In addressing the diaspora, it is a mistake to think national and cultural identity can be rendered in any fixed format marked by an artist’s displacement from one place to another, as if the experience of a second generation immigrant who only knows of their native culture could be compared to someone who is forcefully removed from their place of origin.
In painting, especially, there is a tendency to rely on portraiture, which rarely captures the fluidity of the diasporic experience. Instead, it seeks to return our attention to a moment in time to re-enforce a notion of a lost identity that is already known and prevalent. When one creates with the notion of diaspora in mind, the caricature that results is coherent, yet uninteresting. The successful work is not overly concerned with recreating the past, but explores its consequences to alleviate the weight of memory.
‘RELATIONS: Diaspora and Painting’ at PHI Foundation is such an attempt to explore the ways in which painting can convey the experience of the diaspora through the nuances of material and texture.
On the first floor, a canvas assembled from wooden planks displays the print of an old woman. She sits on a bamboo chair, in a chequered tunic with a solemn expression and bright yellow sneakers. Artist Shanna Strauss adds texture to the figures in her works by painting over prints and introducing fabric, cut into traditional patterns. The characters on the canvas remain static - they rely on the symbolic associations with Africana and the shift in identity that comes with displacement.
Moving on, we find Firelei Báez’s work, in which dark bodies are rendered faceless, kneeling, holding onto one another, blossoming into lush foliage. In ‘Years of Holding your Tongue’ (2018), the entanglements of bodies and hair are as much an assault on the eye as the tropical plants growing from them are a pleasure.
The absence of personhood is made evident through the removal of the torso and the face, reducing the figure to its most stereotypical traits: dark, muscular glutes, wild hair. The plant growing from the body placed in a compromising position further testifies to the loss of agency. With dangling pendants, hanging hair, we are brought to consider the tangible losses of the dispersal of Caribbean culture.
Further into the gallery, Maia Cruz Palileo’s paintings portray the Filipino experience and the residual resentment from decades of occupation by the Spanish, followed by the Americans. ‘Afterward’ (2019), the portrait of a Filipino schoolgirl educated in European languages, highlights the limitations of curation when it comes to representing alternative experiences. Hers is contained; the narrative of colonisation alone remains.
Compared with ‘River Bangko’ (2018), where a man stands amid a bright blue river with his eyes darkened, one clearly sees that the only value ‘Afterwards’ possesses is symbolic. The man’s expression contrasts sharply with the water that surrounds him. The blues and greens turn dingy, transformed by the despair of its occupant to highlight his psychological disturbance.
On the second floor, the exuberant style of Abstract Expressionist painting mimics the violence enacted upon dispersed populations. These works are made by Canadian-Congolese artist, Moridja Kitenge Banza; each is a piece of resistance. The ‘Chiromancy’ series is a group of free hand drawings on a thin plastic layer, with child-like lines rendered in precise layers.
In Banza’s ‘#9’ (2019), two bold, angular lines cut through the soft layers - a blade like figure placed horizontally, a thick red line a few centimetres below that cuts across, dripping at the edges. The lines slip on the plastic canvas, some cascading downwards. Where the layers are not filled, the ink fades slightly, acting against the permanence that is usually preserved through painting.
The diaspora is fluid as much as the artwork in this exhibition is static. In the end, despite the difference in subjects, we notice presiding similarities between the approaches of the artists included. It is a diversity of experiences expressed in a similar manner. They appeal to the underlying confusion found in the diaspora, caught between persisting narratives. In trying to capture the misrepresentation drawn from notions of identity loss post-displacement, they make use of portraiture, which crystallises the subject in time, tying it down to a concretised identity or a false authenticity that is foreign to the diaspora, and in doing so, removes its capacity to draw empathy from its audience.