#PinayCrush: Interdisciplinary Artist Rea Lynn de Guzman
This Saturday, Bay Area-based Kearny Street Workshop, the longest running Asian Pacific American arts organization in the U.S., is kicking off their 16th Annual APAture Festival, which runs through October 28. APAture, a play on the word “aperture”, was named so for KSW’s mission to amplify the voices of APA artists, and highlight them within the frame of arts conversations happening on a local and global level. This year’s theme, Unravel, is designed to spark dialogue around contemporary social issues, especially those that affect the diverse array of APA populations, and inspire collaboration between artists and community members towards social action. Over the course of four weekends, APAture’s six showcases are providing a space for the community to experience the work of six featured artists - Rea Lynn de Guzman (Visual Arts), Vanessa Hua (Literary Arts), Kohinoorgasm (Music), Cyrus Tabar (Film), Innosanto Nagara (Book Arts), and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Performance Art), along with over 60 other local up-and-coming APA artists.
We interviewed Visual Showcase artist Rea Lynn de Guzman, whose work will be shown at APAture's Opening Reception on September 30th and where Kearny Street Workshop will also be presenting APAture Focus Awards for the first time to featured artists of the past. Honorees include Ali Wong and Hasan Minhaj, who were selected based on their unique contributions to amplifying the Asian Pacific American community’s collective voice.
Rea is a San Francisco, California-based interdisciplinary artist working in painting, print media, and sculpture. Born in Manila in 1985, she immigrated to the United States with her mother as a teenager, initially living with relatives in San Diego and eventually settling in the Tenderloin, SF. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. She has exhibited her work in the Bay Area, Chicago, Washington D.C., Hawaii, and internationally in India. She teaches art at the City College of San Francisco Fort Mason Art Campus, and San Francisco Center for the Book. Rea is also the first Filipina Teaching Artist Fellow at Root Division, a visual arts non-profit that connects creativity and community through a dynamic ecosystem of arts education, exhibitions, and studios, where she taught art to underserved children in the Galing Bata program at the Filipino Education Center in Bessie Carmichael Elementary School.
In her current work, she navigates through the colonial history of the pineapple in the Philippines, the native's appropriation of piña fiber, and its relationship with the idea of "Maria Clara" (a mestiza character from Jose Rizal's novel, Noli me Tangere who's held up in popular culture as an ideal of beauty and femininity). "Initially, art felt like a cathartic process, a way to gather my thoughts and express it in a creative output," Rea says, "Over time, it helped me deal with my displacement, familial disconnect, and experiences I've encountered as a Filipina immigrant living in the US."
Hella Pinay: Tell me a little bit about your journey as an interdisciplinary artist and how you found the mediums that really spoke to you and how you incorporate them into your work.
Rea Lynn: When I first delved into art, I was drawn to printmaking. Later, I was also attracted to painting, which has the potential of luring a viewer in through luscious colors and composition. I liked exploring the properties of different paint media (oil, acrylic, gouache, watercolor, etc.) and juxtaposing it with collage and image transfer techniques. After a while, I got inspired to make things into 3d objects, using my 2d materials as a medium. During my time in grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I kept experimenting even more with other media. I was drawn to the school’s interdisciplinary approach to art. In a way, it mimicked my personal experiences of moving constantly, back and forth within my native and adoptive country.
Where in the Philippines does your heritage draw from?
My Philippine heritage draws from the Luzon area. My father was born and raised in San Ildefonso, Bulacan, and my mother is from Masinloc, Zambales. They met in Manila, where I was born.
What’s your family’s migration story from the Philippines to California?
Before I was born, my uncles (my mother’s older brothers) joined the U.S. Navy back when they had a base in Subic, Zambales, near my mother’s hometown. My uncles then immigrated to San Diego, California. They were able to petition for my late grandparents to come to the U.S. Afterwards, my grandmother petitioned the rest of her kids, including my mother to come to the U.S. I was unaware of all of this until I was 14, when the papers finally came through and my mother and I started going through our immigrant visa application process, which went by very quickly. Unfortunately, my two older siblings weren’t able to come with us, as they were over the age limit of 21. My father, who has been separated from my mother since I was 5, was living in Italy as an OFW (Oversees Filipino Worker) at the time. So I ended up traveling with my mother to San Diego, California. A few months later, my mother found job in the Bay Area, and I followed her; I found home in San Francisco.
What was it like immigrating as a young teenager and being separated from your siblings?
Immigrating as a young teenager, being separated from my siblings and the rest of my family, going through adolescence to adulthood, while starting over economically and adjusting to a new life and culture in a new country was traumatic. It was like a complicated layer of changes within changes. Before social media emerged, it was much more difficult and expensive to communicate with my family overseas on a regular basis. At times, I felt alone, displaced, and disconnected, not having the guidance and presence of my siblings as I went through my teenage years in a foreign country. I wasn’t able to see them again until 6 years later, when I first went back to the Philippines and got re-acquainted with my family.
How does your Pilipina heritage inform your work and identity as an artist? What are some of the issues you explore through your work?
My work is inspired by a plethora of my experiences as a Filipina immigrant living in the U.S., the psychological nature of being in-between, not belonging in either culture, sometimes belonging in one while being in the other, and vice versa. In my recent work, I have been exploring the idea and colonial symbol of Maria Clara, as it has been imposed and embedded in expectations of the ideal Filipina for many years. Growing up in the Philippines and attending an all-girl Catholic school during my grade school years, I was exposed to a conservative, patriarchal, Catholic way of living. The stereotypical Maria Clara-esque ways of being a woman were adamant, instilled at an early age. Even now, and in the U.S., some of these Filipina stereotypes exist including: demureness, passivity, chastity, gracefulness, and subordination, among others. I would like to challenge all of these through my work as an artist.
I read that you switched to art from a business major in college - is your family supportive/encouraging of your career choice?
Initially, my mother kept pushing me to be a nurse (like many Filipino parents). But it wasn’t my passion and I’m scared of dealing with blood. When I was younger, I liked math and the idea of possibly having or working for a business someday so I decided to be a business major. When I accidentally took art classes in the City College of San Francisco (I was late to register for the classes I needed and art classes were the only ones open), it just felt right. The process was cathartic and it helped me deal with a lot of the displacement and disconnect I was facing at the time. I talked to my brother (who is an accomplished photographer in the Philippines, now based in Japan) and he encouraged me to pursue my own dreams and not what others expect me to become. It was very insightful and gave me the push I needed. I worked hard for everything, applied for scholarships, worked while going to school and in between school, got student loans and made it all work so I can pursue my dreams. Looking back now, I feel at peace being able to make my own path. I know my family had doubts about being an artist as a career, but now that my family can see what I’ve accomplished so far, they seem proud.
Has exploring these sometimes difficult cultural themes in your work sparked deeper conversations with members of your family/community?
Since I’m so far from my family, we haven’t really been able to discuss much of the cultural themes in my work in depth. My father lives in Italy, my mother moved back to the Philippines, where the rest of my family is, and my brother lives in Japan. I’m the only one from my immediate family living in the U.S. I think that when so much of your life, you’ve been separated from each other, it’s very difficult if not impossible to completely overcome the familial disconnect. But in talking to my community, specifically artists, there definitely have been deeper conversations. I’ve been so inspired by their passion and similar experiences we share, and continue to share, with the rest of the community.
What works will you be showing as part of APAture 2017?
I will be showing a body of work from my Retaso (Fabric Remnants) series, including a suspended fabric sculpture with image transfers of a Maria Clara dress, which I titled Imahe.
Can you tell me more about the pieces in your Retaso series, like Mestiza and Bleached?
In making these pieces, I was inspired by a trip to the Philippines early this year. Everywhere, I felt bombarded with images relating to bleaching/skin whitening ads on billboards and tv and surrounded by countless skin whitening products at the stores, malls, etc. It made me think back to the idea of Maria Clara as a mestiza, half Spaniard and half Filipina (along with many other contemporary mestizas that represent the “ideal” Filipinas in the media such as actresses, models, and beauty pageant contestants), and the colonial way of thinking embedded in the Philippines that having white skin is more beautiful and evokes a higher economic status. In a way, this series is a reaction to all of that.
What have been your biggest challenges as an artist and particularly as a woman of color from a community that is hugely underrepresented in the western art world?
As a woman artist of color, the biggest challenges I see in the art world are inequality, underrepresentation, and eurocentrism. Breaking down barriers, expectations, and stereotypes is something I deal with constantly, whereas others may not give such concerns a second thought.
Any advice to other aspiring Pilipinx artists who want to turn their passion into a career?
My advice is to be true to yourself, follow your passion, work hard, and never give up.
What makes you Hella Pinay or what does that mean to you?
To me, if I can empower or inspire other Pinays out there to defy stereotypes and imposed colonial and societal expectations through my work and vision, then that makes me Hella Pinay.
Meet Rea and see her work in person at the APAture 2017: Opening Reception and Visual Arts Showcase! Visual Arts Showcase | Opening Reception September 30 6-10pm | Arc Gallery & Studios 1246 Folsom St. San Francisco, CA
For times, locations, and ticket information for APAture 2017: Unravel, visit http://kearnystreet.org/apature