When I sat down for virtual interviews with two Filipinx student artists, I found myself viewing my own culture as a Filipinx-American through an artistic lens, particularly the visual arts and painting. Whether through the bright splashes of color in abstract art or the symbolic and more realistic painting style, their Filipinx-American culture permeates the art they create.
Two Filipino paintings hang in LSA sophomore Lorenzo Liu’s childhood home in New Jersey. One depicts bustling life at a Filipino marketplace, selling and bartering food recently harvested. The other shows a group of Bahay Kubos, or nipa huts, over water. He admitted to barely noticing the paintings until he recently took a closer look.
Currently attending classes remotely from his hometown of Chester, N.J., Liu posted his most recent collection of acrylic paintings featuring bright geometric shapes on his personal Instagram — all in an abstract, bold style. His use of acrylic paint allows him to paint distinct lines.
As it relates to his Filipinx heritage, he finds that artistic inspiration has mostly been subconscious, like passing the two paintings in his home. Liu almost always notices the influences of his culture once the paint and design are on the canvas.
“I think art is a lot about an individual perspective and feeling towards art,” Liu said. “In that case, identity and cultural values mean everything.”
Liu found that being surrounded by the joy of Filipinx family gatherings influenced the bold colors of his own paintings.
“Filipino culture is so colorful. You can’t get a more colorful dish of food than Halo-Halo. Jeepney’s — they’re almost like excessive use of color,” he said, referring to vibrantly painted buses.
Liu is excited to discover new techniques and inspirations, particularly incorporating more cultural features and details into his paintings. And once a painting has been completed, he knows it just needs to fall into the right hands.
“A lot of the time, I’ll just do (a painting) for myself,” Liu said. “But, I’ll also give them to family and friends who are my inspiration, so I’ll give it back to them.”
In the world of abstract art, Liu’s Filipinx culture still saturates his canvases.
Departing from Liu’s world of abstraction, Engineering sophomore Janielle Calaunan has found art through the capturing of real-life and culture. Immigrating to the United States in second grade allowed Calaunan to develop a unique perspective toward the Filipinx-American experience.
Some of her most recent work revolves around the identity she wants to wear on her sleeve — literally. On the back of a thrifted jean jacket, Calaunan painted a Filipinx woman wearing traditional clothes, surrounded by a border of indigenous plants and flowers, including sampaguita, white jasmine flowers native to South and Southeast Asia.
Below the portrait is a line of Baybayin script, the original language of the Philippines before Spanish colonization. It translates to “kalinangang” in modern Tagalog, or “culture” in English.
“I just wanted to paint something that really describes me,” she said. “I wanted to show something that has meaning to me, and that I can keep for a long time.”
Calaunan wanted a “typical” Filipina to be represented — a dark-skinned, wavy and coarse-haired woman in the traditional dress, also known as the “Filipiniana” or “Maria Clara.” Atop the woman’s proud head is a crown of sun and stars — a nod to the sun and three stars on the Phillipino flag.
“I think that jacket is really geared towards people who really want to be proud of being Filipino, like a sense of pride of heritage,” Calaunan said. “That feeling I guess of like ‘Wow, I can relate to this. I know what this alludes to.’ ”
Calaunan is also cognizant of her place as a Filipina-American, especially after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests for Black lives around the country and world that took place last summer. In hopes to show Filipinx solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, she created a graphic highlighting Filipinx people supporting Black lives.
“One thing is making sure that (I am) acknowledging myself within the struggle,” Calaunan said.
She has found that conversations with many traditional Filipinx families about Black Lives Matter have been difficult. And she hopes her piece pushes Filipinx people to consider their place in the movement for racial justice.
“It was to encourage people who might be more silent and for Filipinos to acknowledge that there are people who are like your ethnicity, or your heritage, that support what you do and like support this movement with you,” Calaunan said.
The poster of bold colors juxtaposed against a white background echoes a style of revolutionary posters seen during the Civil Rights Movement. Calaunan noticed that the many young people, both in the Philippines and the U.S., have been rising up and becoming more engaged in activism.
One of the girls in the graphic is part of the indigenous Lumad people of the Philippines. Calaunan found parallels in Filipinx youth rising up to the fight against the policies of current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, while American youth rose up in the fight for Black lives this past summer, and more recently, for Asian lives.
Connecting to Filipinx culture halfway around the world is challenging, but with social media like Instagram, Calaunan has found a way to connect with Filipinx and Filipinx-American artists.
“I also do calligraphy and several artists write Baybayin, but in calligraphy. And they’re incredibly beautiful,” she said.
Modern Tagalog is based on the Arabic alphabet brought by the Spanish in 1521.
“It reflects the colonization of the Philippines … One issue that I’ve been having with my culture is I’m not really sure about originality and identity,” Calaunan said. “It seems as if Filipino culture is a mixture of America, Spain, Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s a mixture of cultures. The Philippines doesn’t have a natural one … Baybayin is very much Filipino. It’s not rooted in English or Spanish.”
Calaunan is the media chair for the Filipino American Student Association and her clothing designs for the board reflect her musings on “true” Filipinx culture. She designed a windbreaker with the Baybayin sounds for “FASA,” featuring another phrase in Baybayin which in Tagalog is “isang bagsak,” or “one fall.” Calaunan says that in movements and revolutions, this phrase is used to express that this group of people will fight together — and if one falls, all fall.
While Liu noticed the joy of Filipinx gatherings, Calaunan channels the values of hard work and taking one’s time to do that work in her art, something she cites her parents for teaching her. Calaunan joked about “Filipino time” being ingrained in her mindset towards creating art.
“‘Filipino time’ is just taking the time to do something before moving to the next thing. But you still get the work done,” she said.
One of her recent portraits is an acrylic painting of another FASA member.
“When I was painting Natalie, I was more familiar with her face shape. I could look at my face in the mirror,” she said. “I could use lighting on my face to mimic how I depict her.”
Calaunan hopes to one day create a Filipinx street style brand that focuses on simplicity but also depicts culture at first glance. Like Liu, she hopes to continue art in her classes and free time, focusing on how her culture influences her paintings.
“What part of your people do you want to depict? What stands out about them? What makes them distinct?” Calaunan said. “You want to dedicate your art to the people you depict.”
Daily Arts Writer Nina Molina can be reached at email@example.com.