Culture | April 5, 2021

The Overseas Filipino Artist

Anna Bernice

In Dubai, a city made up of 90% non-nationals from over 200 countries, Filipinos are present in every industry. In fact, Gulf cities are recipients of approximately 67% of Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) outflow. As the UAE’s third largest immigrant population, Filipinos drive its economy and are silent partners in its rapid development. Illustrado Magazine’s yearly shortlist of the Most Influential Filipinos in the Gulf showcase the influence that the community has on the socioeconomic and cultural development of the region. The fruit of Filipino labour is increasingly visible in print: the magazine’s pages deviate our identities from the "contract worker" label to influential Gulf migrants.

How to Occupy Space and Keep Company by Kimmy Elliott | Exhibited at Sa Tahanan Collective Exhibition 01 At Alserkal Avenue

However, as a young creative newcomer to Dubai, the Filipinos’ influence in the artistic and cultural production of the UAE was not immediately apparent to me. After spending four intermittent years studying in Abu Dhabi, I noticed a lack of salient presence of Filipino culture and identity in the contemporary art spaces I inhabited. Upon meeting Filipino artist Augustine Paredes, a Dubai-based emerging artist, I realised others shared my thinking. Born out of curbside conversations at Alserkal Avenue, in between his studio shoots and my pandemic job hunt, Sa Tahanan Collective became the lovechild of our desire to disrupt mainly Western and Arab contemporary art spaces and create an inclusive artistic platform for Filipino artists in the Gulf—an attempt to create the visibility we felt was lacking.

A trail already blazed

I quickly learned that we were not the first to undertake this endeavour; the legend of the Brownmonkeys preceded us. Founded in 2007, they were the pioneers of low-brow street and graffiti art in Dubai, activating its hidden, alternative spaces. Their work made art feel more accessible in a hyper-capitalist city that makes art feel otherwise. Founded by Filipino multidisciplinary artists Rollan Rodriguez, Mark Ganzon, Rafael Gregor Valencia, Victoria Viray-Ganzon, Cholo Juan, Joseph Manata and Lewis De Mesa, the Brownmonkeys put Filipino creativity in the kaleidoscope of emerging art in Dubai’s young contemporary art scene.

Sitaw Bataw Patani by Cholo Juan | Exhibited at Sa Tahanan Collective Exhibition 01 At Alserkal Avenue

Discovering Brownmonkeys’ work in Dubai was monumental: I questioned my pre-conceived notions of the Filipino identity as linked solely to Gulf migrant labour. For context, during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in the 1970s, a “development diplomacy” policy was launched to export human capital as a solution to the country’s employment crisis. In parallel, oil-rich Gulf countries grew short of labour in the midst of escalating economic and infrastructure growth, sourcing workers from the Philippines in construction and oil rigging. Seeing family members leave for the Gulf in search of upward economic mobility became normalised in the Philippines. The phrase “Katas ng Saudi”, which roughly translates to “the fruits of Saudi labour,” became colloquially coined, suggesting that Filipino lives are better as a result of their Gulf labour export.

Taal Eruptions by Nino Consorte | Exhibited at Sa Tahanan Collective Exhibition 01 At Alserkal Avenue

Navigating the work-art divide

As migrant bodies, our existence in the UAE is contingent on our work. A recurring question for Filipino artists who want to practice in the UAE, then, is how to sustainably produce creative work in a city that is inextricably tied to labour. Are the two mutually exclusive in a work-driven economy? While the country is making strides to recognise creative work as a legitimised labour category, these changes will take time to normalise. Currently, Filipino artists need parallel full-time work to fuel their artistic practice.

Danabelle Gutierrez performing at Sa Tahanan Collective Exhibition 01 at Alserkal Avenue. Photo by Anna Bernice

In her seventeen years in Dubai, Filipino poet and artist Danabelle Gutierrez alternated between non-creative administrative work and being a full-time photographer. Ultimately, she says, “even if I was doing something that I loved, it isn’t enough if I’m not happy,” referring to the “toxic’’ culture in one of her creative roles. “So I took a job in admin again.” For Danabelle, who has published two books of poetry and performed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the contrast between her day job and her artistic practice “allows [her] the mental space to imagine and live creatively outside day-to-day office life.”

Welcome Home by Clementine Paradies | Exhibited at Sa Tahanan Collective Exhibition 01 At Alserkal Avenue

On the other hand, visual artist Cholo Juan carved a path to being a full-time artist, initially arriving in Dubai in 2008 to work for a cable TV company. Cholo freelanced as an artist on the side, and was an integral member of the Brownmonkeys, a platform he thinks “paved the way for recognition in the arts scene and created opportunities for solo [art] projects.” Cholo transitioned to working as a manager and designer for studios like FN Designs and Blue Cave, participating in and organizing art festivals such as Urban Art Festival. Currently, Cholo is a full-time artist, working on project-based commercial work. Despite commercialising his practice, Cholo claims, “I need to carve time always for my own artistic practice. I don’t feel the need for it to be published, it’s just my way of keeping something to myself, a balance of feeding my soul and [paying] the bills.”

Cholo and Danabelle’s insights offer a snapshot of the Filipino as an overseas artist in Dubai. However, analysing the disposition of the Filipino as an overseas artist is a complex weave in the fabric of understanding the plight of the Filipino as an overseas worker. With our primary identities in Dubai tied to employment, many Filipino artists may not have the time or resources to pursue their practice. “The question of Filipino art being incorporated “enough”—I think is about quantity, not quality,” says Danabelle. “Maybe 5% [of Dubai’s Filipino population] are interested in the arts. Maybe 50% of that 5% have the resources to make their own art, and then maybe again 50% of those are willing to share it.”

For Filipino overseas artists in Dubai, then, being temporary labourers and practicing artists forces us to negotiate the existence of our labour-driven bodies with art-making, inclusion, representation, and identity-building in migratory places. Ours is an identity hyphenated by our day and night jobs. As we navigate Dubai as non-citizens, we tread in the in-between as cultural and labour producers, exchanging the taxation of our labour income for the taxation of our emotional labour in a place that isn’t ours.

Anna Bernice is an independent arts and culture writer who contributes to Vice Arabia and Global Art Daily.
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