Independent curator, Tokyo
Through your non-profit organization, Bellas Artes Projects, you have played an important role in expanding the international reach of artists in the Philippines. What sparked your interest in art?
My mother is an interior designer and my father is a businessman, property developer and antique collector. We’ve always been surrounded by creative people: I guess he was a patron, but he didn’t call himself that. It was very informal.
Growing up in the Philippines, there was no culture of museum-going or a real emphasis on art history. It wasn’t until I finished my studies in the UK that I discovered art history as a specialty and went on to study at university. During my studies, my father collected old houses or parts of old houses, which he kept in a warehouse. It was a very unusual project. At first he thought he could use these scrap materials to build furniture or a new house, but then he thought, “Why not buy the whole house, move it and rebuild it?” They were either abandoned or demolished anyway. That was the start of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, a resort in Bataan that has become something of his collection of re-contextualized antique buildings. I was involved in the sense that I helped him with ideas on what to do with these spaces. He had a huge impact on how I think about art; I actually saw him as an artist – what he was doing wasn’t that different from land art or installation, and it sparked my interest in these complex processes of creation.
Bellas Artes Projects was headquartered in one of these historic buildings. How did it all start?
Casa Quiapo was the first historically significant home that my father collected. Built in 1867, it was the first art academy in the Philippines, producing some of the country’s old masters as some of its graduates. The move was incredibly complex. The house was previously inhabited by a whole community (300 people at times) who had remodeled the building themselves over time, and while this was interesting for use, it was also poorly maintained and created unsanitary living conditions. When the owner decided to sell it to our family, there was a lot to restore. It was such a beautiful place, with such incredible energy and so many layers of history, that we realized the only way we could truly do it justice was to dedicate it to art. At that time I had just returned to the Philippines from the UK and had started working in the family construction company. I made a deal with my father that he would let me use the house for art projects on the weekends and it became our first location for workshops. I invited artists very informally, through people I knew. In the beginning we mainly did children’s workshops and then started collecting art with the idea of housing the collection in the building.
At what point did it become a formal organization?
My friend, art consultant Alma Zevi, introduced me to Swiss artist Not Vital, who was part of Zevi’s curatorial team at the time. He wanted to do a chapel project and was looking for someone to build it with. What we had to do was provide the land, create the space, and he would come to the Philippines to work on it. So we started working on the project and it received a lot of attention from the international art world. This was also the beginning of an internationalization of the Asian art scene. Previously dominated by auction houses and speculative players, the grassroots scene in the Philippines now attracted curators from around the world who looked to the Global South for inspiration. Discussions about building institutions or non-profit organizations in the area began to grow, and I was somehow drawn to this model. I received a lot of advice from people about different ways we can support the arts and how we can maximize the potential of our work.
My father was already bringing in craftsmen from all parts of the Philippines to make things and restore the houses in Las Casas Filipinas. More than 300 craftsmen worked side by side. All we had to do was bring in the artist, put him up at the hotel and have him work with the craftsmen to create interesting things. This artist-craftsman exchange became the core of our residencies and projects at BAP.
Another friend of mine introduced me to a wonderful curator named Diana Campbell Betancourt who ran the Samdani Art Foundation. She started working with us, helping to develop the program and formalize it into an arts foundation. That was a real turning point. Her network has allowed us to connect so many artists and curators to the Philippines. We were also able to open a space in Manila called Bellas Artes Outpost that hosted exhibitions, lectures, performances, seminars and all kinds of gatherings for the local arts community. We acted as a kind of bridge between the international and the local scene through this space.
The foundation also operated an experimental art school called Eskwela. Why did that feel like an important part of your vision?
We had an overwhelming number of artists coming and going, doing residencies and talks, and we had these beautiful, intimate talks while we were in Bataan together. Some of the most inspiring discussions took place over a meal or some drinks, but they only took place between the artists and those involved in the foundation. We thought why not share these conversations with the wider art public and open them up not just to students but to anyone who wants to learn. We launched Eskwela in 2016 with the amazing Colombian curator Inti Guerrero, who was Artistic Director 2016-21 – it became a place where people could ask questions and we could dive into critical discourse together with our participants. Inti’s approach was to focus on local art histories and local art themes that resonated globally, connecting us to art histories and art theories from different countries, and then to invite not only artists and curators, but also theorists, activists and academics from around the world . It was one of the most exciting times of BAP’s existence as we saw how these talks and seminars were able to impact the local scene in such an inspiring way.
What made you decide to close the foundation and school earlier this year?
The pandemic and its consequences have hit us really hard. I moved to Tokyo in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. At first we tried running online programs but eventually decided to take a break at the end of 2020 and reactivate the year after, but things still didn’t seem to be returning to normal. So much in the lives of everyone on the teams had changed. People had moved to other countries and I was pregnant with my second child, so I decided to focus on building my life and career in Japan. It was such a difficult decision, but it seemed like the right one. My hope is to resume things with BAP once the timing is right. Right now I have to be open to new possibilities and new beginnings. It is exciting.
What’s next for you?
A new life in Japan. A growing family and a more demanding role as a mother. Somehow I have to learn to balance this role and find my artistic path. I was fortunate to know some people in the Tokyo art scene who were extremely supportive and provided such valuable mentorship. I was recently asked to serve as guest curator for the public program area of a new boutique art fair in Kyoto called Art Collaboration Kyoto. This will be opening in November 2022 and it was a great experience working with such a cool team.
As an immigrant here in Japan I have found myself in a very difficult but interesting situation of not belonging but at the same time offering a different perspective. I have so much to learn about the local art scene, but at the same time I feel like there is a lot of room for new projects, new ideas and “outsider” perspectives. I’m interested in my experience of displacement and how this might open a new path for my career in the Tokyo art scene. Currently, a curator friend and I are organizing study groups with other artists and curators interested in these themes of the ongoing. It’s still early days, but there’s a great energy and kinship among us! This kind of connection and exchange is exactly the kind of inspiration that drives me to further projects and experiments.