Aside from individuals representing our creative and arts sector at the 3rd Southeast Asian Art Forum, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore also partnered with the University of the Philippines-Diliman to spotlight indigenous Philippine heritage.
By Pao Vergara
The Southeast Asian Arts Forum (SEAAF), having recently concluded its third run last August 4 and 5, is a multidisciplinary coming-together focused on the interplay between creative endeavors and community solutions focused on issues within Southeast Asia, especially environmental issues, resource management, heritage conservation, and the accessibility of the creative sector.
The forum is organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Arts at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore, one of the region’s premiere schools aimed at developing creative professionals. The academy has ties with major institutions around the world such as the Royal Academy of Art in London.
Serving as an opportunity for institutions and practitioners to forge new collaborations, the latest run was held in-person in Singapore as well as online. Vietnamese multiplatform artist Uudam Tran Nguyen and Malaysian embroidery artist Jesse Joy were some of the regional luminaries featured.
In Why Eco-Do, Nguyen incorporated Daoism into showing how art can be a force for ecological intervention. Joy presented Finding Bundusan, a documentary on how a particular plant species, the bundusan shapes the heritage of the Kadazan and Dusun people of Sabah, related to how ecological concerns are intimately tied to issues faced by nature’s human guardians: the indigenous people.
In both days of the forum, a number of Filipinos actively participated as either key resource speakers or featured artists.
During a discussion moderated by SEAFF conceptualizer Bridget Tracy Tan on contemporary practices in the arts and creatives sectors, participants were also exposed to different pedagogies and education’s impact on social transformation.
Here, speakers from Thailand such as social entrepreneur and sound engineer and designer Sirasar Boonma and gallerist Sukontip Nakasem of Warin Lab Contemporary joined Nguyen and Joy. University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) College of Home Economics assistant professor Krystyn Caragay also joined the panel with NAFA lecturer Kimberly Tham and multidisciplinary architect Wendy Teo from Borneo, Malaysia.
A longtime resident of Singapore and dance lecturer at NAFA, Dr. Filomar Cortezano Tariao worked closely with NAFA fashion lecturer Georgette Yu on Kathabi, a dance theater piece based on the Abra Itneg people’s lore on the origin on weaving. The title combines the Filipino words katha, “create,” and habi, “weave.”
Both costumes and choreography were based on consultation with representatives of the tribe, such as Luis Agaid Jr., who heads an Itneg community cooperative and School of Living Tradition focused on natural dyes. Staff, students, and alumni from UPD also worked with NAFA for this project.
Yu specifies that “we want to be informed and guided with ways of collaborating, and not exploiting nor appropriating indigenous cultures.”
Tariao, a physician who moved to Singapore to deepen their art practice, shares, “settling in Singapore made it possible for me to combine the arts and sciences. As a migrant, this confluence of art and science in me mirrors the coexisting diverse cultures in Singapore which allows me to create and celebrate my heritage freely and safely, while my experiences growing up in Manila become fuel for my creative and teaching processes.”
Kathabi, like other artworks presented, shows how the enduring presence of heritage demonstrates that human endeavors can withstand time, and with it, vagaries such as natural calamities, political upheavals, and more. Tariao believes drawing from heritage and sharing it beyond a local audience “can be a template for surviving the current difficulties we are experiencing” as citizens of the world.
While NAFA, UPD, and especially the Itneg were the apparent stakeholders in the project, Tariao further clarifies that “the collaboration cannot be separated from the global village, most especially since the final product is a performance seen by an audience offline and online. What the audience takes away from the performance, we cannot control, but it has planted a seed in their minds. That makes them a participant and stakeholder in the process.”
The Kathabi performance was also headlined by dancer Pia Angela Custodio, presently in NAFA to further hone her practice under the academy’s Talent Scholarship Program. With her onstage was NAFA alumni and collaborator Sabril Amin from Singapore. One of the things Custodio is thankful for is “the artistic freedom Dr. Fil (Tariao) gave me for my role as Sinulid (“The Divine,” in Itneg, which also means “needle” in Filipino, coincidence?),” she describes that “during the choreography process, I asked if I had the freedom to ‘play’ with my solo and he agreed with no hesitation.”
Kathabi ties in with major threads from other forums and projects presented at the SEAFF. Many of these, from Finding Bundusan to Why Eco-Di, had the environment and indigenous heritage as their core themes. It’s this cosmic consciousness which defines the classical legacy of the region, “cosmic” in that the interconnectedness of man and nature is core, a consciousness which, despite threats brought by greedy institutions and economic practices, persists amidst all challenges to it.
Tariao puts it best when he gushes: “These same institutions and cultures we have collaborated with in Kathabi have traditions that have gone through pandemics, wars, and other calamities—yet they have survived and thrived. Isn’t that worth being educated about?”