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History in artistry: Archives emerge front and center in the contemporary art scene

Capturing the passion and crafting with sentiment, contemporary artists weave the stories of the past into artworks of today.

People are never without their history. It has become imprinted on the palm of their hands and integrated into modern-day cities. But rarely do we come across records of history in public spaces; rarely do we seek them out in this age of quickly accessible information.

A nation’s archival records remain ever-relevant as they remind the people of past struggles and victories, and of the lessons learned between the lines that continue to shape the nation’s present reality. 

A “residue of the past”, as artist Pio Abad calls it. “The residue that needs to be made present in various ways,” he urges.

Now, the once-sheltered historical records come alive and regain significance as artists like Abad strive to weave them into the contemporary art scene. Bridging the distance between archive rooms and the masses, Filipino contemporary artists go above and beyond to ground the people in the history of their land and the truth of their present.

The art of the matter

Contemporary artists are able to convey their messages innovatively through their art. Some communicate via paintings and sculptures without uttering a single word; others do so through the production of written works filled with intricate terms and descriptions designed to pique the interest of readers. With the integration of archives in contemporary artworks, artists tackle a new responsibility to express the social and emotional reality surrounding the past. In a way, they reinforce and immortalize these pieces of history.

Abad practices historic storytelling through art by using domestic objects and contextualizing the history contained within them. An example of this is his common usage of silk scarves in his works, as seen in Counternarratives and Every Tool Is A Weapon If You Hold It Right. The scarves are emblazoned with texts taken from protests against the burial of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and artistic phrases from philosopher Walter Benjamin, respectively.  

On the other hand, visual artist and printmaker Angela Silva specializes in cyanotype printing—a medium of alternative photography that uses sunlight on a sun-sensitive emulsion coated on paper. Her work, the Shadow Mothers series, consists of nine portraits depicting old photographs of Filipina caretakers holding children under their care. These portraits were put through the double exposure method—a technique that combines two different images layered on top of each other—to show Silva’s mother in the foreground. “There’s so [many] things that I have in the family history of photographs, interviews, and documents that I’m able to incorporate in my work,” expresses Silva.

According to Abad, archives are the foundation of what he does, which ultimately dictates the form of his artworks in the end. “They’re the basis of pretty much everything that I’ve been working on,” he discloses. In relation, Abad is able to incorporate historical themes into his work through a variety of personal archives like recovered riches and auction catalogs, and inspiration captured from museum visits. “There’s something about being in the middle of [a museum’s backroom] that really becomes the source of inspiration [and] outrage.”

Underneath exhibits

The work of an artist is deeply rooted in passion and heavily relies on freedom; a threat to their expression is a threat to the mission that they carry as well. Despite the risks that come with speaking the truth, artists still choose this road less traveled to protect that freedom.

“Artists are often at the forefront of political engagement,” Abad states. More and more artists have been stepping up, taking on the responsibility of preserving the stories of the past and preventing history from repeating itself. Often, it subjects them to the same fatal oppression today as their predecessors from years back. However, Abad only looks to one course of action: to take a stand. “Art has always been there to challenge people’s minds, to question authority,” he opines, “to speak truth to power,” Abad stresses.

Other than the blatant oppression that they contend with, artists face another problem: a decline in the public’s genuine interest in Philippine art, along with the lack of funding, infrastructure, and government support. Artists outside of Metro Manila, in particular, receive the least support from the government, being geographically separated from the groups that promote arts and culture, such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the gallery of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

The sad reality is that artists are not paid enough: quashing opportunities for young artists and deeming the art industry as an unsustainable source of income. These claims are corroborated by the Committee on Creative Industry and Performing Arts, which has stated that the country’s visual arts sector lacks marketing opportunities and institutional support. This dire situation is further aggravated by the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Because of this difficulty, the Philippine Creative Industries Act of 2021 has lapsed into law. The bill aims to generate high-value jobs in the art industry and develop our country’s intellectual property capital, reigniting growth in the artistic field. As of writing, the act is subject to approval by the House.

Through thick and thin

Artists do more than just tell stories; they shape people’s futures. They wield a powerful tool and what they decide to do with it affects how the stories of the past and present will be remembered in history.

As an artist who heavily portrays political contexts, Abad hopes for his artworks to become a part of “larger conversations surrounding history [and] politics”. Despite the limitations of his works, he wishes that they still allow future generations to “visualize histories that are being forgotten.” On the other hand, Silva is of the thought that personal growth is a major catalyst for an artist to continuously deliver effective pieces. “I want to learn to do better, to appreciate my [own] works more, and to see what matters,” she asserts. 

At the end of the day, these artists show that no matter what field we are in, we should aspire to seek and speak the truth. The struggle to bring the truth to light is one that is necessary for the future of the nation. History should not be subject to politics—it consists of unbiased records and archives that we, the present generation, must learn from.

By Eloisa Limbago

By Jericho Zulueta

By Lizelle Villaflor

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