Wawi Navarroza “As Wild As We Come”
Kristin Hjellegjerde London (London Bridge)
19 August – 17 September 2022
A woman appears in a series of brightly coloured, stylised tableaux, draped in richly patterned fabrics, clutching ceramic vessels, an artichoke, a blue ribbon hooked over her fingers, a string of pearls between her teeth. This latest collection of self-portraits by Wawi Navarroza continues the artist’s vivid, layered explorations into identity, place and belonging, with a specific focus on the female experience, motherhood and bodily transformation. Weaving together a multitude of references from ancient and contemporary cultures, As Wild As We Come, the artist’s first solo show in London at Kristin Hjellerjerde gallery’s London Bridge space, contemplates the never-ending formation and flux of self as we cross geographical, corporeal and spiritual thresholds.
Born in Manila in the Philippines, Navarroza’s practice is rooted in a deep, embodied sense of place that is best understood through the lens of ‘Tropical Gothic’ – a term coined by Filipino national artist Nick Joaquin. Navarroza describes the Tropical Gothic as a fitting portrait of Filipino culture that is a syncretic blend of the local with a heady mix of Spanish Catholic and American Pop while remaining distinctly South East Asian. In terms of her own art, it provides a useful framework, or as she describes it, ‘a container for everything that I can’t exactly define – all of the things that I’ve been observing, living, breathing from childhood until now.’ Her photographic works employ a process of in-studio collage in order to examine and disentangle this process of synthesis from both a very personal perspective and in relation to reductive stereotypes surrounding the Orient. Navarroza notes, for example, that the term ‘wild’ has often been used in association with the Orient to describe something unknown, dangerous or savage, but here, in the title of the exhibition, she reclaims the word as an expression of defiance, knowing, vitality and play.
This latest body of work marks a particularly transformational period for the artist in which she has become a mother and moved across the globe from Manila to Istanbul, a country which sits on the cusp of Asia and Europe, the ancient and modern world. Though both experiences were destabilising in different ways, the artist chooses to reflect on how they have enriched her perspectives of the world and renewed her connection to both her body and art. There is a distinct celebratory atmosphere throughout: in the riotous melding of colour, pattern and texture that – an aesthetic that recalls the artist’s memories of fiestas in Manila – and in the depiction of birthday cakes that refer to the birth of Navarroza’s child but also her own rebirth as a mother.
Among the most visceral of the self-portraits is a work titled Vagus (after the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body). Here, a river of red, lacy fabric runs from the top of the image to pool around Navarroza’s feet, evoking the appearance of blood, which as the artist notes, is ‘both universally life- giving and intensely personal.’ The artist appears seated on a bed with her legs open, a black wire extending from her stomach in a gesture to an umbilical cord and a collection of carnelian crystals at her feet. The stones make reference to the notion of healing and balance as well as continuity to planetary time, while the artist’s pose, with her arm bent up around her head, mimics an exercise to relieve the vagus nerve system and reduce stress. In one sense, this is a portrait of vulnerability and exposure, inviting an intimate encounter between viewer and artist as Navarroza translates the private experience of childbirth and motherhood into tangible materials, but at the same time, she draws our attention to the artifice. A striped curtain on the left-hand side recalls the structure of a stage while the strip of yellow floral wallpaper behind the bed is loosely hung over a painted green grid.
Elsewhere, the artist’s orchestration of the image is made visible through visual anomalies. In the work titled The Shopper, for example, the background is composed of different checkered patterns containing glitches where the grid overlaps or repeats itself. Navarroza, who also appears dressed in checkered clothing, stands in front of a roughly cut-out shape of a blue and white vase as if she, herself, is contained. As in many of the works, Navarroza brings together the contemporary with the ancient, the banal with the spiritual. There is a shopping bag filled with potatoes flung over her shoulder while she holds an artichoke heart with open palms in front of her chest, imitating a gesture of prayer. Meanwhile, a small rectangle of woven polychromatic, upcycled fabric, that’s commonly used in the Philippines as a doormat, forms a halo behind her head. It is this slippage of meaning that makes the works so compelling; each time we return to the image, we are able to unlock new layers of symbolism and construct our own narratives afresh. In this way, Navarroza enacts her own kind of resistance. Her bright, joyous collaged scenes rally against notions of seamlessness and stability in favour of hybridity, creative curiosity and transformation.