Sa Tahanan Collective Redefines Home for Filipino Artists
Interview by Sophie Arni
Published on January 25th, 2021
Anna Bernice and Augustine Paredes share many similarities: they are both artists, both Filipino, and they both live in Dubai. In the span of five months, they met and launched Sa Tahanan Collective with a first selling exhibition at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s contemporary art hub. As they put it, they have always known they “wanted to do something together.” Born and raised in the Philippines, they met in Dubai as young working creatives with a serious penchant for contemporary art.
With palpable chemistry, Bernice and Augustine set out to create a platform to promote fellow young, working, and migrant Filipino artists. Originally intended as an online platform, Sa Tahanan Collective launched last December 17th, 2020 with a physical exhibition showcasing emerging Filipino visual artists, filmmakers, and poets. The premise was to sell artworks and send proceeds back to the Philippines. What started out as an idea to sell prints online grew to a full selling exhibition. With support from Alserkal Avenue and Gulf Photo Plus, the sale gave the opportunity for Sa Tahanan Collective to showcase the works from twenty Filipino artists, based globally, to an avid Dubai public. The proceeds went back to the artists and were redistributed to Kids for Kids PH and For The Future PH for long-term typhoon relief efforts.
Tahanan in Tagalog means home. Sa Tahanan Co is a fluid platform, rooted in the UAE, with a global ambition, and as the old saying goes –– made by us, for us. Bernice and Augustine are proud Filipinos who want to elevate the status of the UAE Filipino migrant community in Dubai’s art world. Filipinos, despite their prominence in UAE’s immigrant population, have rarely been given attention from local cultural institutions. Sa Tahanan Collective’s first sale, a pop-up exhibition, set out to change that narrative. It reverberated outside of Dubai’s usual art crowd and into the vibrant Filipino community of the city. For the time of a weekend, Filipino art lovers transformed Warehouse 44 — a launching board that also hosted 101’s second sale, and many other activations of artist-led initiatives — into their communal home. I caught up with the curatorial pair to reflect on their experience.
Sophie Arni: You started Sa Tahanan Collective off with a big launch: a first selling exhibition in Alserkal Avenue. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you manage to start the collective while juggling your other full-time commitments?
Anna Bernice: There was pressure for sure from both our ends. Both Augustine and I have full-time jobs and Sa Tahanan Collective is our passion project. I want to say it’s luck, because luck is when opportunity meets preparation. We are very fortunate that we have such a great support system around us both in terms of artists and stakeholders who want to invest in what we’re trying to build. It will soon be a month since we launched. We want to pick up the momentum and ride the wave while it’s still high, just to keep our audience engaged.
S.A.: You had a great turnout for your first sale.
A.B.: It was overwhelming. At the opening, Augustine and I looked at each other and thought: “What did we just do? What just happened?” We were so fortunate really. I was in awe of the show’s reception.
We are very fortunate that we have such a great support system around us, both in terms of artists and stakeholders who want to invest in what we’re trying to build.
- Anna Bernice
S.A.: You showed 20 artists, all of them Filipino. Were all of them based in the UAE?
Augustine Paredes: A good percentage of the artists are based here in the UAE, but almost all of the filmmakers who we showcased are based in the Philippines. There is one artist based in France and another in the UK. I would say half of the artists we showed were based here and half based in the Philippines and abroad.
S.A.: And did these UAE-based artists bring their own audiences to the exhibition? Or were you surprised to see an outside audience who wouldn’t normally come to visit this type of exhibition?
A.B: A pleasant surprise was to see the sheer number of Filipinos who came to visit the exhibition and see the delight on their faces. The title of the show was in Tagalog, the artist names were all visibly Filipino. This whole warehouse was built for them and the visual representation of their identity. When we talked to Filipino visitors, they would say things like “I come to Alserkal every week, and I have not seen anything like this before,” “I have not seen anything that is representative of who I am.”
Some of the Filipino visitors were part of the artists’ networks, but many of them were typical Alserkal go-ers. Filipinos who live in Dubai who often visit Alserkal Avenue for their good music, good food, good art suddenly stumbled upon us or came to visit from seeing our social media posts. They were so happy to see art that is a reflection of themselves, in their native tongue – art is that is for them shown in the spaces they usually frequent. I found that to be a delightful surprise, to have interactions with Filipinos who aren’t from the “art world” per say but who are nevertheless art-lovers.
When we talked to Filipino visitors, they would say things like “I come to Alserkal every week, and I have not seen anything like this before,” “I have not seen anything that is representative of who I am.”
- Anna Bernice
S.A.: Alserkal is quite good at engaging wider audiences outside the contemporary art bubble. That’s perhaps where you find the most meaningful reactions, from people who don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to analyze art through a distanced, intellectual lens but rather find real emotional connections to the artworks.
A.P.: Exactly. That’s one great aspect of having a physical exhibition. When we opened the exhibition doors, the Filipinos were the first ones there. Bernice and I agreed that the only thing we wanted for Filipinos to come into the space without needing to speak a certain language. They already know everything there is to know about the artworks. All the references, all the colors, even the artist names on the nameplates: they don’t need to understand it further because it’s already Filipino. They already have this knowledge.
We can talk about how nostalgia is a big part of the exhibition. All of the artists are referencing this concept and this yearning for home. But nostalgia comes from history, and history comes from knowing. And that’s the best thing that happened for both Bernice and I. When the Filipinos came in, they knew that the show was about them and that it was for them, too.
Nostalgia comes from history, and history comes from knowing.
- Augustine Paredes
5. Clementine Paradies, When You Go Softly, 2020. Mixed media. Image courtesy of Sa Tahanan Collective and the artist.
A.B.: That’s an important point. I treasure the community we built around the platform. As a newcomer to Dubai, as a Filipino living in Dubai, I was not that acquainted with many of these artists. I am grateful to Augustine for being my gateway to meeting this wonderful creative community. Our space was an art space but it was also a space for get-togethers. There was no question about what kind of Filipino you were. You just were.
Adjacent to the exhibition we had a series of public programming and when we weren’t shooting the films, Filipinos would just come and sit on the benches. They would come and hang out. That image is reminiscent of a lot of very mundane street images from back home: by the corner stores, the Sari Sari as we call them in the Philippines, the tambays would just be sitting outside, sipping on soft drinks, and just hang out. I thought that was beautiful and made me feel really nostalgic about home. It was a beautiful way for place-making in a place that isn’t ours, for making our mark and disrupting this pre-determined notion of what art gallery spaces are, unintentionally turning that concept around and showing how art spaces can be community spaces too.
It was a beautiful way for place-making in a place that isn’t ours.
- Anna Bernice
S.A.: I want to ask about the roles that both of you play in Sa Tahanan Collective. You both bring different skillsets to the table. Augustine, you’re an artist and you have been active in Dubai’s art scene for quite some time. Bernice, you bring this academic viewpoint and critical writing skills. What is the working dynamic between the two of you?
A.P.: Bernice and I have this saying that we make up this one-man show because both of us are halves. [laugh] I deal with the visual: the branding, graphic design, website and social media, and Bernice deals with all the communication, logistics, proposals, and writing all of our text materials. We both have full-time jobs and this is really our passion project.
Bernice and I have this saying that we make up this one-man show because both of us are halves.
- Augustine Paredes
A.B.: I was more in charge of management with Alserkal, going through contracts, agreements, organizing meetings, thinking of what we could achieve and what we couldn’t, negotiating finances. Both of us chipped in this project but we also negotiated financing with other stakeholders who wanted to invest in our project. Augustine was in charge of all the creative direction, we were trying to find an equal distribution in terms of workload. Going back to what he said, we both have 9-to-6 full-time jobs and other projects and gigs we have to look after, so we wanted to make sure that we evenly distributed the workload: passing the baton on different tasks, keeping in mind both of our schedules. It’s about open communication and having a flexible mindset at the end of the day.
A.P.: And in terms of looking for artists, both Bernice and I chose the participating artists. For the exhibition itself, the production was the most stressful two-three days we had in a long time! Printing photographs in Alserkal, going to Satwa for framing, coming back and asking everybody I know to help with installation, and cleaning up after we were done for the day. It was so much work. Keeping up with social media on top of that, we had a crazy couple of days.
A.B.: We tried our best to hype this show on social media, posting about it, tagging people, following different accounts. We weren’t anticipating that it would bring us to a full-house on opening night. I’m really bad at self-promotion, but we really did the most. I feel like that whole week my Instagram was just saturated with this exhibition. It may look like easy work but I can attest to you, it’s not. I was rushing to the warehouse space, rushing to Augustine’s place to have meetings at 8 pm, going to bed at 2 am every night. I’m astonished to see what we have achieved.
S.A.: The most important thing is the impact that it crippled. Can you share more about the history of Filipino artists in Dubai? Was this the first Filipino art exhibition in Dubai?
A.B.: No, and that’s an important point we have to mention. I am so grateful that the veterans of the Filipino art scene here came to visit the show. Brief history lesson, there was a collective here called the Brown Monkeys. They were a street art collective made up of Filipino artists who used to do graphic design and a lot of spoken word and poetry. There are also many other artists who have made their way with artmaking here, but the movements would be paused as people started to have families and move out of Dubai. Priorities were changing, and the Filipino art community started to drizzle off. But then the same community came to our exhibition and they were so amazed to see the movement starting again, going forward and reviving.
One of the things I was really conscious of was to make sure Filipino artists see themselves as equal to their Arab or Western counterparts. We are as competent as Arab and Western artists who are exhibited in Alserkal Avenue. That was a very important point and I think it came through.
One of the things I was really conscious of was to make sure Filipino artists see themselves as equal to their Arab or Western counterparts.
- Anna Bernice
S.A.: Very important indeed. How do you two feel now that the show is over?
A.B.: I had to take a break after the exhibition, but I’m so proud of what we have achieved. This show has trickled more opportunities and avenues for Augustine and me to continue adjacent projects to Sa Tahanan Collective. It was a good end to 2020 and kickstart to 2021.
A.P.: Same, I feel exhausted but proud. There is something that needs to be said here. It took me two years to have my first group show in Dubai. Bernice has only been in Dubai for five months and has managed to do so much in the creative space. But this is what Sa Tahanan Collective is about. I want to help other fellow Filipino artists to grow in the art industry in the UAE. I want them to have an easier start. For example, Nino Consorte is a photographer who has been living in Dubai for the past seven, eight years. That was his first show, and he never expected to be in a gallery setting or an exhibition of this kind. Cholo Juan who has done many murals for private companies and has worked in graphic design is also one of the members of Brown Monkeys. He was on a hiatus before our show opened, it was great to give him this opportunity and this feeling again. You know, it’s about using what you have been given and spreading those opportunities out to other creatives, giving them that chance to be exhibited in such a prominent place. As artists, our CVs are made of group and solo exhibitions. We need these exhibition opportunities in order to move forward and work. I hate how that sounds but it’s the truth.
I want to help other fellow Filipino artists to grow in the art industry in the UAE. I want them to have an easier start. We need these exhibition opportunities in order to move forward and work. I hate how that sounds but it’s the truth.
- Augustine Paredes
S.A.: Absolutely, that’s the reality. I love your mindset of giving away those opportunities and making it easier for fellow artists to grow. If you can make it easier for other creatives, why not? We grow stronger together. I don’t know if it’s something in the air, but it seems that Dubai has welcomed so many of these kinds of initiatives in 2020. So many notable young collectives and new networks have sprung up last year alone. There seems to be demand from the institutions’ point of view to collaborate and invest in a new era of young creatives.
A.P.: Well you have to remember the UAE is a young country. It’s only been in existence for 50 years – exactly 50 years this December 2021. We expats, we visitors, we’re growing with the city. The city grows with us too. It’s time for institutions to be looking at the new people who moved here, to look at the young blood who are coming in. We are here to shake things up. As millennials, we’re trained to think outside the box and not blindly accept what we’ve been given. That’s the spirit of Sa Tahanan Collective, that’s the spirit of Bernice and myself. When was the last time you saw an all-Filipino exhibition in Alserkal? There probably have been in graphic design, but that was years ago. When was the last time you saw a warehouse full of Filipino artists?
We are here to shake things up. As millennials, we’re trained to think outside the box and not blindly accept what we’ve been given.
When was the last time you saw an all-Filipino exhibition in Alserkal?
- Augustine Paredes
A.B.: This country is rapidly evolving, shedding skin, and evolving. To stay relevant, you always have to be visible. I see Filipinos as the crux of the social fabric and the engine of this city. Let’s just focus on Dubai for a second: 20% of Dubai’s population is Filipino. That’s one-fifth of the population. Is that represented in the art and cultural spaces that we frequent? How is the distribution of that exposure? Those questions sit at the crux of our ethos, which is to raise awareness of Filipino artists in this region. For me, it’s about asking how to make art more accessible. In my experience, Filipinos see art as inaccessible. At least for the majority of middle-class Filipinos, we see art as inaccessible – and I can relate to this on a personal level as I have struggled to tell my family about my own interest in art. I’m sure there are other cultures who can also relate. This exhibition broke the idea that “art isn’t for me.” Augustine and I have had the immense privilege to have access to this network and ecosystem of galleries and artists, and our show tried to make all of this accessible to people outside the art world.
20% of Dubai’s population is Filipino. That’s one-fifth of the population. Is that represented in the art and cultural spaces that we frequent? How is the distribution of that exposure?
- Anna Bernice
S.A.: And you’ve done a great job at it. Any parting words?
A.P.: With our first sale, we had a simple goal. Show Filipino artists in Dubai, sell the works, and send the money back to the Philippines. Now we accomplished this, for anybody reading this interview who wants to invest in our cause, I would welcome you to do so. We are trying to do something bigger than the exhibition, we want to start a conversation about being Filipino here in Dubai and we want to build a community around that shared notion of belonging. This is not a project for Bernice and I, it’s a project for the community. There is also one last point about the kinds of artists we showed. These are working artists, not sons and daughters of the elite who can dedicate themselves to art-making full-time from an early age. Everybody we showed in the exhibition has a full-time occupation and practices on the side. I want everybody to look at this new generation of artists and give us a leg up. We deserve it.
A.B.: Exactly, one of the artists we highlighted was Goldie Siglos. She’s a make-up artist and creates these self-portraits series of work exploring female Filipino identity and Mox Santos who is a fashion photographer by practice and creates these wonderful still-life photographs, pushing the boundaries of what still-life photography might look like. They don’t have parents who can support their lifestyles and pay for their individual studios. These are working people, and as Augustine said, they deserve the spotlight.
A.B.: In terms of the future of the collective, we’re currently brainstorming what could be a sustainable monetary model for us to continue our activities as a collective and as a philanthropic cause, going back to the core of why we started. Our next project could be an exhibition, a film screening, another sale. We’re thinking about all these questions right now, and it’s a very exciting place to be.
A.P.: We’re planning to create a database of Filipino creatives in the Middle East, that will be on our website very soon. For people who are seeking opportunities: they can send us their portfolio and we will post them in this database to make it easier for employers to look for creative talent. It’s still in the early stages, but we’re calling all Filipino graphic designers, makeup artists, filmmakers, photographers to reach out to us if you would like to be featured.
Sa Tahanan Collective is a diasporic Filipino art collective founded in the UAE by Augustine Paredes and Anna Bernice. Sa Tahanan a manifestation of Filipinos taking up space and stands for a ‘home for you, for us’. It is a collective by Filipinos, for Filipinos, a home for Pinoy creatives aiming to create and ideate across geographical and transatlantic boundaries.
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Follow Anna Bernice on Instagram.
Follow Augustine Paredes on Instagram.