Private view: Thursday the 18th of August from 6:30-8:30pm
London (London Bridge)
Wawi Navarroza Artist Talk with Marv Recinto: Saturday the 20th of August at 3:00 pm London (London Bridge)
Woman at the Threshold: Decolonising the Wild in Wawi Navarroza’s As Wild As We Come (2022)
By Marv Recinto
Wawi Navarroza enters her new body of work As Wild As They Come via the Wild, subverting its loaded meanings in a dazzling array of symbols, patterns, colours, and the Self. The Wild has preoccupied fantasies of Western artmaking for centuries, opposing the ‘civilised’ sensibilities of the Global North who visually and linguistically illustrated the exotic; take, for example, Henri Rousseau’s Le Rêve (1910) in which he foregrounds a reclining nude, white woman surrounded by tropical forest and exotic animals while the central, almost intelligible, dark-skinned native woman plays a flute. This painting aptly illustrates the West’s fetishist propensity to equate the ‘Wild’ with lush, erotic mystery. However, Navarroza ten photographic tableaus disrupt the canonically Eurocentric origins of the Wild, undermining the specifically biased discourse that continues to suffuse postcolonial mentality. She approaches the Wild dialectically and frenetically, putting its various signifiers and associations – including herself – in simultaneous conversation.
It is this fetishisation for the exotic Other that Navarroza first enters the Wild. She builds upon her previous bodies of work which consider the Tropical Gothic – a term coined by Nick Joaquin to describe a postcolonial investigation of the liminal unknown using irony and exaggeration – with a novel exploration of the Orient, derived from her 2020 move to the East’s literal portal: Istanbul. By introducing culturally specific signifiers of exoticism like the orchids, pearls, and silk kaftan of Mother of Pearls / Oryental & Overseas (Self-Portrait), the artist co-opts the West’s harmful discourses and annexes them for herself to deconstruct their meanings. Navarroza’s use of photography as medium also subverts the male, colonial gaze; photography allegedly captures ‘objective’ renderings of the subject, but as critic Marian Pastor Roces points out, the first photographs of Filipinos were framed via the coloniser’s gaze of the exotic. Filipinos, as the colonised, have thus inherited the coloniser’s derogatory idea of themselves. The artist’s photographic practice, however, inherently seeks to undermine and unlearn these frameworks.
Navarroza also approaches the Wild through nature, harkening the uncultivated and celestial. Faunae, rocks, and other natural objects proliferate each composition, employing traditional art historical symbolism. Yet, the combination of fake and real plants as seen in New Pleasures, for example,question reality and artifice. They further recall pre-anthropocentric attitudes when humanity and nature existed more harmoniously.
Women – Navarroza’s third portal – in precolonial Philippines also maintained equal power to men; yet patriarchal colonisation facilitated women’s diminished standing in society, equating them with biological inferiority. Through deliberately arranged interiors of décor and fabric, the artist embraces what has become traditionally denigrated to household ‘women’s work’. She places herself within compositions to stand-in for womanhood whilst simultaneously relating to her own specific experiences that include becoming a recent mother – questioning the historically problematic conflation that renders the value of women in their childbearing. Portals / Double-Portrait depicts two versions of the artist: the left’s body language articulates this Navarroza as carefree and wild, wearing red heels and sparkly trousers with hair tied in a loose ponytail; the right shows a more composed, though still confident, artist with a neat bun and her son on her lap. The two (perhaps even three in her son) versions of Navarroza dialogically contemplate one another. In another artwork entitled Todo Lo Que Tengo / Bottomless / Bereket (Self-Portrait with Vessels), Navarroza digitally edits her seated self to hold fragments of various types of vessels from specific cultures of the ancient world, contemporary Philippines, and Turkey; that these vessels, traditionally symbolic of women, are rendered over one another indicate the artist’s own cultural multiplicity; yet the vessel is often overlooked for what it stores – liquid or child. The Spanish title translates to ‘Everything I have’, thus her embrace of these objects, coupled with her contemplative profile, indicate a fraught inquiry into the ontology of women.
These tableaus brim with symbolism and allegory, but there is also, lastly, a Wildness in their aesthetic of excess. Navarroza’s zealous use of colour, pattern, and texture – in addition to the plethora of objects and gestures – as seen in the backdrop of The Shopper / Heart Sutra (Self-Portrait with Artichoke) result in an amalgamation of overwhelming visual and cognitive stimuli that articulate as Postcolonial Camp. The ‘Postcolonial’ preface highlights the necessity of postcolonial agency in engaging with this notion as a method of subversion following over 500 years of subjugation by Spain, America and Japan; ‘Camp’, as described by Susan Sontag in her pioneering text ‘Notes on Camp’, is the victory of style, aesthetics, and irony over content, morality, and tragedy. The artist has admitted to shying away from descriptors such as Kitsch or Camp in the past, preferring instead serious and plainly conceptual modes. However, her realisation of these opinions’ colonial and patriarchal inheritance unlocked her current practice full of vivacity and theatricality, which is no less critically engaged. Countries of the Global South such as the Philippines that have acceded a kitsch mode are particularly susceptible to derogatory condescension regarding taste. Though, capitalist forces of the Global North such as that which precipitated the widespread Filipino migration movement – that Navarroza is a participant of – and Oversees Foreign Worker (OFW) phenomenon are largely responsible for the same aesthetic it derides. These Filipinos often bring back indexes of the cultures in which they found success such as curtain swags or Roman columns that might be called unsophisticated, but in reality reflect a perseverance and resourcefulness that should be celebrated. The Postcolonial Camp thus emerges within contemporary Philippines and Navarroza’s tableaus as an alternative reality filled with creativity, playfulness and substance.
This series’ title As Wild As They Come indicate Navarroza’s intention of maximising the Wild signifier. She has indeed accomplished this, as these photographs brim with a visual lexicon that undermines conventional and destructive meanings of the Other, nature, women, and excess. The artist’s tableaus celebrate what we’ve been conditioned to be ashamed about, embracing the chaos in a cathartic act of joy, play, and sensorial delight.