Cultural Identity and Authenticity: Am I a Fraud?

Art for Thought

‘Art For Thought’ is a fortnightly column by Janice Peh – she encourages readers to discuss what is happening in the world today, by meditating on a different artwork every fortnight.

Partners in work and life, artists Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan investigate issues of displacement, identity and home through their artworks. Their work In Habit: Project Another Country (2012) highlights the displacement of the Badjao people, a nomadic seafaring community in Philippines. The resilience of the Badjao people is called to the audience’s attention, as we learn of this marginalised community’s habitat – comprising of improvised houseboats and houses built precariously on water.

In this mixed media installation, the artists have crafted the piles of cardboard boxes in a unrefined manner, imitating the makeshift shacks that the Badjao people have built for themselves along rivers and beaches. The artwork remains durable, despite being crafted entirely with seemingly flimsy cardboard boxes, defying gravity and expectations as it is hangs upside down in the gallery. The artists also provide extra cardboard boxes and drawing materials near the artwork, inviting audience to create their own ‘cardboard house’ and contribute to the artwork; by pasting and overlapping their cardboard houses on top of what the artists have already built, participants continue to exacerbate the haphazard and spontaneous quality of this artwork. This work represents the resilient, adaptive spirit of the Badjao people in the face of poverty and globalisation, as the effects of modernisation gradually erode and eliminate unique cultures all over the world.

Kami Navarro is from the Philippines and is currently studying a Master of Science Communication at ANU. She says, ‘I have seen some of the makeshift houses that the Badjaos have built along the beaches in the Philippines and this artwork by the Aquilizans captures the spirit of their houses. Basically, their houses look very haphazardly built and stacked up, which the artists have demonstrated in this artwork. The artists could also have used cardboard boxes as their main medium in this work because the Badjaos are also known to be scavengers of many kinds of materials.’

This work also underlines the artist’s very own personal encounter with displacement when they migrated from Philippines to Australia in 2006, in search of a better life for their children. Consistent with their previous works, such as Vessel 1 (2016), Dwellings 1 (2014) and Last Flight (2009), this particular piece demonstrates the duo’s on-going reflection on their identity and sense of belonging.

Kevin Alyono grew up in New York City after his parents immigrated to the US from Indonesia. He is currently studying a Master of Environmental Management and Development at ANU. He says, ‘Growing up as an immigrant in NYC, I can relate to this artwork a lot. There is a sense of struggle between resolving internal conflicts of displacement, and adaptation. In NYC, many immigrant communities carve their own cultural spaces in the “Big Apple”: holding on to familiar life habits while still trying to adapt to the dominant culture. Yet in all this juggling, instead of fully belonging to both cultures, they become hybrid “outsiders” who are constantly and precariously navigating a sea of changing expectations and norms.’

To further complicate the conflicting sense of identity and belonging that Filipino artists face, the Philippines is one of the most culturally fragmented nations in Asia, due to centuries of foreign rule. Elements of traditional Asian influences are minimal in the Filipino culture explaining the tremendous interest that contemporary Filipino artists have in using locally sourced indigenous and organic materials – such as cardboard boxes – to redefine Filipino culture. There is an increasing inclination amongst Filipino artists to focus on local interpretations and resist references to Western themes and approaches in their artistic practice. This inclination is further fuelled by contemporary scholars and critics questioning the lack of traditional Asian elements in Asian artists’ works.

That said, debates continue over whether colonial legacy should be separated from the contemporary Filipino identity. One cannot help but wonder if their indigenous culture is necessarily more authentic than their Hispanic influences, especially when the former only has vague traces left while the latter is widespread in everyday life.

As I see it, notions of cultural identity and sense of belonging are not static and unchanging, but are reinterpreted with each generation, according to changing circumstances. I agree that understanding one’s cultural heritage, history and elusive ‘traditional values’ is infinitely valuable in helping Filipino artists to interpret contemporary issues pertaining to society, economy and politics. Yet, from an anthropological and evolutionary perspective, communities are constantly evolving and therefore it is only natural that the Philippines’ cultural identity continually evolves too. Rather than seeking cultural authenticity by returning to a mythic past, an authentic cultural identity can be discovered by reflecting on artistic approaches which are relevant to contemporary issues. Contemporary art that reflects contemporary culture, shaped by history, immigration and shared identities is already culturally authentic.

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