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05/27/14 New Natives Exhibition at Lightbombs Contemporary, Hong Kong

Once so insular, Filipino cultural identity is enjoying an evolution of sorts. By asserting itself online and overseas, both the creation and dissemination of our culture is boundless. Transnationalism, we’ve realized, is the new nationalism.

Moving from her cushy existence in Manila to pressure-cooker Hong Kong, Zoe Peña acted almost as a prophet of Filipino art’s impending boom. A year or so was spent lugging a portfolio from coffee shop to coffee shop, presenting art from the motherland to local collectors. As the buzz for Filipino talent began to build overseas, Peña felt it needed a bigger stage in a global hub like Hong Kong.

“My husband and I were living in 500 square feet and these two puppies wouldn’t stop growing,” she says of dogs Stella and Bogart and what led to putting up Lightbombs Contemporary, once a domain name she kept since she was 16 and now a renegade art gallery in the outskirts of Hong Kong. “It was paycheck to paycheck for the first two years,” she says about keeping a warehouse-sized space in an industrial area like Wong Chuk Hang. “Art is expensive to do anywhere but in Hong Kong, you have to work especially hard to make sure you’re afloat. So far, we’ve been good. I think it’s because we’re riding a very good wave off the exhibition.”

gallery 2The exhibition is New Natives, the culmination of Peña’s efforts to push contemporary Filipino art in the past couple years. Over nine months, she assembled works from 28 artists who’ve looked beyond traditional mediums and themes, from Romeo Lee’s self-worshiping religious paintings to painter Neil Arvin Javier’s whimsical step toward embroidery. With a post-colonial mindset, these artists are driven by a personal and exploratory stance rather than creative indebtedness to the homeland. They challenge notions of what Filipino art is and can be.

Over wine and celery sticks, Peña talked to NOUS about the new age of global Filipino art illuminated by her gallery—one where she had to screw the light bulbs in herself.

Can you tell me about the idea behind New Natives?

It’s our first big Filipino contemporary art show and the first comprehensive one in Hong Kong, which I didn’t know until people told me. It really was something that was organic. I really wanted to do a big show with my friends. It turns out this was a pretty big deal for Hong Kong and I think for Manila, as well. I’ve been bombarded with questions about the curatorial aspect of the show and while there is a curatorial aspect, of course, because New Natives was born out of my obsession with displacement, geography, and home, it really was just simply, I wanted to do a show promoting art that I loved.

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And you’ve worked steadily with some of these artists over the past few years.  

Lightbombs was started in 2011 and we’ve had a 70 percent core of Filipino artists. Some of them were Dex Fernandez, Jed Escueta, Maya Muñoz, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo. I think Pancho Villanueva. The rest of my roster in the first two years, some of them were from New York, some from Australia, and some of them were from Hong Kong.

When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was here for an urban art gallery job. This was art that I never studied but art that I was eager to learn more about. With art ventures in Hong Kong, they close quickly. One year and then they’re gone. It’s the price of rent. Real estate is very tough here for businesses, for that type of sustainability. So after a year, I started Lightbombs after a couple of months of floating, writing. But writing hardly pays the bills.

And you were writing about art, as well?

Yes. And it’s very different because there’s not a big culture for critical art writing in Hong Kong and I think in most places in Asia. If you wanted to pursue that, you’d be hard-pressed to find good opportunities. It’s mostly art news—rehashes of press releases. Things where you had to be objective rather than critical. I think as writers, as I’m sure you know, what is most valuable is your opinion and how you filter things. And when you can’t say that, there’s no point. And it also makes me feel bad when I write critically because there’s always that doubt of am I really supposed to be saying this?

Tell me about the name.

Oh fuck, I don’t know (laughs). I’ve had Lightbombs the domain name since I was 16. I was just putting words together. I took creative writing in Ateneo and I thought it was going to be the site for the future book I’d publish of poetry or whatever. That was when the Internet was booming with regards to self-expression. Just your personal Angelfire website (laughs). I thought it was gonna be like that but it sat dormant for a long time until this became it. I feel it’s still very relevant to the way I do things, which is I think very instinctual and there’s always a lot of risk. Most of the time it pays off.

So yeah, Lightbombs—I think we just like to shed light on things that surprise people. Like a collector that I never worked with walked into the exhibition a couple weeks ago and I bumped into him in another auction. He said, ‘You know, your show was very eye-opening.’ Which was the best thing that you can hear with regards to trying to champion something that to the rest of the world, is a big question mark. It’s nice that once that question mark is pushed out of the way a little bit, there’s something beautiful that people can enter that has nothing to do with the culture.

I like that you put up a gallery in an outlying part of Hong Kong. At least the art you view here feels almost like a discovery.

Yeah. I love that you say that. I mean, to get a space like this in Central, probably 100-grand, 200-grand a month. We’re paying a very good price for it but at the same time, it’s still an investment. Art is expensive to do anywhere. In Hong Kong, you have to work especially hard to make sure you’re afloat. But we keep things lean. With art, everything is luxe and glam for other people to see but really, what we do is from the ground up. From screwing a light bulb to taking out the trash, to getting the money in the bank. We built everything. We hung everything. We didn’t hire anyone to do it. This for us was like pizza party, painting the floor, put on your party frock and makeup for opening night and pretend you have a staff of 20 people to do everything for you.

How welcoming has Hong Kong been to Filipino art?

You know, there’s a small community but it’s an active community of Filipinos in Hong Kong—professionals and collectors, as well. They came to the exhibition and their tastes are largely different from what you see here. They collected old-school Filipino artists—artwork I only wish I could be working with. But at the same time, my heart lies in contemporary Filipino art. But even before Lightbombs, even before this venture into Filipino contemporary, there have already been people that have welcomed it. There are collectors here that have collected it whether it’s through exhibitions, through galleries that have involved other Filipino artists, or just a pure interest in the Philippines.

How recently was this interest felt?

There’s definitely been a buzz but I probably started hearing about it about two, three years ago, when you could discern a real curiosity for it. I mean, it’s something any business person would like to align themselves with but at the same time, two years ago, I wasn’t even doing Filipino art. I was working with Filipino artists but we didn’t posit ourselves as an authority on Filipino contemporary art, which we are now. And we’re glad people are seeing us that way. It’s a big title because we’re not the first people to do it in Hong Kong. I’m just the first person to push it as hard as I am here. So that welcoming, it’s always been there as long as the artwork is good. That’s the fun thing about the art scene in Hong Kong—it’s open. Regardless of the collectors, if they see something that’s viscerally stimulating to them, they are going to want to know more about it.

New Natives runs at the Lightbombs Contemporary until May 30. 

Michael Arcega

Christina Quisumbing Ramilo

Costantino

Victor Balanon

Dex

Neil Arvin Javier

Romeo Lee

Felix Bacolor