Returning to the Philippines: Medalla and I
Installation view, David Medalla, A Stitch in Time, 1968 – 2017. Viva Arte Viva, Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 13 May–26 November 2018. Photo: Beatrijs Sterk via www.textile-forum-blog.org/2017/06/biennale-arte-2017-in-venice/
The Filipino diaspora’s problem of heritage arises in the west when Eurocentric interpretations of identity choose to marginalise the significance of national origin, particularly for those of us who have spent the majority of our lives away from said background. As a Filipina-American I feel a stronger connection to my Filipino heritage, having been born there to Filipino parents, spoken Filipino first, and holding citizenship my entire life. I consider myself a hybrid of the two cultures, a fact that has been ignored by peers who see me as an American first and foremost. This marginalisation of my Filipino heritage can also be observed in critiques of the work of David Medalla. The artist’s regular migration complicates any national interpretation of him, making it easier to consider him a ‘citizen of the world’1 . But Medalla is not a citizen of the world—he is technically a citizen of the Philippines and has never abandoned his nationality even though Eurocentric scholars have. Medalla’s participatory artwork A Stitch in Time (1968–2017) exemplifies the usefulness of considering national heritage to broaden interpretations beyond the existing Eurocentric canon. The installation attests to Medalla’s continued engagement with the Philippines by referencing the Filipino family.
In the Arsenale exhibition hall at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the ends of a long white cloth are fixed to the ceiling so that it hangs in a large, inverted arch which reaches the knees of most viewers. A shorter, narrow ladder made of fibre rope and wooden rungs is similarly affixed to the hall’s vaults so that it hovers above the sheet. Then between each rung, thin fibre cords with spools of coloured thread are tied to the ladder’s side ropes and droop in curves perpendicular to the fabric. Shells, bells, and pieces of wood also dangle from the ladder, while felt pads filled with needles and small sewing scissors rest atop the cotton. These components of Medalla’s A Stitch in Time invite the viewer to borrow a needle, select any coloured thread, and sew something into the cotton fabric. Some visitors embroider designs, while most affix bits of papers or small objects. Nonetheless, the international visitors leave pieces of themselves and transform A Stitch in Time into a collaborative work of shared memory which transcends borders.
Medalla’s project first began in 1967 when two of his lovers left London on the same day. At Heathrow airport, he gave them each a black or white handkerchief, a pack of needles and a spool of thread, encouraging them to stitch whatever they liked. He had already embroidered his own name and small note onto the fabric, adding they could pass it on to others so that the ‘Stitch in Time’ may continue. Nine years later, Medalla encountered an Australian traveller at Schiphol airport with a column of embroidered materials. Attached to it were small objects such as shells, seeds and Chinese coins. The man told Medalla the column was a participatory artwork he received in Bali, and when the artist inspected it, he recognised the black cloth at its base as one of his original handkerchiefs. The artist’s name was still visible, along with his original ‘message of love’ 2. The artist returned the column to the traveller without mentioning the project was his, and they parted ways.
Medalla’s exact note is unknown, bound as it was to the original handkerchiefs. But some scholars would say that knowing his precise words is less important than understanding A Stitch in Time as a ‘simple message of love’ which takes shape within a transnational context. 3 Art critic Guy Brett has focused on the visitor’s reception of Medalla’s message more than the message itself. 4 Others have considered it a message of romance between lovers, as well as platonic affection across borders. Nonetheless, many interpretations of A Stitch in Time occur in a Eurocentric vacuum void of the artist’s national heritage and diasporic circumstances. Doing so has misinterpreted Medalla’s intentions, as well as missed an important, personal dimension of Philippine familial love and home. Eurocentric bias surrounding Western art is not uncommon. Indeed, post-colonial critique surrounding the history of art endeavours to undo such readings. However, even scholars aware of said discourse commit this error. British, Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce accused Medalla of appropriating embroidery from women in a paper she recently presented, titled ‘Dearly Beloved: Transitory Relations and the Queering of “Women’s Work” in David Medalla’s A Stitch in Time (1967–1972)’. She claimed Medalla falls into the category of men who appropriate women’s work to benefit themselves. But, in doing so, she failed to acknowledge the Filipino tradition of male sewing. After her lecture, I spoke to her about this ethnocentrism. Boyce admitted that Eva Bentcheva, Tate Adjunct Researcher of Filipino art, mentioned the Filipino tradition of male embroidery to her, but had decided to keep the comparison nonetheless.
This tradition of male embroidery is one that particularly resonates with my family. When I was born, my father’s first gift to me was an embroidered cloth he made himself. It depicts a Precious Moment Doll sitting on the ground with blocks stacked around her. He had sewn my full name, date of birth, and birth weight on to the blocks. My typically stoic father shies away from overt displays of affection, but embroidery was a means of demonstrating his love for his family. His gifts are not idiosyncratic however, as his family comes from Batangas, where men traditionally embroider.
Medalla would also be aware of the Batangan practice of male embroidery through his own father. In Taal, Batangas particularly, men embroider to earn money and support their families. This context transforms embroidery into an act of familial love and reflects kagandahang-loob (literally ‘beauty-of-will’), or the Filipino ethic of a willingness to help others. The Philippines’ most meaningful example of practical kagandahang-loob is parental care for children. Embroidery then becomes a message of familial ‘beauty-of-will’ for Batangan men. Therefore, to accuse Medalla of appropriating embroidery from women as Boyce has done is fallacious and ethnocentric. She deliberately disregards Medalla’s Filipino heritage and distorts Medalla’s genuine reference to familial kagandahang-loob by projecting a western, feminist approach that caused her to misinterpret A Stitch in Time. The installation still communicates a ‘simple message of love’, but the Batangan dimension ontologically returns the project to the artist’s heritage and expands the work’s sentiment to include family. Furthermore, Medalla’s reference to his Filipino family also makes A Stitch in Time a kind of home.
The fact that both Medalla and I have frequently moved complicates our concepts of identity and home. The artist was born in Manila in 1942 and moved to New York where he was specially admitted to Columbia University at the age of twelve. Medalla then made the permanent move to Europe in 1960 when he first settled in London. I was also born in Manila, but have since made my way through Singapore, San Francisco, New York, and now London. Both of us have spent the majority of our respective lives away from the Philippines, yet neither of us have forfeited our Filipino citizenships. As such, we are both members of a Filipino diaspora with complex relationships to home. Wendy Walters writes ‘The notion of diaspora can represent a multiple, plurilocal, constructed location of home, thus avoiding ideas of fixity, boundedness, and nostalgic exclusivity traditionally implied by the word home’ 5 . She further clarifies that artists have created homes in their artworks by coaxing meaning out of ambiguity. Medalla has said he feels at home anywhere, but his citizenship and familial ties mean he has never forgotten the Philippines. The family is the Philippine cultures’ strongest bond. Arguably, Medalla uses the embroidery in a A Stitch in Time to create a home for himself based on Filipino familial love. The idea of family and home has always remained in the artwork, as well as in Medalla.
A Stitch in Time’s predominant interpretation as a ‘simple message of love’ still applies. However, when considered void of Medalla’s national heritage, the installation loses an added dimension of the artist and familial affection. Thus, leaving one’s heritage in the past is limiting. Medalla certainly does not. He says, ‘All my work is informed by my personal experience’ 6 , including his Filipino culture. Wherever he goes, he still takes the basic parts of himself, while embracing new cultures and experiences. A Stitch in Time parallels this; its basic elements of coloured thread, needles, and fabric always stay the same despite its different installations across various exhibition spaces. Medalla’s love for his Filipino family and home is always present in the embroidery. Previous ethnocentric interpretations were incapable of uncovering this dimension of the artist’s practice in footnoting his heritage. Transnational approaches to diaspora offer more comprehensive interpretations of their work, and even them as people. Mine and Medalla’s Filipino heritage is not merely part of our past, but something that continues to inform our present.
1 Guy Brett, Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla, 1994, p. 33
2 Brett, Exploding Galaxies, p. 97