This week, Filipino Street Art's Kim Dryden spoke with Eliseo Art Silva, a muralist and painter currently residing in Corona, CA, whose bold and colorful pieces shine light on the often-overlooked experiences and history of Filipin@s in the US.
Hey Eliseo—thanks so much for agreeing to talk with us about your work! Can you start off by giving a summary of your work as an artist?
I create paintings and public art which oftentimes serves as a 2nd classroom in outdoor settings. This invites the first step towards compassionate interaction, which is necessary to survive and thrive in urban environments.
Where are you from originally? How did you end up in California? Where else have you lived?
I was originally from BF Homes, Sucat, Paranaque, Philippines, grew up in the same home for 17 years at 51 Aguinaldo St. It was an idealized subdivision for middle-class Filipinos when it was first created in 1970s. My mother applied for a working US Visa when I was two years old and 14 years later her VISA arrived, and we would soon pack our bags, sell our home and businesses without even saying goodbye. I felt like a fish out of water when we moved to America, even to the present day. And this sudden dislocation and transplanted migration shaped my longing for Filipino culture and heritage in my work.
When we settled in Riverside, CA in 1989, we eventually bought two homes, the other in neighboring Corona, CA where my folks reside. I lived in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown for four years, residing in the apt. right behind SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans) while an undergrad at Otis College of Art and Design (when it was still at Wilshire Blvd.); then I moved to Baltimore, MD when I got into the MFA Program of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Hoffberger School of Painting from 2000-2003. Thereafter, I resided for over a decade in Philadelphia, working on teaching and painting murals full time. This was a fortunate coincidence since LA banned murals from 2002-2013, and now that I am re-establishing my residence in Los Angeles/SoCal I was recently selected to become part of the select few included in the Artists Registry for DCA (Department of Cultural Affairs) Wall Art until 2017.
That's awesome! I'm excited to see more of your work—your murals are bold and beautiful. How has this style developed? When did you start doing murals, and why?
I started doing murals in 3rd grade while a student at Benedictine Abbey School (San Beda College, Alabang) until Grade 5 when I was the most in-demand chalkboard artist of our school—creating chalk murals for educational purposes, serving as visual aids. I did portraits of Filipino heroes, evolution of a pupa into a butterfly, types of clouds, photosynthesis, parts of a coconut tree, national symbols of the Philippines, etc.
My parents owned and managed several businesses: two bakeries, a restaurant and a Movie Theater called BF Plaza Cinema. Growing up, I had places to show and sell my work and walls to paint murals. I did my first mural in our house: for the children’s room, a combination of Batibot and Sesame Street characters. I was 12 years old then. That same year, I painted a mural for our Bakery: King’s Delight Food and Bread House. At 15 years old, I was commissioned my first “professional” mural—a large oil on canvas mural for the Letran Alumni Association, which was their gift to the school. The mural now hangs at the Letran Museum in Intramuros, Manila.
I trace my colors and boldness in designing murals when I received a Getty Internship to work with the Social and Public Art Resource Center. There, I apprenticed on three murals under the guidance of Judy Baca, including her masterpiece: The Great Wall of LA. This mural is a 3,000 foot mural that aims to surface suppressed cultures and narratives. It validated my fear that even this mural did not contain recognizable Filipino American images or figures (with one minor exception, Vicky Manalo Draves—a Filipina American twp-time Gold Medalist for USA—is included towards the end); I made my first significant tag by cutting in half China’s flag and inserting the three stars and a sun of the Philippine Flag, in a section of the mural which heralds all the pioneering immigrants to the City of Los Angeles.
Nice. I like your nerve. So. what motivates your own murals? What are you trying to convey through your work?
I am driven to surface suppressed images and narratives and continue the tradition began by Siquijeros’ America Tropical which is essentially protest translated into a street experience. I also want to arrive at a “watermark” that can contextualize and embody an emotional connection to all our narratives and visuals as Filipinos in America or Filipino Americans. When Americans think of Filipinos—what image or collective legacy fills their imagination or stirs their emotion to connect back to us as a people? For me, as Filipinos in America—our identity should be tied directly to the legacies of Asia’s 1st War of Independence; whereas for Filipino Americans, it should be the collective legacies of the Delano Manongs and Manangs which climaxed at the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.
I want to provide context to our history and heritage through street art, so that eventually they will accept our stories and images as “American” stories and images. When writers, art critics, academics, cultural institutions begin placing value on our masterpieces—so that we can see Filipino America reflected on art on the walls of major museums in USA, then, only then can we say WE HAVE FINALLY ARRIVED.
That's a very noble and important goal, and from what I see, you're well on your way to achieving it. When did you realize that you were an artist with a mission? What did it mean to you to identify yourself that way?
The moment I laid the first brushstroke on the 1994 Filipino mural of Los Angeles, a divine spark from the heavens struck me straight into my heart and into the brush on my hands, and I knew at that moment this was the reason BATHALA put me at that spot doing what I was doing at that particular time of my life. What I learned is that the vocation of an artist, like the panday of our ancient Filipino kingdoms of yore, is to use our head, hearts and hands to create tools and weapons to arm the kingdom, by instilling imagination through our masterpieces and shape the world according to our own aspirations, dreams and vision for the unborn Filipinos.
How are you involved in the Filipino-American community?
There are four pillars in a Filipino barangay or kingdom: The Datu (King/royalty), the Babaylan (Priestess), the Bayani (Warriors) and the Panday (Artists/Craftsmen). I see my role as the panday, the one who works with the head, hearts and hands to fashion tools, artifacts and masterpieces that can drive individuals, a people and a nation to attain the 3Ds to success and greatness: Discipline, Direction and Determination.
That's an interesting way to envision it. What's it like to be part of the FilAm / Filipin@s in the US art community? What do you see as the biggest challenges that Filipino artists in the US have to face? Where is the FilAm art scene headed?
Because of the undoing of the gains of 1898 in dispelling the society found in Jose Rizal’s Noli and Fili, through a US Colonial education that dispelled the “Filipino” in the primacy of our language, resulting in a nation of “assimilated savages”—very seldom can Filipino artists work productively with traditional Filipinos who do not have a genuine emotional attachment to anything and everything genuinely Filipino; thus in effect is really just driven for self-advancement and selfish interests.
My work is often dismissed as being “just Mexican” or “Dali-esque”. The biggest challenge for artists who desire and are passionate about surfacing Filipino America and at the same time be relevant, valued and avantegarde is the lack of art critics familiar or knowledgeable of Filipino or Filipino American Art. There are no Filipino masters such as Juan Luna or Carlos Francisco in any Museum of Contemporary Art in the US. We have yet to bring a major traveling exhibition of contemporary Filipino Art, similar to the show organized by Singapore Art Museum: “Thrice Upon A Time: The Art of Story in Philippine Art” and include the young Filipino art stars of the region: Ronald Ventura, Geraldine Javier, etc… so that somehow USA can get an idea of the magnitude of the high demand for Filipino art in the region. SG alone has 14 galleries solely dedicated to supplying the high demand and interest in Filipino Art, which already is second to China and #1 in Southeast Asia, overtaking Indonesia.
The supply of writers, academics and critics trained and knowledgeable of Filipino and Filipino American Art, the acquisition of major Filipino contemporary Art by Filipino masters, the showing of a major exposition of Filipino masters and art stars from the Philippines—these are major goals needed to be accomplished in the immediate future. Demand dictates value. Unless we have a genuine demand emanating from a critical mass of Filipino Americans, Filipino American Art will not flourish. On the other hand, it is when a people become more visible and integral and become a target, would such demand arise to combat hate and ignorance with love and compassion through art. War and revolution is the answer.
Who is working to achieve those ends?
I have shared this point to many friends and it seems that some board members and cultural workers involved with FilAm ARTS in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles are supportive of this campaign. They have an impressive record of organizing Southern California’s largest Filipino festival called Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, or FPAC, and have sponsored numerous art exhibitions of contemporary Filipino Art, including an exhibit I curated for them called “Tastes Like Chicken: Contemporary Filipino American Artists” held at the main gallery of California State University Dominguez Hills.
How much of your work is inspired by events/people/themes in the Philippines, and how much by those things in the US as they related to the FIlAm/Fils in the US communities?
Most of the people familiar with my work, since I began in the Philippines notice that my work has come across more as Filipino American and no longer “Filipino”. I am excited with this observation, since designating a response to a work of art with a feeling that it’s “Filipino American” validates my goal of creating a “watermark” in all that I do as an artist as Filipino American contemporary art. My goal is that whenever a viewer thinks of a collective event which connects to the Philippines, Asia’s 1st War of Independence from 1896-1913 should be the first to come to mind, and that most would be emotionally connected with. Not the usual WWII events which renders our entire narrative under the shadow of America’s little brown brother and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. If this continuous to be the collective narrative attached to anything from the Philippines, whether it be art, film, literature, music, dance, history, etc.; the ultimate authority for this collective narrative will be experts behind America’s war with Japan, and never Filipinos themselves.
On the other hand, with regards to a collective Filipino American evens that should have an emotional connection with most Americans, that story should be the Delano Manongs and the 1965 Delano Grape Strike. Other than nurses, domestic work or Manny Pacquaio, most Americans do not have familiarity with any collective event which can trigger an emotional connection which happened in America—such as the building of the transcontinental railroad with Chinese Americans and the Internment of Japanese Americans for Americans of Japanese descent. An emotional connection with our stories and images is pivotal; as what the late great American poet has once said: “…it is not what you say or what you do to a person that counts; it is how you make them feel that matters" (Maya Angelou).
Who inspires you from an artistic point of view? What other FilAm artists should we be paying attention to?
Francisco Goya and Carlos Francisco inspire and sustain me as a painter and an artist. I am inspired by the Tres Grandes of Mexico in their role in surfacing their precolonial civilizations. We have over 600 years of Indianized Filipino Kingdoms before Magellan that are devoid of images and narratives. It is pivotal we establish an emotional connection to 60% of our identity as Filipinos. And we need to create an ocean of images and stories worth telling three times over, like covering Manila Village, the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the 1920’s-1965 Manong and Manang Generation. We do not have enough murals and paintings portraying the 1965 Grape Strike from the Filipino perspective, either.
Some Filipino American artists we should pay attention to are Stephanie Syjuco and Paul Pfeiffer, because they are creating avantegarde pieces, yet still rooted in our heritage as American Filipinos.
Awesome, we'll definitely check them out. For our readers who are interested, check some of Syjuco's work on her website and this interview with Paul Pfeiffer from Art Asia Pacific.
Thanks for the heads up, Eliseo, and thanks so much for really engaging with us about your work and your motivations. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Interview by Kim Dryden. Check out the links below for more info about Silva and his work, and see our Facebook album that highlights some of our favorite pieces.