Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan
In this newly commissioned installation artists Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan have investigated piña cloth; a textile deeply connected to the social and economic history of the Philippines. For this exhibition See/Through, they have collaborated with Aklanon weavers and Lumban embroiderers to produce large bolts of this labour-intense and intricately embroidered material, tracing its journey from plant to garment alongside the cultural histories embodied in the textile.
Piña is created using pineapple fibre from the leaves of the red-pina plant (ananas comosus). This plant was brought to the Philippines under Spanish colonial occupation in the seventeenth-century, however it is native to South America, and through this movement we can trace the imperial expansion of Spain across the globe. The weaving technology used to create piña fabric was already well established locally when Magellan landed in 1521: textiles were being produced on a mass scale using the native abaca plant (Manila hemp). This absorption of one culture through the lens of another, and the complex entanglement of cultural histories is a key idea explored by the Aquilizan’s in See/Through.
Pineapple silk is produced by the indigenous Aklanon people, on the northern coast of Panay island. The piña material is extremely fine and delicate, with its dexterous weave giving it a luminous quality and shimmering surface lustre. Often richly embellished with detailed embroidery, the specific designs varied widely depending on its domestic or offshore destination. This intricate and luxurious white-on-white textile became synonymous with the Philippines globally through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and highly sought-after among the upper echelons of European society for handkerchiefs, petticoats, and christening gowns. This highly detailed made-for-export fabric is also known as nipis.
The artists worked with the community of embroiderers in Lumban, Laguna Province, a town in the region where their studio is situated south of Manila. The embroidery style is called callado. A meticulous handstitched process where the threads of the fabric themselves are manipulated and removed to create complex geometric designs; a bolt of this fabric can take one craftsperson a year to finish.
The process of creating the textile is painstaking, detailed, and extremely difficult to mechanise. Piña cloth is created from the leaf of the pineapple plant, which is harvested fresh before being separated into fibres by using a fine-edged tool (commonly a coconut shell or ceramic shard) to remove the soft plant flesh. These remaining strands are long and flexible, they are combed and rinsed to clean and brighten their whiteness, then hand-knotted together to create one continuous fine filament. It is these long threads that are then used to weave the cloth.
These fibres are fragile and snap easily so work needs to be gentle and often strands painstakingly reknotted. This cloth is woven on a loom, with the filaments warped around pegs on a board. The Philippines Folklife Museum details the labour involved in this process: “It usually takes 15 to 20 days to warp enough yarns to complete a ‘sucod’ of 18 to 20 ‘bucos’ or 54 to 60 meters of cloth… The thickness and width of the cloth is determined by the sucod.”[i] Following the hand-weaving process the pineapple silk is ready to be dyed or embroidered, and this production stage again requires incredible craft and skill “An embroidered piña garment is called ‘piña calado’. It takes 8 hours to finish one meter of plain weave cloth, and only one-half to three quarters of a meter may be finished if the cloth has a design. The amount of time spent on the cloth depends on the intricacy of the design.”[ii]
Locally the piña has been used to make ‘barong tagalog’ and ‘baro't saya’, customary garments now worn by men and women respectively on formal or important occasions. Both these garments have antecedents in the pre-colonial era as everyday clothing made from local abaca cloth. ‘Baro’ literally means shirt in Tagalog, a simple collar-less shirt or jacket with close-fitting long sleeves comprised the base from which both these contemporary garments evolved, ‘saya’ is Spanish for skirt and this element increased in volume and length throughout the colonial period, influenced by Catholic modesty. Once these garments began to be made of piña, their social standing changed and they were worn exclusively by the upper classes due to their rarity and expense. Their use reached its zenith through the nineteenth-century, and slowly declined in popularity following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent American colonisation of the Philippines where suits and western dress gained favour. However, following Philippine independence in 1946, successive presidents revived this local style as an assertion of liberation, economic independence, and to symbolise the break with colonial powers. Both garments now enjoy the status of ‘national dress’ of an independent nation, and reflect the legacies of its colonial past.
In the gallery, See/Through celebrates piña as an object of beauty, a product of masterful indigenous knowledge and skill, and as a vessel for conveying complex and contested histories of place. Weaving is a connection between environment and person—it links the textile to the earth from which the fibre grew, to the hands that deftly created it, and the knowledge that has passed through generations of Aklanon and Lumban people to retain its craft. Travelling across the surface of the pineapple textile in See/Through is an embroidered timeline that traces the history of piña and the pineapple from South America into the Philippines and across the globe. Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan use See/Through to present their deep research of this remarkable fabric and honor their ongoing collaboration with the Aklanon weavers, all the while unravelling ‘pineapple cloth’ and the potent histories it holds.
[i] Philippine Folk Life Museum Foundation, History and Origin of Piña. Accessed 1 September 2021
Hybridity and Exploring Voids of Knowing: A Personal Response to See Through
Belonging to a diaspora means that we experience a fragmented identity, and constantly feel the effects of this difference. Our uprooting from the Philippines to Australia showed this to me; we experience both of our two ‘homes’ as outsiders continually looking in. Like us, objects perpetually exist and embody the spaces of hybridity—occupying in-between spaces. By existing within the locus of difference we resist being categorised. When we live this way, what surfaces is the need for cultural memory, belonging and history—things often lost in the flows of constant movement.
The longing for belonging is forged under dislocation and it drives the desire for coming together. In witnessing cultural congregations, of the most informal and mundane kind, it became evident to me that the most powerful medium for these shared connections are objects. These encounters bring together multiple temporalities, spaces and places. We carry these objects with us, and they too become vessels that hold narratives of displacement, alongside hopes and aspirations for settlement.
See/Through holds personal significance, it allows me to lean into what I fear of not knowing my own culture. By finding a dissonance to the familiar Western system of knowledge, this work provides me with a sense of comfort in exploring these voids in knowing. The installation, woven and embroidered out of piña seda (pineapple cloth), blurs the lines between narratives—between what is fact and what is fiction.
As the fibre is re-contextualised within the gallery space as a vessel for dialogue; its cultural and capital value installed through Spanish and American colonial legacies are untethered. Piña cloth holds hierarchal significations of class and wealth, wearing embellished piña garments confers authority. However, in this representation these conventions are unravelled—as multiple conflicting narratives are played out through the embroidered text and imagery. The installation generates an informal space within the institutional setting—creating an alternative space of questioning what we know, what we want to know, and processing feelings of loss.
Like the connected fibres and layered woven silk of the piña, the artists, their collaborators and we as viewers become interwoven into the shared fabric of the work. The space breathes with the exchange and amalgamation of knowledges; weaving together story-telling, connection and collective disobedience. Simultaneously keeping what is made within, and surfacing what is left out.
Alfredo Aquilizan is an artist of broad sympathies. He draws, paints, sculpts, mixes media, does assemblages, and initiates installation projects. He earned his fine arts degree from the Philippine Women’s University in 1986 and his Masters of Arts in Fine Arts from the Polytechnic University in Norwich, England. He is currently pursuing his doctorate at the Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Together with wife Isabel, he has exhibited at biennales/triennials like Venice, Sydney, Gwanju, Busan, Sharjah, Havana, Ehigo-Tsumari, Setouichi, Fukuoka and Singapore and has been commissioned by the Tate Liverpool. He taught at the Philippine High School for the Arts, University of the Philippines at Los Baños, Laguna and at the Queensland College of Arts, Brisbane, Australia.
Isabel Aquilizan is a teacher and artist of the performing arts. She is a director and actress. Her engagement with the process of performance and its inherent collaborative possibilities has led her to work with her husband in installations that cross gaps between media and distances. Her role as a mother of five children enables her to intervene in recreating the art of installation as home or habitat that is sustained by housekeeping, child rearing, nurturing, and the collecting of memories. She completed her degree in Communication Arts majoring in Production at the Assumption College in 1986 and taught at the Philippine High School for the Arts.
For the first decade of their practice they have continuously collected fragments for their protracted Project Be-longing (1997-2007) an artistic collaboration spanning ten years. The artist have been invited participants in a number of international biennales and survey exhibitions including , Touched Exhibition TATE Liverpool, UK; Asia Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art (1999/2009), Biennale Cuvee, Selection of World Art OK Contemporary Art Center (2009); Dojima Biennale, The World Through Art (2009); Singapore Biennale (2008); Adelaide Biennale (2008); Biennale of Sydney ((2006); Echigo Tsumari (2006); Gwangju Biennale (2004); 50th La Biennale de Venezia (2003) Busan Biennale (2002); 6th/7th Biennale dela Habana (1997/2000) and many others.
Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan are represented by YAVUZ Gallery (Singapore/Sydney/Manila)
See/Through, 2021, fifteen panels callado embroidered piña cloth
Thanks and Acknowledgements
Fruitjuice Factori Studio:
Amihan Aquilizan, Aniway Aquilizan, Diego Aquilizan, Leon Aquilizan (Installation Support)
Artists’ Studio Assistants:
Neli Go and Cristian Bacolod (Research)
Maki Liwanang (Tech/Graphics)
LB Llantos Embroidery:
Teryl John Llantos
Ayee De Ramos
Aklan, Panay Island
Edwardo deal Cruz
Saturday 16 October, 10–12pm
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