Carlos Villa, Artist’s Head with Bone Dolls, 1979–80, paper pulp, feathers, bones, hair, rags, 14 1⁄2 × 14 1⁄2 × 8".

Carlos Villa, Artist’s Head with Bone Dolls, 1979–80, paper pulp, feathers, bones, hair, rags, 14 1⁄2 × 14 1⁄2 × 8".

Carlos Villa

Carlos Villa’s sculptural painting from 1995, My Father Walking up Kearny Street for the First Time, includes a Panama hat—a stand-in for the artist’s father. On either side of the cap are two rows of columns covered in black feathers, suggesting a crowded, destabilizing, and unwelcoming San Francisco—the artist’s parents moved to the city from the Philippines during the 1920s. A sign bearing the word ORIENT is placed above the piece, implying an arrogant command and a forced racial categorization.

A retrospective of Villa’s work was on view at the Newark Museum of Art before traveling to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries (coincidentally, a hundred years after the artist’s father and mother immigrated to the United States). Villa (1936–2013) was a beloved and influential professor for more than forty years at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he galvanized the community, foregrounded diverse cultural histories, and advocated for artist-led futures through various activities, including the conferences he organized and documented for the book Worlds in Collision: Dialogues on Multicultural Art Issues (1994).

In the catalogue for this retrospective, art historian Margo Machida characterizes Villa’s practice as a transcultural exploration of Filipino American identity via the Philippines and San Francisco as multiethnic hubs. The artist said he strove for “a creolization of aesthetics,” and in his view, the Philippines is fundamentally a hybrid place—or, as Machida puts it, “the historical confluence of Indigenous, Asian, and Western peoples through successive migrations, trade, colonialism, and war.” Maybe this Southeast Asian nation could even be seen as part of a large but interwoven region, connected theoretically and across oceans to people with similar experiences in Africa, New Zealand, and beyond.

For the mask piece Artist’s Head with Bone Dolls, 1979–80, paper pulp, hair, and matted-down feathers produce what could be a tribute to Villa’s Bay Area sculptor pal Manuel Neri, but by way of Oceania. Villa affixed chicken bones dressed in multicolored fabrics to the ears and forehead of the sculpture. Elsewhere in the retrospective, body prints, brightly colored felt-tip pen drawings of intestinal coils, and even brighter action paintings also incorporated the aforementioned mask materials, as well as blood. The canvases referenced Villa’s relatives slaughtering animals for festive meals, the cockfights put on by migrant Filipino laborers in California work camps and, more generally, sacred and precolonial art from around the world. One exquisite example was Painted Cloak, 1971, which evokes traditional Hawaiian feather capes, or Matisse’s Vence chapel vestments from the 1950s.

For Self-Portrait (Tattoo Drawing), 1971, Villa altered a photograph taken by a friend, covering his face, neck, shoulders, and most of his chest with ink drawings inspired by Filipino, Maori, and Native American tattoo traditions. However, Villa doesn’t come off as though he’s romanticizing these cultures or promoting some form of assimilation in this work. Instead, he seems to be celebrating creolization as a kind of solidarity—an embodied postcolonial sensibility. His art frequently depicts identity as unfixed and poetic. Yet if Villa were working this way today, some might wonder why he’s referencing cultures not exactly his own.

In the book The Location of Culture (1994), Homi K. Bhabha writes that “‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” Discussing cross-cultural poetics and creolized cultures in his text Caribbean Discourse (1989), Édouard Glissant rejected the notion of “pure” origins, offering instead that “infinite varieties of creolization are open to human conception, both on the level of awareness and on that of intention: in theory and in reality.” This might be a productive course to follow in understanding Villa’s capacious, multidimensional art.