Sunday, June 3, 2012

On Forging a True Arts Renaissance

NEW YORK CITY:  Everyone wants to be part of a renaissance. Everybody desires a new birth. But are we really experiencing a renaissance? If so, what does it look like? If not, how can we make it happen?

At the UniPro Summit in New York City, held this weekend at NYU School of Medicine, Fil-Ams in the New York metro area came together to celebrate our presences, inquire about the life-giving projects we've been involved in, and grapple with the notions of achievement and renaissance. "We considered the successes of Pilipinos in recent years and felt a sense of pride in knowing that our fellow Pilipinos are able not only to succeed but also to make the accomplishments of our community known to others despite our label as the 'invisible minority,'" says Summit co-chairs Rachelle Ocampo and Judy Yem.

To understand the breadth and reach of the daylong occasion, consider the breakout panel topics: health and medicine; business and entrepreneurship; politics, activism and civic engagement; education and storytelling; and arts and entertainment. Antonio Melato, founder of the activist group Gawad Kalinga, and Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of the campaign Define American, were keynote speakers.

In one of the panels, the fiction writer Ninotchka Rosca offered a panoply of metaphors. She said that one model for the Philippine diaspora is the family tree. We are all branches springing from a common root. She also offered another image, arguing that perhaps this other one might be more precise: the banyan tree. Prop roots grow out of a banyan tree, thick woody trunks that with age become indistinguishable from the main trunk. Banyan trees spread out laterally, using these prop roots to cover a wide area. Perhaps we are a rice dessert: the sapin-sapin. Recognizable for its layers, each colored separately, a blancmange of several colored flavors because of centuries of foreign colonization.

At UniPro Summit with novelist Ninotchka Rosca
Despite our increasing demographic numbers, Fil-Ams feel invisible in the broader mainstream conversations. So the Summit was a moment of celebration, a public accounting of what we have achieved in the U.S. society. There was also a keen sense of struggle and an acute awareness of the scale of work ahead of us. The work is not done. Larger sociopolitical issues need to be tackled head on. Issues within Fil-Am communities need to be addressed, problems that we have to conquer to achieve unity and progress. There were many expressions of hope that these issues would gain greater traction and result in solutions.

In the main panel, entitled "How to Push the 'Pilipino Renaissance,'" speakers Esperanza Garcia of Ecohope, Fr. Benigno Beltran of Mga Anak ni Inang Daigdig, Illac Diaz of MyShelter Foundation, Tony Olaes of Gawad Kalinga and Loida Nicolas Lewis of US Pinoys for Good Governance shared how they have fared in their struggles so far. Garcia, for example, spoke about Ecohope's work in mobilizing youth in the areas of global climate governance and environmental sustainability. Olaes urged attendees to come forward and to put in their time and efforts in support of significant causes.

The panel on education and storytelling was especially interesting, because it centered on the power of narrative to educate about Philippine culture. It featured Rafe Bartholomew, author of a very original book about basketball as both as sport and a locus of aspirations in the Philippines entitled "Pacific Rim," as well as Renjie Butalid, who has made strides via TEDxWaterloo.

In the panel on arts and entertainment, filmmaker Stephanie Walmsley was quite inspiring. She spoke about the struggles she endured co-producing the film God of Love, which won the Best Live Action Short Film award at this year's Academy Awards. She spoke about the rejections she received. She came clean about how she lost her job. She said she contacted numerous people in order to succeed in life while pursuing a passion to produce a film. By the time she won the Oscar trophy, she said that the award was just a nice bonus.

I also found inspiring Kilusan Bautista, a performance artist and hip-hop performer who grew up in the working-class district of San Francisco. Born in the Bay Area, he was given the name of Kilusan, which means active movement, by community activists and artists back in the Philippines who encourage him to continue the movement for social justice and human rights in the U.S. His desire to connect his Fil-Am identity to the global struggle led him to write a solo play, Universal Self, a hip-hop-inflected chronicle of his personal journey.

Reporters Elton Lugay, Grace Hufano-Labaguis, Cheri Domingo and me at UniPro Summit
I was honored to conduct a 45-minute cultural workshop in which I shared my analysis of the state of Fil-Am arts and offered constructive solutions to what I feel it takes to create, build, develop and sustain a Pilipino Arts aesthetic/renaissance in the U.S. and internationally. I laid out and described the current state of affairs, as I experienced it. I asked the tough questions. I endeavored to go beyond blurbs and sales pitches. Because what I mean by Pilipino Arts goes beyond marketing labels and public-relations precepts.

Being a conceptual artist, I proposed Pilipino Arts as an Art idea. I challenged everyone, including Fil-Am youths, to think of Pilipino Arts as an intellectual force, an aesthetic form, a way of life...and as creative entrepreneurship.

In thinking about this Art idea, I was referring to a Pilipino Arts movement that reached out to music, literature, dance, visual arts, performance, and other fine arts. Pilipino Arts might be thought of as an art movement co-eval with the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts and the Hip Hop. That might be one model. The Harlem Renaissance, like the Hip Hop movement, was not simply about music. It traversed into other forms of art such as dance and visual arts. Both forms attempted to bring recognition to the African American community in a time without civil rights, in a time when the outside world chose to ignore the world of Harlem and the larger community of the Black race.

Unlike the Hip Hop movement (which was driven by those in poverty), the Harlem Renaissance was started by a rising middle class of African Americans. Jazz and Blues were brought from the South to the North by African Americans with Great Migration which started after World War I.

After my talk, I talked to the young people afterward. I listened to their personal experiences as emerging artists. I learned that I must continue to devote myself to continuing to propose this concept of Pilipino Arts as well as be actively involved with other artists in a collective pursuit of this conceptual search for an Art idea. Thinking back to Rosca's panoply of images, I saw my talk as a way of seeding this renaissance. It is our job to nurture, encourage and help a renaissance in arts and culture happen. We might have to wait years and years from now to see if such a renaissance does indeed occur, but if we do not seed it now, we will never see it emerge and grow.

I learned that I really need to engage and communicate with Fil-Ams outside of the arts on the importance of Pilipino Arts. I have to advocate for a Pilipino Arts. We need to ask our Fil-Am audiences if they are interested in being supporters, fellow advocates and philanthropists in a Pilipino Arts idea. We need to continually intervene as artists by arguing for or showing the importance of arts and culture in these other areas of human endeavor, such as health, medicine, business and entrepreneurship, many of which have abandoned arts and culture for the sake of assimilation and economic success. We need to lay bare the wider potential of Pilipino Arts to stage our re-entrance into a global world and to re-invent the way Fil-Ams view ourselves when we encounter one another in public spaces, in virtual worlds, in theatrical spaces, in international venues, and in everyday life.   --RG


Speaking to reporters Elton Lugay (on the mic) and Grace Hufano-Labaguis about the Philippine Independence Day parade in Manhattan, and of my Pilipino Arts workshop


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