Sino Ka? Ano Ka?

Sunday, September 20, 1998 to Wednesday, October 21, 1998


  • Eliza O. Barrios
  • Terry Acebo Davis
  • Reanne Agustin Estrada
  • Johanna Poethig
  • Stephanie Syjuco
  • Lucille Lozada Tenazas
  • Catherine Wagner
  • Jenifer K. Wofford
  • With related presentation of work by Celine Parreñas and the Mail Order Brides

In an attempt to learn more about the contemporary Filipina American experience the exhibit poses two questions: Sino ka? (Who are you?) and Ano ka? (What are you?). The first question seems to simply ask for her name, while somehow questioning the source of who she thinks she is.

The second question is akin to asking her for a topographical map: a description of her physical, cultural and historical terrain. It is a terrain transformed by the elements of Filipino culture, migration and history, often unexplored and insurmountable to a Filipina American. Further inspiration for the exhibit was drawn from the pre-colonial Visayan term babaylan -- a word that refers to a woman regarded by her community as a leader, spiritual healer, or high priestess.

- N. Trisha Lagaso, Exhibition Co-curator

Other Related Events

Family Witnessing: New Work by Carlos Villa
San Francisco State University
Hohenthal Gallery
Treganza Anthropology Museum, Science 388
September 20-October 21, 1998

Through My Father’s Eyes
An exhibition of photos by Ricardo Alvarado
organized by Janet Alvarado
San Francisco Main Public Library
September 9-November 30, 1998



This century that began with the declaration of Philippine Independence in 1898 has seen a radical shift in U.S.-Philippine relations. Most significantly, Filipino-Americans have gone from being just a negligible portion of the immigrants coming to the U.S. to now the country's fastest-growing Asian American minority—more than 250,000 live in the Bay Area; more than 2 million live in the entire country. Closer to home, Filipino Americans constitute a full 11 percent of San Francisco State University's population.

However, despite these large numbers, Filipino Americans as a group have yet to be sufficiently recognized as part of America's artistic mainstream. It is within this context that Sino Ka?/Ano Ka?, a group exhibition of Filipina American women artists, unfolds.

While preparing for this essay I was asked by a friend and former colleague—an artist himself—why such an exhibition was even worth doing. I was stunned because during the four years we worked together at a local museum he had not only expressed pride in his own Jewish heritage, but been interested in African American and Chicano art, and the art of other ethnic Americans. At his request, I recited the names of the featured artists of which he recognized only one. He responded with: "How is her work Filipino?"

This utterance elucidates the need for an exhibition such as Sino Ka?/Ano Ka?, which fittingly translates as Who are we?/What are we?

To this I must answer we are everything and everywhere: young, old, poor, rich, straight, gay, neighbors, friends, artists, nurses, doctors, students, teachers, secretaries, managers, entertainers, software engineers, war veterans, newspaper vendors, and more; statistically, we are one out every 25 people in the Bay Area. Sometimes it's not even apparent who we are: we can be light or dark, short or tall; we can be mistaken for Mexican, Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Samoan, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, or European—what does a Filipino look like anyhow? My point is, Filipino-Americans are a diverse group, little understood by the general public.

It is diversity, not homogeneity that distinguishes Sino Ka?/Ano Ka? Its participants have at least five things in common: they live in the Bay Area; have ties to Filipino culture either through family or upbringing; are of the same gender; are professional visual artists; and, above all, feel good about showing their work alongside that of other Filipina American women (in the seventies we called this solidarity). Beyond this, it would be hard to make sweeping, across-the-board judgments about them or their art. The artists are from different backgrounds and have had unique experiences, each one the product and participant of a certain time and place; their works reflect a particular Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) and Weltanschauung (worldview). Their ages range from 24 to 45. Three were born in the Philippines, five in the U.S. Two of the women are of mixed racial heritage, while one of the woman is self-described as "white."

It shouldn't surprise anyone that no two of the artists are alike—yet, there are many who, when confronted with identity-based shows, assume this will be so. Furthermore, there are people who, like my friend, expect all the works to look "Filipino."

The contemporary expressions featured here vary in content, media, and approach. Some of the artists operate collectively, others always alone. A few stick to one medium, most work in several, among these textiles, video, performance, and installation. Some have political agendas and engage in social protest and/or public art projects. Gender issues, feminist concerns, and Filipino-American identity might be overtly addressed, submerged, or omitted. A lot of the artists inject humor into their work. Nearly all ask intelligent, difficult questions of their audiences. I humbly and respectfully offer this advice: To best appreciate Sino Ka?/Ano Ka? enter with an open mind. When faced with Tagalog words or recondite symbols and signs, consider asking for an explanation. Or simply admire the works as objects of wonder in and of themselves.

Finally, I close with the words of 29-year-old artist Reanne Estrada: "I'm glad this exhibition is taking place. Hopefully, when people see the show they'll become aware of the variety of the work that's being done by artists who happen to be women and happen to be of Filipino origin. Because a lot of times the hardest thing about being a Filipina artist is that people want to pigeonhole you, they automatically assume that your work has to be overtly about your identity. No one necessarily expects this of a white male."

Terry Acebo Davis (b. 1953, Oakland, California)

"Our history as Filipino Americans," Terry Acebo Davis says, "exists as more of an oral history—we learn it through the stories of our parents, uncles, aunts and fellow kababayan. As an artist, I believe it is my duty to pass these stories on through visual language."

For years, Acebo Davis has simultaneously balanced the careers of nurse, visual artist, arts educator and activist. It is her artwork, however, that most passionately reflects her ethnic background. Her installations and works-on-paper continually evoke Filipino and Filipino-American history and culture. They are personal and political: sources range from her family's oral histories and photographic albums to materials gleaned from public archives and books.

Whether figurative or abstract, her works always allude to narratives. Her installations incorporate prints, manipulated photographs, audio recordings, as well as actual objects invested with symbolic meaning, such as field crates, thongs cast in bronze, and banig, woven sleep mats. Her prints are generally abstract and draw upon an array of printmaking processes and collage to call attention to form, color and line. Text is as important as iconography, and letters and numbers are treated as discrete design elements. The surfaces to be printed on are equally critical: a Filipino theme might be paired with Philippine handmade paper fabricated from cogon, a native grass.

Many of her works address women's issues. And her reverence for art history is reflected in visual references to such trailblazers as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Meanwhile, her interests in medicine and art converge in numerous pieces depicting the body and its parts—anatomical references that at times enlist the tools of 20th-century technology. A foot might appear as a drawing, photograph, or x-ray.

The haunting 73, 1997, a crosslike formation of screenprints rendered in black on brown, is based on a CAT SCAN (brain x-ray or computerized axial tomography) of her father's stroke at age 73. The damaged brain tissue, roughly the size of a grapefruit, registers as hollow blank space. Acebo Davis conveys her sense of loss by filling the void with a photograph of her father in his youth.

The materials of Dahil Sa Iyo (Because of You),1995, are domestic in origin: checkered plastic tablecloth and placemats, a wooden serving set, a nightlight, crates with shoes. These are combined with lifesize multiple screenprints of her mother to pay homage to Filipina women of her mother's generation, immigrant women who held together their families and looked after the home. The reiterated figure is totemic, serving to emphasize the importance of the artist's female lineage.

Acebo Davis was born in Oakland and moved with her family to Fremont in the early sixties. She received her first bachelor's degree in Nursing from California State University at Hayward in 1976; pursued her graduate degree in Pediatric Oncology at the University of California San Francisco in 1985; received a B.F.A. in Printmaking from San Jose State University in 1991; and a M.F.A. in Pictorial Arts from San Jose State University in 1993. In 1997, she was the recipient of the James T. Phelan Award for Printmaking. Acebo Davis collaborates on installations and performances with the Filipino-American artists collective DIWA.

Eliza O. Barrios (b. 1968, San Diego, California)

A filmmaker, videographer, and installation artist, Eliza Barrios is clear about the consistent underlying theme of her personal art: "The work I deal with has much to do with systems and processes, primarily how internal belief systems relate to external belief systems and how my Filipina heritage plays into this."

Although she was raised in San Diego, Barrios' upbringing was governed by the traditional values of her Philippine-born parents. She embraced many of these principles as her own, but from an early age began questioning their expectations of her gender.

"My parents raised my sister and I to be good Filipina girls and my sister picked up on that— she did hula and piano lessons, and slumber parties, whereas I wanted to be the boy, to play outside and do everything else," Barrios remembers. "I was in my own world. I knew these feminine ideals and expectations were there, but I also knew I didn't want them. I wanted more freedom to be unconventional."

At 16, Barrios learned to express herself through photography, discovering a world of her own making. She continued to study photography through college and eventually moved beyond the two-dimensional plane by incorporating found objects and other sculptural elements. She also developed her content—in time, her art became a means for articulating her views concerning power and authority, society vs. individual choice.

Barrios had seized upon nails and hands as recurring motifs. "The hands," she says, "can say as much about a person as the face. In the way they gesture, hold, clench, they can supply so many leads, yet at the same time, unlike a face, they're anonymous."

Hands are a central metaphor in her elegantly minimalist piece Solemn, 1996. It consists of 11 bare bulbs dangling on electrical cords suspended from above. Each bulb is positioned over a large steel funnel resting on a stand. At the base of the stand is a bowl containing water. In the bowl, visible at close range, is a projected image of a pair of hands. Moving from left to right, the hands, which are at first clasped together, open sequentially until they finally part.

In this commentary on the dissemination or "funneling" of information and knowledge, the hands signify the human recipient, master of one's fate or passive object of control. With its austere symmetry, formal severity, and sleekness devoid of color, Solemn initially strikes the viewer as coldly industrial. Only as one approaches, that is, interacts with the work, can one discern its ultimately intimate message.

Solemn is deceptively neat, leading the viewer to believe that it was effortless to construct. In fact, it took Barrios two years to research and build the piece. While it meets her rigid standards—an admirer of Bauhaus and Japanese architecture, Barrios always strives for a clean, sharp look—its design is also practical. The highly symbolic funnels, for instance, are capacious enough to house slide projection mechanisms.

Barrios received her B.A. in Photography and Art in 1993 from San Francisco State University and her M.F.A. in 1995 from Mills College. Her installations have been shown extensively in Hawai'i and California and her films and screened at festivals internationally. Barrios has collaborated with DIWA and, along with Reanne Estrada and Jenifer Wofford, is one of the three members of Mail Order Brides.

Reanne Agustin Estrada (b. 1969, Manila, Philippines)

Perhaps none of the artists in Sino Ka?/Ano Ka? is as engrossed with the artistic process as Reanne Estrada. Four years ago, Carlos Villa invited Estrada to create a "quilt of dreams" for an installation in conjunction with the Filipino Arts Expo at Center for the Arts. It would cover a bed in a room typical to one that might have been found at the International Hotel. A cultural fixture, the Kearny Street building constituted the heart of an area once known as Manilatown. During the early half of this century, the hotel was the first stop for Filipinos who'd just arrived. As its clientele aged, the hotel became an affordable if modest home for Filipino and Chinese seniors.1

Estrada was given free rein in terms of design, material and mode of manufacture. Having little money but lots of time, she got her hands on some free fiberoptic cables, which she proceeded to gut. She untwisted the wires within, sorted them by color and rolled them up like big balls of yarn. Then, by hand, she crocheted her bedspread: adjoined bits of colored wire fashioned into hundreds of phrases that poignantly recalled the life of a manong, a Filipino old timer.

Although her current projects are much smaller in scale, they are almost as frugally produced and laboriously formed. Most recently, Estrada has been working with hair and Ivory Soap© , which, in her capable hands, can remarkably resemble its namesake. Her carved pieces are reminiscent of antique netsuke. Yet while these decorative miniatures imitate ancient Japanese or Chinese objets d'art, there are contemporary in function (e.g., a contact lens case, a dental floss holder, etc.).

Often, she leaves the soap intact and laces it with strands of hair collected from her brush and shower. The result is not unlike scrimshaw as the bars look as if they've been finely etched. In an environment as dust-free as possible, Estrada creates complex patterns, like chevron stripes, labyrinths and even a Philippine flag, taking weeks to complete each work. She adds a final flourish of tongue-in-cheek by exhibiting the "soap drawings" in museum cases lined with black terry cloth, while the carvings sit like precious jewels in oval frames with beveled glass. As she works, she methodically logs every detail, keeping track of the hours spent and number of hairs used. She says she maintains meticulous records "because people think the work artists do isn't labor, but it is, it takes a long time."

Born in Manila, Estrada moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was eight. She received her B.A. in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University in 1992, and soon thereafter moved to San Francisco. Her works have been shown in Hawai'i, California, and Manila. She has collaborated on projects with DIWA and is one of the three members of Mail Order Brides.

Johanna Poethig (b. 1956, Manila, Philippines)

"In both the studio art and collaborative work I do," Johanna Poethig says, "I'm motivated by examining culture and how cultures intersect. I'm also interested in looking at history and in creating works that are antithetical to the advertised life, that is, billboards, the marketplace, the commercial use of the urban landscape."

Poethig is an unlikely Filipina American: she's white, blonde, and nearly six-feet-tall. Her parents, socially conscious American missionaries, relocated the family to Manila when Poethig was only three months old. While most foreign children were educated at American private schools, she attended Filipino public schools, spoke Tagalog, and, more importantly, saw the world through Philippine eyes.

Although she often experienced a sense of being a minority or "the other," she strongly identified with her Filipino friends who looked at the U.S. as the "imperialist, colonialist nation." In elementary school, she acted out scenes from the Philippine Revolution with her schoolmates. Later, her high school history teacher led her class on field trips to anti-American demonstrations.

Poethig grew up not only questioning the political consequences of the Philippine-U.S. relationship, but also its social effects. She recognized that social privilege was linked to class and race and noticed how images marketed to the public supported this scheme. "I grew up with classically beautiful, graceful Filipinas—the ideal of beauty was not me," she recalls, "yet at the same time, advertising elevated the white girl."

A critical perspective resonates through her art, whether she's working on publicly funded large scale projects or diminutive sculptures. During the last 17 years, she's painted vivid, forceful murals in the urban centers of Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco, offering an aesthetic and thematic counterpoint to the cigarette and liquor ads generally encountered in such locales. They've celebrated Marcos's defeat, captured the plight of the homeless, saluted the beauty of multicultural artifacts, brightened playgrounds, and more. "The murals give public space a meaning beyond money," she says.

Recently, Poethig has produced small ceramic sculptures that lambaste consumerism and commodity fetishism. She fights products with products by renaming, reinventing, and subverting common household goods. For example, a shapely ceramic bottle labeled "Liquid White Girl" looks suspiciously like Palmolive©.

The ubiquitous American icon Barbie© is appropriated for a series of statuettes depicting Filipina archetypes and idols. The figurines are cast from the same mold, then Poethig individually manipulates, glazes, and fires them. Barbie© is barely detectable in the end. In her wake there's Kayumanggi, a brown beauty; Babaylan, a shamaness, priestess, and healer; the strong and wild Biker Manang, who puffs on the lit end of a cigarette and sports a butterfly on her tee-shirt instead of her sleeve; Miss Binibining Balikbayan, a beauty pageant queen; Urduja, a provincial princess; Maria Clara, a colonial mestiza in Spanish-style attire; Pinky, a trendy teen-ager; Bulol Barbie, after the eponymous Ifugao rice god; Diwa—all white, she's spirit personified; and the autobiographical Puti Pinay, a white Filipina in folkloric costume.

Poethig received her B.A. in 1980 from the University of California at Santa Cruz and her M.F.A. in 1992 from Mills College. She is on the faculty of the Visual and Public Art Institute of California State University Monterey Bay and is Artistic Director of Inner City Public Art Projects for Youth. She has won numerous awards, including a 1994 Bay Area Master Muralist Award. In her collaborations with DIWA she performs the role of General Douglas MacArthur. She has also produced a satirical feminist CD and videos parodying exercise tapes and product infomercials.

Stephanie Syjuco (b. 1974, Manila, Philippines)

"Raised in San Francisco, I didn't have much opportunity to run around the wilderness," Stephanie Syjuco says. "I'm very urban. My exposure to nature has been through parks, books, and sources like that. Then last summer, I spent some time in rural Maine. It was eye-opening, yet also very strange; I started making works that reflected my natural environment...Even though they suggests organic forms and natural shapes, they are more my idea of nature. I make them up out of my head."

Syjuco provides conclusive evidence that "art imitates life." For several years now, she has been interpreting, and manufacturing objects that mimic, articles found in nature, such as lichens, snowballs, moss, and grass swatches. She also has developed families of items that simulate recognizable phenomena or patterns that in real life are formed naturally. Some fall into the category of "portable accidents": these aggregate groups of blood or milk puddles can be arranged in any configuration, but are more convincing if placed irregularly, as if they tumbled randomly like tossed dice. Others, like her version of the Rorschach Ink Blot Test, must be precisely positioned for its oddly shaped components to make sense at all.

Either way, Syjuco calls attention to the role of the human hand in shaping such formations or events, specifically, a woman's hand, as underscored by her choice of mediums. Her biological specimens, portable accidents, and ink blots are crocheted or sewn, practices not widely thought of as art mediums, but as traditional domestic crafts.2 Being raised in contemporary urban conditions that were as removed from American traditions as from the American wilderness, Syjuco had to teach herself to crochet as an adult. She learned from a kit, packaged tradition, as it were.

Much of her art has been inspired by her work at San Francisco's Exploratorium, a science museum. One these pieces, Ink Blot, 1997, refers to Hermann Rorschach's psychological test in which a subject's interpretations of 10 standard symmetrical ink blots are analyzed as a measure of emotional and intellectual functioning. However, Syjuco has distorted the test. Magnified to an grotesquely imposing 7 x 14 feet, the zoomorphic ink blot recalls a colossal insect and strange fowl. Further, she has installed it in a corner to suggests "walls folding in on themselves or structural instability." Having taken on these new connotations, Rorschach's ink blot no longer seems to be an objective test, but more the outward manifestation of a disturbed psychological state.

Syjuco not only crochets and sews, but works in a variety of mediums, including painting and sculpture, and with more unusual materials, such as blackboard paint; Formica; bread; hobbyists' model sets; artificial flowers, fruits, and bugs.

Syjuco moved from Manila to San Francisco when she was a small child and later lived in Japan before returning to the Bay Area. In 1994, she participated in the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design New York Studio Program. In 1995, she received a B.F.A. in Sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1997, she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her works have been featured in exhibitions in New York City, Manila, and San Francisco—most notably, in a 1997 solo exhibition at John Berggruen Gallery and in the international touring exhibition At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists on view June 13-August 30, 1998, at the Asian Art Museum.

Lucille Lozada Tenazas (b. 1953, Aklan, Philippines)

"Graphic design, to me," says Lucille Tenazas, principal of the San Francisco-based communication graphics and design firm Tenazas Design, "is the union of art and science, the combination of objective and subjective thinking. You use your left brain to be objective, analytical, and to solve problems, while you use your right brain to be subjective, intuitive, and artistic."

It is easy to see why Tenazas was named as one of the 40 "leading edge" designers in the United States by the highly respected I.D., The International Design Magazine. Her designs stand on their own as works of art. Deemed museum quality, they were the focus of a retrospective exhibition at SFMOMA in May 1997 and a solo exhibition at the Manila's Ayala Museum in March of this year. Her long and varied list of clients ranges from corporations to non-profit art organizations, among these Apple Computers, Rizzoli Publications, the San Francisco International Airport, Center for the Arts, and the University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.

Some of the features of her distinctive style include collage, the innovative use of photography and type, the dispersion of text throughout the area of the design, layering and overlapping, and the use of "tertiary colors" that produce the illusion of transparency. But her art is more than the sum of its parts. What makes it work is Tenazas's philosophy toward design. She speaks of a "formal decorative surface" that gives way to "a deeper conceptual meaning." Her designs invoke aesthetic, intellectual and visceral responses.

Tenazas's profound appreciation for language is evident. She learned English in the Philippines and mastered its subtleties after moving to the U.S. Today, she delights in incorporating a certain amount of "word play" and "text/language exercises" into her design art. While accessibility is of concern to her, she notes a work "should never be dull...if the text and design are well linked, people will want to read it."

She adds, "I get involved editorially, the text shouldn't just sit there—text and design enhance each other and work in concert. I remember telling one of my students, 'What's the deal here? The words look like a caption.' They can't be placed randomly. My work is pragmatic in that the message is always there, but it also poetic because I give it to you in layers."

Most amazing is her ability to make the two-dimensional look three-dimensional. Combining various techniques, she fools the eye into perceiving depth. Her designs are akin to visual journeys; its elements become like rocks in a landscape or scrims in a stage set. She concurs, "It's like you are walking through the work."

Her method for teaching this lesson to her students exemplifies her unorthodox approach. She tells them to travel 10 minutes from their home, but in a direction opposite to the one they are used to. She then asks that they translate this experience into the design of a product, such as a poster or a book, that becomes a record of their experience. The idea is to understand what it is about the place that engages them, this could be a sign, a billboard or any other physical landmark. "I'm interested in their psychological connections to the place," she says.

Tenazas received her B.A. from the College of the Holy Spirit in the Philippines and her M.F.A. from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (where she studied with the influential designer Catherine McCoy). She is Adjunct Professor of Design at California College of Arts and Crafts and has been a visiting faculty member at Yale University, California Institute of the Arts, and Rhode Island School of Design. A recipient of several design awards, she has exhibited her work at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Fortuny Museum in Venice.

Catherine Wagner (b. 1953, San Francisco, CA.)

Catherine Wagner has achieved international renown for her conceptual photographs of construction sites, classrooms, and homes. For her most recent project Art & Science: Investigating Matter, Wagner entered the exclusive world of scientific laboratories, photographing for four years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri; the Stanford Linear Accelerator; Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the University of California.

Her subjects span the specter of human evolution, from pre-history to 21st-century cutting-edge biotechnology; from the sources of the past to the promises of the future. Equipped with a backdrop, lighting and a 4 x5 camera, she photographed fossils, moon rocks, genetically engineered tomatoes, and most extensively the Human Genome Project, a research program which sets as its goal the mapping of the 3 billion nucleotides in the human genome by the year 2005. In more practical terms, their research isolates and identifies genes linked to human disease, in hopes that such identification will eventually lead to preventions and cures.

The resulting photographs are beautiful, technically perfect; crisp and exceptionally clear. However, this was not Wagner's sole aim; her photographs were intended to provoke questions regarding the social, spiritual, and physical impact such research will have on our culture. The outcome of this research will affect us all and by presenting these images to non-science audiences she encourages a broader exchange.

"I have tried to ask the kind of questions posed by philosophers, artists, ethicists, architects and social scientists...who are we and who will we become?...How, in the future, will we construct our individual and cultural identity?" she writes in her artist's statement.

She also makes a case for the restitution of the age-old relationship between science and art: "Presently we are a society that compartmentalizes disciplines which prohibits the opportunity to share in a dialogue that reinforces communality. Historically, art and science were not separate disciplines but worked collaboratively to inform one another."

People are absent from her work, yet the objects photographed are redolent of human activity. In some cases, objects pointing to human involvement help demystify the surroundings. For instance, notions of the scientific laboratory as ultra-hygienic, hermetic, and irreproachably hi-tech are debunked with a photograph showing a bottle with a handwritten, makeshift tape label reading, "Definitely not sterile."

Conversely, many of the images reveal the laboratory as an inscrutable, alien place. -86 Degree Freezers, 1995, depicts freezer cases containing "12 areas of concern and crisis," among these are blood and tissue samples of alcoholism, Alzheimer's, bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness), breast cancer, and HIV. Although these diseases are among the most feared, in and of themselves, the frost-lined shelves stacked high with test tubes, jars, and petri dishes provide no clue as to their content. The enigmatic objects lead us to ponder: Are we looking at the secret weapons of a mysterious cabal or a treasure trove that will unlock the riddle of life?

Catherine Wagner received her B.A. in 1975 and her M.A. in 1977 from San Francisco State University. She is the recipient of several major awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA fellowships, a Mellow Foundation Grant, the Ferguson Award and the Aaron Siskind fellowship. She is affiliated with Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Gallery RAM, Santa Monica. She is currently Professor of Art at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Jenifer K. Wofford (b. 1973, San Francisco, CA.)

You can learn a bit about Jenifer K. Wofford by looking at her art. Five years ago, when she initially became interested in cultural heritage and identity, she mounted a room-size installation centered around the emblematic butterfly-sleeve dress of the Philippines, the terno. A few years later, for the first time in her life, she worried about her weight. The fleeting anxiety inspired her to sculpt a series of curvaceous Italianate ceramic corsets. Then, she bought a motorcycle and not long thereafter began sculpting motorcycle fuel tanks. In Untitled: Sleeveless, 1997, she returns to the terno, this time reducing the dress to its defining feature, the sleeves. Usually made of indigenous piña fiber, Wofford's sleeves are cast from the new world material, polyurethane. She displays them on a platform as if there were a dress, and/or person, between them.

"It's what's absent that defines the presence of the object," she says. "So this piece is about defining the space between the sleeves, defining my relationship to my Pinay heritage. At the same time, it is ambiguous, because I don't presume to claim this cultural identity as my own entirely; the piece can also be defined by what the viewer wants to bring to it. I'm creating a vacuum that someone else can inhabit."

Ambiguity is present in much of her work, due in part to her mixed racial heritage. Several years ago Wofford, whose father is Euro-American and whose mother is Filipina, created a series of ceramic busts with "vaguely Asian" or "hybrid" features.

"Because I had no point of reference I was trying to falsify my own history, create my own kind of iconography for the hybrid, a sort of heritage that doesn't exist historically," she says. "Say you're Italian and you grow up in Italy, you have the iconography of the Italian Renaissance and so forth. Yet while there's always been mixing, there isn't necessarily an iconography to go along with it, so I was, in a sense, solving a problem for myself."

This ambiguity also carries over into her non-cultural identity-specific work. Although derived from an ostensibly "masculine" vehicle, her ceramic motorcycle fuel tanks are rounded, full, and sensual, and sport natural buff finishes that convey a softness incongruous with the original object. Wofford, whose work largely focuses on the figure, designed the tanks to have allusions to the female form after noticing that they were analogous to the torso. But that wasn't the only reason she sculpted the tanks. "Basically, it's my love for pranksterism," she explains, "I think they're really funny."

Wofford received her B.F.A. in Sculpture in 1995 from the San Francisco Art Institute. She also has studied at Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, California; and at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Her works have been shown in Hawai'i, California, and Manila. Wofford is one of the three members of Mail Order Brides.

Mail Order Brides
"On our own we tend to be hermits."
Reanne Estrada, Mail Order Brides.

A startling transformation takes place when Eliza Barrios, Reanne Estrada and Jenifer Wofford come together: these normally sedate, introspective women go from observing their own private rituals to making themselves a collective public spectacle known as the MOB. That's the acronym for Mail Order Brides, the name the three of them have gone by since they first coined it for the title of their group exhibition at Los Medranos College in Pittsburg, California, in 1995.

MOB has attracted a local following for their lively performances, photo shoots, lectures, karaoke videos, and now their Market Street Kiosks (in conjunction with the San Francisco Art Commission's Art in Transit Program), that lampoon Filipina stereotypes—particularly that of the mail order bride. They always appear in "drag," that is, make-up, attire and wigs that conform to these stereotypes. Frequently, they structure their performances around food.

Offering a feminist take on the Filipino obsession for beauty pageants, MOB delivered one of their most memorable spoofs as the "Pinays on Wheels"—note the acronym, P.O.W.—in Oakland's 1997 Lunar New Year Parade. Gussied up in wigs, gowns and beauty contestant sashes, the MOB and several other Filipina-American women autocaded through Oakland's Chinatown, just floats away from the "real" Miss Oakland Chinatown. From atop Barrios's truck, which was covered with Astroturf© and flowers and trailed a long tuille train, some of the women smiled and waved, while Barrios and Wofford circled on motorcycles below.

Estrada remarks, "MOB is not so much about making fun of the traditional role of the Filipina, but recontextualizing it. One of the reasons we picked up on the Mail Order Brides moniker was in response to how Filipina women are viewed, especially by the media. We wanted to turn this around on its head. Most Filipina women are not meek or subservient, but have a strong sense of self, and this can be traced directly to our pre-Hispanic matriarchies."


1. Powerful real estate interests were behind the forcible eviction of the remaining International Hotel residents on August 7, 1977, by more than 300 city marshals; the building itself was subsequently destroyed. Yet the International Hotel is still regarded as a symbol of cultural resistance and painful reminder of the irreconcilable conflict between big business and the working class in the struggle for neighborhood control.

2. The conflation of traditional domestic crafts and "high art" finds its precedent in feminist art practice of the 1970s. Feminist artists sought to challenge the male-dominated art elite by elevating the domestic arts (sewing, costuming, quilting, embroidery, weaving, etc.) to forms of expression as valid as painting or sculpture. As distinctions between crafts and fine arts diminished, women's traditional arts were not only explored for formal, decorative possibilities, but utilized as vehicles for metaphor. Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and members of the Womanhouse project were among the many artists who incorporated needlework into feminist statements. While Faith Ringgold turned to the traditional patchwork quilt as a means for exploring cultural identity.

Even before the feminist movement, women artists experimented with non-traditional art materials. In the 1930s, surrealist Meret Oppenheim covered a teacup, saucer and spoon with fur. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lee Bontecou, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Eva Hesse were just a few of the sculptors to work with fabric. Men also combined non-traditional materials ¬ more closely associated with the home than with the art studio ¬ with "high art": Judith E. Stein in The Power of Feminist Art notes Robert Rauschenberg included patchwork quilts in his paintings, while Arthur Dove utilized scraps of lace and cloth in his collages. The "Pattern and Decoration Movement" of the 1970s also involved both men and women. During this same epoch, Filipino American artist Carlos Villa, then an abstract painter, created magnificent painted and feathered cloaks that derived inspiration from religious ceremonies and traditional Pacific Islander costuming/art.


This Code Before Us: Carlos Villa at the Treganza

Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo gives the following exercise to his students: take the front pages of the local tabloids and place them side by side along the front of the classroom wall. Can you tell, he asks the students, which of the headlines are the most important stories? Rarely do any of the students agree. How would historians be able to tell 30 or even 300 hundreds years from now which of the stories are worth telling? Carlos Villa’s work at the Treganza exhibit suggests ways for us to take up some of Ocampo’s questions through visual art. How are the memories of a Filipina/o American community commemorated, debated, distorted, or left alone? What parts of our ancestor’s life histories survives in the present?

Three components of the rich work that Villa offers are indispensable. First, Filipina/o American history is coded into the text through his use of commemorative plates. Second, the literary form of the pantum organizes his repetitive use of both text and imagery. And third, Villa’s use of family photographs suggests ways of interrupting conventional narratives of remembering community histories, particularly pre-World War II Californian immigrant families.


Villa fixes text onto commemorative plates. For Villa, the text is central -- a code he calls it -- to understanding not only his personal recollections of growing up in San Francisco’s urban ethnic neighborhoods during the 1930s, but the many life-stories of his fellow travelers: relatives and friends alike. In Lose and a Shuffle, Villa arranges the plates like cards in a deck. Depending on where you start and which direction you read the text, we engage three motifs. First is Villa’s informal resume of his elders roles. ...LOVERS -- COUSINS -- BROTHERS -- WORKERS -- LOSERS.... Second, Villa logs a seemingly impossible itinerary for that cohort. How often have children tried to make sense of their
elders purported travels? What is fiction or fact? Where did they really go? ...CEBU TO FRESNO -- COLMA FROM FAIRBANKS -- BAGUIO FROM FRISCO -- ILOCOS TO IMPERIAL VALLEY -- HILL ST TO WHERE?.... The text calls into question the tall stories of old men: these weren’t the travels of any one person, but the cheap labor traffic guide for California’s agronomy. Third, Villa critically reflects on Filipina/o American life in the pre-World War II generation. He renders a sensitive and complicated portrait. His recollections refuse nostalgia, instead reminding us that no heroes are without flaws, that Filipina/o American families - while always struggling against incredible circumstances such as racial violence, economic discrimination, and anti-miscegenation (et al) - at times authored their own misery. ...FAMILY -- HEROES -- PRIDE IS SURVIVING -- EXALTED -- FAMILIES -- OFTEN REGRETTING -- NOT EASILY -- EXALTED FAMILIES -- TRYING TO SURVIVE -- FORGETTING HEROES... Getting close to this Filipina/o American history is necessary for deciphering Villa’s code. The meanings are not transparent; in fact, this kind of commentary demands much from the viewer.


Villa organizes both text and image by applying the pantum, a fifteenth century Malayan literary form. Villa: [I]ts a poetry form that’s like singing a song. And then you have the same refrain after each verse; and then you repeat and repeat. [T]here is a way in which you can place the words not necessarily at the end but around at the beginning or around at the middle. He emphasizes repetition and revision. The structure of the literary form is translated into series of works such as Lose and a Shuffle, Family Witness, Lapog Mothers Club, 1959-1960 and so forth, which repeat themes and recombine elements (either text or images) within individual units making up larger ensembles. The repetition, Villa notes, comes from the way we perceive things or how we take in information. By applying pantum forms to his work, Villa demonstrates how a cross-cultural literacy affords us the possibility of telling stories colloquially. While we may rarely, if at all, communicate in complete sentences, we do make use of large structures such as dialogues -- we exchange information, sometimes we’ll have to repeat it because our hearing is impaired or we’re not ready for what’s coming our way, or we’re simply too lazy. We start again, but not necessarily in the same place.


This third component of Villa’s work focuses on his use of family photos. The repeated images, each appended with text, scroll like a celluloid strip. Yet while the images remain static through its repetition, the different texts suggest alternate meanings, or cues for the viewer. The text allows us to generate alternate meanings or associations for the images in the series. In Family Witnessing, Villa begins with a large 40 x 30 photograph of his christening, dating to 1936. Text accompanies each of the three repeated images: FAMILY (above image) / WITNESSING (below image); then WHITE SHOES / WAITING FOR YOU; followed by PRED ASTAIRE. In the above series, the males of this San Francisco Filipina/o American community are foregrounded. The men purchased a version of their masculinity by dressing the part of the movie star while avoiding racial epithets and violence on the corner. In Lapog Mothers Club, 1959-1960, Villa arranges the images and text vertically. Each of the four 16 x 20 pictures bears a caption on a black plaque. They read: STRONG -- ROOT -- RARE -- FAVOR -- SQEEZE. As a contrast to the males of Family Witnessing, Villa centers his recollections on the mothers: [D]ont fuck with em. They love you and they really care for you; but, you better be right.... They’re so forthright and at the same time they’re incredibly intimate. Villa’s serialization of photographic images interrupts casual and confident Filipina/o American histories by revealing the constructed nature of (our) narratives. So much of the popular memory is slavishly devoted to remembering this pre-War generation as the slickly-dressed, womanizing, jazz-loving bachelors running along Fillmore street. They pose for pictures three or four at a time against the one car that they share. They write home to loved ones in the Philippines and lie. Beyond this narration is the repeated code of Villa’s childhood in San Francisco’s Tenderloin of the 1930s and 1940s. The code, he explains, does not explain all. But the repetition does suggest that histories, and more to the point, memories are rarely fixed with one caption, that what we choose to remember of the past carries more than a lament for better days. Part of a Marxist approach to cultural theory involves seeking out how artists and art strategies demystify existing social relations. Villa’s work suggests that kind of approach to historical thinking by taking care to interrupt the comfort of memories -- here, found in family photos or geometric abstractions. In his commemoralization with the text on plaques, Villa opens us to their fragile desires as well as our own unstated queries. [From Sylvia Her Majesty’s Queen: COMMUNITY -- HAIR -- COMMODITY -- DREAM -- QUEEN -- SCREAM].

- Theo Gonzalves

Trisha Lagaso

Sino Ka? Ano Ka? San Francisco Babaylan


The San Francisco Bay Area has long been home to a vast range of peoples, traditions and histories. The present-day result is a cultural landscape that, in tandem with the area's striking physical landscape, provides a rich environment for creating art. San Francisco State University has offered the rare opportunity to organize and present the work of eight women artists who all call the Bay Area home. As distinct as these artists are in their individual concerns and expressions, they share one grounded commonality: a tracing of ancestral roots to the Philippines.

In an attempt to explore the contemporary Filipina-American experience this exhibit poses two questions: Sino ka? Who are you? and Ano ka? What are you? The first question simply asks for her name, while questioning her source: Is "Filipino" her origin? The second question is akin to asking her for a topographical map; a description of her physical, cultural and historical terrain. It is a terrain shaped by Filipino culture, migration and history, elements which are often difficult or insurmountable for a Filipina-American to examine. Further inspiration for the exhibit was drawn from the pre-colonial term babaylan -- a word that refers to a woman regarded by her community as a leader, spiritual healer, or high priestess.
Sino Ka? Ano Ka? is the second installment of a two-part exhibition. Part One, a smaller selection of works entitled San Francisco Babaylan: Sister City Sisters, was featured this February at the Museo ng Maynila, as part of Mayor Willie L. Brown's San Francisco-Manila Sister City Committee's 1998 Cultural and Trade Mission. The event was held in recognition of the 1998 Centennial Celebration of Philippine Independence.

In continued celebration of the Centennial, we proudly present the work of Eliza O. Barrios, Terry Acebo Davis, Reanne Augustin Estrada, Johanna Poethig, Stephanie Syjuco, Lucille Lozada Tenazas, Catherine Wagner, and Jenifer K. Wofford. These women have inherited a quiet legacy of Filipina strength and endurance, of intelligence and innovation, embodied in the word babaylan and transformed by the fact of their American identity.

We hope, through this exhibit, to introduce the San Francisco community to eight artists’ personal "descriptions" of the Filipina-American’s terrain, in all it’s complexity and multiplicity. Beyond the role of "artist" they are educators, nurses, community activists, leaders, cultural critics, motorcycle riders. Sino Ka? Ano Ka? is not a comprehensive representation of Filipina artists; nor is it only a presentation in homage to generations past. Rather, just as these women are inheritors of Filipino culture and history in the United States, they are also the new "elements" shaping the land around them, around us, creating new legacies for their Filipino heirs.

The history of Filipinos in America is oftentimes told through the eyes of the Manongs, who "came over" first, and their irrefutable efforts to make good in this new country in search of a better life for their families. This exhibition offers an-other departure point in that popular history -- laying groundwork for understanding of the Filipina’s experience in America.

Being invited to curate this exhibit has encouraged me to examine my own identity as a Filipina. That self-examination was intensified when I traveled to Manila with the San Francisco Babaylan exhibit in February. It was an exhilarating first time experience that made clear to me one thing: the exhibit had a life force of its own. San Francisco Babaylan came to symbolize the efforts and beliefs of the many Filipinas who contributed their time, vision and power to the project. From San Francisco support staff to Manila museum officials the dedication of these women was inspirational. This awakened in me the realization of my own place as an inheritor of the mantle of babaylan.

As powerful as this exhibit is, the somber overlay -- of many Filipinas overseas as lesser-classed citizens defined by their class and gender as domestic workers and mail order brides -- is a harsh reality. Although the artists were not asked to respond directly to such conditions, undercurrents of their concern may be evident in their work. Sino Ka? Ano Ka? San Francisco Babaylan is offered in the spirit of celebration, healing, and defiance -- as a redefined map of the landscape, a gift of inheritance of babaylan spirit for generations to come.

N. Trisha Lagaso
Exhibition Co-Curator

Amalia Mesa-Bains

Anthropology : "Interpretive anthropology demystifies much of what had previously passed unexamined in the construction of ethnographic narratives, types, observations and descriptions. It contributes to an increasing visibility of the creative( and in a broad sense poetic) processes by which "cultural" objects are invented and treated as meaningful...a model of textual reading...J. Clifford

Text: Carlos Villa has pursued for over forty years the interpretation of a cultural intimacy of family and community. From his earliest works of ritual ceremony and performance he has concerned himself with issues of spirituality and identity. His symbolic vocabulary has been solidified with a new text and language of remembrance. Villa has insinuated in this work a cadence like the Malaysian poetic form, the pantun, a fifthteenth century structure in which every line of the poem is used twice and the first line is the same as the last. This form is characterized by internal opposition and tension created by evocatively charged lines in repetition with soaring and obscure couplets. This pantoun structure inhabits the visual narratives of Villa as photographs and text seemingly repeat similar and dissimilar words and images.

The works in this exhibition depart from Villa’s previous works of family and culture as they for the first time make use of photographs as the lasting documents of away of life. Situated in an anthropology museum they counter the age of taxonomies of the ‘other’ and engage art beyond the boundaries of aesthetic privilege. In this site Villa questions the history of this discipline and reappropriates his own past. Reaching back to his own beginnings the photograph of his christening celebration shifts text: WHITE SHOES, WITNESSING, WAITING FOR YOU. Interrogations of the devastating practices of immigration are undercurrents in the community structures Villa interprets. The silent images of the Manongs or uncles, reflect the painful separation of Filipino men of a generation, arriving in quotas, unable to marry, often childless and alone as they ended their lives. The Manongs of Villa’s youth and the Manangs of the Mothers Club of Lapog are the text of family that situates Carlos Villas work in a history of war brides and social clubs created to sustain a community against the tides of racism and the sad longing for a missing homeland. In the photo-documentary pieces the Queen Sylvia series recalls the women’s hyper-idealized world of beauty and identity. COMMUNITY, COMMODITY, QUEEEN, HAIR, SCREAM are the language of an internal questioning in the beauty queen refrain. In many of these works Villa captures the absence as much as the presence in a world regendered after World War II.

The hexagrams and word patterns complete the artist’s pantun form and meaning. The cherished words are arranged in shapes of eight or infinity. The random pattern of inquiry characteristic of the I Ching hexagram is the nature of this assembled discourse, the strategy which this artist undertakes to repeat, recall and retell through family photographs, memorial plaques and insightful language. His counterpoint to the anthropology of materialism brings from a loving and critical remembrance the passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and motherhood. Perhaps through his random pattern of inquiry Carlos Villa has installed a momentary anthropology of the heart.

- Amalia Mesa-Bains


On The Meanings of Babaylan in Historical Perspective

The exhibition San Francisco Babaylan is my opportunity to examine various meanings attributed to the word babaylan and the roles played by the babaylan in the Filipino cultures throughout history.

John Wolff in 1972 defined the word babaylan in the most concrete way. A babaylan is "a person supposed to have close and friendly relationships with supernatural beings, evil or good, such that he can deal with them on behalf of other people. The person can ask them to bring illness or cure illnesses of any sort, natural or supernatural in cause. He officiates at offerings and at folk weddings and other ceremonies in relation to supernatural beings". Wolff summarizes that "the babaylan is a go-between for the spirits and the humans, a kind of priest ( 1997). The word babaylan is considered to be a Tagalog word, though only this Cebuano definition is available.

Babaylan and its cognates
The word babaylan is of western Austronesian derivation and a number of cognates have been found among the dialects of ethnic groups in the southern Philippines, Insular Southeast Asia and the Malay Peninsula. The term Baylan is used by the Bukidnon in Negros. Subanon people in Mindanao say bailan; the Manobo groups, bay'lan; whileas Mandaya-Mansaka balian; the Bagobo in Mindanao say mabalian. In the Bisayan Islands, it is babaylanas for men, while women in the same profession are referred to as babaylanes. The Manobo use beylan in place of babaylan (Elkins, 1968). Peoples in Antique, Panay Island refer to their medicine doctor, binabaylan (Magos, 1992). Authors from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) use the word babaylan to refer to all the spirit mediums found among the Aklanon, Batak, Boholanon, Bukidnon, Capiznon, Cuyunon, Ilongo and Waray Balyana in Bikol is translated as priestesses by Mintz (1971). Mongondow in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia use boliya (Norma and Mat Charles correspondence, 1997). The Tobaku people in the same region, according to Aragon, it is tobalia (Aragon, 1992:169; Woodward, 1933:14). A slightly different word, wolia, is used among the Kulawi of the Central Sulawesi (Wolff, correspondence, 1997). However, in Malay language belian survives now only in certain phrases. The cognates of babaylan prevail among the dialects of the Philippine languages but are found only among a limited number of dialects in Indonesian groups. The translation of the cognate results in interesting phenomena. They are often translated as witches or sorcerers in the dictionaries compiled by missionaries, while the dictionaries compiled by linguists tend to give a more general translation of the word such as 'spiritual medium', 'traditional priest or priestess'. Such difference in the translations probably reflects biased perceptions of their professions by the translators. In fact Magos, in her book on Kinaray-a Village tradition of the babaylan, chose the word Ma-aram instead to avoid the unfavorable connotation of the word babaylan as 'sorcerer' or 'witch' (1992:vii).

Tagalog and the word babaylan
Although the term babaylan is considered a Tagalog word, many dictionaries and wordbooks, old and new, do not list the word at all. For example, in the Dictionario Tagalog-Hispano, compiled by Pedro Serrano-Laktaw in 1914, the word babaylan does not appear. This dictionary has been highly recognized and is supposed to be the best of single-authored Tagalog dictionary (with a few blind spots - such as names for many plants and animals personal correspondence with Conklin 1997). Not the term Babaylan but kulam (sorcery) is listed by Lopez in Comparative Philippine Word-List (1974, No. 938). Many other Tagalog dictionaries do not list the word babaylan (cf. English, 1965; Panganiban, 1972).

The Tagalog have the words for individuals with more specific professions. The words catalonan and aerbulary have the closest meaning to babaylan. Catalonan refers to an individual who communicates with the gods by performing rituals and can be translated as traditional priest or priestess. Aerbulary is a Spanish-derived word which refers to a medicine doctor who worked with spirits in curing illnesses. Other synonyms in Tagalog include mangagaway, a person who can cure or inflict sickness. The mangagayuma made charms for lovers out of stones, wood, and herbs. The sonat was a priest who helped one to die. The fortune teller was called pangatauhan. The bayogin was a man whose nature inclined toward that of a woman (CCP 1994, Vol.II:313-4). The mangkukulam may be called psychic, who emitted fire which could be extinguished only if he/she wallowed in excreta under someone's house. The manyisalat was a person who could sow discord between couples and prevent intercourse. The hocloban could kill people by just raising his hands. The definition of the word babaylan includes almost all of the attributes of the individuals mentioned above. The reasons why the term babaylan is absent in many Tagalog dictionaries, needs to be explained after further research is done. I myself am curious to know what kinds of factors are present to explain the absence. Omission of the word babaylan as the priest and priestess, in Tagalog dictionaries may be intentional, if indeed it is a Tagalog word. The term could have been excluded as a harmful or dangerous word for missionary activities and then also tabooed by the Christian Filipino. The word might have been considered, therefore, unnecessary to learn or use in conversation in the past.

Fox's account on the Babalyan of the Tagbanuwa
As full information is unavailable on babaylan in traditional Tagalog societies, an example is taken from the traditional priests and priestesses among the Tagbanuwa people, based on an ethnography written by Robert B. Fox (1982). The Tagbanuwa people use the word babalyan, slightly different but close enough to the word babaylan. Only after looking at the babaylan's status and position in a Tagbanuwa village, can we understand the symbolic use of the word by the Philippine people of modern world.

The Tagbanuwa community that Fox researched was located in a part of Palawan archipelago. The Palawan consists of 1800 islands and the entire population in 1996 was 600,000. Tabon Cave in Palawan is known as one of the earliest human habitation sites in Southeast Asia, which brings back the prehistory of the Philippines to ca.50,000 years B.P. The current inhabitants of the Palawan are the Palawan, Tagbanuwa, and the Batak. Fernandez and Eder consider the province of Palawan still Philippines' frontier (1996). Development of farm land, overuse of land of shifting cultivation, and deforestation, resulting from logging, cultivation of cash crops, and international tourism are quickly changing the natural environment. The Tagbanuwa experienced displacement from 1900 to 1980 by various government projects and corporate activities. The Tagbanuwa people settled in the early twentieth century along the central and western coast of Palawan and remained relatively isolated, separated by a chain of rugged mountains. Fox mentioned that these were refugee populations that had moved away from the coast in the late 1700s or early 1800s to escape slave raiding by Muslims from Sulu. The coastal Tagbanuwa were then forced by the government to the eastern coast so there would have easier access to manufactured goods. Around 1955 the first lowland Christian settlers arrived to homestead. Some subgroups of Tagbanuwa were incorporated into lowland Philippino society in the 1960s and 1970s and instigated a number of important cultural changes. By 1980, most Tagbanuwa in Napsaan had adopted Christianity. It was before this major culture change when Robert B. Fox was able to visit among the Tagbanuwa to observe their traditional religion.

Babalyan of the Tagbanuwa societies or Ceremoniarism officiated by the babalyan
According to Fox (1982) the Babalyan have numerous duties, connected with officiating at rituals. The rituals are performed to communicate with many deities and the spirits of the dead for troubled individuals, families and communities. The babalyan have considerable influence upon the everyday social activities of the people. "They select ritually favorable clearings, placate environmental deities, interpret dreams, provide charms for hunting and fishing, and treat all types of serious illness" (Fox, 1982:207). His account gives the babalyan's attributes as those of priest/priestess, medicine doctor, and fortune-teller. Fox reports, for example, that following the rice harvest until the new clearings are made, each babalyan individually performs a series of ceremonies for the highest ranking deity and for the many lesser classes of deities. These rituals are to give thanks for the rice harvest and for the continued well-being of the people attending the ceremony, as well as an appeal to the deities for further cooperation and aid. The babalyan also officiated in ceremonies that mark life cycle of villagers.

Some Tagbanuwa babalyan Fox observed were neurotic and psychotic and utilize trances in ceremonies during which he/she became violent. However, Fox did not consider such acts as institutionalized but the role of babalyan appears to be learned rather than psychologically predisposed. Fox states that the babalyan are stable individuals who often have a deep understanding of how their society works and of the psychological problems of individuals. The babalyan's success depends on their leadership and competence in dealing in ritual terms with practical social and psychological problems.

During ceremonies, thebabalyan perform rituals as if it were the supernatural in babalyan who is dancing, or singing rather than the babalyan himself/herself who is acting. The depth of the trance is difficult to evaluate because the face and head are completely covered with a hood. The babalyan's ritual performance always involves singing and dancing accompanied by musical instruments such as drums, bamboo tubes and bamboo sticks played by women (CCP 100). An altar is made consisting of large jars, straws, a bowl of betel quids, etc. and gongs are hung to be beaten during the ritual performance. Women attending the ritual participate in a chorus. Their participation dominates most in Tagbanuwa ritual life. Selected numbers of women also are given the privilege of drinking wine out of the jar. The drummers who lead the instruction of the babalyan play also a very important role in these rituals. In order to make the ritual successful or appealing to the public the babalyan seem to show some artistic talents in dancing, manner of clothing, balancing articles such as a knife, candle and a bowl of water on head. Eating and drinking are also significant components of the rituals.

The babaylan's clothing does not differ from ordinary people's when the priest and priestess were not performing rituals. However, some priests are transvestites. The babalyan are trained intermediaries who guide the interaction of the living with the deities as well as with the dead. They come from the social class which has political and juridical privileges. Although there are many babalyan of the Tagbanuwa who are women, the higher religious functionaries are men with political and juridical roles. The position of the babalyan is not inherited as a rule, although the ritual paraphernalia is inherited. Nevertheless it is observed that there is a marked tendency towards direct lineal succession by sex. The new babalyan think of themselves as succeeding a dead babalyan. During the Diwata ceremonies (worshipping ancestors' souls), the babalyan calls upon the spirit of his/her relative for aid. An eligible successor must become deathly ill before becoming a babalyan. Such illness is interpreted as a "call", a message from a dead babalyan telling the sick person to become a medium. If the sick person should dream about the dead babalyan or about being a babalyan, it is a certain sign. Following the recovery of a person receiving a "call", there is a period of ritual preparation under the direction of an established and prominent babalyan. The instructingbabalyan calls many deities daily, informing them that a new person is to become a babalyan. He also teaches the novice the many subtle duties and responsibilities of the position. The novice promises the dead babalyan whom he or she is succeeding to practice the role competently and systematically.

Generalization of the priests and priestess in traditional Filipino societies
Although among the Tagbanuwa, women babaylan do exist, the neighboring Batak do not have women mediums, not even as midwives. The close relationship of the priest and priestess with the political leaders of the societies has been pointed out, which proves the babaylan's roles other than a religious one. Babaylan are advisors of the datu as well as spiritual and physical healers, babaylan are highly respected and honored individuals. Among the Aklanon, the babaylan was held in high respect and honor. Although the majority of the Aklanon population is now Christian, belief in the power of the babaylan has not completely disappeared in spite of their dwindling numbers. It is understandable that in pre-Christian times, the babaylan played an important socio-political and religious role.

The close relationship of the babaylan to community members has meant that the spiritual leaders were able to successfully cultivate a strong position in the community, which resulted in them becoming the leaders of opposition against Spanish domination in supporting traditional values based on their beliefs. A number of incidents against the Spanish administration were lead by the babaylan as local leaders. It is clear that the babaylan were not only priests of the non-Christian traditional religion but also political and judicial leaders, charged with keeping the traditional value system and world view among the rural communities, especially in the southern parts of the Philippines. It is not difficult to understand that several revolts against the colonial administration were led by babaylan. The babaylan of the Aklanon, were most resistant to Spanish rule. They tried to maintain their influence over the Christianized villagers, sometimes succeeding in winning them back to the worship of their spirits and leading popular revolts (CCP 1994:60). In 1621, a babaylan named Tamblot incited the Boholano to reject the Catholic religion and turn against the Jesuit priests, who were celebrating the beautification of San Ignacio and Francisco Xavier. Two thousand Bohalano from four villages revolted to regain freedom and to return to their ancestral religious beliefs and practices. They were also motivated by the promise of a prosperous life in the hills as envisioned by Tamblot's spirit. They burned churches and threw away their rosaries and crosses. The rebels established themselves in inaccessible mountain areas where they held out for six months against colonial troops. Tamblot's revolt spread to the whole island except Loboe and Baclayon, which remained under Spanish control. Tamblot's rebellion was finally crushed the first of January, 1622 by an expedition of 50 Spaniards and 1000 natives from Cebu and Pampanga led by the alcade major of Cebu, Juan de Alcacazo. Tamblot was killed in battle (CCP 1994: 144). In 1633 in the town of Lambanao, babaylan, dressed in woman's clothes incited a rebellion significant enough to have Spanish military troops from Iloilo sent to quell it. A relatively recent babaylan in Negros Occidental was "Papa isio", who led a revolt from 1896-1907 against oppressive labor conditions in the sugar plantations. In 1637, Spaniards made Iloilo the seat of the colonial government after they fortified it against the Muslem pirates and Dutch warships. Resistance to Christianization was led by the babaylan, who tried to sustain the Christian converts' animistic beliefs and worship of their former gods (CCP 1992:336-9). The above mentioned incidents illustrate the emergence of strong images of babaylan as the protectors of traditions as well as spiritual leaders.

The meanings of babaylan in modern context
Much of the strong socio-political roles of babaylan has been lost since the Philippine's Independence 50 years ago. In recent years, however, the term babaylan has become closely associated with women (cf. Demetrio, F. 1991: 438). Infante writes, "Almost all the pre-Hispanic and contemporary non-Christian Filipino agree in their preference for woman religious practitioners"(c1975:167). In one Tagalog town, the missionaries had to lay a vigorous hand on a group of such women who had the whole town under their influence. Similar action of the spiritual leaders has been reported in Pangasinan, Bataan, Ifugao, Kalinga and Cagayan region (c1975:169).

Today, the word babaylan is becoming a pan-Filipino term in the socio-cultural context and has begun to be the word symbolically associated with the artists praising a new feminism as spiritual leaders of Filipino women who try to find their questions and answers of femininity in traditional motherhood, and womanhood and to seek national identity and ideology in their own traditions.

- Yoshiko Yamamoto
Treganza Anthropology Museum,
Dept. of Anthropology, SFSU


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Carlos Villa

Babaylan Tradition: San Francisco Style
Lapog Mother’s Club

Babaylan is a Filipino word that refers specifically to an individual or a group of healers, mostly women, who were acknowledged by friends and family as possessing extraordinary gifts. Many Filipinos have stories of such people in their families, and growing up I took this all for granted. These stories might describe a cousin or aunt as having a gift of vision; an ability to see through schemes or situations and later advise on future plans... or the gift for healing; a specific touch or intuited or passed-on knowledge to specific processes of ‘fixing’ and ‘putting’ people and things together. The first priority of all Babaylan was her community.

While growing up at home, my mom was the navigator, the plotter of courses, the ultimate guide where the family was going. My dad was the pilot; he drove the family car; he had the jobs; he was the one that signed on the dotted line, but the family always sought permission from mom. My father may have led the procession, but my mom made sure that a procession was there.

The ‘Mother’s Club’ from Lapog had six moms in it, including my own. They came to the United States around the same time, within six years of each other in the mid to late 1920s. They were all in their early twenties, and were sponsored by a family member or friend when they arrived in the U.S. There was a strict immigration quota restricting Filipinas from coming here. With no immediate family models, the six women helped each other, taught each other: to cook, sew and deal with pregnancy. These women made sure that duties were carried out according to custom. These women were never quiet in the presence of men. These women always spoke out at gatherings, and these women were usually right.

I always loved my uncles, the ones who were ‘bachelors.’ They were the most interesting. They dressed well, they lived a high life, they ate at Chinese restaurants, played pool, gambled, and made large amounts of money and were generous. They also made horrendous life mistakes, were flashy and a little out of control. There is much discussion in community histories of Filipinos in America during the 1920s and 1930s about the miscegenation laws, which produced a predominantly ‘bachelor society.’ But there is insufficient discussion about families that survived, why they survived.

Historically, the babaylan tradition refers to pre-colonial female priestesses who wielded spiritual power. Their society was squashed by stud cookie Spanish priests, interested in taking over their power. The babaylan were seduced by aspects of European society, including the Catholic church, producing a mixed culture where women’s roles were diminished. This cultural hybridization is still evident in Filipino society today. Cory Aquino’s presidency, with her ascendance to that office in memory of a martyred husband, is an ultimate example of a contemporary babaylan healing force. Otherwise, there are millions of moms like mine and yours. All babaylan.

Babaylan has resurfaced in contemporary American cultural theory, including recent articles and films. We tend to think of women writers in the U.S. as leading the way in international feminist theory, but the prominence of so many powerful women artist of Filipino American background suggests that another influence may be at work.

Sino Ka? Ano Ka? San Francisco Babaylan is an exposition of diverse and intelligent work created from a feminist perspective; with humor, strength, and memory as the ‘arrows’ and ‘handles’ that guide the image toward deeper engagement with the notions and issues of individual ideology, and personal identity.

There are instances where the shaman made objects around in Southeast Asia. The babaylan have no history of having created objects yet they assembled materials for healing and (in their way) ‘fixed things and situations.’

Historically, a situation has to be ‘just right’ for babaylan power to surge. Atang is a word used by my family to describe solemn and heavy payback. In this action of exhibiting in Manila and at San Francisco State University, the Sisters from San Francisco show their work (and at the same time) offer atang to their common root. This is how babaylan feel deepest about their family/community...that’s the surge!!

- Carlos Villa


September 20-October 21, 1998
Art Department Gallery, SFSU

Sunday September 20, 2-4 pm
Art Department Gallery, SFSU

Sunday September 20, 12:00 noon
Jack Adams Hall,
Cesar Chavez Student Center, SFSU


Art Department Gallery
A&I (Fine Arts) 238
12-4 pm Monday-Saturday
information (415)338-6535

To reach SFSU by public transportation from downtown San Francisco take the MUNI “M” streetcar. From the Daly City BART station take the MUNI #28 bus to Holloway & 19th Avenue.


San Francisco State University Art Department Gallery
The San Francisco Urban Institute at SFSU
San Francisco-Manila Sister City Committee

In celebration of the 1998 Centennial of Independence in the Philippines. This exhibition was presented in Manila in February, 1998 as part of Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr.’s Sister City Cultural and Trade Mission.

This exhibition is supported in part by The SFSU Instructionally Related Student Activities Fund, The California Council for the Humanities, The SFSU Inter-Arts Center, The SFSU College of Ethnic Studies, Goldilocks Bakery, The Layman Trust of the San Francisco Foundation and individual donations.

Exhibition Credits

Curators: N. Trisha Lagaso and Carlos Villa
Gallery Director: Mark Johnson
Gallery Manager: Sharon Spain
Exhibition Graphics: Tenazas Design
Website Designer: Jeff Fohl

Art 619/719 SFSU Exhibition Design/Operations Class:

Operations Manager
Cheryl Maslin

Installation & Art Handling
Gerald Kotler, Holly Hurd-Forsyth

Project Mangers
Margaret Martin, Traci Furan

Installation Design/Lighting
Jeanette Owen Kennedy, Jennifer Keg

Ani Gregorians

Labels, Special Flyers
Daniel Patrick Doherty

Ani Gregorians, Danielle Miller

Jennifer McKenna

Denise Freinkel, Gerald Kotler

Gina Sage, Maki Aizawa

Research/Art History/Theory
Jennifer McKenna

Registration (condition reports, shipping/receiving, insurance)
Holly Hurd-Forsyth

Archives, Documentation & Lighting
Jeanette Owen-Kennedy, Jennifer Key

Education Coordination
Mary Deshamp, Michelle Lethcoe, Gretchen Olivero

Docent & Attendant Training
Deborah Munk

With special thanks to: Susan Alunan, Wilma Consul, Reena Jana, Melinda de Jesus, David Goldberg, Theo Gonzalves, Almarie D. Lagaso, Nadine Lagaso, Todd Leisek, Rowena Mamaradlo, Annie McPheeters, Julio C. Morales, Keith Morrison, Brian Notz, David Partida, Vince Sales, the San Francisco Urban Institute Staff, and Dean Schmitz.