Reclaiming Pre-Colonial Queer Narratives in Contemporary Filipinx Art Practice: Observations from the Diaspora

Written by Rocio Naval 

Stephanie Comilang — screen name @ilocos.bitch on Instagram — installed “Piña, Why Is The Sky Blue?” with her partner Simon Speiser at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin, which was on view from the last days of April until around the end of last year. Through a combination of video documentation, virtual reality, and textiles made from pineapple fibres, viewers were in dialogue with indigenous and activist communities in Ecuador and the Philippines, who work toward survival using ancient healing techniques reimposed through modern communication practices. As a Filipinx person visiting Berlin for the weekend, I made extra effort in visiting the space, and additionally as a queer person, I was immediately struck by its profundity. All the more, I had been conducting research for an upcoming workshop on pre-colonial queerness in the Philippines, and it hadn’t occurred to me until I experienced “Piña” that Comilang’s and Speiser’s joint exhibition played with similar themes. The incorporation of Philippine legend and economic history in Comilang’s share of the installation, as well as the introduction to modern-day Babaylan* (shaman) Jane Dolera, stood out to me in its silent call for pre-colonial queer narratives to take space in current post-colonial and Eurocentric domains.

Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser, Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?, production still, 2020

Hearing Babaylan Janet Dolera’s deep devotion to her work was enough to ignite a deep gratitude for Philippine collectivist tradition. As a queer person in the 21st century, this manifests itself as creating a chosen family and initiating acts of solidarity, which, pre-emptive to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521, was the norm in the archipelago. A powerful addition to the queerness of Comilang’s and Speiser’s installation was model Lukresia in the role of “Piña”, a figure taken from Philippine folklore and translated into an anthropomorphic deity encompassing the genderless properties of the pineapple. Lukresia, also known as @thirdworldbb, dictates in prose via virtual reality the same ancient knowledge that Dolera mediates. This way, the continuation of indigenous spirituality is established in conceptual works; but Lukresia brings it beyond that by possessing the same ancestral vitality in a professional capacity.

Lukresia has since walked and posed for Thierry Mugler, furthering the presence of Filipinx creatives in predominantly white spaces, a strong force in queering canons of art and culture while at the same time decolonising them. A similar approach is done by another Filipinx artist Lukresia has worked with, namely Alaga, or @alagaatsining. A textile designer, painter, performance artist, and tattoo apprentice, he uses native flora and fauna as a leitmotif to queer (or rather re-queer) the spaces he inhabits and oftentimes reaches into the same pot of pre-colonial knowledge as Lukresia, Comilang, and Dolera. This move toward the origins of Filipinx-ness, of pre-colonial queerness, is intensely evident in all of their work — and it is precisely this homage, this tribute, that has given contemporary Filipinx art its authenticity and its eloquence. For me, it was through viewing “Piña” that the lightbulb had been illuminated.


What is incredibly lucky is that despite the geographic distance of Filipinxs in the diaspora from Filipinxs at home are the growing rhizomatic networks and support systems between Filipinx creatives. The connections between Comilang, Lukresia, and Alaga as artists are reflective of the essence of queer family construction — perhaps coming from an impulse of love and understanding, but certainly also as a means of support within deeply westernised and capitalistic systems.

The exhibition “Piña, Why Is The Sky Blue?” is currently on show at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity until July 30th, 2023, and a full description of the exhibition can be read here.

*Babaylans functioned in ancient Philippine societies as spiritual mediators. The role of Babaylan was oftentimes reserved for trans- and ciswomen.

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