Intimations in Precarity
As an initial access, an entry point, I begin with the concept of tahanan, in light of the curation of Sa Tahanan Collective in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A curatorial project of Anna Bernice Delos Reyes and Augustine Paredes, artists based in Dubai, Sa Tahanan Collective saw its beginnings as a fundraising art exhibition at Warehouse 44, Alserkal Avenue. It was a response to the need to send funds to the Philippines as part of relief operations after the devastation brought about by Typhoon Ulysses (Typhoon Goni). At the same time, the profits were also redistributed to the twenty participating Filipino artists based globally (Arni, 2021). Tahanan translates to home. A trace of its meaning can be uncovered from its root word, tahan, an act of ceasing or stopping: tahanan being a place of rest and relief or the interjection tahan na, when uttered signifies a signal to stop. The fullness of tahanan can only be realized through its formation and performance. The tahanan that Sa Tahanan suggests is layered in way that reveals the intricacies in the merging of contexts it is precariously perched on. The tahanan or the home is not merely a physical structure but a concept that can be abstracted beyond its physicality, a curation, an ideation rooted in its transmutability. Within this milieu, a narrative of Filipino migrant work is foregrounded. This essay seeks to employ an idiosyncratic art historiographical method in reading the artworks, their curation and the interplay of the contexts that the exhibition reveals. Art and art practice is privileged here, lodged between the tensions that unfold in a reading of selected artworks displayed in Sa Tahanan Collective’s first exhibition. In effect, by the practice of curation and art historiography, these tensions are freed up and are revealed to a greater audience within and beyond the Dubai art scene.
Proxies, Proximities, Approximations
A way to make sense of each individual artwork and at the same time respect their unity in their coming together is to evoke what Patrick D. Flores offers as an art historiographical method that conjures both a “materiality and [a] sociality” that “does not [only] look at art in terms of exasperating antinomy of form and content” (2019 91). His approach suggests an “idiosyncratic constellation of instances”, analogous to making sense of the given and seemingly incongruent then making visible the invisible, to draw the necessary connections that inevitably link all the artworks together, a figuring of the prefigured (89). He adds:
It is formative: forming from material to become medium; forming through the body of the artist; forming in the senses of those that come in contact with it. And in these circumstances, nature and artistic form become very closely linked. Both nature and form emerge from the world, but they also create this world through the initiation of the maker and the intelligence of the form that is generated in the unpredictable course of the creative process.
There is a need, too, to reorient this discussion. This paper, in parallel to Sa Tahanan Collective’s assertions, tries to reemerge a narrative of Filipino migrant work in this region. As a Filipino migrant worker currently residing in Muscat, Oman, I offer a lens in reading selected artworks from the exhibition through critical autoethnography. In empowering the “I” within this text, it is important to note Susanne Gannon’s definition of an autoethnographic self, that although it “gives the impression of a stable, coherent and bounded humanist individual […] the post structurally-inflected term ‘subjectivity’ draws attention to the contingencies of identity and multiplicity of discourses through which we come to recognize ourselves as particular beings” (2016 228). It is in acknowledging the situatedness of the self in writing and in suggesting “affective flows between subjects and texts” that opens up this discussion to other possible readings essential in reorienting this discourse towards a better understanding of Filipino migrant work (231). Gannon adds that “[r]ather than the discrete humanist subject, the individual, post structural approaches suggest subjects who are “co-implicated” with others and with the world, including other texts in the world” (Gannon & Davies 2012 in Gannon, 2016). This method suggests a relationality that is keen on not only the self but “the self in relation to others, including ‘human, non-human and earth others’ (Somerville, Davies, Power, Gannon, & Carteret, 2011 in Gannon, 2016). Consider this essay as an assemblage of idiosyncratic instances: selected artworks from Sa Tahanan Collective’s first exhibition are accompanied with personal intimations and texts that tease out underlying tensions portrayed and simultaneously evoked by the artworks. Both the idiosyncratic approach and the critical autoethnographic method are employed in the hopes that this discussion becomes part of a discursive recognition of the undercurrents that drive the Filipinos in their dispersals and incessant evasions.
The ‘Philippine’, the Filipino
I was able to obtain a 30-day tourist visa for Oman. Before I boarded the plane, I was set aside by an officer to verify my claim of going on a vacation. Unknown to the officer, I intended to look for work once I landed in Oman. Another Filipina sat beside me at a holding room. We were made to sign a testimony that we will not, in any way, find a job during our stay in Oman.
In a paper written in response to the theme of Sharjah Biennial 11, Patrick D. Flores offers a definition of a precarious ‘Philippine’ by virtue of describing bodies that traverse geographic borders who hold their own affective subjectivities. He goes on to redefine the “polytropic” Filipino from being the colonial object to the colonial subject. In his intimations he writes: “the body of Filipinos — the politic of the Philippine — is a ticking migrant force in the accommodations of their masters” (Flores, 2013 127).
In contrast to this worldly characterization of a cunning polytropic migrant worker, Sa Tahanan Collective offers an alternative tongue-in-cheek take. Tammy David, a photographer based in Manila, Philippines, puts this identity into a rhetoric. A photograph of an angsty birthday cake is inscribed with the statement: “DID I ASK TO BE BORN”, as if suggesting a refusal and at the same time a surrender to an inescapable selfhood dictated by a national identity. From the cake’s inception in David’s birthday in 2018, this edition of that photograph becomes viral at a time when being a Filipino is perilous in one’s own country.
The photograph makes one question the very notion of acquiring one’s identity, assigned at birth and reinscribed once again when crossing national borders. Arjun Appadurai discusses the implications of the tiny passport that contains big capacities. The nation-state is inscribed in a compact and handy booklet. He describes it bluntly as a “tool of incarceration and immobilization, as it also is, for example, for guest workers in authoritarian states, such as Filipino, Indian, Pakistani and Indonesian domestic workers in the Gulf, whose employers confiscate their passports, thus turning them into slaves in the labor market” (Appadurai, 2020). An appendage to the passport is the visa, a stamp of acceptance by a nation of one’s national identification but, as Appadurai writes, not of national identity. He highlights a tension between the migrant and the host country, the distinction between the guest and the local. The migrant has a national identity that is recognized, is constantly being distinguished and is deferred because of their othering and their apparent policing. Two types of visas are granted to guests, one is for non-employment (tourist/visit), the other is for employment. The visa, however, is still not a guarantee of identification. In the Gulf, a migrant worker needs to obtain a resident card. Although it is already forbidden by law in some states, some employers still hold the passports of their migrant worker employees.
My aunt is a nurse who previously worked in Saudi Arabia and is now based in the U.S. She sponsored my ticket to Oman. I am sharing a home here in Oman with my uncle, my mom’s cousin. He is also a nurse and has been working here for the past eighteen years.
Who is the contemporary Filipino migrant worker? Migrant work has been embedded in the consciousness of our society ever since the massive exodus of Filipinos after the Marcos dictatorship in the seventies and eighties (San Juan, Jr., 2001 260). A survey on overseas Filipinos conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority reveals that the number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who worked abroad at any time during the period April to September 2019 was estimated at 2.2 million. Women comprised more than half of this number at 56%; Saudi Arabia remains to be the most preferred destination (22.4%). Remittances during the same period was estimated at PHP 211.9 billion. These remittances have become the life blood of the Philippine economy through the establishment of government institutions and enactment of laws that cater to the needs of OFWs at home and abroad. The government even went so far as to romanticize the OFW experience, calling them modern day heroes. This seemingly effaces struggles from the underbelly of a highly globalized labor market.
Migrant work is largely invisible but is vital to a world that is now bound by globalization. Filipino migrant work encompasses varying forms of labor needed by various sectors in a highly globalized labor market such as construction, manufacturing, entertainment, nursing and domestic work. Harrod J. Suarez points to a trend over the past four decades: “the percentage of overseas workers identifying as domestic workers has steadily grown to more than one-third of all overseas Filipina/o workers, the highest of any single category” (2017 5). His book, The Work of Mothering: Globalization and the Filipino Diaspora, situates the “diasporic maternal” portrayed in literature and cinema (Suarez, 2017). He argues that the “diasporic maternal subject — as a heterogenous and diffuse formation that approaches subjectlessness — cannot be consolidated in the subject that emerges from and is idealized by nationalism and globalization, both of which rest on the premise of neoliberal narratives of individuated empowerment” (2017 24).
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas offers a more detailed account on this international division of labor in understanding Filipino domestic workers situated in the diaspora. She distinguishes between “productive labor” and “reproductive labor”, whereby the former is what is economically productive and the latter is “the labor needed to sustain the productive labor force … work includes household chores; the care of elders, adults, and youth; the socialization of children; and the maintenance of social ties in the family” (2015 29). She argues that “Filipino women’s migration and entrance into domestic work constitute an international division of reproductive labor” that points to a “three-tier transfer of reproductive labor among women in sending and receiving countries of migration” (29). Class-privileged women purchase the services of Filipino domestic workers and delegate to them the reproductive labor they cannot fulfill so that they can be more productive and participate freely in the economy. The domestic workers on the other hand purchase or relegate reproductive labor to women, usually close relatives, left behind in the Philippines to take care of their families in their absence.
Oman has roughly the same land area as the Philippines, but rainfall here is close to none. The shortest distance between Muscat and Dubai is roughly the same distance between Vigan and Manila. It takes eight hours to reach Manila when you come from Vigan but it only took us four hours to reach the UAE border when we “exited” our visas.
In Cholo Juan’s fine art print titled Sitaw Bataw Patani (2020), a quintessential bahay kubo is perched on a camel’s back. To complete the image, a coconut tree sits beside the kubo and serves as a shade for the sweltering heat of the desert. The camel is presumed to be stationed temporarily as a ladder is resting on its side to access the kubo. Being a street artist and graphic designer based in Dubai, Juan captures in essence, this mobility of the tahanan, in the context of migrant work. The migrant worker carries with them an image, a memory, of home and in settling temporarily in a foreign country, proceeds to make for themselves iterations of it. Symbolic of Philippine culture, the bahay kubo is built from available materials in the locality and in Sitaw Bataw Patani, the adaptation of the Philippine into the locality of the Gulf region. An embodied sense of what a home was like back in the Philippines is made to adapt to how a home is now, here. The home here, however, is as temporary and as short-term as the contracts the migrant worker engages in.
Juan’s depiction also points to a nature of the Filipino migrant worker in crossing spatial, temporal and socio-political boundaries. Residents without fully belonging, they are neither citizens of the host country nor citizens of the Philippines. To compensate for this here and thereness, they send back balikbayan boxes filled with material possessions and engage in life projects such as investing in business ventures and building houses back in the Philippines. Their sense of time is bound in the now, no matter how instantaneous it is, in the sense that “the past drifts away and is barely related to what is unfolding in the present, while the future is blurry and almost entirely unformed” (Brednikova, 2020).
Memory, Dream, Mirage
I lugged around a baggage of guilt. I knew I could only fulfill my promise of providing for my family if I tried my chances of going abroad. As a migrant worker, I bring with me a baggage of dualities.
Another tension worth discussing is the weight of memory and the weight of a dream. Although situated in the now, the migrant worker tries to strike a balance between what was and what can be and so inches ever so slightly towards a progress that can be marked by what can be sent back at home. In these unsettling circumstances, the dream of the migrant worker is to settle elsewhere, either go back home or strive to afford to migrate to greener pastures. As the past wilts away in Augustine Paredes’ For All The Nights I Danced With You In My Sleep (2020), Mox Santos’ distorted still life Berde (2020) imagines a probable future. Both frames are in a standstill, carefully intimating and indexing time. “Nostalgia comes from history, and history comes from knowing,” quips Paredes in an interview (Arni, 2020). Paredes’ work may point to a future too. Once the wilted flowers are discarded, the empty vase becomes the receptacle of a fresh set of flowers. Santos’ work may lead to the past as well. His bricolage of materials includes a hand shovel and in using it something may be unearthed. The full weight of yearning for a tahanan can be felt from both works as they simultaneously remember the past and imagine the future.
The act of curation becomes akin to homemaking. The collective too is ad hoc in nature, a coming together of artists, as a need arises. In the past, Filipino artists have collectively exhibited abroad to cater to a seemingly nationalizing agenda. In At Home and Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists, an exhibition held at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, California in 1998, Jeff Baysa writes an essay that details a historical narrative of the ilustrado and comparing them with modern day Filipino artists who can equally undergo an active acquiescence that appeals to national interests and to the international market. This curation brings to light a shared and lived experience of “the process of expatriation and displacement, whether forced or desired, from their homeland culture and other communities of Filipinos, in contrast to those who left the Philippines and then returned or those who fiercely belonged and never left” (49). Looking at the background of the participating artists, they already had established careers and the necessary means to participate in the exhibition. This depiction, I would argue, does not necessarily suffice in considering the context of the contemporary Filipino migrant worker artist. What Sa Tahanan Collective presents is a coming together of artists living double lives: full-time employees first, artists second. Art making here becomes a passion project as it seeks to augment the satisfaction that an artist’s day job cannot provide. Artworks exhibited in the show provide a glimpse of the contemporary working-class artist juggling through multiple projects to make ends meet.
This duality points to a dissatisfaction that can only be relieved through art and art making. Away from the constant nagging of every day cosmopolitan life, these artists make meaningful work in their homes or outside of work, after hours and usually on long nights. There is a hope that this practice can soon liberate them from this duality, a dream that is made and remade, to be achieved and to be kept on achieving.
There are the artists based in Dubai: Nino Consorte is a photographer who has been living in Dubai for seven to eight years has only exhibited his works for the first time with Sa Tahanan; Cholo Juan is a graphic designer and one of the founding members of Brown Monkeys, a street art collective composed of Filipino artists, designers and poets; Mox Santos is a fashion photographer and creates dream-like still-life photographs; Augustine Paredes is a photographer who has taken a particular interest in painting, art installation and painted poetry through an exploration of Clementine Paradies’ persona; Nicolas Roa is an illustrator and a graphic designer who draws portraits of hauntingly delicate women; Ava Victoria is a designer and an illustrator. There are also the artists based in the Philippines: Tammy David is a photographer, videographer and a content strategist working for a media company; Goldie Siglos is a make-up artist who creates self-portraits that explore depictions of femininity; Elle Battung is a freelance illustrator and a mural painter. There are also participating artists dispersed globally, one is Kimberly Elliot, an illustrator and a painter based in France. What binds them together, beyond the curation and the immediacy of digital platforms, is a shared longing and belonging. “The art institution is the legitimising space,” Anna Bernice shares. “We’re place-making in a place that isn’t ours. We’re all in a migratory space” (Yalla Abu Dhabi, 47).
In this iteration of tahanan, Sa Tahanan Collective reminds a shared identity that one can cling to in times of need and struggle. It is a community, a system of support, like a stretched canvas, meticulously taut on a wooden frame where tension is spread out, the load shared by all of its stakeholders. This homemaking may be temporary but it already has made the necessary ripples to put Filipino artists on the map and put the spotlight on their struggles as migrant workers.
Sa Tahanan Collective’s latest project elicited Filipino poets who heralded Pacita Abad’s trapunto works hung in Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (2021). A serendipitous encounter of these contemporary Filipino poets with Pacita Abad’s works traverses the socio-political boundaries of globalization. The present warmly acknowledges the past. The space becomes temporally suspended as the poets, the artists converse with Abad’s works with whom they have found kinship. Serendipitous still, Patrick D. Flores, catalogued and profiled Pacita Abad for At Home and Abroad back in 1998. He presented a reading of I Thought the Streets Were Paved With Gold (1991) which is part of Abad’s current exhibition in Dubai:
“Abad discloses the frustration of the diasporic experience through a child’s point of view. Flickering across the canvas in crayon colors are images of women as mothers, nurses, maids, and workers. The figures leave us shaken as their broken dreams are revealed and their America turns out to be an ever-grinding assembly line” (Flores, 1998 58)
How can one make sense of the seemingly disparate? The pandemic still looms in the background, a low hum that still resonates and will resonate. Emergency has taken a whole new level of meaning in the most precarious of our times. And yet we still see structure, or build structures around what we have to accept as the “new normal”. The tahanan, the space we are forced to retreat to, warrants a reconsidering, a reappreciation of the relief it gives within and beyond its walls. There is a word for a temporary, migratory tahanan that is more active: tuluyan, to continue, an act of continuing. It is a prayer, a wish, a resignation. We welcome what lies ahead: Tumuloy ka. Magpatuloy ka. ■
Appadurai, Arjun. “Passport” East East. 2020. https://easteast.world/en/posts/60
Arni, Sophie. “Sa Tahanan Collective Redefines Home for Filipino Artists” Global Art Daily. 25 January 2021. https://e-issues.globalartdaily.com/Sa-Tahanan-Collective-Redefines-Home-for-Filipino-Artists
Baysa, Jeff. “Longing/Belonging: Filipino Artists Abroad” At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists. San Francisco, California: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1998. 45–56. https://archive.org/details/athomeabroad20co0000unse
Brednikova, Olga. “Home of a Migrant Worker” East East. 2020. https://easteast.world/en/posts/44
Flores, Patrick D. “The Nature of the Historical: Forming Worlds, Resisting the Temptation” Other Globes, Past and Peripheral Imaginations of Globalization. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 85–106.
Flores, Patrick D. “Enchantment of Affinities” Towards a New Cultural Cartography. Sharjah: Sharjah Art Foundation, 2013. 114–129.
Flores, Patrick D. “Contemporary Filipino Artists” At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists. San Francisco, California: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1998. 57–134. https://archive.org/details/athomeabroad20co0000unse
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Philippine Statistics Authority. “Total Number of OFWs Estimated at 2.2 Million” 4 June 2020. https://psa.gov.ph/statistics/survey/labor-and-employment/survey-overseas-filipinos
Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. Servants of Globalization, Migration and Domestic Work. 2nd ed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015.
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Yalla — Abu Dhabi Life Magazine. “Home is Where the Art Is” Edition 6, April 2021.