For Filipino artist couple, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, the act of migration is their unique point of view.
''Balikbayan are homecoming boxes'', says artist Alfredo Aquilizan. “Every Filipino has one of these in their home. They fill it with items that they want to send back to their families. It means, we’re thinking of you, but we’re not coming home… ”
We are in the Glass Hall of the Singapore Art Museum, where Aquilizan and his wife Isabel have just launched their latest exhibition, “Passage III: Project Another Country.” It is part of the “Odyssey: Navigating Nameless Seas” exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which will be on until 28 August. The couple are also in town to prepare for their new residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) in August.
The award-winning artists, who have been married for 30 years, have been invited to take part in biennales and exhibitions all over the world. Their body of work, which deals with the themes of journeys and diaspora, was triggered by the duo’s own relocation from the Philippines to Australia in 2006. “Once you leave home, it is no longer your home,” explains Isabel, “but neither is your new country. You are in between… and this is what Alfredo and I call ‘Another Country’.”
While the move was to create a better life for them and their family, the couple did not expect that it would have such an impact on their work. Because they do not feel a sense of belonging to any particular country, they look at everything with new eyes. “Seeing things as an outsider gives you more to play with,” says Alfredo.
The first project to spring from their relocation was “Project Be-longing,” part of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, where the artists and their five children put together their belongings into their respective balikbayans. The contents of each compact little cube depicted the emotions the family went through, deciding what went with them and what would get left behind as they made their move from Manila to Brisbane. To mirror this piece, the artists also created a similar project for the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, using the items they had to leave behind. They then turned the boxes into a dramatic oversized cube for the Adelaide Biennale in 2008, combining the few pieces they had brought along with the items that the generous local Filipino community had showered on them upon their arrival.
“Passage III: Project Another Country” is similarly informed by the themes of transition, dislocation and community; inspired by the Badjao nomads (sea gypsies), who live a fragile existence within the southwestern Philippines and around Borneo. However, due to what is happening in the news at the moment, the Aquilizans believe that viewers are more likely to connect it to the refugees fleeing Syria in search of a new home.
The fantastical-looking cardboard shanty town made from cargo boxes is balanced precariously on a wooden hull. “The reason why the boat is tilted is so that it shows how fragile it is,” says Alfredo. “But it is also on a pendulum, so when you push it, it will bounce back.” While the hull was made near Laguna Lake in the Philippines with the help of Filipino boat builders, the cardboard town is more temporary. As the boat travels from exhibition to exhibition, the Aquilizans rebuild it with new materials, whilst incorporating pieces saved from previous incarnations. Amidst the ramshackle scene, you will see remnants of boxes from Japan, Thailand and the United Kingdom, among others. “As it moves, it collects a piece from that specific place and has a new connection,” says Isabel.
The first time this boat project saw the light was at the Tate Liverpool, during the Liverpool Biennale in 2010. The gallery is based in the Albert Dock, so the Aquilizans took inspiration from the maritime surroundings and built a jetty upon which guests could walk. “We created small islands featuring boats, which we had inverted to become the roofs of homes,” says Alfredo. “We have a theory that the dawn of architecture came from boats. The first thing the settler does is invert the boat, so you will see a lot of inverted pieces in our work.”
When the Aquilizans decided to turn this into a more dramatic installation for Singapore’s Art Stage in 2012, the smaller boats from the original exhibitions were taken with them on their journey and incorporated into the next piece. Since it first docked in Marina Bay Sands, the piece has travelled the world and has been pulled down and rebuilt several times. The Aquilizans also add to the history of the work by inviting the community to help with its creation. This time around, the artists invited SAM’s Friends of the Museum docents and their children to create a mini fleet that would join the main piece on its journey. When the installation is taken down at the end of August, these creations could also become part of the next project. “The installation will get destroyed and discarded,” says Isabel, “but what stays for us are the memories.” Alfredo adds, “We see a whole family sitting down together and making something. That’s the most beautiful thing for us. At the same time, we think it creates a precious moment for them.”
The prolific artists are now working on their next project in Australia and Japan, where they are repurposing unused items and turning them into huge mock satellites, under which people can gather and connect. The former art educators are also working with schools in Australia to create a mini flotilla that will become an extension of the boat project, and an installation in itself.
“Our projects all speak of home, leaving home, settlement and resettlement… our life,” says Isabel.
(Clockwise from top) Wings. Self portraits of Alfredo and Isabel. “In-Habit: Another Country Project.” “Passage III Project: Another Country.” Wings. “Project Another Country: Address.”
“It means, we’re thinking of you, but we’re not coming home… ”