with an oxen and a cart filled with everyday goods to sell until they settled in Libertad market in Pasay City, Manila. My love for markets where culture thrives is in my blood.

Twenty-eight years ago, members of the Baguio Arts Guild adopted me. They gave me the flame that some have said makes me a “culture-bearer.” Simply put, I felt compelled to put their gift into a container that someday I could pass on.

The projects and activities on the Philippine Women’s University campus consisted of formal and informal classroom sessions with eight hand-picked students from the School of Fine Arts and Design and the Communication Arts program; artists’ talks with the critically-acclaimed, Baguio-based filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and his son, multimedia artist Kawayan de Guia; three cultural immersion trips to Baguio, Bontoc and Sagada in the Cordillera region, where participants spent a total of 13 days; and studio time, during which students created original artwork based on the project’s theme and topics.

Activities in Baguio included art students’ presentations; local artists’ talks and studio visits; a trip to the BenCab museum and interaction with the national artist Ben Cabrera; alternative “tourist” walking tours conducted by three local artists; drumming, woodcarving and rattan-weaving workshops with indigenous artisans; scholarly talks, film screenings and spoken word events with three Baguio-based writers’ groups; and the making of a student documentary film.

The majority of these students (or “lowlanders,” as people from the Cordillera region call people from Manila) had only been to Baguio as children and had inherited the stereotypical impressions of the Cordillera people as one homogenous, uncivilized tribe with dark skin and feet splayed from gripping the edges of the rice terraces. In fact, there are nine main ethno-linguistic groups. In turn, the Cordillera people (or “highlanders”) saw lowlanders as “wannabe Americans” and often referred to them as “Americanos” because of the perception of Manileños as having a neocolonial mentality.

The whole project culminated in a series of events that included a three-week exhibition at three market stalls in Baguio City (named after indigenous women who were put on display during the 1904 World’s Fair) where people bartered for artworks, film screenings about current social issues in the Cordilleras, three site-specific art installations and an outdoor poetry reading and performance art event at Hilltop Market, where the majority of the local indigenous people shop.

Many jars of the identical product on display at the Oblika market stall

Image Credit: Angel-Velasco Shaw
The Oblika market stall was located in the Baguio Central Market and frequented by tourists and some locals. The stall was named after one of the indigenous Ifugao women from the Cordilleras who were on display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

While it is difficult to provide exact numbers of people who came into the stalls and attended the events, the organizers’ conservative estimate is around 2,500 people. 70-plus cultural practitioners participated. The artwork in the stalls was not for sale in the conventional sense of a monetary exchange. Instead, an interested “buyer” had to negotiate with the artist about what she or he deemed to be the equivalent value in terms of goods needed for daily life – for instance: sacks of rice, poultry, meat, coffee, vegetables, pre-paid phone cards, housewares, children’s necessities, clothing, etc. Once a trade was agreed upon, the customer had to purchase those goods themselves and give them to the artist in exchange for her/his artwork.

Exterior of the Oblika market stall

Image Credit: Angel-Velasco Shaw
View from outside the Oblika, now transformed into a gallery

Since the inception of the Markets of Resistance project, the opportunity to showcase what the School of Fine Arts and Design and Communication Arts students learned through their experiences with the Philippine Women’s University community and interested Manileños in general was of utmost importance as a way to facilitate the sharing of multiple levels of experiences and provide these youths with an opportunity to embody what they had learned and pass it on.

Markets of Resistance Redux, which was staged at PWU, was a spin-off of the creative and intellectual processes of those who participated in Baguio. Many of the original participants were featured in various events, including film screenings, artists’ talks, a cultural symposium focusing on the theme and topics of the project, a spoken word event and a barter exhibition that took place over two weeks in the main hall of PWU.

I am still processing these projects. There is much to come to terms with – successes, failures and myriad contradictions that are inherent to the organic process of our creative and intellectual interactions and the complex social and cultural issues we sought to tackle.

Questions remain about the tension we discovered between the growing mainstream art market in Manila and the experimental, alternative barter system that both Markets of Resistance projects attempted to employ – questions about how, when and where these art exchanges occur; about the effects the exchanges have on the barterer, buyer, onlooker and community; and about whether or not these two seemingly disparate systems can coexist in a mutually respectful way.

Another larger question also lingers: How can all of the participants – traditional indigenous artisans, contemporary artists, aspiring artists, scholars, poets/writers and cultural community workers – continue to work towards the objective of creating greater visibility for our multicultural artistic practices, dismantling stereotypes about the indigenous peoples in the Cordillera region and living with all of these contradictions without taking sides? It is much harder to stay in the middle of the contradictions and continue to live them.

(I am pleased to say that Baguio artists – especially the younger, emerging ones – continue to make barter-trade exhibitions, and I have been asked to reproduce Markets of Resistance in other areas in the Philippines and other countries. One artists’ group in another region is asking permission to create their own version of MoR, and I am in the midst of negotiating with a Philippines-based publisher to make a book version of the project, which will expand on its theme and topics and include an online component. Some or all of the images in this presentation will appear in the book.)

A man in safari-style clothing poses with two figures in loincloths on busy street at Hilltop Market

Image Credit: Angel-Velasco Shaw
Fantasy World, an interactive photography installation by Marta Lovina in Hilltop Market

 Replica of Statue of Liberty being installed on the roof in Hilltop Market

Image Credit: Angel-Velasco Shaw
Installing Baguio City-based artist Kawayan de Guia’s De-Liberating Liberty Before the Fall, a 15-foot fiberglass replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of an abandoned building in the center of Hilltop Market