Exploring the Art of Connie Cagampang Heller

A self-directed interview by Connie Cagampang Heller.

Why do you make art?

I have made art as long as I can remember, but I began to think about myself as an artist when I began learning and reading about race, power and social justice. My artwork has always been inspired by what I am reading and thinking about. The way that an academic might write a paper, I like to explore abstract social justice concepts and ideas, and then connect those concepts, ideas and my feelings about them in a visual, non-verbal way. Art is the way that I make meaning from my experiences and my reading and propose alternative ways to think about relationships—connections and separations—between people, among communities.

One of the things I have been wanting to do is make art that originates from my own cultural experience. Doing this is complicated by the fact that my father returned to the Philippines when I was 14, I last saw him when I was 16, and he died in 1990 when I was 24. So, I have a lot of complicated feelings and significant gaps that have made this challenging territory. I feel very lucky because my aunt, one of his sisters, really made an effort to stay in relationship with me—and I haven’t always made it easy for her either. This has made it possible for me as an adult to be able to have a connection with her and my extended family. One thing that was really helpful, with regards to finding an approach to my art, was realizing that this kind of experience is not unusual for children of inter-racial Filipino marriages.

 

Title: Blue Remnants: walang father, walang mga ninuno Blue Remnants: without a father, without ancestors Dimensions: Nine panels, each 27” x 72” Materials: Undyed and indigo hand-dyed silk chiffon, hand-dyed indigo shibori on khadi cotton, hand stitched cotton thread, metallic embroidery thread, 12k gold leaf, acrylic gel.

What was your inspiration for this project?

I began working on this project in December 2019. It is a confluence of ideas, techniques and circumstances.

Sixteen years ago, our family visited an indigo artist in Japan. Since then, my husband and I have dreamed of maintaining an indigo dye pot. Finally, last year while he was on sabbatical, we decided to go ahead and start experimenting with it.

Earlier that year, I attended a conference in New Mexico. One of the people I met spoke about how his community has been resisting colonization since the 1500s—first the Spaniards and now Americans—and that at the core of indigeneity was keeping alive the culture and knowledge of place. Something about how he expressed this—I think the emphasis on geographic place—gave me a new way to think about my own people and culture and my relationship to both. I became really curious about pre-Catholic, pre-Spanish Philippines—What are the cultural through-lines? What parts of the culture bind people to the land, to the place? What does the archeological record reveal?

Lastly, in the fall, I visited the Chandler museum in Arizona and saw an exhibit about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. I took a photograph of a shadow made by hundreds of paper cranes. When I got home, I tried to recreate the shadow using layered silk chiffon—something I had never tried to do before. I liked the ghostly effect.

What is the meaning of the title?

The title of this piece, Blue Remnants: walang father, walang mga ninuno (Blue Remnants: without a father, without ancestors), reflects the different lines of thought that went into creating the piece.

“Blue” refers, of course, to the indigo. I am drawn to indigo both for the color and the feelings associated with the color blue. Indigo is also a dyeing technique discovered independently and used by people all around the world. “Remnants” are scraps, what is left. Also, I began using khadi cloth which was literally scrap from a previous project.

I don’t speak Vasayan or Tagalog, but I have childhood memories of words—lots of ‘no’ words—and I love the intonation and cadence of the languages. Somehow the word “walang” popped into my head, so I looked up what it meant—and it made sense. So, I started to think of this project as my “Walang Father” or without a father project. And now, it is also about ancestors and lost culture, so I added “walang mga ninuno”.

On a personal level, while doing research, I “discovered” concepts governing Filipino family relations and responsibilities about which I only have a tentative understanding. Unfortunately, I lack cultural proficiency to be able to navigate or live up to my responsibilities. Learning about the concept of kapwa (the self in the other) was a revelation because I am often confused when I am with my Filipino relatives. What I came to realize is that, while I can feel their expectations, I don’t know what those expectations are or how to respond or reciprocate appropriately or in a way that communicates accurately. As a child, I think I learned the feeling side—the ability to anticipate feelings—but then as I moved into adulthood, I had no guide, so I do not know what to do. Often, I feel lost in a sea of miscommunication.

In this piece, I am exploring both what it means in terms of my own understanding of cultural belonging to not have had a father present for so long and what it means to be from a cultural lineage that has been subjected to centuries of colonization under Spain and America. What does it mean to be Filipina without a parent to guide you, to share history, stories, language, culture, food?  What does it mean to be Filipino when the culture and knowledge of our ancestors has been trampled by hundreds of years of proselytization, colonization and occupation?

Remnants, Lost and found. Ghosts, tied, dipped, layered, stamped, and stitched. Piecing together individual and collective identity from what is there, what is left.

How is this project similar to/different from your previous work?

Working on this project has been very different from my previous work. First and foremost, I am dyeing my own fabric. In the past I have used commercially available fabrics, collaging and machine stitching fabric from many sources. In my mind, a very American medium—fabric from all parts of the world, from many cultures, pieced together to make something altogether new. Now, I am really enjoying the process of hand stitching and dyeing the fabric, and unfolding it to see the results. It feels like a magical process.

Second, I am working much more explicitly with silk and its quality of transparency. Embodying layers of time, representation based on images from the past juxtaposed with representations of durable cultural artifacts that have been found.

Third, I am doing everything by hand. There is something about slowing down that I really appreciate—and it actually easier and faster than sewing by machine would be. In this time of shelter, there is something very nice about slowing into a process that is the antithesis of commercial activity.

Lastly, this series is becoming more and more three dimensional. I find myself thinking about filling a room, walking among unnamed ancestors. I am even thinking about how I might incorporate an auditory component.

Author’s bio:

Connie Cagampang Heller is a bi-racial Filipina-American social justice artist; San Francisco born and raised, she now lives and works in Berkeley. You can see more of her artwork at www.projectlinkedfate.org.

Cover Photo:

 

The Skeptic and the Visionary engaged in the conversation of generations. Dreaming and challenging, connecting and building, forming and putting into practice, back and forth, back and forth, the landscape slowly shifts towards light.

5 Comments

  1. Christina Chang on April 30, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    Luminous, Connie. Maraming salamat.

  2. maria jl on May 1, 2020 at 7:05 am

    beautiful, Connie. thanks for sharing your feelings and musings. i feel your relatives and can wonder about them too.

  3. Eisa on May 1, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    can’t wait to see these in person! making art is sometimes the only way to give expression to the parts of yourself or your knowledge that feel missing, unknown, uncertain. I love how in these pieces you can construct the garments but not the particulars of the person wearing them, that you are talking about culture and family and self through that. thank you!

    • Yvonne Gavre on May 2, 2020 at 11:16 am

      Connie: You put your heart into this project. These pieces are so touching & beautiful that I feel like crying. It seems that the process is as important as the finished work. I appreciate you! Yvonne

  4. Yvonne Gavre on May 2, 2020 at 11:14 am

    Connie: You put your heart into this project. These pieces are so touching & beautiful that I feel like crying. It seems that the process is as important as the finished work. I appreciate you! Yvonne

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