This article originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue No. 48. The article is republished in honor of Riel Hilario who passed away on 04 August 2021.
Words by Riel Hilario.
An artist residency program allows artists from different countries to live and work in studios in situ (or in proximal sites), so that the experience can hopefully enrich one’s professional horizons through observation and networking. The operational idea behind the residency program is artist mobility, which acknowledges the impact of globalization in the practice of contemporary art. Through making contacts, sharing studios, and working with local artists, there is an opportunity for visiting artists to be exposed to different art scenes and to present their work to communities whose feedback can prove critical to their practice.
From August to December 2016, I took part in three consecutive artist residencies in Penang, Paris, and Seoul, with a number of side trips in between, adding up to a total of eight countries in five months. These residencies included Rimbun Dahan Southeast Asian Arts Residency at Hotel Penaga in Penang, Don Papa Rum Artistic Residency Sojourn in Paris, and the Seoul Museum of Art Nanji Residency Program.
I am sharing a few narratives from my journey here, to give artists a glimpse of what these programs offer and what I have gained from them, directly and indirectly.
Penang Hill, 21 August 2016
I was carving a small sculpture of a bird out of jelutong wood at the studio of Sifu Yeap Siew Kay, Penang’s lone practitioner and master of Ukiran Dewa—the art of carving wooden deities. I found my teacher, Sifu Yeap, after weeks of looking for a carving master in Georgetown. He is a feng shui master and a sexagenarian migrant from mainland China, sprightly and short, with kind, smiling eyes. He knew a little English, but between carvers, the physical demonstration of the craft was sufficient communication.
Sifu Yeap showed me a four-armed deity that he was carving, its component limbs and hands still lying on the workshop table, and told me it was made of sarsi wood, so-called because its fragrance was similar to sarsaparilla root. I cut a piece and it indeed smelled of rootbeer. We went around his studio to test and look at different types of lumber, but he said jelutong was best because it was light, compact, and easy to shape.
I was carving a small sample on the table, while three other students were doing projects of their own. He offered me a set of carving tools he had found in central China—iron chisels that were difficult to find. We went to his house next door to get them. At the entrance, there was a large altar with several gleaming gold and red deities—all made by Sifu. Somehow, the sight of the altar literally floored me and I fell, faint from an unknown energy.
I saw a vision of an old man in golden clothes, with a small boy who looked like a child version of Sifu Yeap. They were standing beside a banana plant somewhere in the compound. I described this vision to the Master, who then gingerly pointed out that a sculpture with such a design was there, hidden among the other gods. I reminded myself that August is ghost month. Sifu was delighted to hear my vision and raised his clasped hands to the altar in gratitude. He said it was an acknowledgment from his ancestors. I felt they were there, guiding him.
I was in Pulau Penang as a featured resident artist of Hotel Penaga, a boutique hotel that was built from a renovated traditional Chinese-Malay mansion in Georgetown. The hotel is owned by Rimbun Dahan, a Kuala-Lumpur based artist residency space/gallery run by art patrons Hijjas Kasturi and Angela Hijjas—a couple whose support for contemporary Malaysian and Southeast Asian artists has been admirably staunch for several decades. The Hotel Penaga residency lasts for one month and is open to Southeast Asian artists only. With just a donation of one work done during the residency, the artist of the month is given a suite and a studio to live and work in.
My application proposal was simple: I wanted to continue my ongoing research on traditional woodcarving, to complement my practice as a rebulto-carver. Learning from Sifu Yeap was essential to my objective. I felt it was necessary to learn from as many masters as possible, to add to my knowledge and skill in woodcarving, especially of religious statuary.
From Paris to Amsterdam, September 2016
A trip to Paris last September was my prize for winning the first Don Papa Art Competition. The prize included a one-month residency in Europe, as well as having my artwork featured in limited edition Don Papa Rum canisters. For its initial run, the city of locus was Paris.
I had been to Paris before in 2012 during a four-month sojourn at the Cite Internationale des Arts through the Philippine Artist Residency Program of Alliance Francaise de Manille. Returning to Paris was a delight, as I had wanted to revisit the museums that inspired me on my first journey there. This time, I was billeted in an Airbnb studio type apartment in Le Marais, a ten-minute walk away from the city center, Hotel de Ville. Unlike the previous residency where I carved non-stop for months on end, the activities were less structured this time and I felt I could just pause and enjoy Paris and other places in Europe. Since my sponsor was a rum company, there were occasions for drinking, dining, and even bar-hopping in the 10th arrondissement.
In Paris, I reconnected with an old friend, Filipino artist-expatriate Gaston Damag, who welcomed me to his home studio in Saint-Denis. With Gaston being a fellow woodcarver (a native Ifugao, he makes bul-ols), we bonded over carving tools and where to find them in the city. I eventually purchased an air-compressor powered carving tool machine.
There was a launch for the Don Papa Rum Art Canister Series in Amsterdam. There I met Pedro, a Dutch local who spoke fluent street-style Tagalog. He was assisting his Filipina sister-in-law, Irene, with catering the event. After the launch, my studio manager Celeste and I enjoyed dinner at his home in Hoofdorp and he toured us around the Red Light District.
Two weeks later, Celeste and I went on a three-day visit to Berlin. Pedro kindly offered to drive us from Berlin to Amsterdam. It was an eight-hour drive along the Autobahn expressway. On the road, I couldn’t help but admire the uniqueness of the Northern light and the crisp color and detail this light revealed.
Back in Amsterdam, we attended a free painting session at the Van Gogh Museum. I also checked out a special exhibition titled On the Verge of Insanity, a collection of paintings, documents and objects related to Van Gogh’s illness and suicide. Upon exiting the museum, we got caught up in a deluge of people wearing costumes and carrying placards. Crowds had gathered at the Museumplein for a “demonstration rally for tolerance,” to persuade lawmakers to pass laws that would support racial tolerance. There was music, performances, and even free ice cream—no demagoguery in this rally. I’d say Amsterdam is the most delightful city I’ve ever been to so far.
Bukhansan, Northern Seoul (535 meters above sea level), 23 November 2016
I was standing on a precarious ridge atop Mt. Bukhan, Seoul’s highest mountain, north of the city. Underneath my feet were loose scree and crumbly granite. There was a sheer drop on either side of the ridge. The guy who led me here, Nanji Residency’s curator Park, decided it was too dangerous for us to continue and beckoned me to go down another uneasy slope. Later, we discovered a sign that said the path was forbidden. This hike to the mountain was a “Korean cultural experience,” according to the schedule. Many days later, still feeling intense muscle pain, I wondered why it was called such and why the curator led us to a dangerous ridge.
I had joined a three-month program for the 10th season of the SeMA Nanji Residency Program, sponsored by the Seoul Museum of Art. I very much wanted to get into this residency program, having applied for it four times over the past ten years. But a month or so into the residency, I started to ask myself why I was even there.
SeMA Nanji Residency is located in Mapo-gu, some 22 kilometers from the city center. The facilities were established on a reclaimed landfill along Han River, in the middle of the large World Cup Park, which was surrounded by three other parks. It was isolated from the rest of the city, save for a lone Ministop 15 minutes away. The remoteness of the location made me feel homesick and terribly lonely.
The only time the studios were crowded was during our Open Studio in late October. It was hard for me to communicate with the Korean guests because of the language barrier. With those who could speak English, I struck up lively conversations about ghosts and spirits that roamed Nanji, and how they found their way into my work as subjects. I later learned that the ruins of a building – the collapse of which had killed hundreds – were part of the landfill where SeMA Nanji was built. The meaning of the word Nanji was actually “place to bury.”
The “bad vibe” of the place and its unbelievable remoteness became a frequent topic of conversation among the artist residents during coffee breaks. The residents included Daniele Puppi from Rome, Alex Ricketts from Portland, and Lucia Kempkes from Berlin. Still, having Nanji as a point of departure led to many conversations about the global art practice; the role of contemporary art in these times of forced migrations and terrorism; the resentment Europeans feel about the influx of refugees; post-colonial discourse; and the privilege white artists have in spite of the cross-cultural makeup of current art politics.
The residency program included an interview session with art critic Nam Im Sook, a professor of Art History at Hongik University. What struck her as fascinating was a facet of my work that involved research into shamanistic practices surrounding the production of carved religious statuary. I learned from her that shamanism was still a major force in Korean society, despite Seoul’s ultramodernity. Korean spirituality was still in tune with personified forces of nature, which was accessible to special individuals who can reveal their secrets. Nam Im Sook wrote an essay about me, describing my art practice as a manifestation of my psychic abilities.
Unbeknownst to me at that time, South Koreans were taking part in regular rallies against the president. What caused the “scandal” was the discovery that the president relied heavily on a shaman’s advice rather than parliamentary policy and debate.
High Speed Railway from Kaohsiung to Taipei, 13 December 2016
I took a bullet train from Kaohsiung – a massive port city in southern Taiwan – to Taipei, to catch an evening flight back to Manila. As I looked out the train window at the horizon – undulating then disappearing into the haze and smog – I assessed my recent participation in Art Kaohsiung.
I had brought with me rolled up canvases and sculptures straight from Seoul. Taipei and Seoul are both points of locality in the cultural and economic region known as Northeastern Asia, along with countries such as China, Korea and Japan. Philippine participation in Kaohsiung’s art fair was compelling, as most considered the art economics of Southeast Asia to be dominated by Hong Kong and Singapore. My own practice, so very rooted in the folk art of rebulto-making, could not have found a more foreign audience. And yet, this Otherness and alienness was what I looked for in my journeys.
From Penang to Macau, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Seoul, and Kaohsiung—I wanted to bring our indigenous craft to the attention of other craft-based practitioners, even as I interfaced with contemporary aesthetics and the institutions that engendered them. I hope these cross-cultural encounters will prove to be a honing stone for my work. In the end, the journey is about seeking out new ways to polish one’s craft. And this is why I continue to travel.