To Carry Them Forth
By Ellen Y. Tani
In the painting The Answer is the Waves of the Sea, by Maia Cruz Palileo, a man stands in contrapposto holding a bow-shaped net, known as a salambáw, that is traditionally used by indigenous fishermen in the Philippines. In it, fish of fluorescent greens, yellows, and blues are suspended against a low-slung sun that burns hot, irradiating the waterfront with orange light. The man stands at the front edge of a platform and at the threshold of the picture plane, the arc of his net framing the coastal view behind him – though it’s not clear whether the viewer stands on land or in water. As the net bends under the weight of its catch, green and blue fauna rise from the platform as expressive lines, uncanny extensions of undersea life above water. In precolonial Filipino spirituality, the water and its forms (the river, the sea, our bodies) are carriers of ancestral knowledge, present here in both painterly composition and the liquid-ity of gouache.
In the feverish atmospheres of Palileo’s paintings, people are suspended between two worlds. They hold space as allegorical occupants of the archipelagic terrain of the Philippines, an unstable geography characterized by fungible boundaries between land and water and long fought over by the Spanish and Americans for its strategic location. They navigate the time of coloniality, whose half-life extends well into the present. Often partially obscured by sparse lattices of vines, fronds, and grasses, the inhabitants of these paintings stand firmly on the land and by each other; and, like the verdant flora and fauna around them, embody the vital energies within the place itself. Painterly color and gesture do not reflect a known environment but function as intuitive conduits for an animacy that transcends memory and futurity.
Since 2017, Palileo has been working through a multifaceted archive of the Philippines: the late 19th c. colonial photographs of American zoologist Dean C. Worcester, the early 19th c. watercolor paintings of acclaimed Filipino painter Damián Domingo, a late 19th c. book of indigenous Filipino folklore, and her own family albums, which trace her family’s emigration from Manila in the 1960s to places like Texas, Ohio, and Illinois, where she grew up. Worcester was a zoologist whose research in the Philippines in the 1880s led to his appointment as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the Philippines from 1901 to 1913, during American colonial occupation. He sold much of his archive to the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Palileo first encountered it. She initially reacted to the violence of the colonial encounter—how Worcester’s archive objectified Filipino subjects as specimens or servants—with her own extractive tools, drawing figures and plants from the photographs onto cardstock, which she then cut out and filed away, collaging them later to make rubbings that functioned as sketches for painting compositions. Queering the archive, deconstructing and retooling it so as to engender its disidentification with scientism and stereotype, she restores autonomy to the photographs that were historically used as tools of American colonial occupation and plunder. 1
Through this technique of assemblage, figures, animals, plants, and other environmental elements entangle imaginatively in new scenes. Companionate figures are a recurring trope – twinned, like the two girls in We Walked for Hours or two men in There Are Warmer Days, or mirrored, like the pelicans who face each other in A Tender Spell. These doublings suggest ghosts, shadows, partnerships, or perhaps a metaphor for the dualism inherent to migration as a state of being a/part. The spirituality that connects the artist with this past seems immediate, as if the paintings host kindred souls separated by generations or states of mortality.
The 2018 diptych painting Kambal (twin) suggests that both are true. In bold, jewel-toned organic abstraction, two faces appear as loose mirror images with distinguishing features that suggest their individuality. Each holds a fan to partially shade their multiple eyes, mouths, and noses. Each figure’s ear is adorned differently: a white circle suggesting a pearl at left, and a leafy frond strung through the lobe of the figure at right, whose large white ear resembles the nacre oyster shell in which the pearl grows. The pearl is a natural wonder, both a symbol of environmental vitality – a litmus test for the natural world’s ability to generate beauty – and a symbol of the Philippines, which is known for its large south sea pearls.
Whether suggestive of multiple selves, spiritual connections to higher powers, environmental symbiosis, intergenerational energies or kinship, the twinned figure vibrates with vitality in the face of colonial violence, extraction, and re-education. While the individuals portrayed in the Worcester photographs may be gone, their presence can be felt in these compositions as both protagonists and their protective agents. The landscape, too, holds an animistic agency: it seems to actively unfurl to reveal or enclose human figures, which are always semicontained, occupying a space mediated by screens of architectural, botanical, or atmospheric nature.
In the mural-scale triptych Through the Fronds There Were No Stars, this mediation situates a metaphor of loss within this sheltering – or suffocating – enclosure. In the colonial archive, the figures in this painting occupied contexts of vocational education: in woodworking class, military training, and agricultural work. The edification suggested by those photographs belies the psychological violence inflicted by the American re-education campaigns after the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century, which demanded English as the only language of instruction. As Filipino historian Reynaldo Constantino reflects: “The most effective means of subjugating a people is to capture their minds. Military victory does not necessarily signify conquest.” 2 Although there may be no sky visible from the captive figures’ perspectives through the fronds there are other sentinels: two female ghostly apparitions hover at the rear left of the central panel, watching over the foreground. These layers of ancestral presence restore a sense of ancestral kinship and spirituality that was flattened by the generalizing and ordered logic of the colonial archive. Palileo’s excision of the figures from their photographic site converts them from subjects of study to protagonists in scenes remembered and reimag- ined, drawing on memories of her childhood visits to Manila, folklore, and the fragmentary world of the archive.
Recognizing that setting the record straight on an unrecoverable history was not possi- ble, Palileo has of late invested in care over correction. Commuting to her studio past the Greenwood Cemetery during a year-long global pandemic—a time that we will remember for our renewed intimacy with death—she learned that the cemetery offered something called “perpetual care.” In the absence of kin or family, one could pay for the service of perpetual care of their own or another’s gravesite – keeping it clean, laying flowers, et cetera. This notion of care, as something untethered from family but rooted in traditions of kinship and devotion- al mourning, is one method of honoring the unknown, unrecoverable spirits of the past. The effort to not forget about the lives lived on the land we inhabit is a kind of wayfinding, as the artist has described, of finding yourself in what’s available and making your own story. Early on in her relationship with the Worcester archive, she was motivated by a desire for historical retribution, a need to show audiences the violence that was whitewashed from American imperialist history. But that story can neither be fully recovered nor disclosed; instead, it breathes through the ghostly figures that populate Palileo’s lush canvases, not as a gesture of retribution but rather in an act of perpetual care.
1 . My use of the term “disidentification” draws on José Esteban Muñoz’s theory of disidentification as a strategy of resistance or survival for queers of color and other minority subjects. See Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
2. Renato Constantino, “The Miseducation of the Filipino” in Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999, ed. Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 178. Originally published as “The Mis-Education of the Filipino,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 1:1 (Autumn 1970), 20-36.