Save the Planet: Eliseo Art Silva


A collection from 1980s–1990s

Eliseo Art Silva

I had the pleasure to interview Eliseo Art Silva in 2009, back when I cofounded TAYO Literary Magazine. Eliseo is one of my most favorite visual artists who has influenced my writing since I was a very young girl. I grew up in Carson, California, a L.A. suburb highly populated with Filipino Americans, and passed by his mural, ‘Roots and Wings (1996),’ every morning on my walk to school and church. Eliseo and I built a strong professional friendship over the past five years, and I was honored to interview him again for TAYO’s Visual Artist Interview Series. We’re immensely excited to present a preview of Eliseo’s early artwork from 1980s–1990s. His full collection is forthcoming in TAYO Issue 5.
— Melissa R. Sipin, Editor-in-Chief

Eliseo Art Silva studied at Otis College of Art and Design and Maryland Institute College of Art, where he received an M.F.A. He has exhibited his work throughout the United States, Mexico, and the Philippines. He has transformed over a hundred empty walls into a “second classroom”—a journey with murals which began when he received “chalkboard art” commissions at 3rd grade. Check out his social media profile here: Facebook.

Tell us a bit more about yourself.

I remember that I was always fascinated by the original art displayed throughout our house. My father commissioned detailed oil on canvas portraits of my mother and my dad’s father, my Lolo whom I was named after. Aside from these my mother also collected original art painted by her brother and prominently displayed around our home. My school and our neighborhood also had a very dynamic environment to encourage creativity and instill the imagination. As early as grade school, I’ve been in-demand to draw visual aids for our teachers, from poster boards to chalkboard art. Our school’s library was also my Eden and the books was an endless source of stories and images for my art. There are also several on-the-spot drawing contests in our town which I consistently won. When I went to Letran College in Manila, my love for painting and the arts flourished. Not only was I one of only three art stars, Intramuros (which is our Pearl of the Orient Seas) was my new neighborhood and learning center, helping instill in me a richer imagination. The healthy competition I obtained from my peers pushed me to strive even more to excel. Furthermore, my parents also encouraged my talent in painting when they bought me a complete set of oil paints for my 9th birthday. I was also placed under the tutelage of our local maestro… Roger San Miguel who was my first true art mentor at the age of 11. The work I produced under his guidance prepared me for the full scholarship I obtained from the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) which sealed my commitment to become an artist.

What compels you to Philippine myth? Does your community work influence your artwork?

An unfortunate consequence of our colonial education from the United States is that because we are taught English from Grade 1 onwards (instead of our own mother tongue) , we are denied the most transformative aspect of the meaning of words- the part that connects directly to the culture of that language’s originating nation. What most Filipinos obtain are the dictionary definition of words and not the multiple indirect and implied meanings of the word. Thus, culture is dispelled in our path to learning and progress. Because culture is not included as an integral part of the equation, commerce alone is what drives most Filipinos towards attaining the three “Ds” to success: drive, direction, and determination to succeed. By denying Filipino culture, what makes language forge a country into a nation united by ideas and a common emotion of what it feels like to be a Filipino, results in a country of individuals: discordant and self-destructive.

We have to establish a paradigm shift through education and the arts to reclaim what was denied us as a people: and these are all embodied in our myths. I believe that myths have evolved through millennia and stayed with us because of two undeniable truths: (1) they are stories so good that they had to be told many times over; (2) they kept being told even more than “Thrice Upon A Time” because they are all rooted in truth or a semblance of some historical fact. Through our rich resource of Philippine myths and mythical creatures my community work has found its inspiration and drive. It’s the umbilical cord that surfaces our suppressed voices which is the ultimate aim of my work as an artist and cultural worker. Our myths make the invisible visible. These stories passed on from one generation to the next, make tangible those which are implied and indirectly referred to: instilling the imagination and shaping our world (Dr. Patrick Flores).

For example, the 1995 Filipinotown mural was inspired by “The Story of the Adarna Bird,” which was about a sick king with three sons who set them out into the world to return with a cure for their suffering parent. In addition, the Philadelphia Filipino Mural was inspired by the myth of the Bakunawa, a moon-eating dragon that is a Filipino symbol of good and evil. Even a non-Filipino mural I designed for the Jewish community of Los Angeles was inspired by the Filipino myth of the Sarimanok. A Maranao myth culled from the oral epic “Darangen,” the Sarimanok tells the story of how the Prince of the Maranao journeyed from the heavens to the terrestrial domain to reunite with his beloved, the Maranao Princess. The Prince from the heavenly domain is symbolized by the bird, while the terrestrial domain of the Princess is embodied by the fish; thus, together the Sarimanok is an artifact that represents the harmony of heaven on earth.

Who's your favorite artist?

My favorite artist is Juan Luna. His achievements in art and our own emergent national and international history is unequalled. By contextualizing Contemporary Filipino Art in Southeast Asia through Juan Luna alone, what we have attained in terms of body of work and level of artistic achievement has no equal in our region. Unfortunately, this fact has not reached the consciousness of art historians and art writers in the United States, which explains why there has yet to be any Filipino contemporary art masters in US Museums or an awareness or demand for Filipino contemporary art. Singapore alone has 14 art galleries and museums that proudly displays Filipino art, meeting the high demand for Filipino Art in the region.

There was even a direct connection with Juan Luna’s 1884 “Spoliarium” with Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece “Guernica.” It’s been documented in a 1998 book, Philippine Treasures in Spain, that when Picasso met a Filipino artist in Madrid, he relayed to him that as a young man the “Spolarium” was still hung and displayed at the museum in Spain. It had a profound impact on him. If one looks closely at Picasso’s masterpiece, the viewer can connect the diagonals in the composition, the images of the dead, or the woman holding a lamp in the darknessalong with the double meaning of both pieces as a depiction of a specific event and yet designed as a stand in to surface a larger universal message.

Juan Luna’s work supports Maya Angelou’s idea that it is not what you say or do to a person that matters… it is how you make them feel. In Juan Luna’s case, the works he created for his generation transports the public to the state of the Philippines at that particular timesparking dialogue which eventually ignites change from within the person. Beyond his vocation in painting and drawing. Juan Luna also served as a diplomat sent by Emilio Aguinaldo to the United States and Europe to lobby for US recognition of Philippine Independence, was appointed Philippine Ambassador to Spain and designed the uniforms of Aguinaldo’s soldiers of independence. If there was a Filipino that directly shaped our history and directly contributed towards it's becoming and establishment, or created “Filipino Art” by indirectly implying the country visuallyfocusing instead on the emotions connected with the Filipino experience that can transcend the boundaries of nationsthat Filipino artist is Juan Luna.

What's your favorite book?

My favorite books are not limited to one publication, but several: Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo, Austin Coates’ Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr, and finally the 10-volume Filipino Heritage Encyclopedia edited by Alfredo Roces.

These three books loom large in what shaped my journey as an artist. As I explained earlier, a major part of the disconnectedness of Filipinos with a cultural context to their learning is the introduction of a foreign language from the very beginning. In my own experience, it was not until we moved to the United States in 1989 that my connection with our Filipino culture began to unravel more directly.

Picking up the book by Austin Coates and reading the introduction printed along the cover flap instantly triggered a powerful emotional response that moved me to tears. At that moment, I felt alone and the book spoke to me, telling me that: "This is what I was meant to do on this earth.” That moment marked a milestone that situated a before and after in my artistic journey. That book made me realize that’s what’s missing with our Filipino experience is context: context in terms of our Filipino history with the rest of the world, that history was written from one perspective: to arrive at our own “truth,” we must read several perspectives, as well as the centrality of Jose Rizal as a writer and artist in the emergent Filipino nationalism and self-determination among subjugated peoples of Asia. His writings literally created an entire nation and was the foundational text of the War of Independence, which both his novels predicted and foresaw up to the final detail eight years prior to its becoming. This revealed to me the power of art. Austin Coates also provided a more realistic understanding of what really happened during that time, as someone who had direct knowledge of the other three great Asians of Rizal’s generation: India’s Nehru and Gandhi and China’s Sun Yat-Sen. Coates also framed Philippine events with what’s happening in context with multiple nations’ current events at that time, an important element missing in most biographies of Jose Rizal written by Filipinos (usually does not make other events beyond the Philippines part of the equation), because a biography of Rizal is in itself equivalent to the story of the Filipino nation.

After that initial encounter with Austin Coates’ book on Jose Rizal, almost everything I read made more sense. Even the 10-volume Filipino Heritage revealed a more valiant and triumphant perspective on the War of Independence against the United States, as well as a comprehensive evidence of a highly civilized Filipino society prior to Western Imperialism. A major void that needs to be filled in the telling of our story is that we are only aware of 400 years of Western subjugation. What about the history of our country from 900 AD to 1565, which is 600 years…or 60% of our collective history? Within those 600 years, a civilization that equaled if not surpass our neighboring SE Asian cultures are evidenced through the jewelry, artifacts, architecture, infrastructure, ships, customs, accounts and enclaves with a sophisticated governing structure.

With almost 80% visuals and about 20% text, this collection of 10 books has filled me with stories and images that paints a valiant panorama of Filipino history from an early age.

What's your relationship to process? To form?

My work is directed towards a process that aims to surface images and stories that are suppressed; and, which implies and engages the audience or its viewer the feeling of what it is like to be in the Philippines or be part of Filipino America. As a Filipino artist in the United States, the most challenging aspect is the fact that there’s no market for Filipino and Filipino American Art, there are no art critics or writers contextualizing contemporary Filipino Art in the United States, and there are no contemporary Filipino masters in US museums. My dream is that one day, Americans can walk into a US Museum and be surrounded by Filipino American Art and know deep inside that what they are seeing and feeling is “American.”

I believe what’s missing is an emotional attachment towards a collective Filipino and Filipino American experience, a kind of “watermark” that establishes an emotional bond that is also a gateway to all our stories and images. For example, whatever output the Japanese American community has in the arts or literature, there’s always an implied watermark that identifies their collective experience: the unjust internment of their community while their children fought for their country valiantly through the 442nd Regiment. I believe, that we have to focus on surfacing our part of history that occurred on American streets, because American History is made in the streets. The two events that are best examples for Filipino America is the anti-war mass demonstrations led by the US Anti-Imperialist League (with Filipinos prominently participating) opposing the US War against the Philippines from 1900-1915, and the 1965 Delano Grape Strike. I do not believe that WWII will be as effective, since that was US war against Japan and we are just viewed as a “little brown brother” with Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur as the hero of the narrative. With WWII as the central narrative, non-Filipino Americans are the ultimate authority on the matter, because it was their war against another foreign nation.

For these reasons, I chose street art to be the form by which I hope to manifest our Filipino and Filipino American myth-making and visual language. Through this sites of public memory or cultural landscapes, we were able to create the first memorial honoring the 1,500 Filipino American Farmworkers through the 1995 Filipinotown mural; as well as build the world’s first memorial honoring the Philippine American War through the 2013 Filipino Philadelphia mural, which is also the first public art mural with Filipino images in the East Coast.

How does your work and daily life influence your artwork?

I believe art is not just a mirror that reflects life, but more importantly, it reflects the audience for our art. Interpretation of challenges viewed through colonial lens contributes towards the perpetuation of our problems and not solving them by getting straight to its core or roots. We must not be held captive by how others view us, but by how we view ourselves.

For example, discrimination experienced by my father shaped our life in USA. When we transplanted to the United States in 1989, we settled in rural Riverside, CA. We realized soon enough that we were the first Asians in the neighborhood. During a debut party of my sister, even without a first warning…our neighbors called in the cops to stop our party and my Father was handcuffed in front of all our friends and family, spending the night in jail. According to my mother, this singular event was the worst our family experienced in America.

The perspective that we became a target of racism did not enter my father or mother’s mind. To both our parents, the event, although an injustice, made my parents alter the way they raised us seven children in America. Instead of family dinners, disciplinary methods using the belt or slippers, usually family bondings through out-of-town family trips, my father announced that: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This would have been fine, but what eventually happened was that youngest two of the siblings were rendered “untouchables” and the older ones were still treated the same way they were raised in the Philippines.

This of course caused our family to drift apart, caused by a discriminatory act, which in turn worsened because of colonial mentality. My father and mother became so afraid of America that our family dynamic was completely altered. Thus, my work has become a vehicle for me to undo this social deterrent present among the minds of many Filipinos due to our colonial education; to prevent others from experiencing the same dilemma.

This issue has been the subject of many books and publications, giving it a fresher perspective by renaming it “internalized oppression” or “internalized racism” which cuts at the very core of nation-building in the Philippines. Since the subject is such a huge topic, I listed the most common direct and indirect manifestations of colonial mentality in the Philippines:

A) Denial that US Imperialism had brought more damage to the Filipino than Spain or Japan combined.

B) Indirect manifestation of colonial mentality: perpetuation of myth that centers on Bonifacio as the central figure of Philippine nationalism which effectively dispels the achievements of the Aguinaldo/Mabini Republic that stood up against the supreme might of the United States. This narrative provides a powerful argument favoring the US colonial project in the Philippines, and shifts the target for all the wrong that happened from the massacre of over a million Filipinos by the invading army of the United States, towards the 29-year old Emilio Aguinaldo.

C) Centrality of WWII in the national narrative of the Filipino and even Filipino American experience; shifting the centrality of Asia’s 1st War of Independence in both the national and international narrative of the Philippines and Filipino America. For example, in Filipino American timelines or narratives that shape and impacts the contributions of Filipino Americans in US Civil Rights movement, WWII and the 1960’s contributions of Filipinos and Filipino Americans holds the foremost significance in the telling of our stories. What is ignored is the central role of Filipinos in America during the United States earliest anti-War mass demonstrations which happened through the US Anti-Imperialist League (1900-1915) and the Rizal Day celebrations (1912-1940s) which was utilized by Filipino Americans as a stage to campaign for US recognition of Philippine Independence. Using Rizal’s life and legacy to challenge racial stereotypes that Filipinos come from a barbaric race unworthy and incapable of self-governance.

D) Our national symbols from the Bahay Kubo, the Bamboo Dance to the Barong Tagalog enhances our subjugation. Instead of surfacing the highest achievement of the Filipino prior to Western Imperialism: from the Baybayin, Babaylan, and the Bakunawa, we prefer on flaunting our symbols of subjugation as a polite way to prevent ourselves from asserting to the foreign invaders that we were better off before their invasion and governance. This is very evident in our Great Seal of the Republic that proclaims our subjugation to foreigners with the inclusion of the Spanish Red Lion and the US Bald Eagle. Even the USA chose the bald eagle because it is without a crown, symbolizing their disdain for the monarchy. No other nation similarly colonized include their former colonizer’s national symbols.

Last but not least: what does your family think of your art? What's their relationship to it?

My family are very creative and artistically inclined. Because my art is very much connected to my work with the community as well as politics, as we grow older…I find myself in my own world, pretty much detached from my family.

Most of my siblings have focused their lives on commerce and not so much on our Filipino culture. Because of my pro-Filipino perspective, I’m seen by my own father and some siblings as dangerously anti-American. This of course is farthest from the truth, for there is nothing more American than fighting against the status quo and reclaiming self-respect and dignity.

In conclusion, I believe that what prevents the Philippines from rising out of poverty of the spirit, soul and land is our inability to emerge from the dark, encompassing shadow of the United States in the mind and land of the Filipino.

Physically, the centerpiece of our greatest collective achievement beyond the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, is the exact equivalent of what the US National Mall is to the USA or the Vatican is to Italy was reduced to ground zero via US Bombs during WWII. What we lost there is unquantifiable and worth more than a generation’s lifetime. For within those ancient walls, which earned our nation the title of “Pearl of the Orient” are seeds of culture and civilization that benefit succeeding unborn Filipinos for all time. With its 14,000 “Bahay na Bato” homes, National Archives and National Library with artifacts and resources unequalled in our part of the world, including three original mural-esque oil on canvas from Juan Luna highlighted with a Luna painting about the French Revolution called “People and Kings” as well as eight churches, ten schools and learning centers; we could have easily have a physical manifestation of the Philippines’ greatest generation: The Generation of 1898 which waged Asia’s first War of Independence, our people’s greatest legacy to world history. Furthermorethe direct and substantial benefit of Intramuros would have been a centerpiece of our tourist destinations, which easily could have resulted in at least 10 to 15 million tourist arrivals annually, ending the vicious cycle of the OCW (Overseas Contract Workers) which destroys the fabric of Filipino society: the Filipino family.

Internally, until we reclaim commerce and culture as equally integral to the equation of what drives us to succeed and to advance as a nation, we will remain as individuals plagued with what E.J. David identifies as “internalized oppression.”

* "Jose Rizal" is the only painting in the collection that was created in 2011.