SINGAPORE: After living for 25 years in the United States, Philippine artist Gregory Halili returned to Manila to share the plight of his country’s fisher folks whose lives have been impacted by climate change.
"I recently went to a pearl farm. Pearls - the shell itself - indicate how healthy the ecosystems are. There are still shells out there, but these folks are not catching how much they used to catch,” Mr Halili said.
He decided to depict their worries on mother of pearl - carefully painting the eyes of pearl divers and fishermen on the iridescent material. When completed, more than 50 such "eyes" will be lined across a darkened room at next month's Singapore Biennale, to appear like stars or boats out in the sea at night.
Lives of Philippine's coastal communities reflected on mother of pearl.
Mr Halili revealed that he covered rough terrain to reach some of those communities. But the greatest challenge, he said, is carrying the weight of their stories and doing them justice.
"Learning about who they are, and how they live, and to know the facts, like how difficult their lives really are - it's really emotionally painful,” he added.
An eye painted on mother of pearl by Gregory Halili.
Ms Joyce Toh, curatorial co-head at the Singapore Art Museum said the works of Filipino artists have a certain potency of emotions because of a connection to their subjects.
"Filipinos are a very passionate people, and I think this is something that comes through in the work, when I say that the work has a certain potency of emotion,” she said. “There’s a kind of emotional charge with them so it’s not just perhaps a visual expression but it’s coming from a real place.”
“Often, the artist also has a certain human bond human connection with their subjects or people that they have spoken to. So they are really trying to in a way convey these stories to a wider audience, to the Biennale audience … they are trying to bring out this story to a wider audience.”
She added the artists are responding to issues that are very close to home and close to the heart such as those that deal with nature, environment and injustice because these are things that they not only see but also feel the impacts directly.
This includes Ryan Villamael whose work for the Biennale is also intensely personal. Using the craft of paper-cutting on discarded maps, he envisions his intricate cartographical constructions as instruments of self-discovery.
Ryan Villamael's past work titled 'Isles'.
According to Villamael, part of the inspiration is from his father whom he has not seen since he was a child.
"When you use maps, it’s very personal material and idea but at the same time, it talks a lot about a particular history, a particular point in time, in history. There's also a personal take on it. My dad is an overseas Filipino worker, and I think it's also a way of mapping myself. And my place,” the 29-year-old said.
Because of their sheer size, his works will be hung from the ceiling at the Singapore Art Museum instead of being confined in his signature bell jars.
Another artwork to be featured at the event is an oil painting of orchids by artist Patricia Eustaquio. It came about after she encountered a young German explorer in the Philippine forests, hunting for orchids.
Patricia Eustaquio working on her Biennale installation - an oil painting of orchids.
"People used to hunt them, more than 100 years ago. People from the west would go to the jungles of the tropical countries and they would risk their lives and just try to hunt for these orchids in the wild and it became such a prize for them. And today, they’ve been so cultivated that there are thousands and thousands of new hybrids,” said Ms Eustaquio.
In the midst of creating her artwork, the Philippine artist also did research on the Singapore Botanic Gardens - a UNESCO world heritage site that boasts the world’s largest orchid display.
“I discovered that the orchid species is the second largest family of flowers in the world and that you can find it all the way from London to the depths of the Philippines jungles,” Eustaquio shared. “It was interesting to discover that the Margaret Thatcher orchid is one of the hardiest orchids in the Botanic Gardens,” she added.
The two stars of her work include an endangered species from Palawan called Paphiopedilum fowliei and a hybrid, which she had personally named.
Organised by the Singapore Art Museum, the event will take place from Oct 27 to Feb 26.