Theodore S. Gonzalves introduces Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, CA, 2012)
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, CA, 2012)
Introduction: C.V.—The Course of a Life
Carlos Villa is the most significant U.S.-based visual artist of Filipino descent of the latter half of the twentieth century. Starting out as a member of the San Francisco Bay Area’s cohort of post-World War II abstract expressionists, Villa studied with the most talented students and teachers of that generation, including Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Frank Lobdell, and Ralph DuCasse. His works have been on display worldwide in more than three dozen solo shows, and over seventy group exhibitions. In 2007, the Hearst Art Gallery in the San Francisco Bay Area honored Villa as the seventh person to be featured in a major retrospective in their Master Artist Tribute series. Though this essay is not simply a resume of Villa’s achievements, its title plays on Villa’s initials as a way to call out what the course of a life could entail, to account for the historiographical absence of work on his life and output, and to suggest how one may construct a possible interpretation of Villa’s CV that adumbrates a trans-Pacific critical cultural history.
The Latin root of the term, curriculum, points to several things—a running, a race, a lap around the track, or a course. By the seventeenth century, the term’s meaning referred less to a physical space within, around or upon which one moved, but something more abstract—systematized and graduated scholarly training. The second half of the term refers easily enough to “life,” not simply a recognition of life at any random moment, but rather emphasizing what Dante understood in La Vita Nuovo, a new life occasioned by the poet’s profession of love for Beatrice, marking a fresh start or new direction after the accounting of a powerful emotional experience.
When pairing vita, as in “livelihood,” or “a way of life,” with “course,” we arrive at the current formulation, curriculum vitæ, which has come to refer to the course of one’s life generally and to a document more specifically, at least, for academics, artists, and other professionals. Just as no document can adequately summarize the course of one’s life, no essay can come close to take in everything Villa has done as an artist and educator. Tracing the course of a life should be less about what is reported in any static document and more about an accounting of the journey’s meaning—travels taken with or for others, treks where we’re alive to the possibilities that detours afford.
And yet given the fact that Villa’s presence and influence as a professional visual artist has been felt and recognized by students, patrons and curators, there is a curious absence about his work in two historiographical streams. This essay meditates on those historiographical absences of Villa from both traditional or mainstream art history scholarship and criticism, as well as from the Asian American and Filipino American studies. In other words, how is the course of a profoundly complex and rich life neglected by art historians and by Asian Americanists? By historiographical absence, I mean the non-publication to date of book-length scholarly monographs that take up Villa’s career, biography, and output as a central object of study. What can we learn about how this one artist is out of frame? My own frame of reference and orientation draws on how the U.S.-based sociologist Avery Gordon attempted to account for the photographic absence of Sabina Spielrein, a woman who never made it to a 1911 Weimar conference. Gordon’s work is instructive as a meditation on what one of the responsibilities of a scholar continues to be, to account for absences—historiographical, academic, and much more—to make a compelling case that what is absent from the record or repertoire is actually a presence by another name.1
This is not to say that either the fields of art history or Asian American Studies have completely ignored output by Asian American visual artists, but there is a curious silence about and around U.S.-based artists of Filipino heritage. In recent years, we’ve seen the publication of volumes devoted to Ruth Asawa or Theresa Cha, and other critical curatorial statements like Fresh Talk/Daring Gazes: Conversations on Asian American Art (2003), Asia/America: Identities in Con- temporary Asian American Art (1994), or critical work such as Alice Yang’s Why Asia? Essays on Contemporary Asian and Asian American Art (1998), Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, (edited by Gordon Chang, Mark Johnson, and Paul Karlstrom, 2008); and Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970 (edited by Daniel Cornell and Mark Dean Johnson, 2008).2
Several major group art exhibitions have also been mounted since 1996, which have been especially significant because that year marked the centennial of the Philippine revolution against Spain. For the following ten years, centennial commemorations throughout the Philippine diaspora proliferated, providing the reexamination of the Philippines’ role in global history and especially in light of U.S. imperial actions and policies in Southeast and Central Asia. Those art exhibits allowed artists, curators, and community members to take stock of the gravity of visual cultural production and to suggest how the present so clearly resonates with the recent past, including, among other events, the Philippine revolution against Spain (1896), the Philippine-American war (1899- 1902), the formal colonization of the Philippines by the U.S. (1899), the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904) and the first signifi- cant migration to and settlement in Hawai’i (1906). The ambitious exhibits included “Memories of Overdevelopment: Phil- ippine Diaspora in Contemporary Visual Art” (UC Irvine, Houston, 1996), “At Home and Abroad: Twenty Contempo- rary Filipino Artists (Asian Art Museum, 1998), San Francisco Babaylan: Sister City Sisters” (San Francisco State University Art Department Gallery, 1998), “Alimatuan: The Emerging Artist as American Filipino” (The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2006), and “Singgalot (The Ties that Bind): Filipinos in America, from Colonial Subjects to Citizens” (Smithsonian Institution and various locations, 2006-present). Since 1996, major art journals have tracked the vibrant international market for Filipino and Filipino American visual art production and patronage. And yet in all of that publication and exhibition activity, what accounts for the historiographic absence of an artist such as Villa?
Born in San Francisco in 1936, Villa began working professionally in 1958 and has been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Triton Museum (Santa Clara), the INTAR Gallery (New York), the American Academy in Rome, and Museo de Bellas Artes (Havana). His work is in the collections of the Oakland Museum of California, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum, New York. Villa is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
His training in art includes a BFA (1961) from the California School of Fine arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and an MFA (1963) from Mills College. In 2007, Villa was honored by the Master Artist Tribute Series at St. Mary’s College’s Hearst Art Gallery with a major retrospective exhibition. The series was created to “highlight Bay Area artists whose significant bodies of art work are rivaled by the influence of their teaching on generations of art students.”3 Villa is the first person of color to be featured in this series, which began in 1990 and has featured Nathan Oliveira, Manual Neri, Ruth Bernhard, Frank Lobdell, and Stephen de Staebler.
Villa’s absence from the framing of art history can be understood against the larger tangle of the Philippines’ active erasure from and its selective re-inscription into U.S. public memory.
What is a young anthropology graduate student like Renato Rosaldo to make of his mentor warning him that Filipinos were “people without culture”?4 And what are we to make about U.S. naval commander and theater critic Arthur Stanley Riggs’ claim in 1905 that “there is no Filipino literature”?5 Carlos Villa himself would hear it from one of his own teachers, Walt Kuhlman, that there was no Filipino art history to investigate. These are the moments when most students simply give up. But it’s the plucky apprentice or novice who finds creative ways around the limitations of their mentors. Maybe they’ll start to contend with what Filipino critic Oscar Campomanes called the “categorical indeterminacy” of the Filipino as both subject and object of academic study, the notion that the Filipino condition “resists political narrations which do not unsettle the representative terms or categories mandated by prevailing discursive grids in U.S. nation-state bureaucracies, academia, and cultural domains.”6 What they’ll find is that the field of Filipino American studies has struggled with its task of knowledge production—more de- tailed archives, more flexible repertoires—while having to tend to a perpetual condition of forgetfulness. Campomanes’ detailed 1995 essay, titled “The New Empire’s Forgetful and Forgotten Citizens,” grasps this state and was, at the time, only the last in a long line of meditations about scholarship elbowed forward as the act of “forgetting” was stipulated.
In a footnote to his 1976 essay, Kenton Clymer seems to have mastered understatement when he threw away the following lines: “Just why the history of American overseas colonialism remains an underdeveloped field of historical in- quiry is not entirely clear. Perhaps colonialism appears less exciting in practice than in conception; perhaps it is uncomfortable to recall that there was a colonial past.”7 Such acts of forgetting have been going on a long time, it seems. Let’s dis- abuse ourselves from the simple notion that acts of forgetting may be chalked up to accidents. To become a careful reader of U.S. and Philippine histories is to acknowledge that the unrecognizability of U.S. empire is not the result of an accident. To teach Filipino American studies is to do more than simply “remember” or “recover” the past; it is to remember against. The work involves acknowledging trauma and surveying what’s been consigned to oblivion. Let’s turn to some examples.
With mass evacuations of Filipino and Chinese residents from low-income housing, San Francisco’s major daily made clear how a vibrant community could be pushed aside to make way for the Wall Street of the West: “Forgotten Filipino Poor Huddle in Manilatown.”8 Peter W. Stanley’s 1972 historiographic essay, “The Forgotten Philippines,” attempted to counter an historiography that emphasized Filipino reactions rather than initiatives and motives.9 In 1983, Seattle-based community historian and activist Fred Cordova, in his pictorial history, wrote, “I take no credit for writing this book on Filipinos, who are forgotten Asian Americans, forgotten Filipino Americans, forgotten Pinoys, forgotten Americans.”10 Ronald Takaki’s chapter in his sweeping 1989 text, Strangers from a Different Shore, “Dollar a Day, Dime a Dance: The Forgotten Filipinos,” seems to have combined the title of Geoffrey Dunn and Mark Schwartz’ 1984 30-minute documentary with Cordova’s 1983 pictorial.11
Critic E. San Juan, Jr. takes on so-called “’melting pot’ Filipino Americanists who continue to blabber about the ‘forgotten Filipino’ in the hope of being awarded a share of the obsolescent welfare-state pie and unremittingly tokenized.”12 It certainly is appropriate to ask why we should be so eager to remember. In order to seek refuge in a modified and expanded imperial archive? Hardly. But, challenging an empire to actually remember a horrible war doesn’t guarantee justice either. In fact, after all the painful memories and instances are properly catalogued and accounted for, you’re just as likely to find yourself on the brighter side of the morning, waking up to jingoistic interpretations of history and military strategy by the likes of Robert Kaplan and Max Boot, who look back into history not to avoid, but rather to embrace, the word “empire,” to praise the moxie of military commanders who did more with less so far from home, and who had conducted what they believed to be a successful counter-insurgency campaign. Lessons for the New Romans!13
Contrary to the idea of a melting pot Filipino Americanist position that insists on including brown faces in formerly white spaces, I think it’s important to account for the output of neglected artists and creative thinkers for they afford us a chance to recognize what Ngugi Wa Thiongo writes about when he says that art is about “contemplating the ordinarily uncontemplatable.”14 Are there not lines of flight and return throughout the Filipino diaspora that can more accurately track the rule of empire, stare down the tragedy of dispersal and grief shared by so many, and build on top of both critical, more just and more democratic futures? I hope so. The problem with learning about the past is having to unlearn so much of what we already know. What will impede the aforementioned tasks? Campomanes is hip to the ruse: “What probably allows formal U.S. ‘insular imperialism’ to go unrecognized and minoritized (and for its amnesia to set in) is a geographic alibi. The territories seized by the United States beginning in 1898 are island groups (as opposed to the continental expanse of 19th-century European colonies and dominions): seemingly insignificant globs of real estate scattered across the Pacific, Caribbean, and Indian Oceans. The geographic becomes preternaturally poetic: the U.S. Empire was presumably no empire since the islands could just as well have sunk into these vast bodies of water and few people would have noticed.”15
If the trace of Villa is not available for us in either of the historiographies for us to follow, then how might we proceed and with what tools?
I believe part of that answer may be found in Villa’s own work, to follow a notion that Villa has suggested implicitly in his pedagogy for several decades now. It focuses in on Villa as an interlocutor. Since his own teacher, Walt Kuhlman, warned of the lack of a documented Filipino art history, Villa has taken it upon himself to fill historiographical gaps as an instructor, conference symposium leader, curator, and oral historian. His attempts at fleshing out a so-called multicultural art history less to do with adding brown faces to predominantly white spaces and more to do with expanding the traditional conceptions of ritual and the role that creative/ visual artists play in community-building.
Villa has been a tireless interlocutor in the sense that the legendary bluesman W. C. Handy understood it, someone who stands at the center of where it matters—between others, in Handy’s case, between other performers—questioning, provoking, prompting and prodding those to the left and right, harmonizing individuated statements into meaningful dialogues. Handy used the term to describe how lyricist Henry Troy was flanked on either side by singer Tom Fletcher and Broadway star Laurence Deas: “Henry Troy acted as the interlocutor, with Tom Fletcher and Laurence Deas as end men.”16
Using Villa’s own biography, we have the beginnings of an effort to think critically about the relationship of this artist’s output to two overlapping historiographies, and more importantly, to the signs of the times that link art- and culture- making to Philippine and U.S. histories. We can use the following signposts in his life to link biography to history.
NINETEEN THIRTY SIX
Villa was born into a country that was formally segregated by race, while informally integrated in all manner of vices, including drug use, alcohol abuse, prostitution, gambling, music-making, and, of course, laboring in fields and factories. In a detailed 1995 interview, Villa communicates the effect the passage of the 1924 Reed-John Asian Exclusion act had on Asian communities in San Francisco, the place of his birth. Two years before his birth, the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act allowed for 50 Filipinos per year able to enter the U.S. while also changing their status from “U.S. nationals” to aliens. Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan masterfully chronicled the thousands of insults that had clotted into the passage of these acts, insults that revealed slight but arresting changes slowly taking hold of these labor migrants. Bulosan’s account of meeting his brother after losing contact in their travels across the Pacific is poignant and seemingly innocuous: He can barely recognize his own brother. He notices the clipped cadence of Macario’s speech, the whiskey on his brother’s breath, and the fact that his sibling had become a chain smoker and seemed agitated. Bulosan wondered about the people he had encountered, depressed even further under the Great Depression: “I found my brother Macario in a strange world. I could stand the poverty and hunger, but this desperate cynicism disturbed me. Were these Filipinos revolting against American society in this debased form? Was there no hope for them?”17
Combating that cynicism meant exteriorizing the self- hatred and self-loathing that Villa has documented often in his works. In remembering his family’s travels and by commemorating their sense of style—shoes polished to resemble mirrors, pressed suits, and always the sharply angled fedora—Villa recasts the often cited peacock-like nature of Filipino sartorial expression. Lunas and other plantation bosses often wondered how and why so many Filipinos toiled for hours in sugarcane fields, sporting the most luxurious silk shirts.1
In her diaries as a young girl writing from the Territory of Hawai’i, Angeles Monrayo, a contemporary of Bulosan (they were born within three years of each other), would see what the writer would see much later on in his travel to the U.S. Her entries reveal her to be shy and naive, a kind of analog to an unsettled subjectivity of Filipinos afloat upon liminality—U.S. colonials—neither citizens nor aliens in a space that was neither formal colony nor admitted state. She’s doing well in school, scoring high marks in reading, language and civics and spelling. She’s working at a cannery during the summer, and is showered by white women’s benevolence; they encourage her to join a club for young wives and girls. She learns to sew handkerchiefs and bake cupcakes. She receives compliments on her voice from Mr. Mariano, a pimp, and local Japanese prostitutes as she sings to herself on her porch.19
She’s a witness to a space different from but similar to those continental destinations. What was similar? Cramped conditions on Hawaii’s labor camps, extended families counting strangers as kin, and the home as both a haven and a source of conflict, especially for young women and girls whose presence was cherished but also policed with an anxious patriarchalism. But the differences from continental experiences should be kept in mind. For Monrayo and other laboring Filipinos in Hawai’i, island life presented a lack of geographic mobility that was not experienced in Bulosan’s narrative in the same way. In the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, the smallest island is probably no different from the biggest continent. But the scale and size of these differences did have an effect on those like Bulosan and Villa’s parents, uncles and aunties in those early decades. Recall Bulosan’s boxcar odyssey across the west coast that seem improbable for any one person to have journeyed. Villa echoes those travels in his own pieces much later in the 1990s with his series of coffin-like objects and brass ladders where the inscriptions read like one of Bulosan’s imagined itineraries. In Villa’s 1996 “Uncle’s Way,” the accompanying text sets us on a dizzying course: “Isleton from Watsonville / Cebu to Fresno / Los Angeles to Fairbanks / San Jose to Delano / Seattle to Stockton / Baguio to Frisco / Roberts Island from Delano / Stockton from Pangasinan / Watsonville to Honolulu / Ilocos to Imperial Valley / Frisco to Sacramento / Union City to Pescadero / Hill St. to King St. / Kearny St. to South El Dorado / Chinatown to Chinatown / Where my uncles went.” Prizing that kind of imagined travel makes sense when you consider that segregation and racism were not just behavioral aberrations, but rather the law of the land (from Plessy in 1896 to Brown in 1954), and, in the case of the territory of Hawai’i, the colonial possession. Villa appreciates how anti-Asian immigration laws skewed the sex ratio and created a gender imbalance among Filipinos: “My cousin Leo and I and a few others were lucky to have been born during that time.” [Both were born in 1936.] There was nothing aberrant about the kind of cruelty that Filipinos experienced in that generation. They didn’t always have time to prize the journey or relish the present be- cause many were too busy trying to run from the horror of the last fight or the awful thought that you’d find your end thou- sands of miles from home—broke, broken, and alone. It wasn’t enough that Filipinos were chased by fearful white male laborers and local improvement associations; Bulosan made plain what it was like to run from his own kind—un- scrupulous Filipino labor contractors and shady bookkeepers. “[M]y first contact with [this sort of brutality] in America made be brave. My bravery was still nameless, and waiting to express itself. I was not shocked when I saw that my countrymen had become ruthless toward one another, and this sudden impact of cruelty made me insensate to pain and kindness, so that it took me a long time to wholly trust other men. As time went by I became as ruthless as the worst of them, and I became afraid that I would never feel like a human being again.” Villa’s works bear witness to all manner of abuse and self-destruction—and in his words, such self- loathing “destroyed a lot of Asian American, Asian-immigrant artists, and people at that time.”20 But how did Villa’s uncles, aunties and parents hold out for the possibility to feel like a human being again? Here’s where a sensitivity to the sensual becomes important.
The epic struggle of alienated labor and spat upon bodies would often find respite, respect, and connection in the lyricism of dancing bodies. The young girl writing from a strike camp in 1924 noted: “There’s a saxophone player, too, only he does not play every time we have a dance. I like the music very much if he plays with the guitar and mandolin player, because the music sounds so much better, and it makes you want to dance so much more. I can keep on dancing and forget about eating. Yes, Diary, that is how much I love dancing.”21
At the other end of the Pacific, the novice writer tries to make sense of himself and the scene: “When you dance for the first time, the world is like a cradle upon the biggest ocean in the universe. There are no other sounds except the beating of your hearts, and when the wild blaring of the trumpet and the savage boom-boom of the drum bring you back to reality, you get scared and begin to misstep and falter. Your hands weaken their hold on the rapturous being near you, and you want to apologize to her but the words are stuck in your throat. Suddenly you become conscious of the staring people around you, appraising you with obscene eyes and lascivious tongues, and slowly you lead the beauteous creature in your arms back to her seat. Then the orchestra becomes a cymbal of crashing noises, meaningless and riotous, and you return to your corner, trembling with cold and sudden fear. You are pushed back to reality, to the world of puny men and women who are circumscribed by fear. Then you, too, are one among them and one of them, prisoned by their fears and the ugliness of their lives. You go to the window and lean far out, savoring the bitter taste on your tongue.”22
In recalling his parents’ journey to the U.S. in the early 1920s, Villa notes that they had it tough, and that “even though they’ve gone through a lot of rough shit, they never ever thought of themselves as victims.” The same goes for his heroes like music rebel Dizzy Gillespie, of whom he had a tattoo done when he was 12, or his uncle Rudy who sported tailor-made suits and a closet floor of the spiffiest shoes—Scotch grain, smooth, alligator, or suede. Another uncle of his drove a 1940 white-topped Buick convertible. “At the time, the Filipinos were being pulled over, hunted down, and beaten, and no questions would be asked.”23 That sartorial flair, the thinnest and lightest of armors... holding out for the possibility that taking a beating wasn’t the same thing as being beaten down.
NINETEEN FIFTY EIGHT
By the time that Villa began exhibiting professionally in 1958, the art and culture-scape had both fractured and widened for artists like him. While formally a nation-state that was undergoing the latest iteration of the Black freedom struggle, the U.S. could not deny the energy and vibrancy of what was taking place in the formerly colonial locations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, especially the ways in which artists, activists, and students were reassigning new energies and valences to words and terms like “minority” and “Third World.” Historian Geoffrey Barraclough counted up “no less than forty countries with a population of eight hundred millions—more than a quarter of the world’s inhabitants—[revolting] against colonialism and [winning] their independence.”24 He had it right, especially when it came to explaining that Asian and African nationalisms were not wholly derivative, transparent copies of political and social models of the modern, but they were also rooted in their pre-colonial histories. Europe may have definitely provided the motive for what he understood as the “revolt against the West,” but it was certainly not the sole inspiration.
Restless in his Paris living room, having returned from his travels through Spain, Richard Wright read about plans for a conference taking place in Bandung, Indonesia, the first of its kind in the post-World War II era, to call together 29 nations in Africa and Asia, whose combined populations represented the world’s majority. This fired his imagination. He knew he had to cover the event; he left behind for us his report, the magnificent Color Curtain in 1956. His reflections during his travels in Spain would be published in 1957. Bandung produced what Vijay Prashad referred to in his 2007 Darker Nations as a “belief that two thirds of the world’s people had the right to return to their own burned cities, cherish them, and rebuild them in their own image.25” [Emphasis added.] While declarations of world peace and cooperation were adopted at the conference unanimously, the Third World that had emerged during this time was not of one mind. The most left- ward leaning of the nations rebuked colonialism in its newest forms and challenged the U.S. and those bound to its sphere of influence to live up to their professed creeds. In their own image. A delicate thing here, especially as Manila was continuing to see its own image reflected in an increasingly American frame of security and neocolonial dependency. Those on the right of the conference-goer’s spectrum, including the Philippines, had signed the Manila Pact in 1954, to create a treaty organization that bound Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the U.K., and the United States together in order to prevent more communist dominos from falling in their region.
In whose image? Post World War II Filipino moderns in the U.S. engaged in a thrilling conversation across disciplines—for example, Villa with his first exhibition of abstract expressionist-inspired pieces informed by the music played by the likes of Joseph “Flip” Nuñez from the inside of San Francisco’s Jimbo’s Bop City, the latter serving as the venue’s house band piano player. Before urban renewal would divide a neighborhood with a major drag, Jimbo’s anchored the Fillmore, the Harlem of the West. As painters and sculptors like Villa listened to Bird, Duke, Dizzy, and Flip, Filipino American poets like Al Robles, a Beat Generation contemporary, snuck into clubs to hear the shape of jazz to come.
Bass player Jerry Scheff remembers: “One morning at about 3:00 a.m., I was playing at Jimbo’s with a piano player named Flip Nuñez when a very imposing African American woman came up on the stage. She had on a Pendleton shirt with a calf-length skirt and high-top work boots. This was 1958 and I had never seen anyone dressed like that. She turned around to us, whispered “blues in F,” stomped the time on the carpet-covered floor with one of her boots, and as the dust flew up from the carpet into the spotlight, started singing the blues in a growling voice that was probably heard on the next street over. I was in heaven! The singer was Big Momma Thornton who had had an R&B hit song called “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog,” a song I was to play hundreds of times with Elvis Presley later in my career.26
At the terminus of capital’s railways that brought over laborers and other commodities, San Francisco and Stockton also became ground zero for the mixing of Filipino and African American folk forms. With Flip Nuñez as the standard bearer, holding down the pianist’s seat in a Fillmore nightclub house band, Villa and his artist cousin Leo Valledor listened to the myriad styles that would crash onto the Barbary Coast: gutbucket blues, cool, hard bop, Latin, big band, and the beginnings of free jazz. Players such as pianist/vocalist Rudy Tenio, singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, pianist Bobby Enriquez, and conguera Boying Geronimo made claims on American modern music that refracted Bienvenido Santos’ archiving of all those “immigrant blues.” They’ve been heard in working-class cultures before and in different places; for example, in Hawai’i, with the reckoning of a living death and the soul- stealing scut work of plantation life that produced the hole hole bushi—Japanese melodies sung with lyrics written under conditions where prospects of return to “home” diminished with each harvest.27
NINETEEN SIXTY NINE
More than a decade after his first exhibition and after a stint in New York City associated with the Park Place group, Villa found himself again in San Francisco, but with a new orientation and responsibility. The Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center was feeling the shocks of redevelopment and urban renewal taking hold throughout the City, affecting their ability to serve the needs of children, seniors, immigrant groups, and other African American and Asian American families living in crowded residential hotels. While there, Villa “saw these young guys asserting themselves—the black kids with their Afros and dashikis, and these Chinese kids who had completely their own style, their own hairdo, their own style of cars. I saw how important that was. Somehow it kind of hit. The idea of a self-affirmation, this idea of their rasquache.”28 Rasquache, a term that’s mulled over in a 1976 documentary by Duane Kubo titled Cruisin’ J-Town. Bandleader and foun- der of the group Japanese American group Hiroshima Dan Kuramoto discusses with musician and actor Daniel Valdez of El Teatro Campesino the meaning of the term. For Valdez, rasquache is akin to funk, not just as a style of American music, but more of an essence, a sensibility and an ethic. For writers like Tomas Ybarra Frausto, it’s a mode of “[positing] a bawdy, spunky consciousness, to seek to subvert and turn ruling paradigms upside down.” Rosario Carrillo sees it as a “noncompliant, bawdy and kitsch-like aesthetic.”29
Villa recalls: “What I was seeing was rasquache, as ex- pressed through two different communities, and I was utterly fascinated by it. I said to myself, ‘Well, why couldn’t this be a subject matter of my art?’ Now, all of a sudden, it just opened a new door for me. Besides doing the kinds of spray paintings or the kinds of sculpture that I was doing, which was minimal, I wanted to bring in older, traditional, non-European traditions into what I was doing, so as to amalgamate these traditions along with a modernist tradition to do an art about what that experience was—except in a very abstract way.”30
He examined African statues, began comparing the racial composition and variety of the Philippines, the diversity of Polynesian, Melanesian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. Notice here Villa’s early exploration of this mode, in a 1969 ink drawing on Itek photo titled “Tat2.” He refers to this time period, from 1969 forward into the 1970s as ecstatic, one where he would make use of non-traditional materials for creation of art objects—for example, the use of pig’s blood that he found in pint jars in Chinatown, or with the use of feathers, bone, teeth, semen, hair, nails, twine, beads, hair, and saliva.
The cloaks are fine examples of this ethic and aesthetic—”Second Coat” from 1978 features feathers and acrylic on canvas with painted taffeta lining, sperm, blood, hair, and spit. Four years later, “Third Coat” is a variation on the theme, with bone dolls sewn in to the fabric. Villa said he could never wear such a thing, “Part of it being on the wall was... there developed a kind of a tension between you wanting to go up and take the damn thing down and actually wearing it.”31 An exception to this is in 1980 with a ritual performance in San Francisco with a shaman providing per- mission, as Villa put it, to execute a repertoire of movement and intentions. Moira Roth saw these as perhaps “mythic harvesting and divination rituals as well as an esoteric initiation.”32
NINETEEN SEVENTY SIX
A fascinating curatorial example of Villa’s work is to be found in the 1976 exhibit and event titled “Other Sources.” Rather than offering up a doctrinaire linking of art and politics, Villa intended instead to point out that, “People don’t realize that there’s really a cry of humanity behind all of the protests that are happening. You have to ask why people protest... I don’t think one single definition [of the term “Third world”] could envelop the spectrum that it covers or the attitudes we are opening up and presenting.”33 Referring to it as an “art action,” Villa recalls not only the visual work that was included, but the inclusion of poetry, food presentations, taiko drumming, Polynesian dancing, the mix of traditional Chinese instruments with synthesizers, all confirming for him what one observer noted could be a “window into the future.” But what kind of future? Thinking about possible futures seems precisely appropriate, given that the nation was undergoing its own reckoning with its so-called revolutionary declaration of independence. As Villa and company assembled art and cultural repertoires from “other sources”—not only different art objects, but from various communities, traditions and heritages—the stewards of the shop had to tend to the burnishing of the patrimony.
Imagine the counterpoint: Villa’s exhibition in a call and response to the repertoire of the “Official Bicentennial”: President Ford lighting a lantern at Boston’s Old North Church, bombs bursting in the air above several cities, an international flotilla of 19 ships harbored at New York City under “Operation Sail.” Commemorative coins were minted, national sports events from basketball, hockey, to baseball (a kind of mock combat) converged in Philadelphia, and Paul Anka sang. Even Schoolhouse Rock developed Bicentennial Fever with their own series of shorts—”Elbow Room,” “Fire- works,” “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.”
Not everyone shared a triumphalist vision of the U.S. entering its third century. As the year neared its end, musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron recited a nearly nine-minute reminder on the double-album titled It’s Your World. The cover of the LP features red and white stripes fronted by a gorilla looking placid and stern, unmoving and silent. Within the figure of the animal are the faces of Scott-Heron and his collaborator, Brian Jackson, smiling at each other. Firing back a shot from Boston’s St. Paul’s Mall, Scott-Heron sent over to San Francisco a version of the state of the nation, wholly compatible with Villa’s “Other Sources.” Villa’s “window into the future” meets a blues that “remembers everything the country forgot.”
The point is
That the blues has grown
The blues is grown now, full grown
And you can trace the evolution of the blues
On a parallel line with the evolution of this country
From Plymouth Rock to acid-rock
From 13 states to Watergate
The blues is grown
But not the home
The blues is grown
But the country has not
The blues remembers everything the country forgot
It’s a bicentennial year and the blues is celebrating a
birthday And it’s a bicentennial blues
And it’s a blues year all over this country
America has got the blues
And the blues is in the street looking for the three principles
Justice, Liberty, and Equality
We would do well to join the blues looking for justice, liberty and equality
The blues is in the street America has got the blues
But don’t let it get by us.
TWO THOUSAND FIVE
I’ll jump ahead with another major curatorial project that Villa has undertaken in past years, “Rehistoricizing the Time Around Abstract Expressionism in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1950s-1960s,” featuring women and visual artists of color who were active during that time. It is an amazing project, especially because while I and others have been insisting that Villa be the subject of greater and detailed study, he finds himself speaking to his contemporaries and mentors to again set the record anew, to learn what our academic disciplines have missed or avoided when discussing these decades that anticipated the mass-based social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Included in the exhibit were Bernice Bing, Deborah Remington, Ruth Asawa, Dewey Crumpler, Gurdon Woods, Carlos Loarca, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Patricio Toro, Oliver Jackson, Gustavo Ramos Ramirez, Arthur Monroe, Leo Valledor, Manuel Neri and several others. Villa continues to offer up other sources.
In his own “Artist Statement,” Villa points to the “integrity of spaces” that he strives for in his latest work, a series of modular, cabinet structures that open to reveal grid arrangements, “framed wooden panels on the wall forming a rectangle: this network becoming, as he describes it a “community of interdependent units.”34 He goes on to say, “The irregularities (in the irregular thinness and thickness of the lines) are caused from the hanging of the work. Protrusions or gaps occur from the waviness or unevenness of the wall on which these units are attached- much like cracks on the sidewalk.” Villa claims that it is the “integrity of those spaces” that are at the core of his aesthetics.
I want to use his term to highlight the various spaces and sites that Villa has investigated in his long career—whether with the construction of shaman-like clothing that communicates the possibility of personal transformation when worn, or with precisely crafted book-like wall cabinets that frame clean lines and grids. The other critical spaces occupied by Villa can also refer to his role as an interlocutor, curator and ring-leader of the ongoing symposia dubbed “Worlds in Collision”—sites for contesting what “other sources” must be in play in order to comprehend a substantively multicultural art history. For Villa, those other sources involved not only adding blood, feathers, and bones to canvas, paint, and gesso, but also to request the attendance and participation of women and racial minority artists to hash out their work processes and motivations.
1 Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
2 Fresh Talk/Daring Gazes: Conversations on Asian American Art, edited by Elaine H. Kim, Margo Machida, and Sharon Mizota (California: University of California Press, 2003); Margo Ma- chida, Vishakha N. Desai, and John Kuo Wei Tchen, Asia/ America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art (New York: Asia Society Galleries, New Press, 1994); Alice Yang, Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Art (New York: New York University Press, 1998); Asian American Art: A His- tory, 1850-1970, edited by Gordon Chang, Mark Johnson, Paul Karlstrom, and Sharon Spain (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970, edited by Daniel Cornell and Mark Dean Johnson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
3 “Hearst Art Gallery Opens Carlos Villa Retrospective,” January 13 - March 4, 2007, http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/arts/hearst-art-gallery/past-exhibits/2 006-2007/carlos-villa.html (accessed June 30, 2008).
4 Renato Rosaldo, Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 197.
5 Arthur Stanley Riggs, The Filipino Drama (Manila: Ministry of Human Settlements, Intramuros Administration, 1981 ), 1.
6 Oscar V. Campomanes, “The New Empire’s Forgetful and Forgot- ten Citizens: Unrepresentability and Unassimilability in Filipino- American Postcolonialities,” Critical Mass 2.2 (Spring 1995): 148.
7 Kenton J. Clymer, “Humanitarian Imperialism: David Prescott Barrows and the White Man’s Burden in the Philippines,” Pacific Historical Review 45.4 (November 1976): 496.
8 Harry Johansan, “Forgotten Filipino Poor Huddle in San Fran- cisco Manilatown,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 10, 1966.
9 Peter Stanley, “The Forgotten Philippines, 1790-1946,” in American East Asian Relations: A Survey, ed. Ernest R. May and James C. Thompson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 291-316.
10 Fred Cordova, Filipinos, Forgotten Asian Americans: A Pictorial Essay, 1763-circa 1963 (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983), xii.
11 Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Difference Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989); and Dollar a Day, Ten Cents a Dance: A historic portrait of Fili- pino farmworkers in America, directed by Mark Schwartz and Geoffrey Dunn (New York: Cinema Guild, Inc., 1984).
12 E. San Juan, Jr., Working Through the Contradictions: From Cul- tural Theory to Critical Practice (Lewisburg: Bucknell University
13 Robert D. Kaplan, “Supremacy by Stealth,” The Atlantic (July/ August 2003); and Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
14 Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: To- wards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (Ox- ford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 17.
15 Campomanes, 166.
16 W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography (New York: Collier Books, 1941), 288.
17 Carlos Bulosan, America is In the Heart, a personal history (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1946), 133.
18 “The 1924 Filipino Strike on Kaua’i” (transcript), Center for Oral History, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.
19 Angeles Monrayo, Tomorrow’s Memories: A diary, 1924-1928 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003).
10 Oral History interview with Carlos Villa, June 20-July 10, 1995, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; online tran- script: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-intervi ew-carlos-villa-5561
21 Monrayo, 77-78.
22 Ibid., 77-78.
23 Oral History interview with Carlos Villa, n.p.
24 Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (New York: Penguin, 1976), 153.
25 Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short- Lived Third World (New Dehli: LeftWord Books, 2007), 32-33.
27 Gary Y. Okihiro, Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawai’i, 1865-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 19-40.
28 Oral History interview with Carlos Villa, n.p.
29 Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965–1985, edited by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarno (Los Angeles: Wright Art Gallery, 1991). See also Rosario Carrillo, “Expressing Latina Sexuality with Vieja Argüen- tera Embodiments and Rasquache Language: How Women’s Culture Enables Living Filosofía,” NWSA Journal 21.3 (Fall 2009): 121-142).
30 Oral History interview with Carlos Villa, n.p.
31 Ibid., n.p.
32 Moira Roth, “The Art of Multicultural Weaving Carlos Villa’s Ritual,” High Performance 47 (Fall 1989): 29-33.
33 Jan Butterfield, Rolando Castellon, and Carlos Villa, “Other Sources: A Dialogue,” in Other Sources: An American Essay (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute, 1976), 58-59.
34 Carlos Villa, “Artist Statement,” 2011.
Theodore S. Gonzalves has taught in California, Hawai'i, Maryland, Spain, and the Philippines. In the field of performing arts, Theo served on the board of directors for Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu; the advisory board for Bindlestiff Studio, a San Francisco performing arts venue; was co-founder of Jeepney Dash Records, an artist-run recording label; played keyboards for the Legendary Bobby Banduria; and was musical director for "tongue in A mood" Theatre. Gonzalves' musical work has been featured at concerts such as the Asian American Jazz Festival and theater & music festivals at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He has also written, produced and performed several scores for independent film projects. Theo's scholarly and creative works have been supported by various grants and awards including a Meet the Composer Award, a Visiting Artist and Scholar at the American Academy in Rome, a senior U.S. Fulbright scholar award to the Philippines, a Moeson fellowship at the Library of Congress, and a senior postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian. Theo is associate professor and a former chairperson of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He lives in Washington, D.C.