Gaston Damag sticks to his Ifugao roots
A Paris-based Filipino artist puts the spotlight on the displaced and the disenfranchised
Gaston Damag remains unrelenting when it comes to bringing the story of his Ifugao roots to the world stage, even after working as a museum assistant for 12 years and while raising his family.
His artistic journey has been long, and the vista from the Philippines to Paris had him thinking more about the first Filipino artists who had dared present Filipino culture to the world. “It’s a beautiful experience when you’re an artist or a writer and live far from your country. I think that was exactly what our heroes experienced when they left the Philippines and tried to criticize the Spanish government [from abroad] during that time.”
Gaston credits Europe for the global perspective that allows him to see the minority culture he belongs to within a bigger story. “I don’t know if [there’s] a better angle for seeing our country, but it’s how I see things. I try to see my Ifugao culture through [the lens of a] European or American museum, and work on the question of representation.” The results of his reflection have been seen in exhibits in Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain in France, Art Basel Switzerland, and Art Basel Hong Kong.
But every journey that Gaston takes always leads him back home. Currently, he’s part of the thematic exhibit “The Inverted Telescope” at The Drawing Room, where he worked on the idea of land ownership and the reasons why people seek greener pastures. He looked at how taking an indigenous community’s land away from them is never just a material loss: “They lose soul, they lose hope. It’s all related to poverty. They have nothing to do in the farm, they have nothing to work on. They all come to Manila trying to find a better life.”
As a Filipino artist on the world stage, where do you draw the line when it comes to cultural appropriation?
I do not have the [authority] to respond to that, but I invite spectators to look carefully at my works. My best response [would be found in them], as I’ve been working for more than 25 years on the ethnographic museum representations of my culture and other minority cultures.
What has been the best constructive criticism you’ve heard about your work?
It’s funny, the same French art critic wrote a very good article in the French newspaper Le Monde about my artworks at the Art Asia Now Fair in Paris last year was the same person who [related] my work [to the] Nazis. This was during the ’80s, after I had just graduated from the Beaux-Arts in Paris; my work then was minimally conceptual. I hate when people only say, “Not bad,” because that meant there was no engagement. Silence would be better. Maybe [the best praise is] when people don’t ask questions. When people come, go, and come back again to see more.
How has living in Paris influenced your approach to art?
France is a country that loves to discuss: politics, literature, sports, arts. I’ve learned to question myself every time.
Is there such a thing as creative fatigue?
No. Fatigue [comes from] the desperation I feel when I read bad news; that can affect my creativity. It’s uncomfortable, but we, the lucky ones, need to accept the reality and do our best to be as honest as possible.
In light of everything that’s been happening, do you feel pressured to show the good side of humanity in your work?
Artists are profoundly humanists; everything they see affects them. My artwork is [often] about the representation of people who are considered passé but still [live among us] today. I think what I do is already [a form of political] engagement because I question how minorities are represented [in society]. But it’s also important to realize that no story should affect my relationship with people. My work is a metaphor for respecting the other.
What’s your next project?
Preparing for a group show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines that will open this month. •
Gaston Damag’s work “Mine me notmine me not-mine me not-mine memine me not-mine me not..” is on exhibit at The Drawing Room.