Artist Stephanie Syjuco bought some black-and-white photographs a couple of years ago of what she thought were Filipinos seen in everyday moments.
But when she looked a little closer, she realized the photos were staged. They were actually photos of the Filipino village at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where people from around the world were displayed in so-called living exhibitions.
A collection of altered photos from that event are part of her exhibition on view at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Syjuco’s experience with the World’s Fair photos dovetailed with a key concern in her artwork: how the relationship between colonized peoples and the nations that rule them has been mediated by photography.
Born in Manila, she came to the United States at 3 and lives and works in Oakland, California. Syjuco is particularly interested in how Filipino people were presented to mainland Americans during the nearly 50 years that the Philippines was a U.S. colony.
Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the chief curator at CAM, already had Syjuco in mind for a show at the museum when the artist relayed her story about the old photos. Al-Khudhairi invited her to St. Louis for a 10-day residency in which she combed through archives related to the 1904 World’s Fair. She looked at materials held by Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis Mercantile Library and St. Louis Science Center.
“Rogue States,” the exhibition on view through Dec. 29, includes an assortment of photographs of images from the staged Filipino village in which Syjuco’s hand is partially obscuring the original picture.
“It’s kind of a gentle intervention,” she explained while setting up her show recently. “Not a way to destroy the photograph, but a way to question its ability to be seen as a neutral image of foreign peoples.”
On a recent afternoon at CAM, Syjuco assembled a new three-dimensional installation partially inspired by her archival dig in St. Louis, called “Dodge and Burn (Visible Storage).”
It’s a platform crowded with objects, many of them printouts of photos she found online, printed at actual size and mounted on laser-cut wood. Some are stock images of tropical fruit, a remark about how colonized people have been artificially presented as exotic. There are also photos of Filipino revolutionaries who fought both the Spanish and U.S. forces. Syjuco borrowed images of Filipino baskets and knives from the website of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“They look like props,” Syjuco said. “They look like they’ve been pulled from a museum collection, but in a way they’ve been illicitly borrowed, because no permission was asked to do so.”
The installation is presented as a companion piece with “Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime),” a 2016 work that explores similar themes. It too is a collection of objects arranged on a gray platform, many of them printed out from images the artist found online.
They include a reproduction of a photo from Man Ray’s 1926 series “Noire et Blanche,” picturing a white woman posing with an African mask. There’s also a rattan peacock chair — a piece of wicker furniture designed in a style of Filipino origin — and several copies of a 1967 photo of Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton (attributed to Blair Stapp, with the composition by Eldridge Cleaver) posing in such a chair.
“There are a lot of images and photographs that have been re-collaged or redisplayed or recontextualized,” she said. “I’m really thinking about how images are highly manipulatable, and that nothing is really neutral, especially in an age of politics.
Syjuco’s concerns with the manipulation of photography to shape our understanding of history are also reflected in selections from “Cargo Cults,” a 2016 photo series. They are black-and-white self portraits by Syjuco in the manner of old photos that purported to show members of indigenous tribes from around the world. But she bought all the clothes she’s wearing in the photos at American shopping malls; the dangling price tags are visible.
“The topics and the subject matter that she’s exploring feel very relevant to a lot of the conversations that are happening in the United States,” Al-Khudhairi said. “Stephanie uses the history and historical narratives to help us unpack and rethink our current situation.”
The artist said she wants her work to be complicated. She’d like viewers to make connections between the different items as they move around the gallery. Much of it has a distinct sense of self-consciousness — of taking historical raw materials and assembling them into something that’s not quite real.
“What you’re looking at is a giant construction. Whatever narrative is happening here has been highly composed; it’s been edited, there’s nothing naturalist at all. There’s a lot of artifice about it,” Syjuco said.
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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