article by mJ Si; photos taken from the official Lopez Museum and Library Facebook page
State of Your Liberty. Leslie de Chavez. Mixed media, 2014.
I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. Leslie de Chavez. Mixed media, 2014.
Not Everything that Glitters Is Gold (After Per Pacem et Libertatem by FR Hidalgo). Leslie de Chavez. Mixed media, 2014.
For the past ten years, Ateneo Art Gallery has always been a frontrunner in recognizing exceptional Filipino contemporary artists by staging the most coveted Ateneo Art Awards Fernando Zobel Prizes for Visual Arts. This year, 2014, was no short of high spirits. Art enthusiasts celebrated the diversity and undeniably eccentric energy of the nominated exhibitions from the country’s leading galleries and museums. Cian Dayrit’s archeological re-imagination, Olivia D’aboville’s advocacy sculptures, Jay Yao’s romantic homecomings, Buen Calubayan’s Luna exploration, amongst others once again upheld the blazing spirit of the local contemporary art scene. Among the sea of laudable shortlisted exhibitions, surfaced a familiar name in this prestigious award. Leslie de Chavez, winner of the 2010 Ateneo Art Awards, landed on the list for the second time for his recently concluded exhibition at the Lopez Memorial Museum and Library.
Complicated, the exhibition for which de Chavez was nominated for, was an exploration of the “complex relationship” we have with our colonial past and its continuing effects of commercialism and imperialism. Known for its efforts to juxtapose works of Filipino masters and those of emerging contemporary artists, Lopez Museum, under the curatorial guidance of Ricky Francisco and Ethel Villafranca, commissioned de Chavez and two other artists to interact with the Museum’s wide collection of works and artifacts to create new artworks and new conversations. This juxtaposition is aimed to bridge the old and the new– showcasing the present-day exceptional talents while making the classical Filipino artworks relevant in today’s context.
As a social commentator, de Chavez focused his works on the continuing imperialism imposed by the Western nations on our vulnerable sense of nationhood. This complicated and problematic relationship is very well-conversed by de Chavez’s use of Western ideologies and symbolisms to confront its ill effects on our present socio-cultural state. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is one of the more blatant representation of this complication. It features five Michael Jackson figures in metal tubs with water aimed at the faces through plastic hoses. As time progresses, the white paint on the faces of the figures begin to wash off, revealing the dark natural color underneath. It is a direct attack on the racial identity crisis of many Filipinos today; many desperately aim to look foreign, act foreign, speak foreign, and even acquire foreign citizenships. However, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” conveys the true essence of personhood in which no amount of disguise shall ever deny.
In an age of globalization and technological advancements, we are lured to buy in the belief of belongingness and (at times, requires) conformity to a so-called “global village”. The continued upraise of capitalism and imperialism in our society today has further degraded our sense of nationhood and our being-Filipino. This is very evident in “Not Everything that Glitters is Gold” which is a direct engagement and critique on Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s study of “Per Pacem et Libertem” (currently part of Lopez Museum’s permanent collection). Another piece in the exhibition that discusses the same ideology is that of “State of Your Liberty”, an installation featuring an inverted Statue of Liberty similar to that in New York, which is known to be a symbolic landmark to welcome immigrants to the land of milk and honey. The inverted figure is raised in a hallow-framed pedestal with an artificial bulb hanging from the ceiling to light the torch (again, de Chavez uses this symbolic imagery to critique the artificial and hallow promises of our colonizers). The top part of the installation, supposedly the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, features a pile of shanties one on top of another with big banners and billboards of capitalist companies. This depiction of the ruthless situation of urban poor critiques the true meaning of freedom that has been sold to the capitalistic economy of the country that we allowed the powerful, wealthy, and influential businesses rule over our lives and livelihood. In literal sense, we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved by the glorious idea of imperialism. This is the modern-day colonizers.
In addition, de Chavez believes that with the development of jeje culture (refers to people who write and speak against the grammatical rules and norms and dress up in “unfashionable” manner for many), as much as people see it in negative light, is in fact a sign of rejection to conform to the ongoing capitalistic and imperialistic society we are in. “When the Medium Killed the Message”, de Chavez used this trend as a medium to deconstruct “Sa Aking Kabata”, a poem written by eight-year-old Jose Rizal. However, it also a critique on the supposed (positive) rejection to conform. Just as the title of the artwork suggests, this rejection by using an unconventional and irregular linguistic form just killed the entire message of the poem which in essence is a plead to promote the value and integrity of the Filipino language. How well then is this attempt to ran away from the “linguistic imperialism” imposed on us when, at the end of the day, instead of helping us regain our identity, all efforts in turn shape us to become aliens to our own selves? Language is the heart of nationhood as the first thing that sets us, Filipinos, apart from the rest of the world. Ika nga ni Jose Rizal, “Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika, masahol pa sa hayop at malansang isda”. (Jose Rizal once said, “He that knows not to love his own language, is worse than beasts and putrid fish.”)
De Chavez showcased not only artworks but according to him, “art that enlightens the senses of the people to new awakenings”. Beyond the visual aesthetics and symbolic flair of the exhibition, one is encouraged to look deeper and reflect on the effects of consumerism and imperialism in our own manners. He is inviting us all to engage in an endless discussion and search on discovering who we are. His critique on the complexity of our culture in relation to the effects of our long history of colonization raises more questions than answers. Who are we as Filipinos? What makes us Filipinos? What makes us a Filipino nation? Is there even such thing as nationhood in this land of the east?
It was no question on the brilliant artistry of de Chavez who presents more unanswered questions than spoon-fed ideologies. His art speaks beyond visual merits but literally speaks to the soul. Thus, as soon as the shortlist of nominated artists was released, many saw de Chavez as a strong contender to succeed in this year’s awards. True enough, he did. He bagged the prestigious recognition. He was accepted to an esteemed residency program in Liverpool, United Kingdom. He is one of the three winners of the 2014 Ateneo Art Awards Fernando Zobel Prizes for Visual Arts.
Winning works by Leslie de Chavez together with those of other nominees are currently on display in the Ateneo Art Gallery until the 5th of October 2014.
Mj Si is a young Filipino entrepreneur whose daylight hours are mainly devoted to finishing his Art Management degree in Ateneo de Manila University while functioning as the Creative Director and Founder of Seven Weekends MNL, a Manila-based designer shoe brand. On his free days, he’d usually sneak out of the Metro to gather new ideas and breathe new inspiration for the coming collections. Born with a sweet tooth, only a good slice of red velvet can melt his heart.