Week 4: The Manongs of Manilatown

This week we are visiting the International Hotel / Manilatown Heritage Foundation Center, to hear about the work of activists and artists in the I-Hotel movement from Tony Robles, nephew of the late “poet laureate of Manilatown,” Al Robles. He will expound on what we have read this week- tracking earlier migrations of Filipinos to the Bay Area, before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act allowed for later migrants to suburbs like Daly City.

Villa, like Al Robles, grew up in one of the only Filipino families in San Francisco, at a time when immigration from the Philippines was largely restricted to bachelor men.  Born and raised in the Tenderloin, growing up around the manongs of Manilatown, and going to the bars and jazz clubs in the Fillmore, he also had a very different background from his fellow CSFA / SFAI colleagues and teachers.  How do we see a melding of Villa’s personal experiences in San Francisco and his training at CSFA  reflected in works like “My Father Seeing Market Street For the First Time” (see previous blog post for image)? Does knowing VIlla’s background change your impression of earlier and later abstract works such as the following door piece, from his My Uncles series of 1991?


We also read this week an essay from the exhibition catalog for At Home and Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists, where they write in part of the Indigenous Art Movement of the 1970s. How do we reconcile Villa’s uses of indigenous motifs in early works like “Tatu” with these other types of pieces? Do you see as “more” Filipino/American these indigenous-inspired motifs or his abstracted negotiations with the history of the manongs– and why?

Carlos Villa, Tatu

5 thoughts on “Week 4: The Manongs of Manilatown

  1. Having an insight to Villa’s background changes my impression of Villa’s earlier and later abstract works such as the following door piece, from his My Uncles series of 1991 only because it gives me a greater understanding of the meaning behind the art on a more emotional level and the insight allows the work to be relatable. I reconcile Villa’s uses of indigenous motifs in early works like “Tatu” with his heritage as well as just being aesthetically pleasing. Having said that his other types of pieces are more abstracted and deal with his relationships. I see Villas work as both Filipino/American indigenous-inspired motifs and his abstracted negotiations with the history of the manongs because to me they overlap. History inspires many things and creates many outcomes.

    -Bronte Klass


  2. Ben Jones
    T. Quiray-Tagle
    10 Feb 2015
    Week 4 Response.

    The process by which people evaluate art often has more to do with the cultural lens through which the viewer is looking than it does the content of the art itself. The above statement is relevant to the following commentary in part as a disclaimer for my own perspective (which tends to offend the art-world), but more importantly as a backdrop for discussing the phenomenology of audiences experiencing art.
    At face value the work “Tatu” comes across as “more” Filipino and other more abstract works strike me as being more heavily rooted in American traditions and schools of thought. As a general theme I have noticed that the extent to which visual art is steeped in propaganda and clearly conveys content correlates positively with the extent to which the art is geared toward oppressed peoples. Such correlations can be attributed to the socio-economic status of the artist as well. The link between a concrete aesthetic and the peripheral art world (or non-art world) are likely due to three key factors.
    The first reason is related to education. People are far less likely to gravitate to or create work that they cannot identify with. For a person to make or like abstract expressionist work who has never had the pleasure of being told how awesome abstract expressionism is, would be about as likely as a jazz artist from the 40’s, up and deciding to make hip-hop one day. It is possible, but extremely unlikely for people to engage seriously with an unknown culture, let alone perpetuate said culture. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that the majority of people on the planet who comprise the bulky end in our pyramidal world-economy, do not know or even care to know about abstract expressionism as a development of ‘fine’ art in human culture.
    Secondly, oppressed people tend to share an appreciation for changing the status quo. As such, people who are oppressed – and are aware of it – often make and enjoy art that attempts to subvert systems of oppression.
    Thirdly, the methods of abstraction we are discussing can be directly linked to a lineage of European art history. It would be absurd to disregard the fact that the process of making art is a process of abstracting the world and is a human vocation. It would be equally absurd to deny that when most academics and artists in the U.S. and Europe refer to “the art world” any time in the last few centuries, they are referring to a byproduct of (liberal) white culture. Seeing as how whiteness is a party that most of the world is not invited to (poor whites included), it is self-explanatory that most people do not “get it”. Hence you have poor whites that would value a painting of dogs playing poker over a Basquiat or a Pollock any day. Skill in craftsmanship is more universally identifiable than prestige in the art world.
    That said, I would be the first to argue that, nature, history, and culture are things that we create every moment we are alive. So, in the same sense James Luna points out that the “real indian” is not the one in a Tarzan costume, or full tribal regalia, it is the everyday guy walking down the street (Righthand, 2015), ethnic identity is not some far off nostalgic place – it is here and now. Hence Carlos Villa – being Filipino-American – engaged in defining Filipino-American art by virtue of his work and his history.
    Furthermore, syncretism is indispensable to the arts. Every popular genre of American music has benefited immensely from the clashing of assorted sentiments and sounds of diverse cultures. Although music is often a more communal artistic process, the adding subtracting, and multiplication of various cultures is just as indispensable for visual artists. Taking into account a more informed view of the historical oppression that Carlos Villa survived leaves me even more curious about him and his work than the week before, and the week before that etc. Why did he choose to go the directions that he did with his art? What epiphanies drove him to go where he went? Assuming he continued fighting the good fight right up to the end, why did he change his methodology – his how?


    Righthand, Jess. “Q and A: James Luna.” Smithsonian Magazine. N.p., Jan. 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.


  3. After reading the introduction to At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists and reviewing Al Robles’ poetry, I find myself thinking more about the Filipino relationship to San Francisco geography than just Carlos Villa’s work. Dana Friis-Hansen notes the ever-changing identity of the Filipino community as various wars mutated the cultural and geographic landscape. Going from colonization from Spanish to American to Japanese forces from the mid 16th century to the 1940’s, these influences changed Filipino’s self-image: “the occupation experience did raise many issues about the Filipinos’ place in Asia, as the wartime use of Tagalog (not English) and the invaders’ glorification of indigenous institutions and culture, ironically, generated a new national pride which postwar politicians were quick to tap into, taking a pan-Asian view of their country.” This sense of place in Asia grew out into a sense of place globally.
    The subsequent arrival of Filipino’s in San Francisco makes me reflect on how they integrated into the population. In some ways they brought and held on to their own culture, while also interacting with the other communities in SF, creating a new, complex vibe that is unique to the area. This is evident in Al Robles’ poetry, in particular “Fillmore Black Ghetto.” In the poem he connects words and phrases and solidifies them in particular geographic space—different cross streets and locations. The lines, “fillmore black ghetto/abraham lincoln/fucked on/Japanese sake” written by Robles, a Filipino-American poet, shows how three or four different cultural identities (black/hegemonic white/Japanese/Filipino) interact with each other in a particular neighborhood. Mentions of specific streets, Eddy, McAllister, Ellis & Webster, etc, add to the sense of place and the varying identities found there. This type of cultural remapping of geographic space in San Francisco can also be considered when looking at a piece like Villa’s “My Dad Seeing Market Street for the First Time.” While Robles uses words to create and sense of space, Villa’s approach is visual and abstract, but holds a similar feeling to Robles’ poem.

    Friis-Hansen, Dana. “Adrift in the Pacific: Filipinos in the Contemporary Asian Art Scene.” At Home & Abroad: 20 Contemporary Filipino Artists. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 1998. p. 18.
    Robles, Al. “Fillmore Black Ghetto.” Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996. p. 91.

    – Joseph Dwyer


  4. I’m not sure if knowing Villa’s background changes my impression so much of Villa’s work, as much as it changes my impression as to what abstract expressionist art is, who these artists might be. Admittedly, prior to my entrance into the graduate program, my formal and art history training was somewhere between zero and some mild Wikipedia-ing and Youtubing here and there. I could however, tell you that I really enjoyed abstract expressionism, modernism, and the lifestyle that they seemed to advocate–at least in the art magazine meets Mid Centery Modern design sort of way. In other words, it seemed to me that artists fit the archtype of white, east coast, “expensive”, and giving no fucks.

    While learning the history of CFSA of course, challenged the notion that the epicenter of all Ab-Ex was out in New York, it was learning about Carlos Villa that really changed the way I saw abstract expressionist artists He was someone who was not white, and actually really gave a lot of a fuck about what went on in his community. But back to that question of, does knowing his history change what I get from his work? Probably, but I do sort of wonder how much of that meaning I contrive on my own–perhaps this will turn into a Barthes’ Death of the Author conversation, which is probably not that fun. However, in regards to his training and influences, I can totally see the negotiation between the aesthetics of his Ab-Ex side, with the side that experiments with indigenous motif. I don’t know if I can say it’s particularly “more” Filipino-American, but there’s certainly a sense of a more explicit engagement with what he perceives to be his indigenous history, the relationship he has or had with the man@ng community, and he seems to really put forth the conversation through his work too.


  5. When considering Carlos’ journey of finding himself and attempting to piece together Filipino/American history, it is important to keep in mind the lack of sources he had during this journey. This being said, I feel that pieces like Tatu are, like you said, abstracted negotiations. What is interesting about his take on being Filipino/American is the variation in visualizing the concept of being such. At times, he is using symbols of indigenous life through feathers and bones in order to make the connection to Filipino life. In other pieces, he uses items that are regular to western life, although hold a similar meaning. With the piece, “My Father Seeing Market Street For the First Time” you are hit with both of these symbols. The feathers making the connection back to his indigenous series and the hat being reminiscent of western fashion. However, the hat, belonging to his father, can make an argument for the orienting of one’s self into a new life and new culture. The hat is the uniform of western society, in a sense.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s