by Cecilia Federizon
edited by Jasmine Gui
Articulating my experiences, thoughts and observations about being a racialized Filipina in the Canadian landscape has not been easy. By reading and having provocative conversations during my undergraduate years, I developed a language to speak about it and eventually pursued a Master’s Degree at the University of Toronto to continue my learning. My Master’s Research Paper’s (MRP) premise was to think through the meanings of Catholicism and its significance in Filipino diasporic upbringing in Canada. Coming from Vancouver, I didn’t know much of the Toronto Filipino community, and the pandemic prevented me from moving to the east coast for my Masters’ program. Despite the distance, I was able to create connections as a close fellow MA cohort introduced me to the Toronto Filipino Arts scene, and her friend, Maria Patricia Abuel. Patricia is a Toronto-based Filipino multidisciplinary artist known for her playfully ironic pieces. Her work primarily interrogates her hybrid identity and conservative gendered expectations. Oh Maria…1 is her 2019 audiovisual installation for the Xpace Cultural Centre in Toronto and a work I thoroughly examined for my MRP because of its discussion on how Catholicism has had a grasp on her body.
Through my MA experience, I’ve been able to build a relationship with Patricia from our shared Filipino immigrant backgrounds growing up in major Canadian cities and our interest in Filipina diasporic identity formation. Although I closely examined Oh Maria…, I found that many of Patricia’s works engage in conversations around the fluidity of identities that construct her experiences; a point that is also at the centre of her Islands Series.
This audiovisual series engages with the ways her brown-body is perceived by colonial structures that surround her and the ways she interacts with it. Her work provides a commentary on the aspects of racialized vulnerability within a colonial context. For me, Islands provides a critical catalyst of self-questions on my relationship with Canadian colonial ideology.
Islands I. 2017
Islands I is a self-performance of stillness as Patricia floats amidst the milky white waters touching and exposing her body. Patricia’s work highlights the vulnerability of her Filipino brown body through her nakedness, alluding to her lived experiences in Canada. The milk symbolizes the white colonial influences that haunt her as her brown body is simultaneously engulfed by the milk and resurfaces through the whiteness. Patricia’s eerie placidness in her self-performance asks us to consider the conditions of her body’s objectification and her resistance to such constructions.
The first image we see is her floating breasts in the milk. Attuned to Patricia’s breathing, her breasts submerge and reappear. Each breath she takes allows us to be aware of the living body we are watching, confronting our comfort with assumptions of the sensual and erotic. Nerissa S. Balce writes that U.S. colonial images of the naked Filipina acted as evidence of Filipino savagery, justifying the violent and benevolent disciplining of Filipino bodies.2 Patricia demands us to look at her chest, the object of sexualizing women’s bodies in mainstream discourse. Indeed, the image is wet, fleshy and sensual, but it does not fetishize her breasts. It lets us consider why Patricia asks us to look at her when a woman’s chest is the object of sexualization. Audre Lorde’s essay, The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, explains how the erotic has been misused and mistaken as a plasticized sensation – the pornographic.3 Instead, she conceptualizes the erotic as “an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”4 Patricia’s breasts’ floating movements and breathing remind us that they are part of her, centring us to her living body and being.
The following image is a wider shot of her hands, stomach, breasts and half of her face as we continue to watch her breathe in the milk. Although her body is not completely visible, we know that they are all connected. The isolated body parts share an extensive system that is affected by and affects each other. As we see more of her body, we visually understand that the breast is only part of the damage that colonialism has inflicted. Colonialism’s toll affects the whole body, core, and soul.
As the final image appears, we focus on Patricia’s hands gently hold each other — a symbol of the labour Filipina women are often understood by in the Canadian context. The stereotypical Filipina caregiver figure limits and oversimplifies the diversity of Filipino experiences in Canada. We see Patricia holding herself as a symbol of reassurance to herself and her Filipino community, holding strong against their subjugation by the same systems. Despite the stereotype, she pushes against a singular image to make room for the many forms of “Filipinx” in the Canadian diaspora.
Islands II. 2019
The sequel of the Islands series has a starkly different tone from the first. Islands II is also a self-performance by Patricia, this time bathing with the tabo (a pitcher for cleansing), the typical way many Filipinos wash in the Philippines. As she bathes, images, videos, and phrases flash on the screen, communicating her feelings. Like Islands I, this sequel is a commentary on the Filipina body subjected to the postcolonial legacies of religion, classism, and shadism. If Islands I portrays both the submission and resistance to colonial regimes, in contrast, Islands II describes the realities, emotions and weight of succumbing to these structures imprinted on Filipino bodies. The bathroom is a common thread connecting the Islands series. Islands II focuses on the bathroom for its multifaceted potentiality as both a private place of relaxation and as a place where discomfort is palpable on the exposed body. The cleaning substance has significance in both Islands. In Islands I, she is immersed in the milk and only breathes, while in Islands II, she actively chooses to cleanse herself with the cold water. Islands II depicts Patricia’s choice to accommodate the consequences of submitting to the icy, unwelcoming colonial forces around her.
Islands II opens with a bather preparing to wash. While she’s waiting for the bucket to fill with water, a video of a cold, snowy airport revealing the distant Canadian flag pops onto the screen, leaving the bather as the backdrop. When the snowy video disappears, we see the bather hesitate to pour the water on her body. With a slight pause, she douses herself in the water and recoils as it hits her body, signalling that the water is at an unfavourable temperature. The next time she pours the water, she flinches again and we are shocked with GIFs of phrases stating “Nope,” and “Whyyyy.”
As Patricia bathes, we see religious images appear when she begins to wash willingly. Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria plays melodiously in the background, as if the bather is trying to find comfort in the familiarity of Catholicism.5 When she begins to lather herself, two contradictory Filipino soap commercials appear on the screen consecutively. One advertises a browning soap to sell cleanliness and natural Filipino skin, while the other highlights the desirability of whitening soaps and beauty. The commercials are followed by overwhelming GIF images of social class, needing money, tiredness. GIFs pile quickly on top of each other. The crowded overlay of images reflects the cry for help the bather internally feels from all the structures, stresses and expectations pressed upon her. As she does her final rinse, Ave Maria plays once more. GIFs of holy images appear on a loop, ironically grounding herself with the religion that has caused colonial pain to the Philippines and Canada.
The Islands Series
Islands I and II have a distinct visual style allowing for a different relationship with the audience. The calm performance of Islands I enables us to focus on the minuscule movements of breath and the fluidity of the milk. Her unusual choice of milk is counter-intuitive when bathing, exuding a dissonant tone that challenges our comfort with our surroundings. Its contrast with the white milk and her brown body seems to mimic colonialism’s unnatural and unrealistic objectives imposed on the Filipino body. Likewise, Islands II is confrontational but uses a more abrasive and bright style to comment on the uncontrollable and overwhelming forces that affect the bather and us. Though not part of the performance itself, the GIFs that appear are connected to Patricia’s emotions, but she does not directly engage with them as she bathes. The various GIFs that we encounter are timed with the bather as she douses herself with water, signalling to the viewer what that wave evokes or suggests. For example, one splash of water represented the freezing Canadian airport and the bather’s reaction to the water is a reenactment of what one would feel coming into a cold environment.
The distinct styles of the two Islands pieces address the messy and complicated effects of colonialism. The stillness of Islands I is a symbol of the unmoving strength of Filipinos in spite of difficult living conditions brought by whiteness and colonialism. We can see the allegorical resiliency of Filipinos from the way her body is submerged in milk, but not completely. Despite colonialism’s effort to drown the brown body, Filipinos cannot be fully suffocated by the milky water. While the chaos of Islands II sees the lived stresses of daily life in its many forms, such as religious indoctrination, or media soap commercials defining beauty. When viewed together as a whole, the Islands series directs our attention to the intricacies of the relationship between the subjected body and imposing structures, whether through resilience, submission, or both.
They share a curious interpretation of islands as fragmented land in the sea as visibly separate but inherently connected. Patricia focuses on the segmented isolated components of brownness and Filipino-ness. Islands I captures the various body parts floating on the milk, visually submitting and reclaiming itself. Though not visibly apparent, Islands II features fragmented ideological thoughts that invade the bather and come together in one intimate space. The beauty standards, the Canadian coldness, and religious iconography are seemingly separate issues the bather faces. However, these intrusive images stem from the colonialism, racism and sexism the bather endures.
Islands centralizes itself on the body and the embodied scars and knowledge it holds, revealing the sociopolitical implications on one’s core. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa conceptualize a theory in the flesh of “the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politics born out of necessity.”6 Not only does the bather’s experiences refer to her agency and the Filipino community, but it also relates to “the flesh and blood experiences”7 of racialized and queer lives under the same grasp of colonialism, capitalism, and whiteness. Patricia asks us to look at her exposed body, the pain and the resilience she embodies. Islands lets us see what society willingly dismisses: the unassimilable subject (Islands I) and the pain that coloial society causes (Islands II). These realities remain unacknowledged by those in power because of its potential to disrupt the reputation of a kind multicultural Canadian nation. As the audience, we are confronted with nakedness, images, and experiences we do not usually see. We are taught either to look away or to suppress our feelings. In this discomfort, I recoiled at the thought of being exposed like the brown breasts I was watching, sheltering myself from the unwanted attention of my raw body. Islands I demanded me to rethink my uneasiness by reminding me of my struggle to own my agency, and that resistance is not an easy feat. Islands II made me feel out of breath and tight with anxious anticipation as it reminded me of the overwhelming pressures society implicates on me and how my submission takes a toll on my soul.
My relationship to Patricia’s work is formed through my emotional journey watching Islands and deconstructing my positionality with the colonial structures she addresses. What strikes me about Islands II is that the bathing experience is uncomfortable. The bather chooses to succumb to the cold water and wash herself with colonial expectations of beauty and religion. Perhaps, the bather’s acceptance of the colonial forces is a survival strategy. It left me wondering how the diaspora copes with our environment and how we may sometimes put on an act for survival. To what extent do we perform for ourselves and the broader society? Who is watching our diasporic performance? I’d like to believe that how I act in the world is a performance for myself and the diaspora, yet I understand that I am restrained from my full expression because of the Canadian stage/society. Islands II depicts the bather overcome with the stresses of assimilation in her private space. As Patricia mentions, the bathroom can be a space of refuge and simultaneously discomfort. I wonder if the bathroom is a metaphor of a space where we can reassure our sense of self as we sacrifice a part of ourselves to prepare to go on stage to perform in the world.
1 Maria Patricia Abuel, Oh Maria…, Xpace Cultural Centre, 2019, video, 4:10, https://vimeo.com/368329131.
2 Nerissa S. Balce, “The Filipina’s Breast: Savagery, Docility, and the Erotics of the American Empire,” Social Text 24, no. 2 (2006): 89–110, https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-24-2_87-89.
3 Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider, 2nd ed., (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007), 54.
4 Ibid., 55.
5 Catholicism continues to be a significant force in many Filipinos lives and identity formation. See Martin F. Manalansan, Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. (Duke University Press, 2003.), 118-122. See also John Paul Catungal, “Toward Queer(Er) Futures: Proliferating the ‘Sexual’ in Filipinx Canadian Sexuality Studies,” in Diasporic Intimacies: Queer Filipinos and Canadian Imaginaries, eds. Robert Diaz, Marissa Largo, and Fritz Pino, (Northwestern University Press, 2018), 35-7.
6 Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 4th ed.,(Albany: State University New York Press, 2015), 19.
7 Ibid., 19.