Cian Dayrit at the NuMu Triennial

Cian Dayrit, Civilized Society, 2017. Oil on canvas, 48 × 60 in (121 × 152.5 cm). Courtesy the artist. Photo: At Maculangan; from https://www.newmuseum.org/

Cian Dayrit (b. 1989 in Manila) uses sculpture, painting, and even embroidery to subvert the narratives embedded in a nation’s patrimony. By taking a critical stance toward the exhibition complex, Dayrit’s work raises questions about artifacts, institutions, and shared knowledge. Maps, monuments, and museum displays are treated with an irreverence that mimics the charm of the folk object but is far from good-natured.

Dayrit’s works in “Songs for Sabotage” reflect his concern for the imagery used to represent a country and its people, which has been reflected throughout his career in displays of flags, seals, monuments, and, perhaps most prominently, maps. This has recently led to a more collaborative and immersive practice involving counter-mapping—a method that describes the everyday lives of those on the ground, producing an alternative to the map as a value-free transcription of the environment. Counter-mapping exposes the politics inherent within an aerial view of geographic knowledge, and works instead to chart and illustrate terrains where we might see humanity more clearly.

Where Dayrit’s earlier works often dealt with the fictions that arise in the construction of the nation-state and the manufacturing of the citizen, his later collaborations with academics, local craftsmen, and marginalized groups attempt to excavate the difficult truths embedded in these narratives. One such collaboration took place in September 2017, when he led a workshop for indigenous and peasant communities who had taken refuge at the University of the Philippines, some of whom had been displaced by the country’s own military operations in its southern islands. Through these illustrations of the places they had left behind, Dayrit helped create an archive of territories that remain contested—the homes of communities for whom struggle and resistance are just another a fact of life.

Like the counter-maps Dayrit has gathered through immersive research, the works featured in “Songs for Sabotage” are rendered with a charming but effective clumsiness, with thick, textured daubs of paint highlighting their lack of depth and elementary composition. Occultas Archipelagi (2017) shows a Philippine archipelago drained of all color, floating in a sea of red and rust-colored religious icons. While this could be seen as a jab at the Catholic Church for continuing to meddle in the political affairs of the only predominantly Christian country in Asia (the Philippines is still the only country, aside from the Vatican, where divorce remains illegal), the titular Occultas refers to folk Catholicism, seen in the rituals, traditions, and objects borne of native interpretations and accounts of Christ’s life in the vernacular.

The renderings of Christ that are foregrounded and magnified in Occultas are the same as those that appeared on amulets and garments worn by revolutionaries, who believed that such images would make them impervious to bullets. By composing such icons within a frame that also features the map and the flag—symbols inherited from above—Dayrit links an often-overlooked history of peasant resistance to the grand narrative of nation-building. The appearance of these religious icons also exposes the role of faith and folklore in struggles for sovereignty and dignity, linking it to the intimacy and softness of clothing and amulets – objects that sit close to the skin.

This tension between intimacy and intimidation is reiterated with the soft materials and labor-intensive methods that go into Dayrit’s massive embroidered tapestries. Insulae Indiae Orientalis (2016) references the antiquarian maps, rendered intricately and authoritatively to ensure that colonial knowledge about territory and citizenship would be handed down and consumed through the centuries. Yet, rather than show the Philippine islands in isolation, Dayrit situates it within the region to portray a larger archipelago, home to a seafaring society connected by an ocean that was only later divided by European colonizers. Texts appearing across the map are embroidered in a language that is closer to the original Malay than to contemporary Filipino, which borrows heavily from Spanish. Beneath what is now known as New Guinea is a note that, roughly translated, echoes Edward Said in pointing out that “the perspective in the cultural and political histories written in the West about the East have long stood as obstructions towards genuine understanding and respect.”

While Insulae uses a classical aesthetic to reclaim native voices and a reverence for indigenous history, Mapa de lo que ahora se conce como Las Islas Filipinas [Map of What is Now Known as the Philippines] (2016) combines print and embroidery to literally color in black-and-white narratives of empire and benevolent assimilation. With humorous disdain, Dayrit adds red eyes, captions, and brightly colored doodles to photographs found in textbook accounts of Philippine history. In another effort at portraying life on the ground, this time Dayrit counter-maps historical landmarks as sites of violence and injustice, referencing the familiar dictum from Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the concept of history: “There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”

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