By HANNAH JO UY
Portrait by PINGGOT ZULUETA
“I flew to Vermont to physically and mentally get away from my comfort zones,” says visual artist Isobel Francisco. “I didn’t expect to spend a large portion of my time catching up and crying over news back home. I didn’t expect to suddenly want to talk about them in my work.”
In the latter part of 2018, the Vermont Studio Center became the setting of Isobel’s many firsts. It marked her first art residency, her first time traveling to the US and her first time working in an environment outside of her studio, alongside non-Filipino artists.
“It didn’t seem like a big deal at first until I was placed in that context,” she says. “It was also my first time being part of a group that was very much contemporary in practice.”
Isobel entered the studio, eager to expand her visual language. But something unexpected occurred. “While working so far away for a short period of time, it made me feel closer to home than before,” she says.
The residency became a catalyst for her earnest reflections on the state of Filipino affairs. This was especially the case when she found herself providing her batchmates with a distilled history of the Philippines in relation to the US, as well as updates on current events. “I had to talk about how many people were bleeding and dying in the streets,” she says. “It spurred me to start a painting series called #ThingsICutUpWhileReadingTheNews.”
Distance amplified Isobel’s affection for her country and its people. The old saying that “the death of one is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic” did not apply to her, who felt deeply for one and all. She was just as heartbroken over the current administration’s prediction that 20,000 more will die from drug-related initiatives spearheaded by the government as she was over the chilling news report of a 15-year-old-girl who was raped by a policeman while negotiating her detained parents’ release from prison.
“Half the time I was just angry and crying on my table,” Isobel recalls. “I’ve always been reading the news and reacting. I think it’s just more pronounced when I was outside my immediate context and in comparison to how safe, well-fed, and comfortable I was during the residency.”
Thus, she decorated her studio walls with mixed media works that related to local news. This eventually led to the creation of Aren’t We All Running, the centerpiece of her ongoing exhibit of the same name. The work is inspired by a 32-year-old series of paintings by husband-and-wife-artists Iri and Toshi Maruki called The Hiroshima Panels, which Isobel saw during her research. The first panel aimed to capture the death and trauma of World War II, after the atomic bomb destroyed the lives of countless people. The subsequent panels in the series dialed in on the tragedies and realities following the atrocious event.
“Even though we are not suffering from a massive impact but rather a slow, insidious burn, so many parts of us are already suffering from disintegration—lives, homes, territories, histories, memories, and identities,” she says.
Aren’t We All Running is an exposition of Isobel’s current sentiments toward modern Filipino society. She explores how Filipinos are in different states of running away from the current state of affairs, in a bid to survive, physically and/or emotionally, from a home country that threatens to consume them. She also weaves into the narrative, her commentary on the diminishing identity and heritage of Filipinos as the country relinquishes control and ownership of territories and through the mass migration of people in search for a better future.
In Isobel’s work, social inequalities are depicted in the Walking, the Running, and the Fallen. “But the bodies are also stripped of their economic and cultural signifiers because every single one of us is affected,” she shares. “When a house is on fire, no one inside is safe.”
It signals Isobel’s foray into unchartered territories, not only because it is the largest painting she has created, at 20 ft by 6 ft, but also in the introduction of a more prominent installation as part of the show. Most importantly, Aren’t We All Running signals her shift from the figurative and literal toward destructive and deconstructed representations of intangible aspects of humanity. The piece serves as the first step in a creative journey that she invites audiences to partake in. “I hope that it becomes a story, with a developing visual narrative,” she says. “Where it takes me or you will also depend on what’s going to happen.” Isobel added that she credits Katrina Stuart Santiago, the curator of the show, for encouraging her to trust in the process rather than anticipate or control results.
Candid in baring her evolution as an artist, Isobel continues to flesh out her long-standing fascination for depicting despair, exhaustion and catharsis underpinned by her relentless need to reflect. Such an approach is a testament to the artist’s role as chronicle of history. “Personally, any work of art of a Filipino is already a political and cultural statement that reflects who they are,” she says, “whether or not it deals with current events or wags a finger at politicians. To want to create art in spite of the many odds stacked against artists is an act of courage. The most inspiring artists, for me, turn that act of courage into conversation.”