The migrant experience in art

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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.

The migrant experience in art
Ilham Gallery entrance

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.  

The migrant experience in art
Koken Ergun’s Binibining Promised Land

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.  

The migrant experience in art
Cheng Yee Man’s Children Playing in a Playground

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.

The migrant experience in art
Jao Chia-en’s video REM Sleep

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.

The migrant experience in art
Imelda Cajipe’s Wife is DH_Needs

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.

The migrant experience in art
Details from Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention

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.

The migrant experience in art
Joyce Lung Yuet Ching’s Susan

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.

The migrant experience in art
Beatrix Pang’s BOI

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. 

The migrant experience in art
Fan Ho’s Sun Rays

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.

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