Post Colonial Diaspora, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan

The Philippines, like much of South East Asia, has been affected by significant impacts of colonial influence, with two major waves of colonialism in its more recent history.

The first wave was known as the Spanish period which began with the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi’s in 1565, when he established the first permanent Spanish settlement on the island of Cebu .This era of Spanish colonization lasted for more than three centuries.The second phase is known as the American period, which spanned 1898- 1946 and began with a revolution against Spain in August 1896 and finished at the end Spanish–American War with control of the Philippines given to the USA.[1] This agreement was not recognised by the First Philippine Republic Government which proclaimed a war against the United States resulting in the Philippine–American War and resulting in massive casualties.[2] Work towards a fully sovereign state was halted by the Japanese occupation of the islands during World War II After the end of the war, the Treaty of Manila established the Philippine Republic as an independent nation.

This treaty signified the beginning of the most recent period , the post-colonial period- from 1946 to the present which began with a promising economy in the 1950s and 1960s,  then in the late 1960s and early 1970s a rise of student activism and civil unrest against President Ferdinand Marcos . The People Power Revolution of 1986 brought about the ousting of Marcos and a return to democracy for the country but has resulted in political instability and difficult economic circumstances for many citizens. During this period that many artists immigrated out of the Philippines in search of a better life and the marks of colonialism and instability have resulted in an art movement that is typified by thematic focus on what could be considered symptoms of diaspora- migration, personal identity ,disconnection  and cultural disconnection.

Modernity , Contemporary Art and the Post-Colonial Avant Garde

Within an art history context the Philippines is currently in a contemporary art phase having moved from Modernism in the early 20th century .This modernity movement was typified a rejection of the old and a creation of the new with Dadaist and Surrealist movements setting the tone of this period. The current contemporary phase is typified more with an extension of, reuse of and re-engagement with  new ideas, rather than a rejection of the old which typified modernism.

So what can Philippine contemporary art be defined as? Curator Junichi Shioda suggests that firstly we need to acknowledge the cultural diversity of Southeast Asian Arts [3]  .This is an important point, because the nature of much of art history in South East Asia is the influences of other cultures, animist influences and religious iconography. It stands to reason that contemporary Filipino art would be influenced in the same way, not least of which by the significant cultural upheavals the region has endured.

Importantly, for art to be considered contemporary, it must appear to be the product of free will unmediated by any external power, either religious or secular in nature[4]. While this is certainly the case of current contemporary artists, there is another layer of complexity driving through their work here; we see a clear and distinct connection to the old world Philippines,  symptoms of diaspora ,the dislocation from birth culture and juggling multiple cultural identifies. While the early forms of modernism were limited by problems of exclusions and appropriation, the contemporary condition of pluralism in contemporary art is a “prison without walls”[5]

Gina Fairley suggests Filipino post-colonial art has its own unique style, specifically drawing on its history, and culture of religion and politics whilst also acknowledging a set of contemporary similarities across most current Filipino art  including “creative use of material, a make do spirit, technical prowess, flutter between kitsch, animism and humour and….urbanity”.[6]

Yamboa extends Fairley’s concept by putting forth the theory that Filipino contemporary artists  are actually a part of the Post-Colonial Avant Garde, typified by “those artists whose aesthetic positions are articulated through aesthetic newness and innovation originating from western high modernism but foregrounded within the condition of post-colonialism “ [7]

There are a number of contemporary Philippines artists that fit Yamboa’s classification within the Post-colonial Avant Garde, including Gaston Damag, a renowned Philippine-born Paris-based installation artist noted for using ethnographic symbols of his animist culture combined with modern industrial materials such as steel and glass to address the ways a non-western ethnic culture can navigate around a cultural perspective dominated by the west.[8]

Installation 10 by Gaston Damag
Installation 10 by Gaston Damag

In his work above , Damag  draws into Philipino animist past with the use of bulo rice god figures, and encases them in the modern days materials of steel and glass.

So too Manuel Ocampo  uses  art-historical and literary references overlayed with rich historical religious and popular iconography of the Philippines including catholic crucifixes, teeth, swastikas, faeces and flowers[9]

Manuel Ocmapo
by Manuel Ocampo

We can see in this piece above modern western comic images overlaying a cockroach that it ismbued with the snatos figure characteristics of Philpino history. Both works by both artist  exhibit the post-colonial Avant Garde characteristics and diaspora.

Diaspora as a Post-Colonial Issue

One of the most common effects of post-colonial experience is diaspora, that of the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland. A term used historically to describe large waves of displaced people often when their home land, in some cases disappeared through war or other significant event[10] . These days the term is used so widely now it is difficult to discern how diaspora is different to simple migration. James Clifford puts forward that diaspora populations differ from immigrants in that immigrants may suffer loss and nostalgia, but on route to a new home, whilst diaspora communities collective  histories of displacement cannot be absolved by merging into a new community. So, how do we then define diaspora categorically? William Safran developed what is what is now considered to be the defining set of characteristics or diaspora[11]

1) Dispersal into two or more communities

2) Collective mythology of homeland

3) Alienation from host land

4) Idealization to return to homeland

5) Ongoing relationships with homeland. [12]

Art history scholars write of diaspora of the Filipino community including the artist community as a significant cultural attribute through the 1980s and 1990s.  Manuel Ocampo is probably the most famous of immigrant Filipino artists to leave and was joined by a significant cohort of Filipino artists including Gaston Damag ,Lani Maestro ,Lordy Rodriguez, Paul Pfieffer, Maria Croz, Robert Nery and David Medalla.[13] Despite splintering into a variety of nations around the world these artists “held their ‘Filipino- ness’’central to their  art making.[14]This dispersal of Filipino nationals, particularly artists in search of a better life , lead to the rise of ‘symptoms of diaspora’-migration ,dislocation ,identity and home becoming thematic motifs through the works of these artists.

A more recent pair of Filipino artists who serve as examples to test the theory of both the post-colonial Avant Garde and as reflections of diaspora are husband and wife collaborators Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, who migrated to Australia form the Philippines in 2006 .Their work is mainly large scale sculptural installations and they are strongly sympathetic with the themes of the  post-colonial Avant Garde in that all of their work set within the condition of post-colonialism  but overlay a newness and innovation of concept originating from western modernism. There works discuss the symptoms you would expect of a diasporic community – ides of home,  identity, dislocation  and displacement, and often overlaying multiple narratives that look at multiple ‘symptoms’. By exploring their work we can ascertain how this artistic movement out of the Philippines complies with Safran’s characteristics model.

Älfredo Aquilizan explains that he and wife Isabell negotiate their sense of place and the idea of the home ‘ by towing belongings from one site to another with a sensibility of the dislocated. This is an identity appropriated from their migration from the Philippines to Australia.[15] Many art historians and critics have reviewed the work of the Aquilizans and examined these concerns through their artworks

Social concerns, collective memories and migratory experiences echo through the work of the Aquilizan as the central but nondoctrinaire tenets of their artistic practices and ,as Young points out, “ their interest in how journeys and settlement reframe a sense of belonging, as life becomes a series of shared obligations and communal expectations”[16] (Young,2014). These ideas of collective memories and migratory experiences fit both the Avant Garde movement and the diasporic condition.

German art critic Doris Van Drathen writes much on the  human experience and discusses the concept of  being the concept of being uprooted and that this experience inevitably invokes in humans not only a drive to reconnect with what we have been uprooted from, but also lights a desire to go further back from those initial roots. [17]. This is an interesting idea, as this is a defining characteristic of both the post-colonial Avant Garde and the diasporic condition, the idea that an individual will reach further back into their cultural history to connect with the concept of themselves. We see the Aquilizans  link back with the portrayal of the Badjao people, the ancient seafaring community of the Philippines, and embracing the concepts of Badjao’s ancient heritage – musical instruments ,storytelling.

For the Aquilizan’s, migration has always been a theme of their works ‘’as we painfully integrate ourselves into what we call a rootless land or diasporas, identity is inconsistent and its construction becomes a continuous process of negotiation[18] (Aqulizan, 2012, 119).

The following works will reveal  further insights into the thematic concerns of the Aquilizans.

 Belonging: In Transit  (2007) and  Another Country-Address (2007-2008)

Belonging: In Transit 2007
Belonging: In Transit 2007
Project Another Country: Address 2008
Project Another Country: Address 2008








So many of the Aquilizan’s works, which they refer to as projects, are linked together, in that one project will inspire or borrow themes for the next. It is important then to consider looking at works collectively, rather than in isolation, as with the two works Belonging: In Transit (2007) and Another Country: Address (2008). The work Belonging- In Transit , where  the Aquilizan’s  packed their belongings in balikbayan boxes, one for each child, to fill with their belongings to take on their move from  Philippines to Australia. These traditional boxes where emptied and left as neatly folded ‘’identities’, that  although personal possessions, held a sense of dislocation by being in the context

The second work (Another Country) was produced for the 2008 Adelaide Biennale and was an extension of a Belonging. In Another Country we see the same concept of boxed goods but on a grander scale. A large selection of goods  where given to the Aquilzans by the Filipino expat community when they arrived in Australia. Household goods, toys, clothing was generously donated by locals Filipino’s to welcome the Aquilizan’s Unable to politely refuse them ,the artists ended up neatly packing the objects into these same traditional Philippines boxes and created a house made of the contents of 140 neatly packed  balikbayan boxes

Balikbayan are traditional Filipino boxes, but the term is also a used to describe a range of Filipino concerns; it means Filipino migrants returning home ,also the extended family or nation state in general. Though the balikbayan boxes serves as the location  of the body ,through the inflow and outflow of materials and value that manifests, the shrinking of the globe become apparent as migration and diaspora track the global desires of Filipinos”[19]

Themes that flow through both the earlier work of Belonging In-Transit and follow into Another Country: Address  are the concepts of meditation on loss, dislocation and cultural resistance and the process of exchange as central to the process of globalism. In this In Transition  installation The family becomes packaged cargo in limbo awaiting their final destination with their personal belongings arranged in numerous cubes or box formations, clothes , books, toys.  The images of neatly folded piles of belongings stirs feelings of uncertainty of migration and focus on the immediate points of exchange within their familial organisation-to create new connections in an uncertain futures. Personal belongings signify detachments by  become detached in a museum setting –when out of their natural habitat .The material belongings represent not only materiality of global products but at the same time the anxieties and social guilt’s and relations of being detached from their home and loved ones [20]

The house in Another Country: Address reflects on one level  the comfort of familiar objects with the equal feelings of vulnerability of an uncertain and unpredictable environment – as in this house with no roof. This particular work has moved from Adelaide to Beijing, Liszt, Osaka and Jerusalem. The movement of the work itself has now become a metaphor for the challenges faced for the itinerant.[21]

Clearly this work fits the characteristic of Safrans model with the collective mythology of homeland, alienation from host land the ongoing relationships with homeland all being explored-all critical signs of diaspora.

In habit: Project Another Country (2014)

In habit Project Another Country 2014
In habit Project Another Country 2014

This work explores dual narratives on a similar thematic premise to the artists previous work ; that of the Aquilizan’s  own sense of displacement and exploration of their own diasporic psyche of moving from Philippines to Australia while  at the same time exploring the displacement and resilience of the Badjao people ,a  nomadic seafaring community from the Easternmost tip of the Philippines. This community is now one of the words most marginalised, inhabiting makeshift houseboats and houses on stilts along the water of the Sulu archipelago. [22]

These themes come together in the articulation of a two-part artwork. First we see a large collection of boxes, as a make shit shanty town on steel scaffolding that looks similar to the Badjao stilt houses. This shanty town is built upside down on these stilts, which the Aquilizans chose to show that this water base houses as the boats- and the idea that once you landed somewhere you could turn the boat upside down for protection.


Badja stilt village
Badja stilt village
Another Country Upside Down
Another Country Upside Down








Badjao stilt village (above)   as inspiration for Another Country Upside Down Installation (above)

The second component to this installation is a series of video clips of the Badjao children ,the artist using these clips to show the adaptation of the Badjao to begging through singing rap songs for passers-by in Filipino streets. Visitor participation is welcomed in this instillation, as with much of the Aquilizan’s large sculptural installation work, with school children  being invited in to add to the upside down cardboard box towns. The inclusions of viewer interaction adds an additional layer to the depiction of the migration experience and transcience, with audience participation showing a journey of trial and error.

As Alfredo states himself,

“Being away from mother ,your adopted country, you always look at the place in what you call home .When you leave your motherland there is no home anymore. Australia and Philippines are neither our home. Always feel in the middle. That’s what we call it Another Country because it feels like you live in this in-between other country”

We work in situ so work with materials in that environment. In this case we talk about the idea of movement, migration, using cardboard boxes which is a strong metaphor for movement, container, extending our practice to the migrant community .Of course we consider everyone migrants.”[23]


Through the review of works by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan  their work clearly typifies both the post-colonial Avant Garde movement within a context of diaspora. These artists, like so many in South East Asian, have taken the symptoms of diaspora and are using them to reinvent themselves and their art, leveraging their intangible borders and flexible histories as nomads and seafarers and making art that reflects the porous nature of their heritage. [1]

The Filipino artist’s mobility has pushed and stretched the limits of cultural and national boundaries and borders. These artists have explored, reimagined, and occupied the political terrains of global aesthetiscape in their installations artworks in order to engage the questions and complexities of identities at home and abroad, global mobility and becoming.

[1]  Taylor, Nora A & Ly, Boreth , Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art  Cornell, USA 2012

[2] Intro to Philippines CIA World Fact Book

[2] San Juan, E ,US Genocide in Philippines: A Case Study of Guilt, Shame or Amnesia? (2005)

[3] Kee,Joan, Introduction Contemporary Art Southeast Asia Third Text, 2011 325:374 p372

[4] Ibid  p372

[5] Papastergiadis,Nikos Modernism and Contemporary Art, Theory Culture Society 2006 23:466


[6] Gina Failey, Outside In/Inside Our Contemporary Philippine art: Observing artists ,artworks, scenes and markets  Thesis Eleven :Sage 2012  112:63 p79

[7] Yambao, Clod Marlin Krister Philippine Installation Art from 1970 to 2008 As the discourse for post-colonial Avant Garde,  Jati, Vol 16, December 2011 151-166 p151



[10] Butler Kim D.  “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies  Volume 10:2 (2001) 189:219 p189

[11] Clifford James “Diasporas” Cultural Anthropology, 9:3, (1994), 302:333

[12] Safran, William “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1:1 (1991) p 87

[13] Failey, Gina, “Outside In/Inside Our Contemporary Philippine art: Observing artists, artworks, scenes and markets” Thesis Eleven (2012) p68

[14] Ibid p68

[15] Aquilizan PhD

[16] Young, Michael  “Set Adrift , Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan 2014” Art Asia Pacific, 81 (2014)

[17] Von Drathen, Doris ‘’Aerial Roots’’ Disroient/Dutch Pavilion: la biennale di Venezia, Kehrierverlag ,Heidelberg, Germany, 2009 p55

[18] Aquilizan, Alfredo and Aquilizan Isabel. In Habit: Project Another Country Exhibition Catalogue Sherman Contemporary Art Gallery (2012) p119


[19] Yambao, Clod, Marlin,Krister “Philippine Installation Art from 1970 to 2008 As the discourse for post-colonial Avant grade”,  JATI, 16 (2011) 151:166 p160

[20] Ibid p160

[21] [21] Aquilizan, Alfredo and Aquilizan Isabel. In Habit: Project Another Country Exhibition Catalogue Sherman Contemporary Art Gallery (2012) P95

[22] [22] Aquilizan, Alfredo and Aquilizan Isabel. In Habit: Project Another Country Exhibition Catalogue Sherman Contemporary Art Gallery (2012)

[23] Govett Brester Art Gallery Interview