Interview #79 — MJ Flamiano
Interview by Leah Jing
MJ Flamiano is an artist, curator and community arts worker. She endeavours to present critical and often playful investigations into sites and their cultural significance.
She recently held her first solo exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila and is now working on a collaborative project with Manila-based artists, Czar Kristoff and Lesley-Anne Cao for exhibition in 2019.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue art?
I think it was when I realised that ‘pursuing art’ could look like many different things – and more than just focusing on a solo visual art practice. My work often centres on collaborations between artists and community members in various settings. Since finishing art school, my practice now includes working in various community art contexts, where my role is to help encourage their meaningful participation in art, as well as helping others develop and produce their own exhibitions.
You focus on ‘exploring fragments of Filipinx history through speculation’ with artworks that ‘blur fact and fiction’ as a strategy for contemplating new futures. How did did you come to this as a method?
I have a persistent interest in the nuanced histories of the Philippines and the intentions of its historians and colonisers. Like most cultural histories, it’s cloaked in uncertainty and doesn’t fit into the canon of material widely-available in Australia. So, it can be tricky for me to find any historical material or literature within Melbourne (even with the internet) and in many respects, as an outsider to the languages and cultures.
Despite this, I have found stories and artefacts that have made a huge impression on me and changed my interpretations of history, but these pieces are always in fragments with uncertain degrees of ‘truth’ at their core. So this has become an interesting position for me to work with as an artist. As I try and unearth these things, question them, and shift them, hopefully as a way of carving out space for alternative futures.
I have found stories and artefacts that have made a huge impression on me and changed my interpretations of history, but these pieces are always in fragments with uncertain degrees of ‘truth’ at their core.
You are currently in the Emerging Cultural Leader program at FCAC (with me!). What will you be presenting at the Showcase?
I’ll be showing Bayanihan, a series of new screen-prints which grew out of the vernacular photographs that I took on my last trip to Manila, and more recently, new photographs taken of Filipino-Australian communities here. As part of the ECL program, I set myself the task of connecting with more local community in the west. Whilst this only seemed to really happen in the last month of the program, it has become an important part of learning about my identity and affirming it in a way.
One of my favourite of your current works in progress for the ECL Showcase is a piece called ‘Columbus in concrete’(2018). Could you tell the Liminal audience a little bit about how this came to be?
Columbus in concrete is a screen-print which developed out of a photograph I originally found in one of the rare books on the Philippine-American War in my old Uni library. I flipped through the book and found the photo of the beheaded statue of Christopher Columbus with the following photo-caption:
“The indignant women of Cavite province decapitated Columbus in concrete, naively explaining that if he had not discovered America there would be no Americans to invade the Philippines.”
I was incredibly moved by the power and agency of these women, which from the condescending tone of the writer, is simply perceived as a useless act. For me, the image is an ongoing reminder of the power of metaphor and continued resistance.
You were recently involved in NIDAnights x Suburban Review: Iteration. Can you tell us a little about this work?
My video work for Iteration really centred on my collaborations with writer, CB Mako and poet and performer, Walter Kadiki. CB and I were initially paired together and asked to exchange two recent works of poetry and video art for the project, and then develop new works in response. CB sent through a very personal piece referencing her struggles with hearing and experiences of ableism as a person of colour from within POC communities. For my response, I was lucky to find and work with Walter Kadiki, a deaf poet and himself a POC to translate CB’s text into AUSLAN. This felt like the most appropriate and poetic response I could produce for Iteration and I’m glad everyone was on board, including Anupama Pilbrow and the team behind The Suburban Review.
In your work, Stretched Banners, you note that you seek to ‘draw inherent links between contentious political histories and shared personal memories to make evident the social aspects of all art and history practice’. How do you feel these histories and our personal memories intertwine? To me it feels so pressing in the current political state to interpret policy as personal.
In Stretched Banners, my focus was on exploring the history of vernacular architecture in the Philippines during the 1970-80s. Vernacular architecture sought to celebrate a new and unified Filipino national identity through the development of major arts and cultural institutions under the Marcos-regime. On paper this would seem like a positive initiative, but in reality, it was driven by power, corruption and the unerring influence of the west in old colonial heartlands.
I had my first solo exhibition at The Cultural Center of the Philippines, which was one of the major iconic institutions developed during this time. From my experience of visiting and working there, it felt completely untouched by time. The carpet on the grand staircase still fades from yellow to red on ascent, allegedly because Imelda Marcos wanted that dramatic effect as she floated along the staircase during theatre premiers. During the exhibition at CCP it became important for me to represent fragments of my family’s own timeline under the Marcos-regime, and in turn, the intangible separation of the personal and political.
…it became important for me to represent fragments of my family’s own timeline under the Marcos-regime, and in turn, the intangible separation of the personal and political.
You have had a focus on translation for a while now - ‘I was not informed’ (2016) being quite an interesting piece. You also work across medias—do you think this theme of translation is connected to this fluidity of forms?
It’s always important for me to relate the form of the work to the content, which is why it seems to morph and change for each project. This way of working prompts you to constantly learn new things but can also limit you in the sense that it becomes more difficult to practice and improve within a particular media. Though as a mode of exploring ‘translation’ and ‘collaboration’, it’s still the most satisfying way for me to work within these broad and shifting ideas.
I was not informed developed out of a collaboration with Jacqui Gordon and Tace Kelly. We approached the project as a response to the prominence of the English language in a city as multilingual as Melbourne. We worked with two sets of translator groups: Japanese and Mandarin Chinese native and foreign speakers to translate a piece of poetry inspired by a ‘casually racist’ exchange overheard between a librarian and member of the public in Melbourne’s City Library. Access to the translator’s work was initially limited to the speakers of each language, with a voice-over in English intermittently reading the first text back to the audience over the course of the exhibition.
Who inspires you?
The amazing network of Filipino-Australian political activists fighting for the rights and protection of migrant-women, artists and workers in Melbourne, and against the attacks on poor and Indigenous communities in the Philippines by the Duterte government. These organisations include Gabriela Australia, Migrante Australia, PASA (Philippine Australian Solidarity Association), ALPA (Advanced League of People’s Artists), Anakbayan, PINAS (Philippine Studies Network in Australia), and MAT (Movement Against Tyranny), among many others.
It’s always important for me to relate the form of the work to the content, which is why it seems to morph and change for each project.
What are you currently watching?
I just finished watching The Bisexual starring and directed by Desiree Akhavan. Now I’m genuinely excited to argue with everyone about why it’s a great series! Hit me up to unpack it.
What are you currently listening to?
Too many playlists of love songs to admit to.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just started reading Transpacific Feminities by Denise Cruz and finishing Zami by Audre Lorde.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means taking ownership of that identity and responsibility for it, which gives me strength. I’m mixed-race, and in my experience there’s still a revolving door of misunderstandings associated with this identity. I’ve been caught in situations where a racist has felt they were in a white space and therefore safe to air their bag of ‘grievances’. It’s a tough and privileged position for anyone to navigate, but it builds my resilience as an Asian-Australian and stresses the continued importance of standing in solidarity against the whitewash of Australian narratives pandered to us and the international community.