Filipino American artist exhibition celebrates Araw Ng Mga Patay

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Visitors talking in the reception area of “Araw Ng Mga Patay: Filipinx-American Artists Celebrate Day of the Dead.” Oct. 12, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

The evening of Oct. 12, chatter, laughter and music spilled into the dark streets of North Avenue 50. Avenue 50 Studio, a nonprofit arts organization based in Northeast Los Angeles that focuses on Chicano/a and Latino/a culture, hosted the reception of “Araw Ng Mga Patay: Filipinx-American Artists Celebrate Day of the Dead.” The event featured the work of more than 40 Filipino American artists, providing members with a community celebration and bonding experience themed around the traditional Philippine holiday. The exhibition runs until Nov. 2.

“Araw Ng Mga Patay,” Tagalog for “Day of the Dead,” is a major Filipino holiday during which people pay homage to their deceased family members and loved ones by visiting their tombs and making offerings such as food, flowers and prayers. While Day of the Dead is widely known throughout the United States as a Mexican holiday, many practices of Araw Ng Mga Patay predate Spain’s 16th-century colonization of the Philippines, Aquino said.

Nica Aquino is an artist and the curator of Araw Ng Mga Patay. Aquino was first invited to join the curating team of Avenue 50 Studio’s annual Day of the Dead exhibitions in 2017, and last year, she was invited to produce a solo exhibition of her own. This year, Aquino said she wanted to expand the call for submissions to all Filipino American artists in LA, veering from previous years’ exhibitions, which predominantly showcased work from Chicano/a and Latino/a artists. Seeing the overlap of Filipino American History Month and Day of the Dead, Aquino said she wanted to curate an expansive collection for Avenue 50 Studio’s first exhibition featuring Filipino American artists.

“I want a lot of artwork, and I want a salon-style, and I want it to be really big and grand,” Aquino said. “Because this is our first time having an all Filipino American exhibition here, I want it to be big and really good.”

A community altar set up by Gary Jornacion, Lei Sahagun, and Nica Aquino. This is an interactive artwork where visitors are welcome to make offerings. Oct. 12, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Araw Ng Mga Patay is a salon-style art exhibition, in which groupings of artwork are scattered at different levels on the wall. From paintings of overt political messages and performative artworks to photographs of Philippine life and mixed-media pieces created for familial healings, the variety of art reflected the diversity within Filipino culture. The event fostered a sense of rootedness and connection among Filipino Americans who attended, who viewed the artwork and made offerings at the community altar.

“It’s just really amazing to see my childhood and growing up,” Mango Gwen, an artist who visited the event, said. “And in an art context, to see myself represented.”

Phil Mateo, another visitor, echoed this sense of belonging. He was there to support his friend whose sculpture was exhibited.

“It’s nice to see us [Filipinos] out there,” Mateo said. “It’s nice to see a community that’s for our community. It’s nice to see a space for us that we express our art.”

Even for non-Filipino visitors, the event offered opportunities for community engagement and bonding. Linda Kim, a Korean American graphic designer, appreciated how the event bridged cultural barriers and facilitated LA’s inclusive spirit.

“I think LA is still a growing community,” Kim said. “We’re a growing community where we’re all kind of in our own little niches, our own groups, but events like this bring us all together to bump into each other and talk to each other.”

An altar tribute for Papo De Asis built by Ginette Rondeau and altar contributors Al Herion and Juliane Backmann at Avenue 50 Studio. Oct. 12, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

For Filipino American artists, this event was a rare opportunity that boosted their visibility.

Pia Cabanela was a first-time contributing artist to Avenue 50 Studio. Although she has had shows exhibiting her artwork in other places before, this was her first time exhibiting her work for the Filipino community. Her acrylic painting titled “Swept Under a Banig” depicts the current normalization of brutality under the Philippine government’s ongoing “war on drugs.” Cabanela said this was also her first political painting.

“In an artist’s point of view, it’s really nice to have a community that you can say it is your community, and they can actually relate to your political views,” Cabanela said. “A lot of people would say, ‘Oh, we know that, they’re this and that.’ I have a lot of non-Filipino friends who would express their views on the narrative, but coming to a community like this, they know who the dead are. They have family and friends back home. It’s a different vibe.”

Artist Michael Rippens’ performative artwork of a white body bag made of rice bags was similarly inspired by Philippine politics. He also said he was surprised by how many Filipino artists there were in LA whom he discovered through this event. Rippens also enjoyed the interactive environment of the salon-style exhibition.

Aquino said the exhibition’s community focus, as well as its collaborative nature, made it a success.

“This space that you’re visiting right now is so unconventional in the best way possible,” Aquino said. “I think there’s such a community-oriented and DIY aspect to it that you won’t see in most art spaces.”

This article was corrected Oct. 24, 2019 at 9:30 a.m. to correct the spelling of Pia Cabanela’s name, as well as the names credited in the caption for the photo depicting a community altar.