impromptu interview during the opening reception of solo show "Retracing Roots/Routes" at 4:05 minutes into the video
by Hillyer Art Space
Our exhibition at Hillyer examines the tie between Mexico and the Philippines. Can you elaborate on this relationship and what inspired you to make work about this subject matter?
Well, historically, Mexico and the Philippines were under domination of the Spanish empire and formed part of “Nuova Hispania” or “New Spain” from the 16th to 19th century. During this period, The Philippines were officially administered by Mexico. For two and a half centuries (1565 to 1815), huge vessels - also called the “Manila Galleon” or “Nave/Nao de China"- would navigate the Pacific, from the port of Acapulco (Mexico) to Manila (the Philippines). The complete trade route transported cargo such as silver, silk, porcelain, and spices, from Seville in Spain to the Mexican port of Veracruz, overland through strategically positioned cities such as Puebla, to the port of Acapulco, on to Manila and back. This colossal enterprise ensured a rich intermingling and assimi-lation of customs, traditions, language and aesthetics between both nations.
Having lived in several countries (Germany, Spain, UK, Thailand, The Philippines) my art is really shaped by an ongoing search for harmony out of disparate cultural, geographical and environmen-tal elements. Found objects carry layers and a specific history, allowing me to engage in a dialogue with the item itself and my immediate environment. I consider overlooked surfaces and objects as poetic portals and holders of latent possibilities for alternative narratives.
More recently, the use of recycled materials has also come to reflect my philosophy of trying to live as a more conscious human being on an endangered planet. Using recycled and found materials for me is a practice that helps me to stay aware of my surroundings and to appreciate what is there…to find something beautiful in the discarded and to infuse it with new meaning. My driftwood series "Traces” is a good example here. By uplifting fragments from the flotsam and jetsam of our throwaway lifestyles, I hope to inspire audiences to challenge given hierarchies of value.
How do your pieces tie together present and future as you display trade routes developed in the 16th century with more recently found objects?
Good question. For me, the Puebla (Mexico) wall sections I’m portraying with the photographic plaster transfers, as well as the driftwood fragments I’ve collected from broken boats on the shores of Philippine islands hint at the layering of history over time. In both cases, what I’m capturing is the history of the object revealed through the scratches and different colours of paint. These layers may also symbolise the complexity of what makes up Mexican and Philippine culture. Regarding the future, I guess the fragility and brittleness of these paint layers could remind us how some as-pects (cultural, historical, etc) could be lost if we don’t try to appreciate and keep them alive.
My work on the myth of “La China Poblana” also deals with cultural constructs over time. This leg-end is based the historical figure called “Mirrha”. Her true origin is disputed - some say she was an Indian princess, some say she came from the “Mughal Kingdom of The Philippine Islands”. She was bought in Manila in the 17th century by the Portuguese captain Miguel de Sosa and shipped over to Puebla in Mexico to work as a servant to his wife. Mirrha converted to Catholicism, was baptised as Catarina de San Juan and led a life so devout that she was almost canonised as saint - which the Church objected to. After Sosa and his wife died, Catarina married Domingo Suárez, the Chinese servant of a local priest, adding to the legend that she was Chinese.
Catarina was widely admired for her generosity and exotic beauty. She stayed in the collective imagination of the residents in Puebla who honoured her by wearing her dress style: typically a white blouse and colourful embroidered red and green shirt. In the early 20th century, her image eventu-ally morphed into the popular symbol of Mexican femininity as “La China Poblana”- (in the colonial era the word “china” was used to refer to anything or anyone that came from Asia).
For my exhibition “Retracing Roots / Routes”, I reinterpret the story of La China Poblana using my own selection of images: an image found on the internet of a Filipino mestiza in the 16th Century, an old portrait of my mom, and vintage image of a Mexican lady I found in one of Puebla’s flea markets). I also wrote a short text for each of the characters. By reenacting the myth I expand on an existing popular narrative and stereotype and try to hint at the constant evolution of cultural constructs. Including my mother gives the work a personal twist. My mother, just like me, is a mestiza (mixed race): we have Spanish, Malay and Chinese ancestors. Again, past, present and future possibilities are linked into a continuum.
You did a residency in Mexico and while there you worked with a local artist to do a mural. Tell us about that experience.
Yes, I did a one-month residency at Arquetopia in Puebla last year during which I did my research on the Mexico-Philippine subject. The mural was actually a side-line project, independent from the main residency. It happened through sheer coincidence. A local friend of mine took me on a mural tour in the neighbouring town of Cholula. I was so inspired by the tour that I had to approach the guide at the end of the session and thank him. Then I showed him some of my mural work and he immediately told me: You must make a mural whilst you’re here. I didn’t take his comment that se-rious, but truth to be told, the next day he sent me a poster of their mural project with my name on it and an image of the wall I was supposed to paint! The campaign was part of an official initiative by the city of Puebla to re-generate one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the city. When I checked out the wall in person I was shocked by the size of it, it was huge.
You are a world traveler - how has this influenced the work you create? How has living in DC influenced you?
I’ve touched upon this in your question above. But yes, through travelling I’m exposed to many cultural influences. I love using different cultural references in my work. I’m always eager to discover how cultures are linked to one another throughout history.
I’ve really enjoyed exploring the art scene in D.C. and building a new creative network here. There are some amazing people, venues and opportunities. I feel really fortunate for having been able to show my work in quite a few locations. Living here has also reminded me of the four seasons! I’d moved here from Thailand - so although I’m half German, I had to get used to winters again, haha. It’s also been very educational to be able to observe social structures here.
In terms of my art: I’ve been collecting and using found objects to make new work, especially wine boxes and pieces of road turf. Some of these works are still in progress.
I was inspired to work on this subject when I first visited Mexico in 2015. I was curious to find a mango species called “Mango de Manila” in one of the markets and wanted to know more. Up to that point I was unaware of the shared history between Mexico and the Philippines. The more I found out about this connection, the more fascinated and excited I became about the whole subject matter. I guess the fact that I’m half Filipina from my mother’s side and having lived my teenage years in Spain makes the theme extra intriguing as it touches upon my own cultural roots.
What about found/discarded objects attracted you as to include them in your art?
I’ve been using found materials since my student days in the UK. During that time, found materials such as cardboard boxes were readily available. England was the third country I had lived in, hence the cardboard box was also a fitting metaphor for my own feeling of living in flux or “living out of a suitcase/box”. Since then, I have continued to be attracted to found objects and recycled materials wherever I’d find myself.
The gel transferred maps act in a similar way. In this process, I enlarged the original image of the maps and then transferred the printed image into gel medium. The result is an elastic yet fragile sheet which reacts (expands/contracts) depending on the humidity of the environment.
Maps are not absolutes; though they may include real scientific data, but ultimately represent a particular world-view. My transfer technique serves to highlight the tension between the totality of the world as a coherent and complete structure - which the maps seek to represent - and the un-stable state of the medium through which it is communicated. Moreover, the fact that I have add-ed my own writing to the transferred maps adds another temporal dimension, blurring the time scale of the maps. My gel transferred maps of trade routes between Mexico and the Philippines may remind us that world-views are inherently transitional and change as history unfolds, from the past and present into the future.
The wall itself was around 300 years old and I loved the color and the worn surface where they paint would chip off. Given that I didn’t have much time left in Puebla I wasn’t sure whether I could commit to it. In the end I decided to go for it. My mural design was based on my research on the Philippine-Mexico connection. It was a great experience, I had lots of help from my new friends and we had so much fun together, especially on the scaffolding. It was an amazing opportunity and I’m very pleased that I was able to leave my mark in Puebla.
You can check out my mural on my website: http://www.gritzkadelvillar.com/murals/
What’s next for you?
I have a few things cooking: a silent auction at the Mexican Cultural Institute in DC on Sept. 23rd, a group show at Viridian Artists Inc. Gallery in Chelsea, NYC, September 5th - 30th, and possible a group show at Strathmore Gallery, in Bethesda, MD - to be confirmed. I’ve also applied for an artist residency in London which would start next January if I get accepted. Fingers crossed!
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for more information on the project "Retracing Roots/Routes" please check out this page on my website.