Alice Sarmiento asks whether exhibitions and artist-led initiatives can change how we connect space, citizenship, and acts of caregiving
One Sunday afternoon in August 2016, a dozen women gathered at Para Site in Hong Kong for a programme organised by Lensational aimed at empowering local domestic workers through photography. When the moderator asked participants questions on “female empowerment,” the space fell silent: for these women, there were clear lines between the work they had done in the field of photography, and the employment that brought them to the city—housework. For many of them, the only way out of the homeland was through service labour obtained abroad; yet after crossing international borders, they remained confined to the private sphere—specifically the privacy of a strangers’ home—and a life of relative invisibility as outsiders in their new country of residence.
Despite these circumstances, individual domestic workers, sometimes with the aid of programmes such as Lensational, are reclaiming control of their narratives. One such individual is Joan Pabona, who became interested in photography after moving to Hong Kong from Singapore, and started taking the medium seriously when she bought a camera in 2014. In Pabona’s street photography, there are landscapes of pedestrian traffic against concrete horizons; strangers in constant motion against a starkly-lit, heavily-saturated background. Sometimes they follow the chaos of modern life in Asia’s most expensive city; other times they convey how migrants feel trapped in the quiet isolation of everyday life in a city that will forever remain strange.
After being awarded International Photographer of the Year in 2018 by the Gawad Amerika Foundation, Pabona began considering photography as a profession. In February that year, she placed first runner-up in the “People and Happenings in Hong Kong” category in a National Geographic photography competition. Pabona now hopes to study photography and further hone her skills. “It gets tiring to be a domestic helper,” she shared in Filipino. “I focused on photography because I wanted a new line of work.”
Pabona is not the first Filipina to move beyond domestic work and into professional photography. In 2014, street photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani was likewise internationally recognised and awarded for her work, leading to solo exhibitions and fellowships abroad, including one with Magnum. While the Overseas Filipino Worker (or OFW), more specifically the domestic helper,1 has been an abiding subject in Philippine contemporary art,2 individuals like Pabona and Bacani are helping shift the narratives surrounding them beyond one of valour and sacrifice.
In addition, recent projects—initiated by art spaces and academic institutions in Hong Kong, London, and Manila—mark a shift in the representation of OFWs and their communities, attempting to humanise rather than exoticise this massive sector of the global workforce. This essay revisits two of these initiatives—Beyond Myself (2017) by Goldsmiths’ Curating Development program, and Afterwork (2016) by Para Site and Kunci Art projects—exploring the democratising power of lens-based media and its potential to add depth to the representation not only of the OFW, but also of female participation in the global workforce more broadly.
Might these curated exhibitions and artist-led initiatives change how we view and connect space, citizenship, and acts of caregiving? More importantly, can they draw attention to the need for concrete policies that recognise not only the humanity of those employed in “unskilled” labour sectors, but also their place as citizens in their places of work? In the Philippines, where emotional labour and the literal act of making a home is a global industry, can artistic practices like photography become a method of enacting and remaking politics?
Perpetuating Mythologies: Imelda Marcos and Corazon Aquino
In the documentary Batas Militar (Martial Law), Imelda Marcos recounts how she asked her husband, the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, “What is my role as your first lady?” The President responded, “While I, Ferdinand Marcos, the father, build the house, you make it a home.”3
This concept of women as mothers to their nation is deeply rooted in Philippine society—saddled with its own mythology of matriarchal origins, and affirmed and enforced by systems and institutions established under the American colonial regime. While American trade schools and domestic science programmes under colonial education systems perpetuated the relegation of women to cooking, crafts, and childcare, Marcos manufactured a glamorised iconography of motherhood in her own image, adapted to the multi-layered vernacular of a heavily fragmented developing country.
In one portrait by Evan Cosayco that hung in the Presidential Palace, Marcos appears delicate and nymph-like, emerging from one half of a bamboo stalk—an image that corresponds to a local creation myth.4 In another huge portrait by Ralph Wolfe Cowan, she wears a sash and crown like European royalty, standing against a glowing horizon. A mural by Vicente Manansala that is still displayed at the Philippine Heart Center—a cardiovascular institute built under her husband’s regime—shows Marcos gazing upwards from the center of a series of panels devoted to the history of health and medicine in the Philippines.
Marcos’s image helped her gain power over agencies and institutions, including serving as housing minister during her husband’s term. Modelling a visuality of wife, mother, and female leader after herself, the Philippines must now live with a former first lady’s immortalised fantasy of being “a mother to each and every village.”5
What Marcos’s romanticised iconography of motherhood excluded were the mothers leaving the villages under her and her husband’s “conjugal dictatorship.” This outflow of labour was the result of a policy that heavily contradicted the idealised notion of “nation as home and home as nation,” which Marcos could only give lip service to without ever implementing. Upon signing Presidential Decree 442 (PD 442), or the 1974 Labor Code that formalised the deployment of Filipino workers abroad, labour export was instituted into national policy under their administration.
Within a decade, the number of Filipinos leaving, largely for employment in household services, jumped from 36,029 in 1975 to 372,784 in 1985. The process intensified after the establishment of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in 1982, a body tasked with systematising and regulating the export of labour.
In stark contrast to Imelda Marcos was President Corazon Aquino, who served as President from 1986 to 1994, succeeding the Marcoses after they were overthrown. During her term, Aquino strategically presented herself as a humble servant to the people, representing the simple housewife despite being born to a family of wealth and political influence. Aquino was usually seen clad in a modest dress, a symbol for a more virtuous means of achieving a better future for the Philippines. After the pageantry that Imelda and Ferdinand’s government represented, Aquino appeared as an accessible icon.
Aquino, who exuded pragmatism, came off as genuine and empathic when she declared OFWs the “New Economic Heroes,” a title which celebrated their place within the nation’s collective consciousness. With Aquino’s proclamations, OFWs were no longer seen as merely labour commodities but instead heroes, transforming the rhetoric of economic necessity into one of sacrifice, which was more consistent with the existing mythologies of motherhood and the labour of care.
However, this change in rhetoric and visuality did little to shift policy, and since the enactment of PD 442, the Philippines has remained subject to an exodus in seeming perpetuity—one that has influenced deeply how the young nation’s citizens consider and dignify their work. Indeed, employment abroad is often considered the only viable course of action in an economy unable to sustain their needs.
Within this, the image of the female overseas domestic worker has largely been constrained by the narrow spectrum between Imelda’s “mother to each and every village” and Aquino’s “New Economic Heroes.” While the likeness of domestic workers pervades the popular imagination through depictions in film and television, “imagination” remains an operative term—for thus far their roles in the global economy simultaneously require silence, invisibility, and in many cases, deprivation of a number of rights and opportunities that would have been available through other forms of employment.
Both Joan Pabona and Xyza Bacani’s successes as photographers help to unravel mythologies that focus on the sacrifice of women. Their work has the potential to subvert existing narratives about the necessity of distance, alienation, and suffering, while also adding to the discourse on “women’s work.” By engaging in street photography, both photographers have produced bodies of work that speak of and for a feminised flânerie and cosmopolitanism, complicated further by the nature of their employment and residence.
Because street photography speaks of the wonder of an urban setting—of an extraordinary in the everyday—its images can be revolutionary when seen through the eyes of women confined to a home away from home, and employed in an industry that requires labour foundational to everyday life.
This success is partly due to the efforts of photography programmes aimed at empowering domestic workers. While Bacani is largely self-taught, Pabona is a beneficiary of Lensational’s photography initiative. The programme was part of the Afterwork exhibition at Para Site in Hong Kong, from 19 March to 29 May 2016, which ran an ongoing long-term project with the purpose of “engaging the domestic worker community through collaboratively organised public programmes and commissioned artist research.”6
Attempting to make sense of the growing labour diaspora, specifically in the domestic service sector, the exhibition also touched on race and class, and the places and spaces occupied by persons of color in the global care economies. Afterwork would travel from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, where a second installment at the posh Ilham Gallery would expand the interrogation beyond the domestic workforce and towards Malay–Chinese relations, further exploring links between race and class in South East Asia.
Meanwhile, in London, another series of exhibitions expanding the discourse on the global economy of care was taking place. Beyond Myself, like Afterwork, used photography to visualise otherwise invisible experiences of those enlisted to perform maintenance labour in the “developed” world. Though Beyond Myself took it a step further in using the democratising power of lens and light as a tool for research and fieldwork—in particular by using photo elicitation as a tool for interviewing the UK community of OFWs. Rather than using the work of artists to represent the under-represented, Beyond Myself involved the subjects by placing the camera directly in their hands, granting them the rare platform to speak for themselves, using a medium less saddled by barriers of literacy, race, or class.
“Basically we gave them questions which they would then answer through photos,” said Nathalie Dagmang, a Filipina artist who incorporates ethnography and anthropological fieldwork into her practice. Dagmang was in the UK in 2017 for a two-month residency, later collaborating with anthropologists from Goldsmiths and Keele University, as well as Kanlungan, a consortium of OFWs based in the United Kingdom. Together, they would form Curating Development—a research and exhibition team committed to telling the human angles of economic and social development. Focusing instead on the experiences of the Filipino communities in London and Liverpool, Beyond Myself used texts like Dierdre McKay’s An Archipelago of Care (Indiana University Press, 2016) as prompts for exploring “the care sectors” (i.e., nursing, caregiving, domestic work), for which many positions are taken up by Filipinos in the UK.
In Goldsmiths, where Beyond Myself first opened on 3 December 2017, the Curating Development team worked with Kanlungan on a pop-up exhibition, as well as on a series of screenings and talks, that would shed light on how OFWs find a home in the UK. The second installment, which opened on February 2018 at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s Vargas Museum, was meant as a homecoming for OFWs, highlighting their investments and contributions to the country. The final show opened two months later in Hong Kong, focusing more on how OFWs are learning about financial literacy.
The results of this collaboration were exhibited through photographed objects captioned using the words of their contributors, blurring the lines between participant, subject, and artist. The introduction to a text prepared by Dagmang, with curators Dierdre McKay, Gabriela Nicolescu, and Mark Johnson, read: “A pair of new red trainers, an image of yellow flowers blossoming in spring, and a selfie taken by a 20 year-old girl with three of her friends are all brought together and collected as ‘development.’”
Upon being asking the meaning of “development,” Dagmang said she noticed how “most of them responded with photos of their children graduating.” Indeed, many defined “development” as investing in their children's education so that they don't have to be “forced to work abroad, like them.”7
Finding Home Abroad
As she spoke about the photographed objects in Beyond Myself, Dagmang reflected on how OFWs find home abroad by replication. Sourcing familiar ingredients and sharing kitchens and communal spaces help bring back a taste of home, while singing Pinoy songs (as shown in a karaoke installation) help recall the voices of family and friends at boisterous gatherings. The need for OFWs to create a support group of kabayans (fellow Filipinos) to act as families by proxy, while heartwarming, points to the intense palpability of distance, as well as an inability to fully assimilate into the host culture.
While Afterwork cast a deeply critical lens on the realities of migration for employment, Beyond Myself was more an earnest attempt to reframe the logic of “development” to include the reality of migration, and with it, the OFW. Moreover, within these existing interrogations, there was the ever-present family—that reminder of one’s obligations, of one’s race, culture, class—and also of the distance from one’s family, a distance that renders the otherwise concrete reality of home a pure abstraction.
“Many of the maids still have aspirations of coming back home and settling in the Philippines,”8 said Dagmang, yet neither Afterwork nor Beyond Myself present cases of “home”—as in repatriation—as a viable destination. Instead, these exhibitions shift the discourse around “home” as a place of employment, as liminal, as a space where one finds community among fellow migrants, as a place where one is constantly searching.
While these curatorial efforts, once historicised, bear the potential to shift the politics of visibility, can they gain the necessary attention to affect politics on the ground? In other words, will art ever be enough to bring our women home? Indeed, an exhibition like Afterwork may attract attention within the cultural sector, yet still fail to gain the visibility necessary for addressing the cultural and social exclusions affecting their subjects.
As Imelda Marcos and Cory Aquino have shown, a personality often serves as a rallying point for a greater ideal. For this, we look again to Pabona and Bacani—who, to point out the obvious, hardly reference filial obligations or memories of home in their photographs at Beyond Myself. Despite belonging to the OFW community, they are celebrated and recognised for reasons beyond the reach of most in the community. To draw attention to their success does not necessarily shed light on pressing issues felt both in the home and the host countries; rather it can perpetuate often damaging narratives about success under neoliberal capitalism as a result of individual striving, thereby ignoring the systemic oppression that persists.
It should also be considered that both Pabona and Bacani, as well as Dagmang, made use of opportunities and technologies limited to a select few. While greater access may address issues of self-representation and agency, “development” is also a matter of how these technologies and opportunities are used and propagated. Bacani’s work has paved the way for residencies, fellowships, and commercial gallery representation; while Pabona uses her talent to educate, continuing with Lensational’s Hong Kong photography workshops in an upcoming series from October 2018 to January 2019, this time as instructor instead of participant. Both are deeply inspiring figures who show how even if photography and exhibitions are mere tools in the face of global and systemic challenges, they go beyond giving an audience something to look at. They make space to change the way we see.
Alice Sarmiento is a writer, independent curator, and co-founder of feminist collective Grrrl Gang Manila. Her work on this topic has previously appeared in Critical Cartography: Art and Visuality in the Global Age II (Cambridge Scholars, 2018).
1. Filipinas employed in households abroad typically refer to themselves as “DH,” a colloquialism which is an acronym for domestic helper. Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) came to replace Overseas Contract Worker in official terminology when it was adopted by the Philippine Overseas Employment Association (POEA) in their 2002 POEA Rules and Regulations Governing the Recruitment and Employment of Land-based Overseas Workers, which were implemented upon the enactment of Republic Act 8042, also known as the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995.
2. I’ve previously written on Benedicto Cabrera’s 1978 painting, A Domestic Helper, created very shortly after President Marcos’s revision of the Labor Code to formalise overseas employment. Included in this labour exodus was the mother of Filipino conceptual artist Poklong Anading, whose video work Ocular (2008) was installed on two separate occasions at art spaces in Hong Kong, where she was employed for a large part of her adult life.
4. Rosette Adel, “Malakas and Maganda?: The Art of Deception,” Philippine Star: Newslab, 2016, https://newslab.philstar.com/31-years-of-amnesia/malakas-at-maganda.
5. Kathy Marks, “Imelda Marcos is back on the campaign trail at 80--in a brand-new pair of shoes,” The Independent, March 27, 2010, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/imelda-marcos-is-back-on-the-campaign-trail-at-80-ndash-in-a-brand-new-pair-of-shoes-1928756.html.
6. Afterwork Readings, edited by Para Site and KUNCI Cultural Studies Center. Hong Kong, 2016.
7. Personal communication, 10 July 2018. Edited for clarity.
8. Personal communication, 10 July 2018. Edited for clarity.