Conflicted feelings

In conversation with Marikit Santiago and her work

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Filipiniana (Self-portrait in collaboration with  Maella  Santiago Pearl)
Archibald Prize 2021 finalist
Marikit Santiago
acrylic, interior paint, pen and oil on found cardboard, 110.5 x 100.7 cm
© the artist
Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Mim Stirling

IN A BUSY room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, an unusual canvas piques the interest of many. To begin with, Filipiniana by Marikit Santiago – a finalist for the 2021 Archibald Prize, Australia’s most popular annual art exhibition – is not painted on a canvas at all: it’s painted onto a flattened cardboard box from IKEA. The attendant explains to a mother and daughter examining Filipiniana that the artist’s double self-portrait mimics two iconic women: Frida Kahlo on the left, Mona Lisa on the right. Hearing this adds to their interest given how decipherable these appropriations are to almost anyone with an interest in art. Together the mother and daughter peer at sections where the two portraits meet in negative, phosphorescent space.

In the exhibition notes, Santiago has written:

The confrontation of the dual portraits represents how I portray myself and how I am perceived by others… The sheer fabric reveals my nude body; a subtle rebellion, perhaps exposing the depiction as fraudulent.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943. The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (public domain)

On the adjacent wall hangs a luminous portrait of singer Kate Ceberano painted by Kathrin Longhurst, which won the 2021 Packing Room Prize. In all likelihood, this is the first time two Filipinas have been portrayed side by side in the Archibald. Only Santiago’s specifically raises the question of what it means for a woman of colour to represent herself using portraiture – and how answers can be found in the creation of art itself.

As the mother and daughter explore Santiago’s painting, the gallery attendant goes on: ‘See how it’s been painted onto a box? The box once contained her daughter’s cot.’ She speaks in a reverent tone. The story is not quite right – the box was for an extendable bed for the artist’s youngest daughter, Sari – but the point still stands.

Santiago’s eldest daughter, Maella, is a credited contributor to Filipiniana. The seven-year-old’s artistic contribution to the work is what transforms the striking double-portrait from an intriguing homage to something that feels distinctive, even unprecedented. The discipline of Santiago’s self-portraits is balanced by the looseness of what the artist refers to as her daughter’s ‘gestural marks’. ‘She calls them her “shapes”,’ says Santiago of Maella’s drawings. ‘She doesn’t think about them, she just does it. I can’t do that; if I tried, it would look super contrived.’

If thirty-six-year-old Santiago brings her children directly into her art practice through collaboration, she is also bringing in what might be termed her ‘motherhood practice’ through her use of this particular box. Cardboard boxes have long been closely involved with artists and art institutions, playing a supportive and mostly unremarkable function. They’re taken for granted as banal, domestic, practical. By elevating the quotidian box, Santiago makes the invisible not just visible, but deserving and significant. There’s a deeper meaning as well: drawn to the histories of the flattened boxes she collects in her garage-cum-studio, Santiago thinks of them as being ‘imbued with their own migration story’. As she says:

Boxes have a sentimental value in a tradition that my family has practised, and lots of families in the Filipino diaspora practise even now. We would send a box of whatever we considered of value back to the Philippines. So my mum would send grocery items, chocolate, spam, toilet paper…

To Santiago’s mind, these balikbayan boxes are an act of care that is not uncomplicated, and they even represent hard truths. These boxes are part of the way remittances are received in the Philippines in a one-way flow of resources that ultimately entrenches the distribution of wealth between ‘developing’ countries with wealthier ones. ‘As migrants in Western countries, a position of power is projected upon us. At a micro scale, we are demonstrating a kind of colonial benevolence,’ she says.

Exploring such imbalances has been a recurring theme in Santiago’s growing body of work since she commenced working ten years ago. She describes her practice as investigating ‘a personal conflict at the conjunction of Filipino ethnicity and Australian nationality’. So many of us who understand ourselves as being diasporic in Australia will feel this tension, existing as we do between expectations like duty and largesse, tradition and modernity. But what exactly is ‘tradition’? So much of what we think of as being traditional – and therefore now sacrosanct – was once new.

Lately, Santiago has been looking to her cultural homeland for artistic inspiration and role models. She cites contemporary Filipino painters Rodel Tapaya and Jojit Solano as current influences: ‘I love the way Tapaya uses colour and imagery to access Philippine mythology. Solano’s work has rich Catholic iconography but with very dark undertones. He also combines his paintings with carpentry works that evoke altar pieces.’

Such monumental and symbolic work is imbued with the kind of energy often difficult for diasporic artists to muster while resident in settler-colonial societies. Far from the overt friction of her cultural homeland, Santiago’s work reflects her relatively peaceful day-to-day life in suburban western Sydney. That’s not to say she does not possess what she describes as ‘conflicted feelings’; indeed, it’s possible to see the sensibilities she shares with artists like Tapaya and Solano, all of them drawn to the canvas as a way to grapple with the eternal.

BIRD OF PARADISE flowers appear as faint silhouettes in Santiago’s double self-portrait, a direct reference to Kahlo’s 1943 Self-Portrait with Monkeys, which features one in full bloom behind her right shoulder. But Santiago is also drawn to this striking flower because of sentimental attachment: ‘The reason why there are birds of paradise in my paintings is there are a lot of them in my parents’ garden…and the word “paradise” is in the name of the flower: the Garden of Eden.’

The bird of paradise not only grows in Santiago’s family home, it’s ubiquitous in Australian gardens. But these plants grow seemingly everywhere, including in La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home (now museum) in Mexico City. Yet the plant itself is a migrant that originated from the area the Dutch referred to as Kaapcolonie (‘The Cape Colony’) in southern Africa. The flower was ‘found’ by botanist and plant hunter Francis Masson in the way of European botany; he sailed to South Africa in 1772 on the HMS Resolution, Captain James Cook’s second voyage. Masson sent back an enormous haul of bulbs to the Royal Gardens at Kew, including the magnificent and distinctive bird of paradise. It was given the botanical name strelitzia reginae in honour of the wife of George III, Queen Charlotte, born in Mecklenberg-Strelitz in Germany. The flower became a favourite of Kew’s first unofficial director, Sir Joseph Banks, who declared it ‘one of the most beautiful plants in Europe’. Strelitzia is now found all over the world, taking root in new lands far from its origins.

In Santiago’s latest diptych, with the working title The Serpent & The Swan, another bird of paradise blooms in the fecund, verdant environment, a lush reimagining of Eden. However, this new work features another plant that has far greater personal significance to the artist and to Filipinos generally: the mango tree.

Studio portrait of the artist’s latest diptych. Photo: Marikit Santiago, Instagram

In the essay accompanying Tabi-Tabi Po (May I Pass?), Santiago’s 2016 solo exhibition at AirSpace Projects, she describes a vivid memory from a family visit to the Philippines when she met an albularyo, a witch doctor, who ‘assessed’ her. She is then introduced to a new word: duwende.

‘What’s duwende?’ asks teenage Santiago. Her family explains:

the folklore about dwarves that live beneath mango trees, mischievous and territorial creatures who cast hexes on those who displease them.

This is how Santiago learns the true meaning of the expression ‘tabi-tabi po’ – to be spoken when passing a mango tree as well as other sites of ancient spiritual significance. These trees are thus symbolic of the animistic, preternatural inheritance of the Philippines, and of Indigenous belief systems that existed long before Spanish colonial occupation and the arrival of Catholicism in the sixteenth century. Among Santiago’s numerous botanical references sits an acknowledgement of primordial power, not only from what she has witnessed in her cultural homeland, but what she has experienced in Australia as well:

We went to Port Douglas…and went on a cultural tour. We were talking to the guides about their supernatural monsters and there were so many crossovers [with ours from the Philippines]. For that moment we belonged to the same community, to the Indigenous people.

SANTIAGO’S ART PRACTICE has previously included sculptural works, but nowadays she accepts that painting is the medium she is drawn to and most skilled at. But she is conscious of figurative painting being ‘an antiquated practice’:

I find what I really want to say comes through with more emphasis and so much more weight when I paint…painting is really my strength and it sets me apart. So I’m going to commit to that. Who cares if I’m using techniques that are from the Western classical masters?

Drawing on techniques that are so undeniably ‘Western’, however, can feel somewhat fraught for a minoritised artist when they experience pressure to overtly engage in the political struggle of decolonisation, as well as being burdened with the responsibility of representation. But it seems worth saying that for those of us whose antecedents were subjugated by European colonial powers, Western culture is part of our inheritance too. After all, European ideas were assimilated into our pre-existing and ever-evolving thought systems and made into our own. As Edward Said wrote in his 1984 essay ‘Reflections of Exile’: ‘modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, emigrés, refugees.’

Earlier still, James Baldwin had described himself as ‘a kind of bastard of the West’ in Notes of a Native Son (1955):

And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.

But more than half a century later, Nigerian-American writer and artist Teju Cole explores these ideas, weighing them up as he retraces Baldwin’s steps as recounted in his 2014 essay ‘Black Body’. He concludes, in contrast to Baldwin, that he feels ‘little alienated in museums’ and is happy ‘to own all of it’: ‘I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait.’

Santiago takes after Cole, confidently asserting her right to claim Western art as a part of her cultural and religious heritage as well. Her latest completed work appropriates two works by the nineteenth-century British painter and sculptor Frederic Leighton: An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) and Cymon and Iphigenia (1884). Through these, she reimagines and recasts the story of Adam and Eve as a diptych, the two-part format made familiar through altarpieces and church interiors.

During his time, Leighton himself was a great innovator – a surprising thought given how canonical his work now seems. The particular statue from which Santiago draws inspiration heralded the beginning of the New Sculpture movement in England, emphasising physical realism and symbolism.

However, instead of the unnamed hero of Leighton’s work, Santiago has placed her husband, Shawn Pearl, in the first half of her diptych. Pearl’s Anglo-Indian heritage adds a delicious twist given the work takes its starting point from the English nineteenth century. But Santiago is not so much making an overt political statement here as a deeply personal one, a commentary on their marriage and shared household responsibilities:

He’s my athlete wrestling with the python. I will accept that he’s much stronger than me, and as a man he’s physiologically built to be stronger than me. Though if there’s a jar that needs to be opened, I’m going to have a really good crack at it first.

Frederic Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) (public domain)

Santiago has been able to choose an atypical path focusing on her artistic practice – she grew up in suburban western Sydney, where she is now raising her own young family – and this atypical choice is now underpinned by a seemingly traditional partnership:

Because of the career I’ve chosen [Shawn] has to be the dad who goes to work. An artist’s salary is pretty shit, if I’m honest, and because he’s the breadwinner of the family it also imposes the gender role upon me because I’m the childrearer. This goes back to the whole thing about conflicted feelings. It’s not always black and white; it’s usually pretty grey.

Frederic Leighton, Cymon and Iphigenia (1884) (public domain)

In Santiago’s The Swan – the second half of this diptych – she confronts her conflicted feelings head-on by subverting Leighton’s sensuous painting of Iphigenia asleep with her arms outstretched as Cymon silently watches. For Santiago, as Iphigenia reclines,

her drapery reveals her undulating figure and she is portrayed merely for the male gaze. My work subverts this; bringing the female to her feet standing upright, her gaze meeting the viewer – defiant, vulnerable, provocative. And brown.

Santiago’s view of her own body is fundamentally shaped by her experiences of motherhood: ‘I’m quite proud of my body and what it’s been able to achieve in growing and birthing and nourishing three children.’ Her work is an emphatic testament to how she maintains an artistic practice in concert with her role as a mother, leaning into this challenge with both vulnerability and purpose. As Anna Cristina Pertierra wrote in the catalogue for Santiago’s 2018 exhibition Mahal at Sydney’s Firstdraft Gallery:

Santiago herself seems to value her twin identities as both an artist and a mother, Filipino and Australian… Others may assume that all of these things do not easily coexist. But such a holding together reflects many second-generation migratory experiences of living across, but not being caught in between, different cultures.

Instead of separating out the different parts of her life, Santiago finds ways to ‘live across’, and this has led her to consciously bringing her children in as collaborators as well as subjects. Her depiction of them in The divine – awarded the prestigious Sulman Prize in 2020 – is their most notable appearance. The painting is a profound expression of maternal love as well as a meditation on legacy and the idea of original sin as ‘an inherited condition’ that spans generations.

Caption: Winner Sulman Prize 2020
Marikit Santiago
The divine  
acrylic, oil, pen, pyrography and 18ct gold leaf on ply, 179.5 x 120.5 cm
© the artist
Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter

In The divine, Santiago’s children, Maella (then five), Santiago (then three) and Sarita (then one), are haloed and positioned in the sign of the cross. The banana leaves behind them bring to mind the myriad ways they are used throughout the world – to serve meals, to wrap food parcels, to be woven into spiritual vessels – proof of humankind’s everlasting ingenuity, resourcefulness and care. Above the children are marks created by their own hands; at their feet are several large serpents. Growing up, Santiago would often look at the statue of Mary in her bedroom and note the way Mary stood on top of the world with a serpent under her feet, the ultimate Catholic symbol of triumph over evil:

Each of the kids are depicted as holding or sitting on top of the snake. How are we going to steer them away – or should we let them talk to the snake and let them make those decisions? Life’s not black and white, there’s not always the right way to do things.

Santiago’s evolution as a mother has occurred in tandem with her evolution as an artist; the questions these two roles raise are inextricably intertwined, shaping her thinking about what it means to forge a legacy. She is alive to the power her art has to influence the present and, as a mother-artist, is aware too of her responsibilty to help transform the future. Ultimately, what Santiago’s body of work will reveal to her children is their mother’s love as well as her perspectives and rich life experiences:

There’s a lot more I want to say on faith, gender, race. I’m just going to make a confident stance with it. Whether it’s taboo or not, whether it’s welcome in the Australian contemporary art world or not, that’s where I’m at.

‘Filo, Indian, Nepali, Chinese Aussie kids in front of Peter Drew’s work in the Grand Courts of the Gallery. Family art day with little friends.’ Photo and caption: Marikit Santiago, Instagram.
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