Wawi Navarroza: As Wild As We Come

19 August - 17 September 2022 London

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)

 

A woman appears in a series of brightly coloured, stylised tableaux, draped in richly patterned fabrics, clutching ceramic vessels, an artichoke, a blue ribbon hooked over her fingers, a string of pearls between her teeth. This latest collection of self-portraits by Wawi Navarroza continues the artist’s vivid, layered explorations into identity, place and belonging, with a specific focus on the female experience, motherhood and bodily transformation. Weaving together a multitude of references from ancient and contemporary cultures, As Wild As We Come, the artist’s first solo show in London at Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery’s London Bridge space, contemplates the never-ending formation and flux of self as we cross geographical, corporeal and spiritual thresholds.
 
Born in Manila in the Philippines, Navarroza’s practice is rooted in a deep, embodied sense of place that is best understood through the lens of ‘Tropical Gothic’ – a term coined by Filipino national artist Nick Joaquin. Navarroza describes the Tropical Gothic as a fitting portrait of Filipino culture that is a syncretic blend of the local with a heady mix of Spanish Catholic and American Pop while remaining distinctly South East Asian. In terms of her own art, it provides a useful framework, or as she describes it, ‘a container for everything that I can’t exactly define – all of the things that I’ve been observing, living, breathing from childhood until now.’ Her photographic works employ a process of in-studio collage in order to examine and disentangle this process of synthesis from both a very personal perspective and in relation to reductive stereotypes surrounding the Orient. Navarroza notes, for example, that the term ‘wild’ has often been used in association with the Orient to describe something unknown, dangerous or savage, but here, in the title of the exhibition, she reclaims the word as an expression of defiance, knowing, vitality and play.
 
This latest body of work marks a particularly transformational period for the artist in which she has become a mother and moved across the globe from Manila to Istanbul, a country which sits on the cusp of Asia and Europe, the ancient and modern world. Though both experiences were destabilising in different ways, the artist chooses to reflect on how they have enriched her perspectives of the world and renewed her connection to both her body and art. There is a distinct celebratory atmosphere throughout: in the riotous melding of colour, pattern and texture that – an aesthetic that recalls the artist’s memories of fiestas in Manila – and in the depiction of birthday cakes, in a trio of still life works, that refer to the birth of Navarroza’s child but also her own rebirth as a mother. 
 
Among the most visceral of the self-portraits is a work titled Vagus (after the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body). Here, a river of red, lacy fabric runs from the top of the image to pool around Navraozza’s feet, evoking the appearance of blood, which as the artist notes, is ‘both universally life-giving and intensely personal.’ The artist appears seated on a bed with her legs open, a black wire extending from her stomach in a gesture to an umbilical cord and a collection of carnelian crystals at her feet. The stones make reference to the notion of healing and balance as well as continuity to planetary time, while the artist’s pose, with her arm bent up around her head, mimics an exercise to relieve the vagus nerve system and reduce stress. In one sense, this is a portrait of vulnerability and exposure, inviting an intimate encounter between viewer and artist as Navarroza translates the private experience of childbirth and motherhood into tangible materials, but at the same time, she draws our attention to the artifice. A striped curtain on the left-hand side recalls the structure of a stage while the strip of yellow floral wallpaper behind the bed is loosely hung over a painted green grid.
 
Elsewhere, the artist’s orchestration of the image is made visible through visual anomalies. In the work titled The Shopper, for example, the background is composed of different checkered patterns containing glitches where the grid overlaps or repeats itself. Navarroza, who also appears dressed in checkered clothing, stands in front of a roughly cut-out shape of a blue and white vase as if she, herself, is contained. As in many of the works, Navarroza brings together the contemporary with the ancient, the banal with the spiritual. There is a shopping bag filled with potatoes flung over her shoulder while she holds an artichoke heart with open palms in front of her chest, imitating a gesture of prayer. Meanwhile, a small rectangle of woven polychromatic, upcycled fabric, that’s commonly used in the Philippines as a doormat, forms a halo behind her head. It is this slippage of meaning that makes the works so compelling; each time we return to the image, we are able to unlock new layers of symbolism and construct our own narratives afresh. In this way, Navarroza enacts her own kind of resistance. Her bright, joyous collaged scenes rally against notions of seamlessness and stability in favour of hybridity, creative curiosity and transformation.  
 

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.