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Sheer Realities: Clothing and Power in Ninteenth-Century Philipines > Additional Information

Asia Society

Sheer Realities:
- Additional Information -

Exhibition is part of a larger celebration of Philippine culture that includes theater performances, lectures, a symposium and contemporary fashion design competition.

Imagine a transparent fabric finer than silk literally made from the fiber of pineapple plants, and alongside that, brightly colored, woven and embroidered textiles ornamented with shells. Sheer Realities: Clothing and Power in Nineteenth-Century Philippines is the first exhibition to display the nineteenth and early twentieth-century clothing and accessories of the elite Mestizos (mixed-race Filipinos) juxtaposed with that of the indigenous peoples of the archipelago. The exhibition, which is organized by the Asia Society in association with the Grey Art Gallery, New York, and the Metropolitan Museum, Manila, is on view at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. According to Vishakha N. Desai, Senior Vice President of the Asia Society and Director of Galleries and Cultural Programs, "Compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, the art of the Philippines is hardly known in this country. The Philippines is really one of the first  multi-cultural nations. You could even say that it is the crossroads of the Pacific, fusing indigenous civilizations as well as Chinese, Spanish, American and Islamic cultures. What is especially exciting about this exhibition is that we can see how the various inhabitants of the Philippines viewed themselves and how they wished to be perceived by others through the clothing and accessories they wore."

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the urbanized Mestizos consciously sought to forge a national identity that distinguished itself from the colonial Spanish traditions and the indigenous groups of the country yet incorporated elements of both. Despite commonly held notions to the contrary, there was a continuous interaction between the elite Mestizos and the indigenous groups, evident in some similarities of their material culture. This interaction played an integral role in the development of a uniquely Philippine culture. Breathtaking clothing, particularly that made from translucent pineapple cloth, had come to be emblematic of a locally invented aesthetic and of this new national identity.

The exhibition is curated by Marion Pastor Roces, a noted Filipina scholar of textiles and contemporary arts. Selected objects on view include beautifully embellished outfits made from unique materials such as piña (sheer cloth made from pineapple fiber); stunning jewelry and accessories made from gold, silver, tortoise shells, gourds, rare woods, and other rare materials; and period photographs that show these items of clothing and accessories in context. The techniques involved in piña making are explicated in a special section, which also includes narrative and works in progress on ikat dying and weaving, while the exhibition is organized into four main sections that consider the broader framework of social, cultural and historic issues of the era.  In the introduction, maps of the Philippines, a historical timeline and photographs, and explanatory text set the stage for exploring this complex and little-known nation of islands. When Spanish colonists arrived in the 1560s, they found an archipelago of disparate cultures and language groups, many of whom had previous contact with traders from China, India, other parts of Southeast Asia and the Muslim world. Over the next century, the newly named "Filipinos" converted to Catholicism, thus adopting the mores of their Spanish rulers. They also intermarried with Spanish descendents, creating a class of Mestizos linked racially and philosophically to the dominant Europeans. This group of people developed into a self-named "Ilustrado," ("enlightened ones"), and set out to distinguish themselves from the indigenous peoples and other Mestizo groups. The exhibition explores these complex groups, their similarities and differences, and their often troubled relationships and considers their clothing, especially ceremonial dress and decorative accessories, as an expression of power and status. Once inside the main gallery, the visitor will encounter a section that highlights the fragility of the Ilustrado class through full ensembles worn by men and women in different contexts, with a special focus on social and public settings. The installation emphasizes the notion that the Ilustrado were isolated and saw themselves at the center of the Philippine world. Oil paintings included in this section depict members of this class, revealing their elaborate garments and furnishings. The role of the upper class Manila society and its relationship to the nationalist sentiments in the late nineteenth century are discussed in interpretive materials.

In striking contrast to the Ilustrado material is an installation that explores the clothing, accessories, and attitudes about the body of the indigenous peoples from the mountainous regions and the Islamicized zones. The installation design allows for a visual interplay between these materials - elaborately textured, brightly colored and profusely embellished - and the sections displaying the Mestizo material, so the viewer may experience both the stark contrasts and the direct connections between them.  Textiles of these diverse groups are augmented by period photographs, water color paintings, prints, and drawings depicting the diversity of the peoples of the emerging Philippine nation.

The fourth section, on the lower level, provides another opportunity to examine the complex nature of the Philippine identity. One first encounters a display drawn from the 1897 World Exposition in Madrid, Spain. The organizers of that exposition chose objects and images from the indigenous populations to represent the peoples of the Philippines, virtually ignoring the complex multi-ethnic nature of the archipelago. This section again provides an opportunity to think about issues of perception and representation and considers how this tends to be interpreted in the West. Also explored here is the little-known history of the Filipino revolution that brought about freedom from Spanish colonial rule and the early critical role played by the indigenous peoples.  In contrast to the exposition display is a painting and ensemble representing "Maria Clara," the name of a heroine in a novel by the Philippine national hero - the physician, linguist, novelist, artist, and poet Jose Rizal.

The literary character has become an icon of "Filipina womanhood" through most of the twentieth century, for reasons that touch on politics, religion, and emotional sympathy for Rizal, who was executed for writing anticlerical novels. Thus clothing associated with "Maria Clara" serves to provide a vivid glimpse into the Philippine psyche.    RELATED PROGRAMS  Philippine Style 2000  Asia Society has partnered with the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to organize a juried exhibition of recent interpretations of traditional clothing and materials from the Philippines. FIT students who participated in a workshop led by fashion designer Josie Cruz Natori on Filipino design and textiles are creating contemporary designs that reinterpret traditional Filipino styles. Concurrently, a public competition is taking place in the Philippines whereby emerging designers are asked to submit their creative renderings using historical Filipino design elements. A panel of experts headed by Mrs. Natori will select works submitted from both Filipino designers and FIT students for an exhibition to be mounted at the Asia Society at Midtown, 502 Park Avenue (at 59th Street), an interim location for the Society while its headquarters building uptown is being renovated. Also as part of the Celebration of Philippine Culture, a showing of wedding gowns from leading Filipino designers will be held at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, in the bridal department on the third floor, beginning on Monday, February 21.

Nikimalika by Ma-Yi Theatre Company
Asia Society and Ma-Yi Theatre Company will co-present Nikimalika, a play authored and directed by Chris B. Millado, at The Grove Street Playhouse, 39 Grove Street, New York, from April 28 through May 21. Ma-Yi is the only Filipino American theatre company in the Northeast, founded in 1989. The group develops, produces and presents plays and performance works that explore and affect the Filipino and Filipino American community. Nikimalika explores the events surrounding the importation of indigenous Filipino peoples to the St. Louis World Exposition of 1904. The personal, spiritual and political collide in the bizarre setting of the "Philippine Exhibit" where indigenous people were put on display with circus "freaks" and asked to perform their traditional rituals to further exoticize their "savage" nature.

Other Related Programs
Throughout the run of the exhibition Sheer Realities: Clothing and Power in Nineteenth-  Century Philippines, the Asia Society will present lectures and literary programs relating to the Philippines and the themes of the exhibition. A major symposium is also planned that will bring together artists, designers, performers and scholars from the U.S. and abroad to look at how the arts, music, literature and clothing at the end of the Spanish period represented a defining era of growing nationalism. In addition, a panel discussion is being organized to examine the changing roles of Filipino American women from war brides and plantation workers to experts in the fields of medicine, business and other professions. Updates about these and other programs can be obtained at or by calling (212) 517-ASIA.

The Sheer Realities: A Celebration of Philippine Culture project is supported in part by Ernest E. Stempel, the National Endowment for the Arts, Philippine Airlines, Josie C. Natori, Loida Lewis, Lisina Hoch, Edelwina Kimmel, Lily O'Boyle, the New York Council on the Humanities, and the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation. Special support from Doris Magsaysay Ho is gratefully acknowledged. Support for the Asia Society exhibitions and education programs has been provided by the Friends of Asian Arts, The Starr Foundation, The Armand G. Erpf Fund and John C. Weber. Support for Asian American programs at the Asia Society has been provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the Booth Ferris Foundation. The presentation at the Grey Art Gallery is supported by the generosity of the Abby Weed Grey Trust.

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