Every middle class home had a piano, every working class one a fiddle, or a jew's harp. Young ladies drew each other for sport. Young men drooped from the forks of tree branches shouting, "Beauty!" Jigs were danced, and danced well, on homemade wooden heels, family theatricals taught children the fine art of crying at will, a blank wall was excuse enough for interpretive dance, and if you were lovely enough, your hair golden enough--or raven, depending on which side of the world you jigged on--your hands small and finely tuned enough to turn faces on tiny grains of rice, why then fantastical creatures of green and blue--or with wings and teeth, or scales--would do your chores, freeing up your time to make art for the Pure Joy of it.
Then came the silver age of art, when the family was no longer a haven of show tune singalongs and refrigerator-magnet galleries. Then, the youth wandered out into the scary forest and, in amongst the wolves, false breadcrumb trails, and predatory lifestyle party organizers, might be drawn by the faint, but pure, glow of the community arts nonprofit. There, our hero/ine passed a comfortable night, or three, before being drawn back out into the realm of worldly temptation.
"Look!" the reptilian tempter would cry, "look at the sophistication of yon milieu! Look at the bumpkinness of the cottage in whose doorway you stand! Whose bread is made of finer flour? Whose advocacy is going to further your career? Come hither, and rule the kingdom for your fifteen minutes!" And away the dazzled youth would go, drawn inevitably, inexorably away from the last likeness of home and family.
After the Fall, callow youths never stop to wonder if the Artyrs who kept the hearth while they were testing the jungle tread are still there, are doing okay, have suffered from neglect or abandonment.
No, this is not the Manalos' sad story, but mine ... sort of ... well, not really. Kind of. Okay, yeah, a little bit. I'm projecting, is what I'm saying.
I'll be the first to say that I found Manila a little ... challenging. More on that later (hint: small pedicabs and intestinal disorders ... okay, maybe not so much more on that later). So, after making some phone calls and getting some directions, I stumbled one day late in my Manila visit into the cool haven of the Manalos' flower and gift shop, Blue Gayuma. I just thought I was going to get a nice visit with old friends, but it ended up being a debrief on the last eight years of my life.
You see, I met the Manalos in the last millenium, while I was program manager at Asian American arts org Kearny Street Workshop, and they were running Bindlestiff Studio, a black box theater in San Francisco's SOMA district, that Allan and Joyce Juan Manalo had transformed into the "premier" Fil Am performance venue in SF. As fellow arts organizers from the same community, we all knew and respected each other, but were too busy sacrificing ourselves on the altars of "vision" and "community-building" to have time for each other. I came to their events and chatted, they came to ours, and chatted, we shared resources now and again (mostly them letting us use their space).
Allan giving a tour of Bindlestiff in 2000, the "epicenter of Filipino performing arts," a black box theater located on San Francisco's South of Market Skid Row. This is a lovely picture of a brief turn-of-the millenium era in Fil Am arts. Funny glimpses of many the personalities that stocked (and still do, some of them) the Bay Area's Fil Am performance scene.
You'd see Allan performing here and there, either solo stand-up comedy, or with his sketch comedy group Tongue in a Mood. You didn't see Joyce so much ... unless you bought a ticket to see a show. She preferred to stay in the background, running Bindlestiff and theater group Teatro Ng Tanan with consistent self-effacement.
Come to think of it, they were both pretty self-effacing, out there doing their thing, certainly, but doing it out of love, and happy to use their own sweat to promote unknown artists -- to make the young and the marginalized into stars for a night or two. The problem with being self-effacing is that it's a rare person who will promote you when you efface yourself ... and if you happen to be the designated drivers, well you might just not get much notice at all.
Also, nonprofit Artyrs live a pretty marginal existence to begin with: no health insurance, constantly putting your own minimal salary back into bottles of two-buck Chuck to feed the small but hungry egos of the artists you're serving ... it's a silver age for those who pass through your warm cottage, but they're not the ones who have to roam the forest, rain or shine, gathering firewood.
On top of that, the real estate politics of San Francisco are insane. Bindlestiff lost its longtime space in the Plaza Hotel for a few years while the city redevelopment agency spruced the SRO up. But from the beginning of negotiations the city started backing out of promises made, and it looks like now Bindlestiff--no longer run by the Manalos--will have to meet unrealistic financial goals to be allowed to return to its home.
For a variety of reasons, about four years ago the Manalos--as usual, quietly--left the States and returned to Manila, where Joyce grew up but where Allan, born and raised in the States, had only visited. And there they are today.
It might seem like being cast out into the dark forest, but Joyce and Allan are no Hansel and Gretel. We spent hours one night gossiping and bitching about the Bay Area Asian American arts scene, and I caught them up on four years of meltdowns they had missed. But when I visited them at Blue Gayuma, and later their house just down the street, it was clear that they'd found their way straight back home--and straight back into that nonexistent golden age where families made art at home for their own pleasure.
Joyce is beading and making jewelry, which she sells at Blue Gayuma. She's also making pottery, which is displayed at the store. Her brother, a set designer, makes small wooden theater sets/altars. (I'll post some pictures of these as soon as I retrieve them from the external hard drive they disappeared into.)
But the most delicious surprise of the Manalo/Juan family was Joyce's mother, Levi Juan.
Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Filipino independence. In the run up to the celebrations, Mrs. Juan decided to mark the occasion by sewing a Philippine flag, her crafty way of expressing her patriotism. She decorated it with appliquÃ©, buttons, and beads. It was yummy enough, both in the making and in the finishing, to prompt her to do it again. And again. And again. And yet again.
Each subsequent flag she played more with materials, adding hand-made worry-dolls to the suns, or little mirrors into a sort of plaid pattern, or encrusting the edges so thick with multicolored beads that you want to put the whole thing in your mouth.
On one flag, tiny yellow beads collect around the edges of the sun-shapes, making the piece look like the artist was working on it in the middle of a storm of pollen. On another one, a monsoon of brown bead-chains rains down the top of the flag upon an angel of fertility. She reminds me, in both technique and exuberance, of the extraordinary vitality of artist Aminah Robinson (whose work online photographs don't nearly do justice to, and has to be seen to be believed).
It would be easy enough to call this a Jeepney aesthetic ... and it would be largely true: a folk art, unironically declaring its affiliations, and drawing in colorful scraps of plastic materials and popular culture to redraw, over and over, a standard utilitarian form. But I'm still not sure what it means to call something jeepneyesque, jeepneyfied, jeepneyized. I don't know what exactly it means for the jeepneys, much less for unpretentious "folk" art.
It doesn't seem, this work, to be about meldings of pop culture and traditional culture, or turning the weapons of war into street art, or any of those clever things I and others say about jeepneys. It doesn't seem to be about much more than joy in materials, profusion, and a delight in color and texture.
Which is why this was my favorite art in Manila: the unexpected, the purely joyful, the unapologetically, unmodifiedly Filipino, the domestic, the folk, the personal-fulfillment, the unblaring, the unadvertised, unframed, and unpresented ... art.
(The details you see sprinkled throughout this post are details of the flags. Click here for a flickr photo set of all five flags she showed me, including views of the whole flags. The pictures suck, because I took them, please excuse.)