From three separate worlds, three Filipino women artists examine and contemplate American-made images of life in the Philippines 100 years ago.
These are not the expected shots of happy rural farm life or even corpses of “revolutionaries” lying in ditches taken during the Philippine-American War. Rather, the 3,781 photographs taken by American Dean Conant Worcester from 1887-1907 document life in its rawness and fullness—with unexpected messages and colonial context.
Snare for Birds: Rereading the Colonial Archive gathered artists Kiri Dalena (based in the Philippines), Lizza May David (Berlin), and Jaclyn Reyes (New York City) at Ateneo Art Gallery to share the results of this reexamining process, and lead us to new contemplation.
It was during the COVID lockdown that Kiri initiated the project after a colleague sent her a database: thousands of archived photos taken during the early American occupation. “Some of the photos were familiar from books, films, etc.,” says Kiri, “but the context of where or how or who took them wasn’t there. So it led down a number of rabbit holes in terms of researching.”
One photo was of a man who was killed and labeled as a thief, with bolo slices across his chest and face (“Felizardo Taken in 1906”). “My gut feel was it was wrong—I mean, there’s something wrong with this archive and the descriptions of the Filipinos. But from reading and reading— even with all the texts written by Americans—you could still glean truths.”
The graphic archive photos overlapped for Kiri with the then-current Duterte drug war and its nightly visions of death. She began to see the connection between an American-sanctioned Philippine Constabulary which would hunt down and get rid of “revolutionaries,” through the martial law abuses of the Constabulary under Marcos and its morphing into the current Philippine National Police.
“I think that I took that route because we were really suffering under Duterte and the killings committed by the PNP.”
Some of her images for “Snare for Birds” show archive photos of Filipino natives morphing into musket-wielding Constabulary soldiers. She believes that line of state-sanctioned violence still resonates today: “It’s not finished.”
What also stuck out to Kiri was the blank gaze of Filipino subjects. They suffer the camera’s presence. Seem inhibited. Deadma. Almost a parody of civil society—and something she, as a Filipino, couldn’t quite connect to. “In the photos, I saw people so regimented, lined up for the camera. I felt, ‘This is not our culture.’”
Early on in her research, Kiri reached out to Lizza in Berlin, whom she’d collaborated with on a Manila exhibit in 2019. They traded images and notes.
For Lizza, “We were kind of pushed towards reflecting on the whole system, in particular violence, and also anti-Asian racism at the time. I was looking at what happened beyond colonization.”
In engaging with these archives we ask, who are these ‘experts’ of the colonial gaze? What reflections do we get from them? And if these images have historically been used as evidence of the Filipinos’ incapability of self-governance, what could they reveal about the Filipinos today?
She felt it was important to re-examine the images to see how they “resonated to the situation we are now in,” and “how violence is inscribed through our research and how to react on it through more formal aesthetics and through the canvas.” Her own contributions to the show are more abstract—canvases laid out across the floor of the Wilson L. Sy Prints and Drawings Library (one titled “mmmm”)—and photos showing the original archival source at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum’s Hasenkamp Storage Facility in Berlin. (The original photos were actually sold by Worcester to a German collector back in 1908.)
Kiri had mentored Jaclyn, and recruited her next. Jaclyn, a Fil-Am who didn’t grow up in the Philippines, viewed the research through a US lens, where Black Lives Matter was erupting at the time, and saw the importance of reclaiming a sense of dignity. “There was a lot of discussion about what kind of images are okay for us to be exposed to and the trauma of not being warned if you suddenly come across a violent image,” she says. “A lot of black artists were talking about the visceral or vitreous trauma of imagery.”
She found a lot of the archived Worcester images “degrading” and wanted to somehow transform them—using her medium of drawing—into something else. “I wanted to contribute really beautiful images of Filipinos, so that’s what I’m trying to do from the archives.”
Throughout Snare for Birds, the artists present images that reimagine the raw images in new contexts. A photo labeled “Filipino Prisoners of War at Pasig” with a few scowling captives gazing at the camera is reinterpreted by Reyes to show the prisoner holding a local toucan, tropical leaves in the background.
Dalena focuses on female images, including photo collages and a six-foot-tall woven abaca (“Cordage”) that alludes to bondage and repression under the American/Constabulary rule.
Of course, presenting raw, unmediated photos is not the goal. Viewer response is. To that end, a desk towards the back wall is stacked with copies of photos for patrons to leaf through. It can be triggering for some—and that kind of response is welcomed with a nearby chalkboard filled with “guide questions” (“How does colonial violence perpetuate itself in your surroundings? How can you turn these feelings into productive actions?”). Patrons can register spontaneous reactions through Post-It notes. A dialogue ensues with the public.
“Snare for Birds” can only lead to more examination, more questions. What was Worcester’s role as US Interior Secretary at the tail end of the Philippine-American War? Why was he recruited from taking pictures of birds (he trained in ornithology) to documenting life here for American historical records? (Purita Kalaw was among the local newspaper editors sued over an editorial titled “Bird of Prey,” which accused the American of selling diseased carabao meat and pilfering gold from the Igorot regions.)
More crucially: How did his images and accompanying texts shape US policy towards its new Southeast Asia“acquisition”?
“His distinct point of view of the Philippines shaped US public opinion, foreign policy, and inevitably what we know to be Filipino history and identity,” notes show co-curator Iris Ferrer. “In engaging with these archives we ask, who are these ‘experts’ of the colonial gaze? What reflections do we get from them? And if these images have historically been used as evidence of the Filipinos’ incapability of self-governance, what could they reveal about the Filipinos today?”
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“Snare for Birds: Rereading the Colonial Archive” shows at the Wilson L. Sy Prints and Drawings Gallery, 2F Ateneo Art Gallery, until Feb. 17, 2024 and was mounted with support from the Goethe-Institut Manila, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, co-presented with The Panublion Museum (Roxas City, Capiz), Alfredo F. Tadiar Library and Puón (San Fernando, La Union).