Artist tries to recapture family’s lost past
Walking into the third-floor gallery of the American University Museum feels like stepping into a painterly vision of a family photo album, that of Brooklyn-based, Filipino-American artist Maia Cruz Palileo.
Most Americans have a familial origin story rooted in immigration; perhaps a great-grandfather arriving at Ellis Island from Ireland, or a grandmother passing through the port of Seattle from Japan.
What happens to the stories left behind in the old country? Do memories of the family’s ancestral home disappear?
Palileo, a first-generation American, tries to answer those questions for her family in the exhibition, which shares her name and runs from September 3 to October 20.
Digging for untold history
Palileo knew nothing of her parents’ life in Manila before they came to Ohio in the 1970s. When she asked them directly about it, they gave her vague, murky answers.
After her mother died, Palileo spent years digging through boxes of family photographs, but found little evidence of life before the United States. So she turned to the archives at the Newbury Library in Chicago.
There she unexpectedly uncovered the largely hidden history of American involvement in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, including American actions that many Filipinos feel was brutally racist, oppressive and colonialist.
“I learned more about my family’s history through the research,” Palileo said. “They didn’t teach me what the actual history [of the Philippines] was. I don’t know if they thought it was implied or why I wasn’t taught any of this in school. But once I learned this history, it gave so much context to everything.”
The exhibition features 17 works Palileo created between 2013 and 2019, mostly oil paintings.
One notable exception is a wall-length paper and graphite installation titled All the While I Thought You Had Received This, which was inspired by Palileo’s research among more than 8,000 ethnographic photographs in the Newbury Library’s collection.
“What I saw were dead Filipinos with American soldiers around them,” she said. “For me, it was this process of learning about a history that has been erased.”
After scanning the photographs from the collection, Palileo traced over them to create silhouettes of the scenes. From those drawings, she created three-dimensional paper collages, which she then rubbed charcoal over to create shadowy and elusive reproductions.
The result is a wall composed of gossamer leaves that offer black, white and grey images of a fraught history of military conflict.
Folk tales of the Philippines
Other works in the exhibition draw upon the Filipino cultural fabric of folklore and mythology. Works like Burying Teeth— which shows children throwing baby teeth over the roof of a house — refer to specific folktales.
But the paintings that contain more personal and nostalgic themes — those that relate to the artist’s childhood and family photographs — are where Palileo’s talents shine through.
A diptych, Uncles Drinking Beer II, renders the viewer an intruder to a small gathering of brothers amidst an evocatively retro ‘70s living room. The three men, hair long and coiffed, make eye contact over their bottles of pilsner.
The painting could be a photograph taken by one of her parents rather than a moment she imagined.
Rich colors convey mood
Palileo, who mixes her own paints to achieve just the right coloration, chooses the pigments based on her own memory of the locations depicted in her work after she visited family there in 2015.
“The flora and the fauna signify a specific place,” she said. “The color becomes this fill-in for my memory of the Philippines. It’s associated with the mood of the time, and I took colors from what I actually saw.”
At a distance, her vaguely expressionistic style appears luminescent amidst a palette of turquoise, forest green and mustard yellow.
But upon further inspection, each of Palileo’s paintings are a study in subtle texture. Whether she has utilized the wooden end of a paintbrush or a serrated metallic tool, she faintly digs into the oil paint to hint at dimensionality.
These details engage the viewer, forcing us to be active voyeurs into a family’s history and, more broadly, America’s past relationship with the Philippines.
Maia Cruz Palileo was curated by Isabel Manalo, a working artist and adjunct professor at American University’s studio art department. It can be viewed at the Katzen Arts Center, American University (4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.) through Oct. 20, 2019.