Have you ever thought about the connection between the colonial history of the pineapple, “Maria Clara,” and the Philippines’ normalization of skin-whitening products? Major points if you have, because until witnessing these thought-provoking art pieces, we had not.
Through her art, Rea Lynn de Guzman explains that this is all linked when you navigate the history of pineapple fiber.
Beauty and status ideals in the Philippines date back to the pineapple, a foreign fruit introduced by Spanish colonizers (see Rea’s explanation here).
We experienced many eyebrows-raised, wide-eyed emoji moments while browsing through Rea’s portfolio. In these reactions, we felt called to learn about the artist behind pieces like “Maria Clara Alter Ego,” “Imahe,” and “Piña Offerings.”
“I come from a Filipino/a family where art wasn’t encouraged or taken seriously as a career. I think there is a major disconnect with the Filipino/a community and the arts. For example… artists are perceived solely as having the “talent” or “gift” to “paint” a pretty picture and that’s it…(this) completely ignores all the years of hard work and effort put into it and the ideas behind the work.”
— Rea Lynn de Guzman
How has your identity as a Pilipin@ immigrant shaped your artistry?
My identity as a Filipina immigrant definitely gave me interesting experiences, challenges, strength, and a complex perspective, which enhanced my passion through my work. I found catharsis in my art and it gave me resilience in return.
What were some challenges that you came across as you began to work in painting, print media, and sculpture?
Putting myself in a vulnerable spot when learning something new…taking longer to resolve a piece, to allow exploration take me somewhere I never expected it to be; and coming to terms with some “failures,” which I realize is just a part of life. I know not everything I make as an artist will be a “masterpiece” and without the “failures,” I wouldn’t have something to learn from.
The “Maria Clara Alter Ego” (first piece shown above) caught our eye. What’s the story behind this piece?
My Maria Clara Alter Ego piece is a self portrait drawing I made back in 2010, when I first started delving into the “Maria Clara” idea in my work. It was inspired by the notion of the “Dalagang Pilipina” (Filipina Maiden) ingrained and imposed in many young Filipina women starting from childhood. During a trip to the Philippines at the time, I was in a shopping mall and saw this fake, synthetic organza “Maria Clara” blouse with the iconic puffy sleeves, I got one in a child size. I used this as a symbolic resource material in my work, put it on, and since it’s child-sized, it was small on me, exposing skin, which is not very Maria Clara-esque, as Maria Clara would be very conservative and covered up.
Who are you speaking to with your art?
I am speaking to anyone in our contemporary, globalized world who can recognize art as a powerful and beautiful tool to strive for a more just society among people from all walks of life with differing backgrounds.
We noticed you structured your website into different categories: Retaso, Filipiñana, Language Projections, Imagined Landscapes, Paintings & Drawings, and Duyan. Can you tell us more about your approach to these different types of mediums?
Duyan was my first personal art project that I started in 2009, during my senior year in undergrad, a year after I started painting with oil. Duyan was inspired by the idea of my woven cultures, between my native and adoptive countries. The idea first occurred to me while leafing through old family photo albums and I saw a baby picture of myself in a suspended duyan (traditional basket cradle/hammock for Filipino/a infants). As much as I enjoyed [painting with oil], the fumes from oil paint would make me dizzy, so I decided to switch to water-based media like acrylic, gouache, and ink, which led to my Paintings and Drawings Series. After I finished my Duyan painting series, I wanted to create my own alternative duyan, so I wove a couple of duyans out of 2D materials I worked with in my other paintings, acrylic and image transfers from women’s fashion magazines on long strips of mylar. That was the first time I created something 3D. This experience also inspired me to make my Imagined Landscapes series. I enjoyed working with 3D and installation pieces, which re-occur in my later projects in Language Projections, Filipiñana (After Filipiniana), and Retaso (Fabric Remnants). I still see ghosts and remnants of a female figure in my Retaso series, but in an abstracted, material-based sort of way.
What do you want people to remember after seeing your artwork? How do you want people to remember you?
I want my work to evoke lurking, ghostly, and haunting remnants of Filipina stereotypes and expectations imposed by colonialism, perpetuated continually by colonial mentality, in and outside of our community. I want people to remember me as a Filipina-American artist who challenged these stereotypes and gender roles, and hopefully empowered other Pinays and other women of color through the materiality and poetics of my work.
What are some insights that you’d like to share as a Pilipin@ that perhaps non-Pilipin@s might not understand? What are some misconceptions that you’d like to debunk?
I want to emphasize the complex nature of these embedded and imposed ideals embodying Filipinas and how it’s tied in with centuries of colonialism, neocolonialism, and resulting remnants of colonial mentality. I also want to recognize that these misconceptions exist in the US, affecting other Asian Pacific American women. The stereotypes associated with the Maria Clara ideals in Filipina women I challenge include: demureness, passivity, subordination, chastity, and the colonial belief of white skin equating to ideals of beauty and a higher status.
It’s easy to feel like fine art is not something we can connect with, especially as millennials.
Plenty of tension lies in not feeling knowledgeable enough, “getting it,” or what looks good for the ‘gram. By letting go of these pretenses, we can see our culture and history in ways we never thought. Rea’s art challenges us to go a step further — rather than simply learning about the past, her pieces take us through the history, context, and implications of who we are in this world. Art in all its forms is meant to disturb, incite emotion, explore, express, and everything in between. Showing up for Pilipin@s in the visual arts means shaping our culture into one that celebrates and embraces artists.
Rea’s art will be on display at the Arc Gallery in San Francisco until Friday, 10/28 as part of Kearny Street Workshop’s 16th Annual APAture Festival.