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Women in and making art

New exhibit works at enriching conversations and discussions on the gender divide

By Giselle P. Kasilag

“THERE are not enough female voices in the visual arts,” declared Michelle Nikki Junia, vice-chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

“While 51% of the visual artists today are women, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, they are less represented in exhibitions and galleries. In the Philippines, we have 17 Filipino visual artists who are named and conferred the National Artists Award — the highest recognition given to individuals for their significant contributions in Philippine arts and culture. And guess what? All of them are male. While the other art fields —  music, dance, theater, and film have women National Artists, visual arts have always been dominated by male artists.”

This imbalance appeared to weigh heavily on the management of the country’s premier cultural institution when it opened its first traveling exhibition of the year entitled “WOMAN: Thesis and Antithesis”. The show not only celebrates National Women’s Month but also marks the CCP’s first partnership with the Yuchengco Museum in Makati.

“This is our joint museum effort to highlight a thematic exhibition that explores the role of women within herself and in society,” said Yvonne Yuchengco, chairperson of the Yuchengco Museum, Inc.

The bulk of the exhibition are works from the 21st Century Art Museum or simply 21AM. This is essentially the CCP visual arts and ethnographic collection together with the defunct Museum of Philippine Art (MOPA) but with cyberspace as an additional platform. Complimenting it are key pieces from the Yuchengco collection.

The show is curated by Yuchengco Museum’s Jeannie Javelosa and features works by 45 artists — 24 are female and 21 are male. It is divided into two sections. At the ground level are works that show how women are represented in art and society. At the third floor, on the other hand, are artworks created by women.

According to Con Cabrera of the CCP Visual Arts and Museum Division, barely 20% of the 21AM collection is by women.

“The disparity was very evident when we were thinking about this exhibition, so it was the direction of Ms. Jeannie Javelosa of having the woman as the subject matter for this floor. Most of the collection come from the ’60s, ’70s. ’80s and we all know that most artmaking depicts women as ‘in the everyday’ — the labandera (laundress), the women in the fields, the mother and child, and the family. This is evident in the collection here,” Ms. Cabrera told BusinessWorld.

A stunning black and white work by National Artist Cesar Legaspi, Maiden with flowers, strikingly illustrates this point with three female figures adorned with flowers. Here, women are perceived as beautiful, delicate creatures.

A cluster of pieces by Antonio Austria offer a colorful rendering of a folksy representation of women. They are seen as mothers and wives busy with household concerns.

A group of works by National Artist Benedicto “Bencab” Cabrera features portraits that represent women as individuals. But these are clustered around an imposing acrylic portrait entitled A Gobernadorcillo and his Wife — the woman once again a nameless though a very prominent figure.

There is also the tale of two works by National Artist Vicente Manansala: an enchanting mother and child piece contrasting decisively with Bottle Gatherers which is a dark and grim depiction of women as bottle and junk gatherers.

The second piece, held in storage for a long time, revealed a surprise when it was treated for reframing. When the backing was removed, another painting was revealed but in a portrait orientation and without a date and signature. Ms. Cabrera explained that it was a common practice for artists to recycle their canvas. They displayed the piece based on the orientation of the painting that was signed and dated with the assumption that this was the piece that the artist intended to be seen.

From the ground level, guests are directed to the third level where the second part of the exhibition is located. Here, art by women artists take centerstage.

“Most of the artists in this space are Thirteen Artist awardees. It is very interesting how different the works here are,” said Ms. Cabrera who also pointed out the inclusion of many prints in the exhibition. This, she explained, was because the Printmakers Association of the Philippines enjoys the support of the CCP and their works, therefore, have been well-represented in the 21AM collection.

“The women artists are very pivotal in the history of printmaking in the Philippines. We have Imelda Cajipe Endaya and her Forefathers series. There are a few Forefathers in the CCP collection which we also displayed already last year in the retrospective that we had for her. Even the push for the retrospective of women artists [is an] active effort of the CCP. So, before Imelda Cajipe Endaya was Ofelia Gelvezon Tequi. And in the future we hope to show more retros by women,” she added.

On this level, guests are greeted by Agnes Arellano’s Black Magdalene — a life-size figure of a naked woman with her arms wide open. On her feet are black skulls and red roses. Around her are very graphic pieces from the likes of Ivi Avellana Cosio with images of two red squares enveloped by silver squares against a black backdrop. It appears to be in conversation with Phyllis Zaballero’s Requiem I and Flora Mauleon’s Confrontation Between Interplanetary Occupants.

And from this central area, the exhibition continues to branch off into many directions — of women artists creating works that reflect how they see themselves, other women, and society at large, ranging from the most abstract to the most graphic. One can move from the socio-political commentaries of Ms. Tequi to the powerful florals of Betsy Westendorp with ease. This range is also reflected in the choice of materials. It is not uncommon to see textiles and other everyday objects in many of the artworks on exhibit as many women make use of items that they handle on a daily basis, Ms. Cabrera added.

Yet even with space after space after space filled with art by women, the gap between the representation of the male and the female artists is undeniably wide. The question is how to ensure that women are consistently represented throughout the year and not just during National Women’s Month.

“There is a law that requires all government agencies to allot a specific amount of their budget for projects that are related to women and gender and development,” CCP vice-president and artistic director Dennis Marasigan told BusinessWorld. “For the CCP this year, we made sure that there are programs that are either specifically geared towards these themes — the theme of gender and development — or that we include and make sure that there are components on the programs that address these concerns.”

Mr. Marasigan added that he is currently the chairman of the Gender and Development Committee of the CCP which he hopes would ensure that this directive will move from being a requirement to something that would be deeply entrenched in the CCP’s programming.

He also said that a handbook on safe spaces is in the works to address many of the concerns related to gender and development. This, he hopes, can become a model for other organizations to follow suit.

Indeed, awareness of this disparity can spark others to contribute to narrowing the gap. The statistics shared by Ms. Junia is staggering. But the statistics can be changed.

“WOMEN: Thesis and Antithesis” looks at this issue and hopes to start enriching conversations and discussions on the gender divide,” Ms. Junia stressed. “While the numbers tell different things, it doesn’t equate that men artists are better than their women counterparts. This prevailing notion should be put to rest because women have always been at the creative forefront.”

“WOMAN: Thesis and Antithesis” is on view at the Yuchengco Museum, RCBC Plaza, Ayala Ave., Makati, until June 24.