12 Degrees MFA Exhibition
The latest works of note were her installations on Black Madonnas and purple yams in the 12 Degrees MFA Exhibition shown recently at Mills College Museum in Oakland, California. Like her published writings, her artwork is infused with her standout insights on life, Philippine culture and universal matters that make one seriously ponder humorous situations, or find humor in serious matters.
France’s signature piece of a tuyo (salted dried fish) hung over a rice cooker illustrated the Filipino myth of a family so poor all they had to eat was rice, so they strung a dried fish at the center of the table to smell as they ate. This classic scene has appeared in many comedy skits in Filipino TV and films – only in the Philippines can natives laugh in the midst of adversity. The artwork became a favorite with school tours as France managed to add food tasting as part of the exhibition at times, providing cooked rice for children to eat with their hands while they smelled the fish, which definitely turned the installation into interactive art.
France describes herself as a myth-maker. Her portfolio of photographs, sculptures and installations celebrating Filipino foods – “agents of reverse colonization”-- received critical acclaim, garnering the 2017 Hung Liu Prize for excellence in studio art. The prestigious award, named after the famous Chinese artist Hung Liu after her retirement as faculty of Mills College, was juried this year by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator-in-Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Jodi Roberts, Curator for Modern & Contemporary Art at Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University.
Conceptual Art on Filipino Diaspora
“I describe my practice as a conceptualist with roots in art history, and a mission to chronicle how Filipino immigration is redefining what it means to be American,” France says of her work. (She was voted as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipinas in the U.S. by the Filipina Women’s Network in 2011.)
Her exhibition was spread out around the museum grounds to evoke the Filipino Diaspora, she revealed. She continues to explore the theme of Filipino foods as metaphor for Filipino culture and immigration in her work. Last year at the Murphy Cadogan awardees exhibition at the SOMarts gallery, she showcased close up images of Philippine fruit flavored ice cream — ube, langka, guava, avocado and macapuno — as alien landscapes inviting engagement.
“I like how foods can challenge hegemonic power structures,” she suggests. “As salsa overtook ketchup as the most popular American condiment twenty years ago, I think we can build a wall but we won’t be able to keep the guacamole out.
“Filipino immigration is changing, not only what it means to be Filipino, but now with our numbers, it is changing what it means to be American. I foresee twenty or thirty years from now, America will be sitting down to its Thanksgiving meal, and there, along with the turkey and cranberry will be candied yams—but they will be purple yams—ube!
“Wherever Filipinos go, they bring ube, and now for the first time it is grown commercially in Hawaii. What does it mean that this biological entity has literally taken root on American soil?” she mused.
The artworks displayed in the outer proximities of the museum included a large crack in the pavement filled with ube halaya (purple yam dessert) with a photo inserted in the scene. The photo was of a similar gesture she performed in SOMA Pilipinas to celebrate that district’s new legal status as a Filipino cultural heritage district. (See Somapilipinas.org for more details.)
Another art work was an Ube Way sign to show the way to the exhibit hall, using the humorous lip pointing gesture attributed to Filipinos. “We are ashamed of lip pointing, this is a gesture colonized and civilized out of us. I think we should at least have a conversation about it before we decide to obliterate it from our culture,” she offered. Unbeknownst to San Franciscans, France has been surreptitiously posting these directional signs throughout SOMA!
In the hallway entrance, a purple neon sign “UBE” lit the dark corridor. “SOMA will be the new purple corridor. Here I accorded celebrity status to this yam that grows below the earth, putting its name in lights.”
Art critic and curator Jeff Kelley, whose reviews and essays have appeared in publications including Artforum, Art in America and the Los Angeles Times, said of her work: “As an artist, France knows enough about the canon of American high modernism, the first and second waves of feminism, post-colonial liberation, and traditions of the sacred in art and everyday life to move among their discourses with a messianic passion, making miracles by turning ube into manna.”
Black Madonnas and Sacred Art
Dominating a back wall is a collection of Black Madonnas done in a special process using UV cured inks, glossy black on matte black. This and the rest of her works with religious undertones are best explained in her artist statement:
“Idolatry is an occupational hazard for artists, and I confess to sin. Attempting to add to the canon of Sacred Art, I discovered that my visualization faculties were thoroughly usurped by Renaissance representations. I thought I would decolonize my imagination and shake off those Western blonde, blue-eyed icons that populate my pantheon, but realized that I am much too fond of them to fire them.”
“Pricking an image of the Venus of Willendorf, I convert it into a pinhole camera and capture the crystallized light bejeweling the goddess, releasing her luminescent beauty.
I have a personal devotion to Black Madonnas as the Catholic Church in Manila that I walked to every Sunday as a child housed a world-famous, miracle-working, 16th century example. I find this fascinatingly ambiguous archetype to be the “mything link” between pagan goddesses, heretical sects and the orthodoxy. In one work, I stack Philippine and European Black Madonna icons, speculating that if one image is miraculous, their combined likenesses must be apocalyptic.”
France says further, “Formally, I aim for Minimalism, but find my Baroque slip always showing. As metaphysician and self-appointed paparazza to the Divine, my art celebrates myth — the story that never was but always is.”
Manzel Delacruz is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
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