Manila

View of “Fairest of the Fair,” 2019.

View of “Fairest of the Fair,” 2019.

“Fairest of the Fair”

Bellas Artes Projects

Curated by Inti Guerrero, the exhibition “Fairest of the Fair” revisited the Manila Carnival (1908–39), an exposition sponsored by the early-twentieth-century American colonial administration of the Philippines. Each edition culminated with Queens of Carnival, a showcase of Filipina women in an era when the colonial order manifested itself in a visual culture that borrowed heavily from both monarchy and exoticism.

Guerrero’s show pivoted around a collection of photo postcards taken in Manila at the turn of the twentieth century. Some in sepia, others colorized, the studio portraits capture pageant contestants decked out in exquisite ensembles. Through this regalia and detailed finery, the Filipina woman claims her place as a cosmopolitan citizen of a modern world facilitated by photography and its attendant aspect of self-fashioning. One of the prints was enlarged to human proportions, offering both a moment of relief from the intimacy of this archive and a confrontation with material presence that unsettled notions of the colonial and the exotic.

This emphasis of presence found echoes in the surrounding works of contemporary art. In Köken Ergun’s installation Binibining Promised Land, 2010, adjacent walls supported a floor-to-ceiling montage of covers of Focal, a newsletter for the Filipino community in Israel, whose contents range from urgent stories about deportation and domestic abuse to more frivolous fare, such as items on how to be a better farmer in FarmVille, an online game. The display was interrupted by a poster for the Binibining Pilipinas Israel 2009, a beauty pageant catering to Filipinas working in Israel. In the accompanying video documentation, participants compete in a talent show, a question-and-answer segment, and costume showcases. Whereas in typical Filipino pageants, the national costume portion is dominated by the baro’t saya (blouse and skirt), an outfit historically worn primarily by the Tagalog ilustrados in Manila, in this particular competition, the wide range of sartorial presentations (and their encoded ethnic and regional affinities) yielded a more diverse ideation of the Filipina.

In The Treatment of 12,052 Cases of Tuberculosis until Their Full Recovery, 2019, Pio Abad and Frances Wadsworth Jones used digital rendering to virtually manifest a Cartier tiara once owned by Imelda Marcos. Now kept within the vaults of the Central Bank of the Philippines, the diamond-studded headpiece was part of the “Hawaii Collection”: items of jewelry confiscated in 1986 in Honolulu, where the Marcos family had attempted to seek political asylum. The work’s title alludes to an equivalent estimate of the tiara’s value by the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the agency tasked with sequestering Marcos-related wealth.

From the regalia of the Queens of Carnival, to the lovely binibinis of the promised land, to Imelda’s priceless tiara, these works spoke to a fascination with mythologies of presence. It is the mythological that keeps images of the exotic aloft (“the fairest of the fair”) and subtends the monarchy’s allure, with its wealth and power. These tensions condense in Abad and Wadsworth Jones’s materialization of the crown that simultaneously evokes a valuable item and an object up for valuation.

If the exotic persists through representation, then representation is where it can be dismantled. In Analivia Cordeiro’s video M 3x3, 1973, the body alternately relayed itself as figure and ground. Across the nearly ten-minute piece, a group of women act out a series of mechanical movements against a grid of broken lines. The dancers are dressed in striped bodysuits, and their faces are painted black. Cordeiro has sharpened the contrast enough to render the performers essentially graphic, so that they merge in and out of the scenography. While the video demonstrates bodies disintegrating into the digital or electronic, it also prospects an opportune materiality, one that requires new kinds of language and forms of articulation. Here, the exhibition feels aspirational, almost utopian, as if it had discovered a radically transversal understanding of presence.