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HALO: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan with JD Reforma

Gina Fairley

In the hands of the Aquilizans, cardboard is a powerful and timely conduit to racial and cultural conversations.
HALO: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan with JD Reforma

I first experienced the balik bayan style (travelling boxes) work of Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan as a flotilla of palettes stacked with their personal belonging – shipping cubes seemingly levitating on a polished white floor at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP). It was a preview of their work before its passage to Sydney for the Biennale in 2006.

At the time I thought, “Smart! What a great way to ship your things when immigrating.” The narrative of passage and diaspora had been well established in the Aquilizans' work prior to that moment, and has continued to develop into a most sophisticated collaborative dialogue since.

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Their current exhibition, HALO at the Mosman Art Gallery (MAG) is the latest of their work to use cardboard, along with shipping palettes and crates, and – more importantly – the heavily baggaged icon of a ship.

This has been an enormous project for MAG. The Aquilizans are the first artists to show across all three levels of the gallery, together with a residency and a suite of community workshops. It was worth it. The outcome is spectacular. Over the years I have seen a lot of the Aquilizans' work, have written about it at length, and have even curated it into exhibitions, but they always continue to surprise.

While some might argue that they roll out their signature vernacular and still get a wow, with this MAG show they have proven that argument is totally baseless. They have read the very difficult space that is the Mosman Art Gallery, and physically imbued it with narrative.

They have also extended their work in new ways, taking those known elements and rethinking them, reworking them and constantly giving them renewed currency.

Installation view; Photo Artshub

Who’d have thought cardboard could say so much?

Walking into Mosman Art Gallery, the Aquilizans have usurped the Balnaves Gallery, which is usually reserved for colonial treasures and early Australian art history gems. It seems only fitting that a fleet of battle ships mounted proudly on shipping crates carve up the space.

Scattering the space are paintings of idyllic tropic landscapes, painted in the Mabini style. The Aqulizians have been collaborating with Mabini artists for many years now, that tourist-style industry of painting which has been a fixture in Manila since the 1950s.

Heading up another level in the gallery, the visitor walks into the under-belly of a giant vessel constructed from cardboard. It soars through the space and splices the stair and balcony above. One almost feels the heroism that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett did from the bow, sailing to a new future.

Head / Land (2017) takes its title loosely from the Aqullizans' residency at nearby Middle Head National Park during May-July this year – sitting right at the opening to Sydney Harbour and an entry point for immigrants past and new.

In a sensitive pairing, the finale is held for upstairs. JD Reforma’s work is presented alongside the Aquilizans – a text wall work and a video that digs deep into the Miss Universe 2015 pageant, where a Filipina was crowned reigning beauty. Confidently Beautiful, with a heart (2017) is curiously timed when one thinks of the Trumpian/American slant on the world.

Image courtesy the artist

He pairs it with another new video, Coconut Republic (2017) which looks at American films that were shot on location in The Philippines but narrated as elsewhere. The classic example is Apocolypse Now. Reforma is a young, Sydney-based artist of Filipino heritage.

Walking up the gallery stairs, the visitor is then brought back to another reality as they arrive on deck of the Aquilizans' giant vessel. Around the room is a horizon line created from found, or un-authored, photographs of that briny line between this place and another.

Installation view; photo Artshub

A glow of blue light emanates from the huge vessel that fills this room. Atop its deck is another flotilla of boats, all heading in the same direction. These were made in community workshops and that sense of involvement and collective story telling sits at the heart of this exhibition.

Installation view; photo Artshub

In a side room is a re-presentation of a suite of videos that look at the Badjoa people of the Philippines, the ‘sea gypsies’ of the south. Their nomadic life on the sea and in shanty dwellings – traditionally living in territory between nations in the Sulu Sea – is an interesting contemporary conversation of ‘boat people’ and demarcated territory.

And in an external stairwell there is a delightful installation of carved nationalistic dolls made for the tourist market, which the Aquilizans have given each a local name. I hear ringing in my ears that blind ignorance of cultural acceptance, “They all look the same, I don’t understand”. It is a subtle probe at our unwillingness to want to understand.

Again the timing is interesting given the actions of politician Pauline Hanson in Parliament last week.

Installation view; photo Artshub

This is an enormous show. It leaves one feeling uplifted, and better still, questioning and thinking. It has an eloquence and an elegance that is surprising – which goes to show why these artists are so in demand internationally.

Rating 4 ½ stars out of 5

HALO: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan with JD Reforma
1 July - 10 September
Mosman Art Gallery 

The project is part of the Bayanihan Philippine Art Project.

Read: Does predictability make a good exhibition?

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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