Phase / Out
30 November 2019 - 12 January 2020
Old photographs altered and integrated in the modern era confronts a cross relation of two different phases and identities. Phase/Out carries on a storyline rooting back from a decade-old artwork of Alfredo Esquillo entitled “MaMcKinley.”
Written by Karen Tesalona
The palimpsestic narrative of “MaMcKinley” serves to highlight a chronicle put together from snippets of different elements, whether it be in time, characters, or symbolisms – aiming to disrupt the archaic diegesis. “MaMcKinley” depicted McKinley as a maternal figure attempting to nurture a child who appears to be a Filipino. The beastly features of McKinley’s hands translate into an eagle, symbolic of the American identity and of its vicious motives masked by seemingly benevolent interests.
In perpetuation of the palimpsestic narrative, a 2008 piece of Esquillo called “Siyam Siyam” manifests an old photograph of two conjoined characters with a replaced head of the two contentious rivalries in Philippine Revolutionary History – Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. Bonifacio was a representation of lower class radicalism and Aguinaldo was of elite reformism causing an internal conflict to the revolution – a factionalism still reflective of the Philippines’ current state. As insinuated by the three feet of one of the characters in “Siyam Siyam,” one may have caused the demise of the other.
“The Thomasites Were Here,” a triptych of Esquillo in 2009, attempts to unveil the truths of the Philippine-American war. Based from an assimilation spearheaded by McKinley in 1901 aiming to educate, civilize, and Christianize the Filipinos, “The Thomasites Were Here” uses a palimpsestic narrative to reveal a certain tale of betrayal. At its center panel, the Filipino boy scouts were portrayed as willing yet stern subjects tampered with fake noses and star-shaped eyeglasses. With their feet being chained from one to the other, a bigger bully would seem to be a looming element to these subjects. The right panel seems to show the aftermath of the initial panels. The faceless students now seem to have lost their identities, and the others have military planes hovering above them.
This technique of injecting an archival photograph with a narrative based from the Philippine colonial history further reveals an obscure account on such events. Relevant to the Philippines’ highly contested political direction and memories of oppression, Phase/Out gestures towards unveiling a rather rich passage of inscriptions and interpretations of Philippine History reverberating with much gaiety as well as controversies.
“GI Jane,” a recent work of Esquillo in 2019, proposes a different yet riveting approach on telling a palimpsest. Here, Esquillo begins to execute an outwardly burnt effect on the sides of the canvas, forming a butterfly shaped landscape. In reality, a butterfly’s metamorphosis ought to happen naturally, but the burning way of forming it marks a flawed and artificial metamorphosis. In “GI Jane,” we see an American cigarette separating two scenarios marking the aftermath of the Americanization or a metamorphosizing history. In the first half, there is an American woman smoking a cigarette, and on the latter, there is an Igorot, or a native Filipino, smoking it instead. Phase/Out is a continuation of this particular technique and an exhibition of cultures and identity that were gradually eliminated and tampered through time.
“Phase/Out 1” separates one image from the other through a huge needle at the center. The two subjects appear to be Filipinos. Looking at it closely, one can see that the cane on the left is carved with a figure of an eagle, while the right cane is with a dragon. The thread reveals a daunting image for it resembles an umbilical cord which intends to bring forth life and nourishment from the source to its recipient. In the image portrayed, the cord seems to serve a paradoxical purpose by pulling a rather suffocating or even fatal cane. This is the artist’s commentary on the foundation of Philippine history – how the Filipino people have been variedly influenced and have been at the center of both the east’s and the west’s hegemonic powers, and their promises of a better life.
In “Phase/Out 2,” the artist exhibits two groups of native Filipinos separated by a pair of scissors used to employ certain objects and changes from the initial half through the latter. In the second image, the axe of the native has been replaced with a golf club. There are also evident tampering on the others – one native is now wearing a pair of sunglasses, a pair of shorts, and an artificial heart. Esquillo puts forward the concept of “Pusong Pinoy” or the heart of the Filipino to have been tampered with, and has been replaced with one that seems to be fake and insincere. These objects were also only placed on a superficial level like it was pasted during an arts and crafts session. This could be a depiction of the hasty metamorphosis imposed upon them. With Moro Warriors as the main participants of “Phase/Out 4,” Esquillo proposes another instance of tampering. The mirror image in “Phase/Out 4” is separated by a caliber 45 gun representing the differentiation of the natives’ weapons and the colonizers’ firearms.