Interviews

Maia Cruz Palileo

Maia Cruz Palileo, All The While I Thought You Had Received This, 2018, oil on canvas over panel, 33 x 48".

The fourteen paintings and drawings that comprise Maia Cruz Palileo’s debut solo exhibition in her native Chicago are, in essence, portraits of the Philippines, imagined as her family had once known it. But Palileo’s lurid, tropical scenes are equally somewhere and nowhere, bridging the continents of a real place and its memory, its histories and its myths, its hard facts and its folklore. “All The While I Thought You Had Received This” will be on view at Monique Meloche Gallery until March 30, 2019.

THIS SHOW’S TITLE comes from a letter that my grandmother wrote to me around ten years ago. I had just begun collecting stories from my family and had asked her to describe the house she lived in as a young girl in the Philippines. She drafted a long, detailed letter, filled with drawings. But she forgot to specify my apartment number on the address, so the letter was eventually returned to her. When she re-sent it, she added a note, lamenting, “All the while I thought you had received this.”

There was something about that phrase that really resonated with me. My work has so much to do with the oral history of my family and how stories construct a sense of our past and build a mythology. Growing up in Chicago, I’d hear so many tales about the Philippines from family members, but they always seemed a bit hazy and fragmented. My other grandmother, who never emigrated to the US, would reference bits and pieces of the past: “Your grandfather was in the war.” I was so interested in what their lives used to be like, but I could never get a full picture. I became curious about which stories don’t get told and what information doesn’t get passed on.

I began researching what the Philippines looked like when my grandparents were growing up. I discovered the archives of Dean Worcester, the colonial administrator who oversaw the United States’ governance in the Philippines before World War I. Worcester understood photography’s political power and amassed thousands of photographs—many his own—that portrayed Filipinos as savages and Americans as benevolent civilizers. They were published as giant spreads in several issues of National Geographic. I received a research fellowship to visit Worcester’s archive and spent a month in 2017 looking through all the images, taking pictures of everything. Suddenly, so many of my grandparents’ stories gained a lot of powerful context. I felt like I was finally glimpsing my ancestors, albeit through someone else’s eyes.

When I got back to my studio, I printed hundreds of these pictures and began to draw from them. I then started cutting and collaging my drawings as a way to deconstruct the images. Everything in these photographs felt so trapped; lengthy captions described their contents in such a matter-of-fact way. I wanted to take them out of this fixed, colonial context and create a new vision of my ancestors, my family, and my culture.

My paintings blend these historical fragments with details from my memory and my family members’ recollections. The patterns on women’s sleeves are from my auntie’s shirts, and there are decorations from the house my grandmother grew up in. My maternal grandmother was an English teacher; several paintings feature chalkboards and classrooms. But there’s still a lot of inventing I have to do, so certain areas of my paintings become more abstract. I find myself channeling a deeper intuition—an inner knowledge of my family’s history and our world. It really pushes me to pare things down, to pass on this story in the purest way possible.

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