Babaylan Barbies

Babaylan Barbies  1998/1999
Ceramic, wood and glass

Babaylan Tradition: San Francisco Style
Babaylan is a Filipino word that refers specifically to an individual or a group of healers, mostly women, who were acknowledged by friends and family as possessing extraordinary gifts. Many Filipinos have stories of such people in their families, and growing up I took this all for granted. These stories might describe a cousin or aunt as having a gift of vision; an ability to see through schemes or situations and later advise on future plans… or the gift for healing; a specific touch or intuited or passed-on knowledge to specific processes of ‘fixing’ and ‘putting’ people and things together. The first priority of all Babaylan was her community.

Historically, the babaylan tradition refers to pre-colonial female priestesses who wielded spiritual power. Their society was squashed by stud cookie Spanish priests, interested in taking over their power. The babaylan were seduced by aspects of European society, including the Catholic church, producing a mixed culture where women’s roles were diminished. This cultural hybridization is still evident in Filipino society today. Cory Aquino’s presidency, with her ascendance to that office in memory of a martyred husband, is an ultimate example of a contemporary babaylan healing force. Otherwise, there are millions of moms like mine and yours. All babaylan.

Babaylan has resurfaced in contemporary American cultural theory, including recent articles and films. We tend to think of women writers in the U.S. as leading the way in international feminist theory, but the prominence of so many powerful women artist of Filipino American background suggests that another influence may be at work.

Sino Ka? Ano Ka? San Francisco Babaylan is an exposition of diverse and intelligent work created from a feminist perspective; with humor, strength, and memory as the ‘arrows’ and ‘handles’ that guide the image toward deeper engagement with the notions and issues of individual ideology, and personal identity.

There are instances where the shaman made objects around in Southeast Asia. The babaylan have no history of having created objects yet they assembled materials for healing and (in their way) ‘fixed things and situations.’

Historically, a situation has to be ‘just right’ for babaylan power to surge. Atang is a word used by my family to describe solemn and heavy payback. In this action of exhibiting in Manila and at San Francisco State University, the Sisters from San Francisco show their work (and at the same time) offer atang to their common root. This is how babaylan feel deepest about their family/community…that’s the surge!!

– Carlos Villa

In an attempt to explore the contemporary Filipina-American experience this exhibit poses two questions: Sino ka? Who are you? and Ano ka? What are you? The first question simply asks for her name, while questioning her source: Is “Filipino” her origin? The second question is akin to asking her for a topographical map; a description of her physical, cultural and historical terrain. It is a terrain shaped by Filipino culture, migration and history, elements which are often difficult or insurmountable for a Filipina-American to examine. Further inspiration for the exhibit was drawn from the pre-colonial term babaylan — a word that refers to a woman regarded by her community as a leader, spiritual healer, or high priestess.

Sino Ka? Ano Ka? is the second installment of a two-part exhibition. Part One, a smaller selection of works entitled San Francisco Babaylan: Sister City Sisters, was featured this February at the Museo ng Manila, as part of Mayor Willie L. Brown’s San Francisco-Manila Sister City Committee’s 1998 Cultural and Trade Mission. The event was held in recognition of the 1998 Centennial Celebration of Philippine Independence.

In continued celebration of the Centennial, we proudly present the work of Eliza O. Barrios, Terry Acebo Davis, Reanne Augustin Estrada, Johanna Poethig, Stephanie Syjuco, Lucille Lozada Tenazas, Catherine Wagner, and Jenifer K. Wofford. These women have inherited a quiet legacy of Filipina strength and endurance, of intelligence and innovation, embodied in the word babaylan and transformed by the fact of their American identity.

We hope, through this exhibit, to introduce the San Francisco community to eight artists’ personal “descriptions” of the Filipina-American’s terrain, in all it’s complexity and multiplicity. Beyond the role of “artist” they are educators, nurses, community activists, leaders, cultural critics, motorcycle riders. Sino Ka? Ano Ka? is not a comprehensive representation of Filipina artists; nor is it only a presentation in homage to generations past. Rather, just as these women are inheritors of Filipino culture and history in the United States, they are also the new “elements” shaping the land around them, around us, creating new legacies for their Filipino heirs.

The history of Filipinos in America is oftentimes told through the eyes of the Manongs, who “came over” first, and their irrefutable efforts to make good in this new country in search of a better life for their families. This exhibition offers an-other departure point in that popular history — laying groundwork for understanding of the Filipina’s experience in America.

As powerful as this exhibit is, the somber overlay — of many Filipinas overseas as lesser-classed citizens defined by their class and gender as domestic workers and mail order brides — is a harsh reality. Although the artists were not asked to respond directly to such conditions, undercurrents of their concern may be evident in their work. Sino Ka? Ano Ka? San Francisco Babaylan is offered in the spirit of celebration, healing, and defiance — as a redefined map of the landscape, a gift of inheritance of babaylan spirit for generations to come.

N. Trisha Lagaso
Exhibition Co-Curator

East West Clay Invitational Kansas City 1999
Sino Ka? Ano Ka? San Francisco Babaylan
San Francisco State University Art Gallery 1998
Museo Ng Manila 1999
Curated by Trisha Lagaso and Carlos Villa