The mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence in art

Business World - - WEEK­ENDER - By John L. Silva

Given that im­mi­grants and mi­grants these days are be­ing de­mo­nized, made the pariah in many coun­tries in­clud­ing the once im­mi­grant friendly United States, the on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tion After­work at the Il­ham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is quite per­ti­nent.

Orig­i­nally shown in Hong Kong, the Il­ham’s Cre­ative Di­rec­tor Valen­tine Wil­lie in­vited the ex­hi­bi­tion to Kuala Lumpur and added sev­eral Malaysian artists whose works com­ple­mented the vis­ual sto­ries of the mod­ern so­journ­ers.

In it’s com­modi­ous high- ceilinged halls en­com­pass­ing a whole floor of the sleek and mod­ern Il­ham Tow­ers, Gan Chin Lee’s oil and acrylic on wooden pan­els ( Por­trait Scape of Con­tem­po­rary Mi­gra­tion) be­gins the ren­der­ings of the var­i­ous mi­grants and work­ers that have come from parts of South Asia, and north, south, and east of its bor­ders. Gan Chin Lee has a sen­si­tive ren­der­ing of the dif­fer­ent fa­cial fea­tures, dress­ing, and stances of the work­ers, spurring in us to re­view how we, too, view mi­grants.

There are 33 artists from around the world and their works fea­tured, with seven of them Filipinos. Filipinos have been among Asia’s early mi­grant work­ers since the 1970s when the dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos en­cour­aged ship­ping them out. Given that prece­dent, there are sev­eral non-Fil­ipino artists in this ex­hibit de­pict­ing their lot as well.

Turk­ish artist Ko­ken Er­gun’s video and mag­a­zine in­stal­la­tion chron­i­cles the over 30,000 Fil­ipino guest work­ers in Is­rael work­ing mostly as care­givers. En­ti­tled Binib­in­ing Promised Land, the cover pages of Fil­ipino mag­a­zines printed in Is­rael blan­ket one wall, fo­cus­ing on ex­em­plary work­ers, beauty queens, and happy fam­i­lies. The video has ex­cerpts of Fil­ipino beauty pageants held in Is­rael, spot­light­ing care­givers turned con­tes­tants, all dolled up and vy­ing for the Miss Philip­pines-Is­rael ti­tle. Another unique take on mi­grant life is by Hong Kong artist Cheng Yee Man ( Chil­dren

Play­ing in a Play­ground) who asked his do­mes­tic helper to de­scribe her house and sur­round­ings back in Min­danao so he could sym­pa­thet­i­cally put it to can­vas along with the sounds of ru­ral life.

Jao Chia-En’s video REM Sleep asked In­done­sian, Fil­ipino, Thai, and Viet­namese la­bor­ers what their dreams are and a solemn Filip­ina ap­pears, ly­ing on a bench, painfully wor­ried about her fam­ily back home.

Fil­ipino artists also de­picted the lives of mi­grant work­ers in oblique but in­tense ways. Filipinos have long been aware of their over 11 mil­lion coun­try­men fly­ing off to the Mid­dle East, Africa, Eu­rope, the United States, the “en­ter­tain­ment” cen­ters of Ja­pan, in­clud­ing maids work­ing in Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore and in smaller pock­ets in Malaysia, Cam­bo­dia, and Thai­land. We all have rel­a­tives and friends who left and know fam­i­lies torn apart by this govern­ment- spon­sored ex­o­dus. So it’s not sur­pris­ing that Fil­ipino artists will present the over­seas work­ers’ case with the blues and ma­tu­rity at­tached. Imelda Ca­jipe En­daya’s Wife

is DH_Needs aptly uses an open suit­case as the torso of a do­mes­tic ser­vant. In the case are the ac­cou­trements to sus­tain their work lives: a statue of Our Lady of Good Voy­age; air­mail en­velopes and pho­to­graphs pre­sum­ably of fam­ily back home; a kawali (a pan) with a wooden spoon; anti- im­pe­ri­al­ist books and one en­ti­tled The Hys­ter­i­cal

Male (a predilec­tion more per­haps of the artist); clothes­pins dan­gling from the wrist; an iron on one leg and a bunot ( half a co­conut shell used as a floor pol­isher) with a dust pan on the other. The multi- task­ing fe­male do­mes­tic worker is by no means “hys­ter­i­cal.”

As one par­tial to rare books and con­ser­va­tion, I gaze with fas­ci­na­tion, yet am slightly un­set­tled, by Ryan Vil­la­mael’s Im­perium, a very del­i­cate and quite in­tri­cate cut-out for­ma­tion that seems to have sprouted from a vin­tage map book laid flat. The whole scene trans­forms the mute book to a lively, col­or­ful ren­der­ing with ghostly im­ages float­ing about in this tin­sel-like va­por. I am ren­dered speech­less that a book had trans­formed it­self into a work of art.

We of­ten have a work life and en­gage a pas­sion on the side. Work­ing as a do­mes­tic worker, Xyza Cruz Ba­cani, on her days off, would take her cam­era to cap­ture un­canny mo­ments in a city’s life, re­mind­ing us of sim­i­lar mo­ments but not nec­es­sar­ily want­ing to re­mem­ber them. Her series of pho­to­graphs on dis­play, en­ti­tled Hong Kong

in Mono, have an en­nui about them, a list­less­ness, with painful re­minders creep­ing in — hold­ing the hand of a ward, or the dead­ness of an evening date with two part­ners silently tex­ting away. They are haunt­ing.

Is­abel Rosario Cooper is the sub­ject of Miljohn Ru­perto’s work in pho­to­graphs and in an ex­cerpt from a movie she was an ex­tra in. Cooper is a some­what un­usual mi­grant. In 1930, she be­came the young mis­tress of Gen­eral Dou­glas MacArthur when he was sta­tioned in Manila. Kept as vir­tu­ally a gilded pris­oner, she even­tu­ally left the gen­eral and trav­eled to Los An­ge­les to be­come an ac­tress. She only had small roles mak­ing her out to be ori­en­tal and she even­tu­ally com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1960.

The work’s artis­tic value veers more on the archival and the dig­ging up of the se­cret life of the famed gen­eral, his le­gendary im­pe­ri­ous mother who lorded over him and his wife Jean, and his trans­gen­der son. The other value is Cooper’s beauty and one cred­its the gen­eral for his taste but un­for­tu­nately he could not be of help with her act­ing ca­reer. He would die shortly after her sui­cide.

It’s not all grim like the oc­ca­sional news clip­ping of yet another maid be­ing thrown out of a Saudi condo, or another be­ing starved to near death by pleas­ant, geeky look­ing Sin­ga­pore­ans. The vis­ual story-telling in­cludes tongue-in-cheek and in­ge­nious ways to make a point.

Take Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Hong Kong In­ter­ven­tion where the artists ask a va­ri­ety of do­mes­tic ser­vants where they would plant a grenade in the houses they worked in.

It’s get- back- time and it seems there was no sur­feit in maids vol­un­teer­ing, as they gin­gerly placed faux (we hope) grenades on a din­ing room ta­ble, on a toi­let seat top (ouch!), and, for good mea­sure, right at the foot of the mas­ter’s bed.

Spray bot­tles used to clean bath­rooms, kitchens, and floors and usu­ally made of plas­tic, are now en­shrined in porce­lain in Joyce Lung Yuet Ching’s Su­san. Sim­i­larly, Sakarin Krue

On’s Vil­lage and Har­vest Time

Series, re­pro­duces frag­ments of a Bangkok tem­ple, but fo­cuses on the ser­vants and ven­dors who nor­mally ap­pear on the sides of the wall mu­rals and are usu­ally for­got­ten.

A very poignant work, Beatrix Pang’s BOI bravely shows off two In­done­sian les­bians in queer butch looks pos­ing on their Sun­day off in Hong Kong. This is the hid­den story of the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence when only males or only fe­males are ex­ported.

In my re­search on male Fil­ipino farm la­bor­ers who went to Cal­i­for­nia in the 1910s through 1940, I learned that many de­vel­oped ho­mo­sex­ual re­la­tions with one another ei­ther for good or tem­po­rar­ily un­til Fil­ipino women started to ap­pear. Same-sex re­la­tions and sex­ual flu­id­ity are the largely un­known chap­ters of over­seas work­ers his­tory.

The ex­hibit has artists who tackle the is­sue of racism, in­tol­er­ance, and class di­vi­sions and one his­tor­i­cal ac­count of sil­ver ex­trac­tion in Bo­livia by slaves for the China and Eu­ro­pean mar­ket. There is a solemn work ( Al­fredo Jaar, Open­ing

New Doors) about Viet­namese refugees in the 1980s who were crim­i­nal­ized and de­tained in Hong Kong hold­ing pens and who, up to to­day, are not given work per­mits.

I end with my fa­vorite medium, pho­tog­ra­phy, and the work by Fan Ho en­ti­tled Sun Rays. A se­nior and dis­tin­guished artist, he cap­tured the lot of the poor­est im­mi­grants in the 1950s who were the foun­da­tion for Hong Kong’s eco­nomic boom which re­sulted in the im­por­ta­tion in the 1970s of the first of Fil­ipino and In­done­sian do­mes­tics to work for the in­creas­ingly af­flu­ent lo­cals.

The last day of my stay in Kuala Lumpur, as in pre­vi­ous trips, I scur­ried over to the Petronas Tow­ers, to gaze and be in the shadow of such a breath­tak­ing struc­ture. It was Chi­nese New Year’s day and peo­ple thronged around the tower’s foun­tains, the park in front, and all en­trances and var­i­ous floors. They were all sorts of peo­ple other than Malay — peo­ple from Bangladesh, Pak­istan, In­dia, China, Myan­mar (in­clud­ing Ro­hingya), Viet­nam, Nepal, Cam­bo­dia, and the Philip­pines.

And they mostly weren’t tourists. Malaysia’s “Up­per Mid­dle In­come Sta­tus” — it will soon reach “High In­come Sta­tus” like Sin­ga­pore ac­cord­ing to the World Bank — has much to do with the in­creas­ing pres­ence and work of mi­grant la­bor­ers.

Com­ing from a coun­try where ev­ery mall en­trance has walk- through metal de­tec­tors and frisk­ing guards, the Tow­ers, amaz­ingly, have no such thing at its en­trances. Crowds of many na­tions, with selfie sticks and click­ing cam­eras, dressed in eth­nic at­tire, jeans and T- shirts breezily walked in and I thought im­me­di­ately that this was sort of risky. But hav­ing just seen After­work, I chas­tised my­self and looked in­tently at the many young happy faces on their day off, tak­ing pic­tures of them­selves, each other, and of this most mod­ern struc­ture whose gleam­ing steel and style res­onates with many of them. They may crowd into a small room, and be un­der­paid and not get ben­e­fits, but, hey, Malaysia’s a much bet­ter world than whence they came from.

After­work is on view till April 16 at the Il­ham Gallery, Lev­els 3 and 5 Il­ham Tower, No. 8 Jalan Bin­jai, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tors are Freya Chou, Cos­min Costi­nas, Inti Guer­rero and Qinyi Lim.



KO­KEN ER­GUN’s Binib­in­ing Promised Land

DE­TAILS from Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Hong Kong In­ter­ven­tion


CHENG YEE MAN’s Chil­dren Play­ing in a Play­ground

JAO CHIA-EN’s video REM Sleep

FAN HO’s Sun Rays

MILJOHN RU­PERTO’s ex­cerpt from a film about Is­abel Rosario Cooper


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