While browsing the labyrinth of the Asian Art Museum near Civic Center station, it’s very possible that viewers might look through centuries worth of art from the Asian diaspora before finding the two small rooms dedicated to the special exhibit currently on view, Philippine Art: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories. Tucked away in a back gallery of the museum’s sprawling second floor, the exhibit’s bold colors, contemporary — and occasionally crude — craftsmanship, and strong social directive offered a sharp contrast to the museum’s softer, more traditional works.
Striking, giant red placards demarcate the section from other galleries, which are instead inconspicuously labeled with standard black-and-white cards. Vivid oil paintings depict scenes from idyllic everyday life and revolution during martial law, each vying for the viewer’s attention along the hall. A mesmerizing Noberto Roldan installation of Virgin Marys and glass herbs in a wooden case spans the opening wall; a large crucified Christ hangs off another.
The disparity in display, placement, and sheer aesthetic between Collecting Art, Collecting Memories and the rest of the museum’s displayed works makes it easy to imagine how — before this exhibit — there was must’ve been very little Filipino art at all.
According to the Natasha Reichle, the museum’s associate curator of Southeast Asian Art and the show’s primary organizer, Collecting Art, Collecting Memories is the museum’s first-ever personal exhibition of Philippine art. While the exhibit showcases the rich culmination of Filipino art acquired the last couple decades, it’s also meant to serve as a direct response to the dearth of Filipino representation in the Asian Art Museum as a whole.
“[The lack of Filipino art] was a long-standing gap in our collection, and something that our many Filipino visitors to the museum often commented on,” she says. “We had no art from the Philippines when the museum was founded, and it was only in the last 10 to 15 years [that] we built up a collection. [Curating the show] was largely in response to this gap and to the community.”
Each piece of work drips with history, sharing a brief, visual story of the Philippines’ diverse and multifaceted history (the exhibit aims to take viewers through the country’s pre-colonial, Islamic period, Christian colonial span, and contemporary era). Unlike the museum’s other galleries, the poignancy and attention-grabbing elements of Collecting Art, Collecting Memories render the exhibit impossible to ignore, even despite its small size.
Pieces like Fernando Amorsolo’s Farmers working and resting or Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s Popcorn Sellers in the Luneta — both idyllic portrayals of workers in the rural countryside — evoke the feeling of the soft Manila breeze on an everyday afternoon. With bold, vivid colors, the works effortlessly transport viewers to the humidity of Southeast Asian summers and tranquility of simpler life. In contrast, Benedicto Reyes Cabrera’s 1081 graphically depicts a man in uniform marching atop strewn bodies — ruthlessly giving spectators a raw glance into the Philippines’ turbulent 1970s and long history of civil unrest.
While emotional poignancy is one of the exhibit’s strongest points, the visible effort Reichle and her team have taken to include commentary from the local community is clear (most works, for instance, possess a placard featuring a community member’s direct commentary or memory associated with a piece).
“So many of these works of art have personal meaning or evoke certain memories for people [of Filipino descent],” Reichle explains. “The title of the exhibition is Collecting Art, Collecting Memories. And because the community of Philippine Americans is so large in San Francisco, it gave us this great opportunity to reach out to people.”
The stories recounted by the community ultimately succeed in enhancing the exhibit, highlighting how each of the objects on view actually interact in different people’s lives in a myriad of ways. And, interestingly enough, it appears that community donations themselves are what have made the show possible.
“The museum doesn’t have a large acquisition budget. So, to be totally honest, a lot of what’s put on is dependent on what the people give us,” Reichle states. “For this first exhibition, I thought it would be really nice to show the breadth of [Philippine] art, the many different medias people work in, and [to] give people an idea of how rich and layered the history of the Philippines is.”
Although Collecting Art, Collecting Memories may initially appear elementary in scope, Reichle hopes that it’ll act as a stepping stone to growing an interest and awareness of Filipino and Southeast Asian art that can act as a catalyst for future, more in-depth exhibitions to come. Until then, viewers have the opportunity to explore the role of Filipino art in building cultural communities and to learn more about the Philippine’s complex, intricate history.
‘Philippine Art: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories’ runs through March 11, 2018 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Details here.