Sin, Redemption, Art, and Motherhood with Marikit Santiago

Marikit Santiago, The Shepherd, 2021, interior paint, acrylic, oil, pyrography and Dutch metal gold leaf on MDF placemat, 30 x 22 cm (each). Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist.
Marikit Santiago, Apple of My Eye, 2020, oil, acrylic and pen on found cardboard, pen and paint markings by Maella Pearl (aged five), Santiago Pearl (aged four), and Sarita Pearl (aged one) on customised wooden screen, collaboration with Nick Pedulla, 198 x 185 x 11 cm. Installation view in “Marikit Santiago: For us sinners” at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 26 March – 15 May 2022. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Marikit Santiago, Thy Kingdom Come, 2021–2022, interior paint, acrylic, oil, pyrography, pen, gold leaf on found cardboard, pen and paint markings by Santi Mateo Santiago and Sarita Santiago, collaboration with Maella Santiago, 167 x 307cm. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and The Something Machine, Bellport, New York.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1490–1510, oil painting, 220 x 389 cm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Marikit Santiago, The Serpent and the Swan, 2021, interior paint, acrylic, pyrography, oil and Dutch metal gold leaf on found cardboard, 162cm x 77cm (each). Photos by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Marikit Santiago, Original Sin, 2018, acrylic, oil, pyrography, pen, 9ct gold leaf, pen and paint markings by Maella Pearl (aged 4) and Santiago Pearl (aged 2) on found cardboard. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
(Left) Marikit Santiago, He, 2017, oil, acrylic, Dutch metal gold leaf and pyrography on ply, 52cm x 40cm; (Right) Marikit Santiago, Panganay, 2015, acrylic, oil, Dutch metal gold leaf and PVA on MDF place mat, 22cm x 22cm. Photos by Garry Trinh. Images courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Marikit Santiago, at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
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Marikit Santiago explores her complex religious, gender and cultural identities as an Australian artist of Filipino heritage in her solo exhibition at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. She spoke to Luise Guest about her body of work in “For us sinners”, which confronts the sometimes-taboo subjects of motherhood and religion.

TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Marikit Santiago, Apple of My Eye, 2020, oil, acrylic and pen on found cardboard, pen and paint markings by Maella Pearl (aged five), Santiago Pearl (aged four), and Sarita Pearl (aged one) on customised wooden screen, collaboration with Nick Pedulla, 198 x 185 x 11 cm. Installation view in “Marikit Santiago: For us sinners” at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 26 March – 15 May 2022. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

 

If you stand outside the newly re-opened, refurbished heritage building that houses Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, you will glimpse two small paintings depicting a male and female figure with the heads of animals, hung just inside the door beneath a canopy of flowers and leaves. On the rear wall, the central panel of a large triptych shows a group of children dressed in white against a background of lush tropical banana palms and bird of paradise flowers. This is Marikit Santiago’s solo show, “For us sinners”. The exhibition inaugurates the next chapter in 4A’s ambitious programme of exhibitions, projects, and events. “For us sinners” reveals the gallery’s longstanding engagement with Australia’s cultural diversity and the deep connections they have established with Asia and the Asian diaspora.

Anyone taught by nuns will immediately recognise that the exhibition’s title references a prayer directed to the Virgin Mary; the “Hail Mary” ends with the words, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen”. Sin and its forgiveness recur throughout Santiago’s body of work, unsurprisingly, as the Catholic faith is central to the Filipino community and to the artist’s immigrant family. It is a cultural marker as well as a religious one.

 

Marikit Santiago, Thy Kingdom Come, 2021–2022, interior paint, acrylic, oil, pyrography, pen, gold leaf on found cardboard, pen and paint markings by Santi Mateo Santiago and Sarita Santiago, collaboration with Maella Santiago, 167 x 307cm. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and The Something Machine, Bellport, New York.

 

The cultural complexity of contemporary Australian society imbues Santiago’s paintings; her Filipino heritage intersects with her identities as a mother, a woman artist, and a proud inhabitant of Sydney’s multicultural and multi-faith western suburbs. I spoke with the artist on a rainy afternoon against the background noise of clanging trams passing in the streets of Chinatown. With her triptych Thy Kingdom Come (2021–22)—another prayer—behind us we discuss motherhood, artists as mothers, Catholic guilt, and Santiago’s complicated feelings about her cultural hybridity and religious faith. As a child she was embarrassed about her “foreign” name. She wanted to fit in, to be one of the “blond Aussies” in the school playground. Today, the rich heritage of Filipino language, religion and folklore underpins her work. But there are still conflicted feelings as Santiago explains, “I have no desire any more to have blond hair and blue eyes, I can say that unequivocally. But I am frustrated that the colour of my skin, and my name, and my gender will affect the way that people see me, as a woman, as a mother, as an artist.”

Santiago deals in paradoxes: her paintings are beautiful, but also darkly disturbing, combining imagery drawn from her knowledge of the Western art historical canon with Filipino folk lore and intensely personal, autobiographical imagery. They abound with references to Catholicism in its most traditional guise. Thy Kingdom Come, for example, contrasts fertility and abundance with death and decay. Upstairs, a diptych on a folding screen was inspired by Michelangelo’s Pieta. Santiago depicts herself in the role of the Madonna, but instead of cradling her dead son, the artist breastfeeds her baby. The opposite panel shows a serpent entwined around her naked body, referencing the biblical story of Eve’s temptation which brought original sin into the Garden of Eden. Temptation, sin, guilt, repentance, absolution and redemption are all here in unflinchingly autobiographical representations of the artist and her family.

 

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1490–1510, oil painting, 220 x 389 cm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Santiago’s iconography is complex and eclectic. She borrows freely—from Renaissance painting and the Western canon to Filipino folk art and contemporary Filipino figurative painting, even from popular culture. Imagery from a Disney movie makes a surprising appearance in one work. Thy Kingdom Come appropriates a mysterious painting of the Northern Renaissance: The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490–1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting is often interpreted as depicting the wages of sin; the erotic “earthly delights” of  frolicking naked humans are swiftly followed by the torments of hell. In Bosch’s painting the left-hand panel shows God presenting Eve to Adam. Santiago reverses this imagery—in her interpretation the figure of Adam is replaced by her husband, Shaun. In the guise of an Asiatic lion, a reference to her husband’s Indian heritage, God presents Shaun to the artist. “I depicted my husband as the central figure in the panel,” she says. “He is the provider for our family, so he is holding a fish. But the roles are reversed because I aspire to be the provider, and why can’t I be?”

Santiago explains that the eagle soaring above the figures refers to a Filipino creation story. In the beginning of time, she tells me, there was only the eagle, the sky and the sea. The eagle tired of flying so he stirred up the sky and the sea; the sky threw down boulders, the sea threw up mountains—and that is how the islands of the Philippines were formed. The first man and woman were created at the same time. In this story, the artist says, there is no suggestion that the woman is an inferior being.

Lush tropical foliage in the background is homage to Santiago’s parents’ suburban garden, filled with palms, bamboo and strelitzia, or bird of paradise flowers. “That is my garden of Eden,” says Santiago. This fertile jungle continues into the central panel, with its imagery of fecund abundance. The artist’s three children stand in the foreground, each child painted twice, dressed in the traditional hand-painted flower girl and pageboy outfits worn long ago at her parents’ wedding. Santiago’s eight-year-old daughter painted floral designs on the dresses, and on the shirts worn by her parents. Ghostly blue sections slice across the children’s faces, recalling photographic negatives, X-rays, or cyanotypes. This technique, which recurs in Santiago’s work, suggests that things are not always what they seem. There is a hint of the uncanny, of darkness to come.

Like Bosch’s mysterious imagery, the right-hand panel of Santiago’s triptych represents death. “I am punishing myself for my sins but also somehow relishing my sins,” she says. Mirroring the full-length standing portrait of her husband on the left, here Santiago herself meets our gaze with an imperturbable expression. She says, “In almost all of my self-portraits I stand quite defiant and gaze directly at the viewer”—an intentional contradiction of art historical depictions of women under the scrutiny of the male gaze. She holds an Australian native water dragon—an alternative symbol of the devil, and a further reference to the wildlife found in Sydney suburbia.

 

Marikit Santiago, The Serpent and the Swan, 2021, interior paint, acrylic, pyrography, oil and Dutch metal gold leaf on found cardboard, 162cm x 77cm (each). Photos by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Marikit Santiago, Original Sin, 2018, acrylic, oil, pyrography, pen, 9ct gold leaf, pen and paint markings by Maella Pearl (aged 4) and Santiago Pearl (aged 2) on found cardboard. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

 

The artist’s sense of humour undercuts the religious imagery of baptism. When you take a closer look beneath layers of glaze in the watery background, you discover a scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Santiago says, ‘’Ariel was desperate to belong in a place she just didn’t belong, and that is something that I feel all the time.” On the far left, a naked mermaid seated on a rock with her back to us is also a self-portrait. “She has repented for her sins and is waiting for rebirth,” says the artist. I ask Santiago if the idea of sin weighs heavily upon her. She says, “Definitely. And sometimes I feel that being an artist is a sin.”

This leads us to the subject of maternal guilt, and the expectations that weigh so heavily upon mothers. I tell her that Tracey Emin once said, “There are artists who have children, of course there are. They are called men.” We laugh, but it is an uncomfortable subject. Women artists have been expected to make art about the personal and the domestic, and then criticised for it. Motherhood is something of a taboo subject for the “serious” artist. A professor that Santiago admired once told her that repeating autobiographical subject matter was not a sustainable way to develop an art practice. “I was gutted!” she says. “I know that my work is inherently political, but I’m not confident to make that the forefront of my practice. So, I ignored it, and here I am!” And here she is, indeed, with this major exhibition at 4A and a forthcoming solo show in New York. The personal is, after all, political, and is absolutely a fitting subject for a contemporary artist.

A surprising element of Santiago’s work, given its refined, hyperrealistic technique, is her continuing practice of painting on unconventional “found” materials—most often onto large sheets of cardboard whose previous life as packaging provides a richly degraded surface with its own history of trade and travel still visible in parts. Santiago makes this deliberate choice for practical and symbolic reasons. It’s a practical choice because she paints in a garage behind her apartment block in western Sydney that is filled with children’s bicycles and toys, and cardboard allows her to move things around the small space quickly and easily. But the use of cardboard also signifies a practice of Filipino migrants called “balikbayan” box (literally “repatriation box”) in which people send boxes filled with consumer goods, gifts and food items home to their families in the Philippines. Santiago remembers her mother packing boxes of groceries, outgrown children’s clothes and toys and sending them back to the Philippines. Thus, stories of the immigrant experience are embedded in the materiality of her practice.

 

(Left) Marikit Santiago, He, 2017, oil, acrylic, Dutch metal gold leaf and pyrography on ply, 52cm x 40cm; (Right) Marikit Santiago, Panganay, 2015, acrylic, oil, Dutch metal gold leaf and PVA on MDF place mat, 22cm x 22cm. Photos by Garry Trinh. Images courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

 

Just as the use of cardboard as a support references Filipino culture, Santiago’s painterly surfaces represent the importance of her identity as a mother. She has intentionally brought her children into her work both as representations (the earliest depictions are newborns with umbilical cords still attached) and as artistic collaborators. Their exuberant mark-making, often wildly expressive, appears in all the large works in the exhibition. Santiago enjoys the dissonance between her highly refined, painstakingly realist technique and the passages of gestural marks made by her children. The juggle between motherhood and artistic practice preoccupies her.

“I think I have found a good way to negotiate all those duties and pressures—I work in the garage studio at home where I can still quickly get dinner ready and then immediately start work,” she explains. “I feel that showing motherhood as overtly as I do could be considered a bit taboo. I mean, does the art world want to hear another mum’s experience of motherhood? But I’m doing it anyway, I don’t care whether they do or not! But really, I mean above all, I’m doing this for my children.’’

 

Marikit Santiago, at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Photo by Garry Trinh. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

 

When I ask Santiago if hers is a feminist practice she says, “I wouldn’t overtly say feminist, but I think it is. I mean, it is.” “For us sinners” asks us to consider deeply felt questions of what it is to be an artist, a painter, a woman artist, and a woman artist of colour.

The depictions of the artist’s children as they grow alludes to the swift passage of time, and the inevitability of death. But, looking at the painted images of her children Santiago says, “This is where my husband and I will have immortality, we will have everlasting life through them.”

 

Marikit Santiago: For us sinners
26 March – 15 May
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney

 

 

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