O.M. France Viana’s Ube Art

O.M. France Viana has taken me along on her personal journey through her written work years before I even knew her personally. As an avid reader of her magazine articles, I found her thought-provoking pieces to be both refreshing and mentally stimulating. We have been fortunate to see her visual art explorations in various exhibits in the San Francisco Bay Area in the past few years. It has enabled us to take a peek into her mind through another medium that at times came in three-dimensional form. Expectations are high but France always delivers.

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.

A favorite with school groups, Stop and Smell the Tuyo (For Baci), displays a real dried fish. Children lined up, up to three times in a row, to experience smelling the fish as they held a handful of rice to learn how Filipinos do it. (Photo by © Mills Art Museum)

A favorite with school groups, Stop and Smell the Tuyo (For Baci), displays a real dried fish. Children lined up, up to three times in a row, to experience smelling the fish as they held a handful of rice to learn how Filipinos do it. (Photo by © Mills Art Museum)

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.

Performers promenaded ube (purple yam) around SOMA in France’s “Ube Pasyal” smudging ritual to introduce the tuber to its new neighborhood. (Photo by ©O.M. France Viana)

Performers promenaded ube (purple yam) around SOMA in France’s “Ube Pasyal” smudging ritual to introduce the tuber to its new neighborhood. (Photo by ©O.M. France Viana)

“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 ube popped out of designer handbags in the Dada-­esque fashion-­cum‐comedy performance. “I like challenging stereotypes of what an ethnic group moving into a neighborhood can look like. Filipinos are among the most fashionable in Asia and we will bring a sense of style with us,” France offered. (Photo by ©O.M. France Viana)

The ube popped out of designer handbags in the Dada-­esque fashion-­cum‐comedy performance. “I like challenging stereotypes of what an ethnic group moving into a neighborhood can look like. Filipinos are among the most fashionable in Asia and we will bring a sense of style with us,” France offered. (Photo by ©O.M. France Viana)

Ube Way

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.)

In another artwork referencing the Filipino/Ube Diaspora, France filled pavement cracks at the Mills Art Museum grounds and at SOMA sites with ube haleya (purple yam jam), mounting photos of one intervention on top of the other. “Wherever Filipinos go, ube goes,” she laughed.  (Photo by © Keith Meyer)

In another artwork referencing the Filipino/Ube Diaspora, France filled pavement cracks at the Mills Art Museum grounds and at SOMA sites with ube haleya (purple yam jam), mounting photos of one intervention on top of the other. “Wherever Filipinos go, ube goes,” she laughed.  (Photo by © Keith Meyer)

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!

France transforms the Pinoy funny gesture of pointing with lips into directional signs, posted throughout the Mills Art Museum grounds and at various SOMA Pilipinas sites. France aims to restage instinctual gestures that were colonized and civilized out of Filipino culture. (Photos by ©O.M. France Viana (left) and ©Philip Bond (right))

France transforms the Pinoy funny gesture of pointing with lips into directional signs, posted throughout the Mills Art Museum grounds and at various SOMA Pilipinas sites. France aims to restage instinctual gestures that were colonized and civilized out of Filipino culture. (Photos by ©O.M. France Viana (left) and ©Philip Bond (right))

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.”

The UBE neon sign announces the celebrity status of the lowly root in the corridor entrance to the Mills Art Museum. “SOMA Pilipinas will be the new Filipino corridor—an ube corridor,” France noted. (Photo by © Phil Bond)

The UBE neon sign announces the celebrity status of the lowly root in the corridor entrance to the Mills Art Museum. “SOMA Pilipinas will be the new Filipino corridor—an ube corridor,” France noted. (Photo by © Phil Bond)

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:

Exploring Sacred Art archetypes, France created black-­‐on -­‐black portraits of Black Madonnas, including Ermita’s Nuestra Señora de Guia, Naga’s “Ina” and Antipolo’s Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage and grouped them with an Ifugao bulul ladder. (Photo by © Phil Bond)

Exploring Sacred Art archetypes, France created black-­‐on -­‐black portraits of Black Madonnas, including Ermita’s Nuestra Señora de Guia, Naga’s “Ina” and Antipolo’s Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage and grouped them with an Ifugao bulul ladder. (Photo by © Phil Bond)

“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.”


Last year at the Murphy Cadogan awardees exhibition at the SOMarts gallery, Viana showcased close up images of Philippine fruit flavored ice cream — ube, langka, guava, avocado and macapuno — as alien landscapes inviting engagement.

“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.

Installation view of the exhibit with the Venus of Willendorf. (Photo by © Mills Art Museum)

Installation view of the exhibit with the Venus of Willendorf. (Photo by © Mills Art Museum)

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

Manzel Delacruz

Manzel Delacruz is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


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