Racial commentary through textile installation

Artist Matt Manalo speaks about his works which developed from a desire to bring cultural whitewashing into the light - pun intended.

Published: October 11, 2018Words: Lina Kusaite & Sophia MillerArtist Link: cocooncharacters.com/Behance: Lina Kusaite

In western society, whitewashing – and the appropriation of stories, art and cultures – is just part of the status quo. It’s just a continuation of colonisation that is less blatantly racist than when Europeans began assimilating the western world for their gain a few hundred years ago.

The crazy thing is that in many cases, it’s not even something many people think about – even when you’re brown. Here in places like Scandinavia, life is more homogeneous, so as a child of a Pakistani/ Canadian mother and a Norwegian father, born and raised in Norway, I just always thought of myself as Norwegian. The fact that I was one of two slightly darker skin children at my school was something I noticed, of course, but it was just part of the way things were. There hasn’t been a long and public civil rights movement here, as in America, so racial and cultural ignorance isn’t a household topic.

I grew up in my mid-size town of Bergen watching Disney cartoons where Arabic princes and Native Americans were white. The Simpsons showed me that Indian/Pakistani people should work in kiosks and speak English with exaggerated accents (my mother had my watching the English version). All around me cartoons were peppered with racial stereotypes, and yet it was just “the way it is.” While racism was illegal, ignorance was plentiful. But I suppose that could be said about most western countries, even to this day.

All this said, the subject of whitewashing wasn’t the first thing that popped into my head when first came in contact with the artwork of Texas-based artist Matt Manalo. It was his use of atypical mediums that make his work almost feel like textile, which first grabbed my attention. It wasn’t until we spoke when he told me that his use of lighter browns and tans were his social commentary on cultural whitewashing. It seems obvious now, in retrospect.

I’ve never been to Texas. As a Norwegian, my first association with the state was with cowboys, the later association is with racist hillbillies that drive big American trucks and like guns way too much. As an adult, of course, I understand that those extremes are not the only thing populating Texas – going to South-By-Southwest is a checkmark on my bucket list. But, I would have never imagined a flourishing Filipino culture within the state, let alone a Filipino-American artist daring to speak out against cultural whitewashing in a state where 60% of the population voted for Donald Trump.

I will admit that my cultural ignorance of some aspect and geographies of America are beginning to show, which is why I reached out to Matt to learn more about his work, and how he works within his community.

I’m just going to dive right into your work. I read an interview you did with Isabel Manalo from Studio Visit where you briefly mentioned the subtle tones you use in your work as a representation of cultural whitewashing? Can you expand upon that for me?

Yes, I use subtle tones as a way to symbolize the culture and identity of every immigrant as it is being literally washed, erased, or painted over by white paint. I wanted to convey the process in a more literal way with the act of erasing/covering rather than portraying it with something more complex. You will notice this in most of my abstracted work.

The first time I have learned about cultural whitewashing was when I was in fourth grade. I was part of a contest at my school and I had to recite a poem titled “A Colonial Mentality.” It was about how Filipinos would rather choose something foreign rather than anything locally made. The mentality has been brought about by being colonized by Spain, Japan, and the US for many years and it has been deeply embedded into the Filipino society.

Moving here made me more interested in this concept since the United States has a long, violent, and continuing history of censorship and genocide. There were times where I have caught myself forgetting my language, memories of places I’ve been to, and even the names of some friends. Part of my practice now is to decolonize my mind and body, and remember memories until I am able to go back and experience home again. I have not been back since I left in 2004.

One of the pieces of your work that grabbed me on Ello, was a simple dark piece with the words “Not Your Brown Brother.” Do you feel your work becoming more socially and racially charged, in lieu of the current political climate in the States?

Social commentary has always been one of the main motivators in making my work. The current political climate here in the US has made my work more focused on social/racial topics especially on how it affects the daily lives of people of color. Texas is primarily a red state but I live and make work in Houston, which is the 4th largest and most diverse city in the country so there’s a good amount of progress in certain aspects of the city in terms of current political issues.

Matt Manalo artwork for Blacklisted Copenhagen
Matt Manalo artwork for Blacklisted Copenhagen

Even though the art industry tends to be more liberal in nature, have you ever felt marginalized because of your heritage or the subject matter you work with? If so, tell me about that.

Yes, I have always felt that. I believe race and gender still play a big role in the art world. Most collected and represented artists are still white males. Ask anyone who their favorite artist is and they will always tell you someone like Warhol or Damien Hirst. It is even written in books, displayed in museums, and taught in institutions. They are considered the heroes of the art world. Representation matters.

There has to be more visibility with artists of color. An excellent example of progress is the Baltimore Museum’s radical move of selling their blue-chip art so they can acquire cutting-edge works of specifically women and artists of color.

Back to the details of your work. Take me through the process of working with one of your pieces?

My creative process varies depending on the type of work I am planning to make. It involves collecting materials, researching new techniques or new media, reading, and walking.

I take a lot of inspiration from things I see daily: weathered walls, rusty signs, painted-over graffiti, scaffoldings on buildings, structures which occur in nature, maps, etc. I am always on the look-out for interesting patterns or grids.

For my pieces which are text-based, I usually go for phrases which resonate to me in terms of my culture and do some wordplay to change their meaning to something questionable or uplifting.

How did you come to begin working with the mediums and compositions that are now defining your artistic style?

I was that kid who always played outside and got himself dirty. My parents always bought us Play-dough, Legos, and comic books. I was always drawing as a child. I even remember my dad bringing home old school printer paper which had the holes on the side. I used it as a sketchpad.

Matt Manalo artwork for Blacklisted Copenhagen
Matt Manalo artwork for Blacklisted Copenhagen

I also went to a school which had an academic and technical curriculum. Since I was in fifth grade, I was exposed to doing projects involving my hands and learning how to use different tools. We used wood, metal, and plastic. Going to art school, I decided to take all of the art classes from sculpture, photography, printmaking, etc. Then I became really bored with just using paint as my main medium and found that collaging different materials along with paint kept me interested.

At the time, I became really fond of Robert Rauschenberg. That time, I was working a museum job and was writing articles for the university’s paper. I didn’t have money to buy new supplies so most of my materials were reclaimed. It taught me how to be resourceful. I started using different textiles from my friends gifting them to me.

One time, my former boss and now a colleague gave me vintage fabric made out of pineapple fiber which her mother bought when she worked as a nurse in the Philippines. I was really excited to receive and be able to use them. I have been developing my creative process while keeping the same aesthetic.

Aside from your work as a practicing artist, you’ve been quite active in supporting the Phil-Am community. Can you describe that community for me, for the readers that live outside of the States?

It is refreshing to be part of a community who understands the difficulties of being a POC [person of color] artist in the US. The community I mainly support is the Filipino-American Artist Directory who was founded by Janna Añonuevo Langholz. I met her in 2016 during a 2-person show in Dallas, Texas at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center. The directory’s aim is to increase the visibility and recognition of Filipino American artists through an online archive and annual publication for curators, collectors, and educators.

Would you have any last words or bits of advice for another artist that may be inspired by your work?

My advice for another artist is to never stop making work and never stop being curious.