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c3 Contemporary Art Space – In Conversation with Artist Alfred Marasigan and Curator Tania Smith

Providing a snapshot of the Filipino art scene, c3 Contemporary Art Space is exhibiting the works of six Filipino artists in their first every Australian exhibition. Four of the artists, Alfred Marasigan, Nomar Bayog Miano, Gigi Ocampo and Soika Vomiter, have travelled more than 6,000kms to be in Melbourne to install their exhibition Proximity and will discuss their works at a c3 event on Saturday 11 March from 2 – 3pm. We speak with Alfred and Proximity curator and former Abbotsford Convent Studio Start-up recipient, Tania Smith about Filipino contemporary art and the importance of place and identity.

The four of you have come a long way to be here. How much of a struggle, logistically and financially, was it to bring the artworks and the artists all the way to Melbourne?

Alfred: Financially it was almost difficult if not for the support of our collectors, school (Ateneo de Manila University), and families. Logistically, the works were quite easy to transport. Perhaps it was the difference in set-up that was more challenging for us. Working outside of your country for the first time for most of us really taught us a lot.

This is the first time you’ve exhibited in Melbourne?

Alfred: Yes!

Tania: Yes, this is the first time all the artists have exhibited in Australia, but most have exhibited their work internationally before. Of the four artists who travelled to Melbourne for the exhibition, Soika has travelled to Ghent to paint huge murals as part of a street art festival, Alfred was in an art prize in Tokyo, and Nomar and Ivy have exhibited throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The artists’ work at the University of San Carlos and Ateneo de Manila University. Tell us about your arts backgrounds in the Philippines and how you came to be exhibited in Melbourne.

Alfred: Ateneo de Manila University is located in the capital of the Philippines. For more than 150 years, it has been run by Jesuits, and is, for the most part, a Catholic school. I’m from the Fine Arts Department, which has been up for more than a decade. We’re getting a great new building called the Arete dubbed the ‘PH’s own MoMA’. Watch out!

Tania: I met Nomar and Alfred at an art residency in Thailand featuring artists from around the world. We enjoyed each other’s art and company and hatched plans to work together again (there may or may not have been beers involved at this time).

Your exhibition Proximity is incredibly varied, with paintings, street-art, sculptures and installations featuring different media. What ties these works together?

Alfred: Our context binds our works together. Place and identity share deep-seated similarities that are reflected in our works. If anything, the self is the closest place there is, and the Philippines is very much part of who we are.

Tania: The exhibition takes the idea of place and how we interact with it as a starting point. The artists consider domestic, public and virtual places in this exhibition, from the sacred to the blasphemous, from the political to the playful. However, there is a strong energy and dynamism present in all the works in the exhibition, which I think reflects on the artists’ home country and experiences.

The subject of the works is as varied as it is political. Nice Buenaventura’s work looks at Marcos’ family legacy, Soika Vomiter recreates last year’s bombing of his hometown in a street-art mural and Ivy Marie Apa is creating works using pages from her family bible. Are the artists afforded more freedom of expression by exhibiting in Australia?

Tania: We talked about this together during the install and it seems that exhibiting in Australia was a chance to engage with issues with a bit of distance and without the strong emotions that could surround the works back home, to talk about these things with a clear, level voice, rather than a shout.

Could these works be exhibited in their hometowns?

Tania: I don’t think the artists contend with direct censorship at home but there are perhaps sensitivities to consider when dealing with issues such as religion, etc. The artists in this exhibition are possibly liberated by the context here so are using the opportunity to address issues that they might not be so interested in pursuing back home.

Is recent political unrest in the Philippines forcing artists to work and be exhibited in other parts of the world?

Alfred: I think even before Westerners came to our shores; Filipinos have always had this cosmopolitan outlook. However, now, more than ever, the need to create work that responds to pressing issues is much more urgent. I am certain that Filipinos maintain that fire whenever they exhibit. In any case, more and more artists back home are confronting political turmoil. During the Marcos era, artists (specifically our Social Realists) and writers were the first people to question what’s happening, hence the media blackout. Someone’s gotta do it!

How important is the placing and framing of artwork when it carries such a strong political and cultural message?

Tania: The exhibition is bursting to the brim and it reflects the excitement that we all had in creating this exhibition. There is so much to say and the opportunities to do so are so rare.

Does placing Filipino works with strong political messages in Australia dilute them of power or is spreading the artists’ message to a wider audience of greater importance?

Tania: The exhibition was generated with the idea of bringing a new energy to Melbourne’s art community and art audiences. I thought that it is so rare for Melbourne audiences to see works from our region outside of our major institutions, that only have the capacity to show the established international artists that can also be found online and in art magazines. However, like Melbourne, there is a whole eco-system of artists in the universities and artist-run spaces throughout Asia and it’s a shame we can’t get to engage more with these artists and communities. So, the political messaging in the works was entirely a response to the brief by the artists – they wanted to bring their experiences here with them and I am so happy to be able to provide the context for them to do so.

Soika Vomiter has painted a street-art mural onto the gallery wall. Created using a paint roller, it’s a form of street-art not many Melbournians would be familiar with. What other non-traditional processes are there to be uncovered in this exhibition?

Alfred: I take it that our works are always very eclectic and hybridized. For my work, I’d like to think I want to promote commonality a little bit more by trying to share spatial experiences that other people might have. Maybe Google Earth is new for me but not for the rest of the world? It’s a sort of counter-cartography.

What are the artists’ impressions of exhibiting in Australia for the first time? Is c3 similar to other galleries they work in back home?

Alfred: c3 is very different, and we love it! I for one am very much fascinated by the fact that it’s a repurposed convent that now hosts so many community and art-based activities in one place. I find it very much alive and dynamic knowing that there’s a steady stream of creatives making c3 happen in many ways. Everyone is just so involved and invested and caring, and it’s inspiring to see people value art so much. Your collaborations really bore much fruit. The Philippines is just as vibrant but owes it more to the quantity of artists and people. Unlike here, infrastructures and longevity are not very much ensured, unless larger institutions do it. And it’s also refreshing to see so much space! At least in Manila, lawns near galleries are almost never heard of, unless you’re a shopping mall. Save for the national ones, those in universities, other established ones, galleries in the capital are almost always tucked into small corners of the city that nevertheless enjoy a sizeable audience. We just conducted Art Fair Philippines (on its fifth year) and its one of the fastest rising art events in Asia. The variety and the sheer number of works is staggering.

What else are you both working on in 2017?

Alfred: I’m going to have my second solo show in August 2017! Visit the Philippines to check it out!

Tania: I have an exhibition of my own work at a University gallery in the States in June and am currently creating a new series of works for exhibition later in the year.

Proximity features as part of c3 Contemporary Art Space’s March Exhibition, running until Sunday 2 April.