Though the walls of the Catharine Clark Gallery are painted gray, there’s nothing neutral in Native Resolution, Stephanie Syjuco’s current exhibition. It crackles with an urgent, accusatory energy that moves us forward and backward in time: to 1889 when American military forces seized the Philippines and made them a U.S. colony, and to the present when domestic political violence – driven by the same racist ideology that fueled the Philippine conquest – runs rampant throughout the U.S.
To wit: When an anti-imperialist movement arose after the U.S. takeover of the islands, Indiana Senator Alfred Beveridge said: “America had a duty to bring order and civilization to what he called a ‘barbarous race,’ insisting the Philippines are ours forever…We will not abandon our duty in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” Similar sentiments are widely voiced today and acted upon.
To be clear, stridency has never been Syjuco’s stock-in-trade; her work is most often characterized by measured, aesthetically rich and sometimes humorous examinations of how global finance and patterns of consumption interconnect to perform capitalism’s dirty work, particularly in the production of luxury goods – something the artist has probed (and parodied) by creating and/or commissioning credible knock-offs of everything from designer handbags and high-priced art to brand-name furniture. That modus operandi appears to been disrupted. With this exhibition whose title plays on the multiple meanings of “native” and “resolution” and whose visual content includes some literal finger-pointing , I can’t help but think that ground has shifted beneath her feet, pushing her into a stance that is more confrontational than any we’ve seen from her in the past.
The shift, given the recent spate of violence against Asian-American women, seems prescient. Though savagery of this sort was predicted well before Donald Trump took office, little of it, at least against Asians, had been unleashed — or at least reported — when Syjuco, a Manilla-born Oakland artist, began her research for this exhibition in 2019. With funding from the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, Syjuco spent hundreds of hours combing the archives of the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Anthropology and other collections for documents, artifacts and photographic representations of Filipinos.
The exhibition consists of photographs of what she found. Presented in a variety of formats, they allow us to see and feel what she felt as she uncovered century-old ethnographic representations of her people. The show opens with three framed “Pileups” built of overlapping photos, carefully arranged in a manner that falls somewhere between diorama, wunderkammer and assemblage. Contents pictured include letters written by American anthropologists to relatives back home, pages from their journals, pictures of villages and villagers, dead guerrilla fighters, ceremonial artifacts, pottery shards, baskets, gourds, dried plant specimens, weapons and a giant box camera. Into each, Syjuco inserts a color calibration card, otherwise known as an 18-percent neutral gray card, that photographers use to achieve correct color. By itself, neutrality of this sort is desirable, particularly with skin tones which are always tricky to get right. But at a time when questions of what it means to be American burn hot, the conflation of those two things — color and correctness — make for an incendiary coupling, tailor-made for Syjuco’s inquiries into racial stereotyping. Followers of Syjuco’s work will immediately recognize it as having played a key role in her previous show in this space,
Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament +Crime), wherein, among other things, she pictured herself swathed in optical mazes of mismatched faux-ethnic fabrics that thoroughly camouflaged and exoticized her identity. If this were a museum show, we’d learn the backstory behind the objects in these pictures from wall text. Absent that, the short version rests, simply, with the ugly history of the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, during which the U.S. Army, according to a PBS FrontlineWorld report, rounded peasants into “reconcentration camps” and declared “entire areas battle zones, in which no distinctions were made between combatants and civilians. At least 4,200 American and 16,000 Filipino soldiers are thought to have been killed in the fighting. Historians have debated the scale of civilian deaths, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to almost 1 million.”
Documents Syjuco uncovered reveal the racist underpinnings of those events. One example, on view in Pileup Eastman, is a half-occluded photo of José Rizal, a hero of the resistance against Spain, the colonial power that preceded America’s incursion. It’s labeled “Portrait of Man 1900.” The reductiveness of that caption is breathtaking, never mind that the date is incorrect: Rizal was executed by a firing squad in 1896. Misrepresentations such as these are, apparently, emblematic of the way U.S. researchers operated the Philippines.
Additional evidence can be seen in Fixed Focus (Dead Center), a grid of 36 pictures Syjuco shot of typed, photocopied transcriptions of original handwritten notebooks, which she cropped to emphasize existing “corrections” and to make room, if only in our imagination, for possible counter-narratives. “Headhunting,” “persistently refuse,” “choking smoke,” “typical dress,” and “bride is coy” were just some of the text snippets I spotted in a quick scan.
Another of Syjuco’s responses to these findings is a video called Block Out the Sun, displaying still images of villagers whose faces she covered with her fingers. The source images for these “blocked-out” pictures were created for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis where 1,200 Filipinos were imported from the newly acquired colony to perform dances and rituals against fake tropical backdrops. “After seeing image after image” of this “human zoo,” the artist writes on her website, “it struck me that the photos, while historical, also serve to constantly reinscribe and reify the power dynamics of the time.” By physically blocking the images with her hands, the artist thwarts our ability to see them, while “at the same time acknowledging that the images remain” in circulation.
More aesthetically compelling is the series of crumpled photos called Afterimages: photogravures the artist commissioned based on those same ginned-up World’s Fair photos. Unfolded with crisscrossing creases that make the surfaces look like warped jigsaw puzzles, these images, more than any others in the show, communicate the artist’s desire to intervene in that painful history.
The show comes to a perfect denouement with five highly pixelated headshots that are unrecognizable. Such efforts parallel those of Hito Steyerl who created disguises to confound AI-based surveillance systems that today routinely misidentify people of color. That such errors are now firmly embedded in untold lines of computer code stand as proof that, in matters of race, nothing is resolved and that ideas of nativity and nativism remain locked in fierce opposition. With Native Resolution, Syjuco, one of the Bay Area’s preeminent conceptual artists, brings these issues into even sharper focus.
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Stephanie Syjuco: “Native Resolution” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through April 10, 2021.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.