IN-HABIT: PROJECT ANOTHER COUNTRY, 2012, floor-to-ceiling installation of miniature cardboard condominiums supported by steel scaffolding, displayed at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Sydney. Courtesy SCAF.

WINGS, 2009, used rubber slippers collected from a Singapore correctional facility, displayed at Drawing Room, Manila, 2010. Courtesy Drawing Room.

PROJECT BE-LONGING: IN TRANSIT, 2006, personal belongings of the artists and their children arranged in cube formations. Courtesy the artists

DREAM BLANKET PROJECT, 2002/2006, wall of densely piled blankets, at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Tokamachi, 2006. Courtesy the artists.

MABINI ART PROJECT: 100 PAINTINGS (detail), 2011, cut and framed pieces of an oil on canvas painting by Antonio Calma, at Drawing Room, Manila, 2011. Courtesy Drawing Room.

Set Adrift

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan

Features from Nov/Dec 2012
Australia Philippines
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In late August, Alfredo Aquilizan was standing in the middle of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) gallery in Sydney, surrounded by what looked like a miniature city after a hurricane had swept through. Small model houses made from cardboard boxes were scattered haphazardly across the concrete floor. Some had been crushed and discarded; others were piled into broken and twisted heaps, their tiny picket fences—made from kebab sticks—strewn everywhere. A few houses appeared to have survived the storm intact. Alfredo, with detectable melancholy, surveyed the devastation, snapping away with his Leica camera, recording the wreckage.

However, this was not quite the scene of tragedy that it first appeared to be. It was the tail end of a successful project by Alfredo and his wife Isabel. Since the project’s inception several weeks earlier, In-Habit: Project Another Country (2012) had grown as the local community gradually contributed additional makeshift cardboard houses to the initial installation. From a tiny hamlet, to a village, it grew to become a sprawling shantytown, clinging to a web of steel scaffolding poles that reached floor to ceiling, wall to wall. After several weeks, the installation took on the look of a favela in miniature.

Alfredo watched as helpers reached in among the debris and began to recycle the unsalvageable pieces while attaching the remaining good houses to the collapsible wooden frames that will allow the installation to tour through the eastern states of Australia in 2014–15. “In-Habit is,” Alfredo told ArtAsiaPacific, “a poignant example of transience—of humans’ attempt to create permanence.”

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan are partners in life and in art, and have achieved a seamless integration of what could have easily become two polarities—in their lives, their art, their parenting, or even in being two people and never really being able to understand the other—during the years that they have been together. One of the things that has held them so closely together during that time is the responsibility they feel as parents for their five children, who range in ages from 13 to 25 years. Family responsibilities are also extended to embrace the community in which they live. This is a Filipino thing, Alfredo claimed, before telling a story of how, when they arrived in Brisbane as migrants from the Philippines in 2006 with very few possessions in tow, the local Filipino community showered them with gifts. “We immediately had three televisions, computers, toys and so many clothes. I am still wearing some even now.”

Though In-Habit: Project Another Country has connections to the artist-duo’s own lives, it was inspired by the fragile houses and itinerant existence of the marginalized Badjao people, who live scattered across several islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the southwestern Philippines, and on the northern shores of Borneo. Living mainly in fragile stilt houses on the margins of the ocean, which both provides sustenance and contributes to its cultural identity, the Badjao community doesn’t conform to a modern state’s expectations of its citizenry or to the demands of a liberal economy. The nomadic, seafaring lifestyle of many runs contrary to the ideas of sovereign states, passport checks and closed borders. Controversially, the Philippine government has been trying to relocate these Badjao (who also face state discrimination because they are Muslim in a Catholic-majority country) into land-based communities.

The lives, social concerns, collective memories and migratory experiences of the Badjao as they traverse the Sulu Archipelago have in recent years come to resonate deeply with Alfredo and Isabel. Their predicament echoes the central but nondoctrinaire tenets of the Aquilizans’ artistic practice and their interest in how journeys and settlement reframe a sense of belonging, as life becomes a series of shared obligations and communal expectations. The Aquilizans have explored these building blocks over many years, as they have discovered disenfranchised and marginalized communities in the most unlikely of places.

For example, for their sculpture Wings (2009) they gathered hundreds of rubber flip-flops from a Singaporean correctional facility to create three human-scale pairs of angel’s wings, serving as a metaphor for an incarcerated community from which no amount of good work or divine intervention can release the inhabitants. The piece is luminous in its simplicity, acknowledging the prisoners as the most dispossessed of all communities, while the freedom that the wings imply lends the work a bitter irony.

The Aquilizans became migrants themselves in 2006 when they left the Philippines for Brisbane in search of a better life for their children. “The situation in the Philippines was not good; elections were rigged and it was normal for kids to say it is okay to cheat in school,” Alfredo recalled in our conversation. The country was rife with corruption with much of the population living in poverty.  

The story of the Aquilizans’ migration to Australia is well known in certain art circles, but worth reprising as it goes to the core of how their art and life have evolved together. They had been pondering a move to Australia for some time when a serendipitous invitation from curator Charles Merewether to participate in the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, “Zones of Contact,” led them to consider seriously how the personal upheaval in their lives that migrating would entail could serve as a metaphor for displacement—albeit, in their case, self-imposed. Each of their children was given a box into which they had to place the possession they wanted to bring to Australia. Not everything could be dispatched to the new country, and a juxtaposition of toys, clothes, books and precious objects was neatly folded and packed into balikbayan boxes, in which Filipinos have traditionally packed up their precious belongings to ship them around the world. 

PROJECT ANOTHER COUNTRY: ADDRESS, 2008, 140 stacked cubes of personal belongings, at the 2008 Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art. Courtesy Drawing Room, Manila.

The boxes themselves became an artwork, Project Be-Longing: In Transit (2006), which Alfredo and Isabel displayed in “Zones of Contact.” Evoking this particular family voyage, the work speaks of displacement and the personal traumas the children endured as they made their selections of what to bring and what to leave behind. What is less known, however, is that the items the family left behind were placed in similar boxes and exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila, where they became a tragic reminder of the fractures created by the displacements that all migrants experience (they were later bought by a local collector). As Alfredo recalled, surveying the wreckage at SCAF, “It is human nature to want to constantly move and look for another and better place.” 

In Transit metamorphosed into Project Another Country: Address (2008), a work comprised of the contents of 140 balikbayan boxes, each of which had been carefully packed with personal items donated to the family by the local Philippine community when they first arrived in Brisbane in 2006. The objects, displayed in cubic stacks corresponding to the size of the boxes, are arranged to create a four-sided enclosure with an entrance, something like a dwelling without a roof. The work itself has been itinerant, traveling to the Adelaide and Singapore biennials in 2008, and to Japan and Israel in 2010. As the years go on, the piece has become a biographical time capsule, a mélange of the curious and serendipitous that occurs when disparate objects are juxtaposed.

Sensitivity to social issues and familial concerns is an intrinsic part of the Aquilizans’ art practice, which has developed over the years to include many ongoing projects that take various forms. For example, “Project Be-Longing,” which began in 1997, now spans more than 10 years and remains as yet unresolved, a multipart meditation on dislocation, loss and cultural resistance seen through the accumulation of personal items—themes that have proved rich raw material for the Aquilizans’ work. “Project Be-Longing” has seen several iterations over the years, from the Queensland Art Gallery’s third Asia Pacific Triennial in 1999, through to Project Be-Longing: In Transit shown in Sydney in 2006 and beyond. For the Aquilizans, the role of an artist is “to bring people together, to slow people down and to forge connections in communities and between objects and people.”

Although the Aquilizans are very busy, traveling and constantly working, what can be physically achieved in their art is anchored by the pragmatic concerns of raising and nurturing their children. Acknowledging these responsibilities informs and determines the output of their practice. It has also imbued this output with a degree of “making do”—a philosophy that has become a natural extension of their domestic lives. This approach is evident in a work such as Passing-Through: Project Another Country (2011–12), first created last year in their studio space in Brisbane and shown again in February 2012 at the student gallery of Queensland College of Art (where Alfredo was a PhD candidate at the time), which consists of a dry-docked ship built from the detritus that habitually seems to gather inside such a space. The imagery of the boat—a recurring one in the Aquilizans’ work—is a universal symbol of transcendence, hope and tragedy; old bamboo poles, bicycle wheels and a riot of other disparate materials are assembled and lashed together to create this strange and evocative stygian craft. 

From March until July 2013, the Aquilizans will take up a residency in Sacramento, California, at the Montalvo Arts Center. It will be the longest period of time they have spent away from the family unit in recent years, although Isabel will almost certainly return to Brisbane after two weeks away to look after the children. But initially the residency will give them the opportunity to live with other artists and negotiate the conceptual framework of future projects.

Alfredo is by nature loquacious. Talking, he said, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of their work. “The most exciting part of working on a project is discussing it with curators and those involved in the creative process—the beginning of the conversation, which in our work, in a philosophical sense, actually never ends. That is what our work is, not the object but how it affects people. In our projects  we are just responding to what we feel and see. We do not seek a resolution; in fact, very rarely do we resolve anything in our art. Our role is to present problems and to keep asking questions.”

Their work is a journey undertaken with their audiences, a dialogue even. This is why they find the community workshops that they regularly hold in schools so enjoyable. “The art is hidden behind the installation, and it remains unseen,” said Alfredo. The workshops give them the opportunity to engage with communities at a fundamental level, mining a rich vein that threads throughout their art practice. The installations that often result from these workshops or activities, and in which visitors are often invited to participate, become a document of what has taken place, fleshing out the conceptual frameworks. In the weeks leading up to their recent project in Sydney, they worked with children in local schools, encouraging them to build cardboard houses and to visit and participate in the eventual installation.

The thorny issue of aesthetics that bedevils so much art practice is carefully sidestepped because the artists do not desire to create something purely visual or in a particular style. “The installation is not about aesthetics, although aesthetics can sometimes become a by-product,” Alfredo noted. Beauty, if it exists at all in the Aquilizans’ projects, is arrived at almost by default, a result of something much more central to how they work. In the Aquilizans’ work, the concept of art as an object of aesthetic contemplation has been transformed into a potent tool to reflect on social issues that emanate from a society in which making do is very often the norm.

For example, Alfredo admits that Presences and Absences: Project Be-Longing (1999)—for which thousands of used toothbrushes were collected from the Philippine and Japanese communities—possesses a superficially attractive quality, with its alluring and inherent sense of color and form. But the real purpose of the work was to unite the stories that emerged during the collection of the toothbrushes. “Some people put their names on the brushes, as though they wanted to achieve an individuality within the context of the mass,” Alfredo said. “Many brushes clearly highlighted the economic differences of those who donated, and some toothbrushes were obviously used for cleaning shoes.” The work is an archetypal example of how, for the Aquilizans, the art itself does not reside in the work but in the stories behind the work. It is the process as opposed to the outcome that is important, and the thousands of toothbrushes were displayed like ethnographical objects, first on the floor and later in glass vitrines. 

The same could be said of the four iterations of Dream Blanket Project—in Manila and Busan in 2002, in Echigo in 2006 and in Queensland in 2007—in which the process of bringing together hundreds of blankets from local communities delivered a work of heightened aesthetic sensibility. Dream Blanket Project was predicated on a simple premise—the blankets under which people dream were gathered and precisely folded and placed in open-fronted cabinets. From a hidden sound system the dream weavers would tell their individual dreams. “Blankets in Korea were very beautiful textiles, while those from Japan had much more formal patterns and the recorded dreams were much more formal too,” said Alfredo.

Of the two, Alfredo is the dreamer, Isabel the pragmatist, anchored in the real world. They have been married 26 years. Isabel, in a matter-of-fact way, reflected on those early days in the Philippines: “My parents were not happy about the marriage. They didn’t like Alfredo. They were always rude to him. I was a sweet, young Catholic girl leading a very sheltered life, my father’s favorite. I would merge into the background. Alfredo was an artist, a punk and always stood out in a crowd.” This was in 1986, and the couple married nonetheless and constructed a happy if somewhat economically precarious existence with five children. Their parents couldn’t see how a marriage of such opposites could possibly last. Now Isabel’s father “would kiss Alfredo’s feet,” she said.

Life seems good for the Aquilizans when viewed from the outside. And to a large extent, it is good. They are much in demand at art fairs and biennials around the world. But the nature of international commissions leads to a detachment from the final installation that the Aquilizans find problematic. “We would much prefer to spend more time there. As it is, we fly in, install and fly out, and often don’t get to see or engage with the visitors, which is a part of the process that we actually enjoy.” They travel often and, as international artists with a wide-reaching reputation, one assumes they are financially secure. But fame and fortune bow down before humility—they simply make do with priorities firmly fixed around family responsibilities. 


MABINI ART PROJECTSEASCAPE, 2011, cut and framed pieces of an oil on canvas painting by Antonio Calma, 228.6 × 228.6 cm. Courtesy Drawing Room, Manila

PORTRAIT 1: FOREIGN LANDSCAPES PUZZLE, 2010–11, jigsaw puzzle pieces, 179 × 159 cm. Courtesy the artists.

PORTRAIT 2: FOREIGN LANDSCAPES PUZZLE, 2010–11, jigsaw puzzle pieces, 179 × 159 cm. Courtesy the artists.

Recent trips back to the Philippines have made them reflect at length on the financial aspects of the art market and how art assumes a different value depending on the context in which it is exhibited. Their “Mabini Art Project” series (2009– ) is an example of how an art object changes and subscribes to a different value system when subjected to artistic intervention and appropriation. Traditional Mabini paintings are “kitsch” Filipino landscape art created by local artisans. Churned out in the thousands and dripping with sentimentality, they are sold on Mabini Street in Manila. The Aquilizans’ dealer commissioned a local Mabini painter to produce hundreds of works, which they then reconfigured through reframing, cutting or occluding, with the fragments either reframed or segmented into semi-sculptural works or disjointed murals. 

In the process of transformation, the resulting works become contemporary art because, as Alfredo put it, “we are contemporary artists.” The nature of the transformation is economic, physical and conceptual. No one is exploited in the process. The original artisan 
is happy to have the commission, especially at a time when the tourist industry is declining, even contracting the work out to other painters. The works are also a reflection on authorship and co-creation. “The series toys with the idea of value in art. We take these so-called low-brow paintings that are aimed at tourists and sold cheaply on the Manila street and through our intervention turn them into high-brow art sold through a high-end, contemporary art gallery. It is quite absurd.” The “Mabini Art Project” has seen several iterations since the original concept took shape in 2009. Yuko Hasegawa, curator of the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, has just invited the Aquilizans to show Mabini Art Project: 100 Paintings (2011), in which a large Mabini canvas has been cut into 100 rectangles of various sizes and each resulting piece carefully framed, at next year’s exhibition. 

While the Sacramento residency will offer them a chance to reflect on life and art, and to enjoy being in a community of artists, one senses that their lives are at a turning point. There is a 1,000-square-meter studio space two hours outside of Manila where they hope to establish a community arts center that will offer residencies and an opportunity for poverty-stricken children to engage with creativity. The idea is still not clearly formed in their minds, but Alfredo’s engaging smile seems a clear indication that it will happen. Indeed, when we talked they were about to board a plane to Manila to sign a contract on the space. 

Life, it seems, is pulling them back to their homeland, offering a chance of healing, of redemption even. “I want to give kids there a real chance to develop and grow. I want to help those who have had little chance to achieve a future because of poverty,” Alfredo said. These may seem lofty ideals but they are genuinely felt. However, a permanent return to the Philippines is predicated on their youngest daughter first finishing school in Australia in five years’ time. They will then think about the Manila studio space and try and determine how this venture will develop. For now there is a pressing site inspection at the Gem Museum in The Hague, where they will create a “museum within a museum using recycled materials,” said Alfredo, while the Sharjah Biennial will occupy them briefly next year along with a vast educational project for Singapore’s National Art Gallery. Work is busier than ever and of course the family takes a lot of time, Isabel noted, “but life unfolds in its own unique way.” 

Despite the community-based nature of their work, aesthetics has an uncanny ability to rear its head at the most unlikely moments. At the recent Art HK in Hong Kong in May 2012, they sold major artworks to an Australian collector for the first time, despite having lived in the country since 2006. These were two monumental self-portraits based on their own Australian passport photographs made from jigsaw puzzle pieces of European landscapes. Incredibly beautiful as the works are, they remain true to the Aquilizans’ artistic canon, being about place, traveling, location and the fragility of life, which, without warning, can shatter into a thousand fragments.

In the meantime, the Aquilizans’ journey continues in a cyclical rather than linear fashion. Last month they regained their Filipino citizenships. “The oath-taking seemed weird,” Alfredo said. “When you leave your country you do become a different person. Until now, whenever we have returned to the Philippines, it has seemed as though we were tourists.”