The National Gallery’s new acquisition Wings Baanan series #8 2021 by the Philippine/Australian artist duo ISABEL and ALFREDO AQUILIZAN sabel is both a critique of globalism and a celebration of artisanal skills. Curators of Asian Art CAROL CAINS and BEATRICE THOMPSON discuss the importance of community to the artists’ work.
Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan (born 1965 and 1962, Philippines) emigrated to Australia with their five children in 2006 and live between Brisbane and Los Baños, Philippines. They have exhibited internationally since 1986 and their works are included in major collections around the world.
The Aquilizans work with local communities and artists to explore ideas around migration, community, memory, identity, sustainability and globalisation. They draw on their own experiences of migration and displacement, and their works often articulate the challenges and hopes important to underrepresented communities with whom they collaborate. In Australia, they are best known for their expansive, participatory installations and community workshops, often using cardboard, with its associations of migration, moving house, and makeshift crisis shelters. Artmaking is a family activity for the Aquilizans and, in their community projects, they expand their family to include strangers.
The National Gallery has recently acquired a major work, Wings Baanan series #8 2021 — an imposing suspended sculpture in the form of a single left wing made from hand‑forged metal blades and wood. The unlikely materiality of the realistic wing confronts the viewer’s expectations. Instead of lightness, flexibility, and the softness of feathers and avian wings, Wings Baanan series #8 conveys immense weight, sharpness and rigidity.
The Wings Baanan series marks a shift in the artists’ practice. Unable to leave the Philippines during the pandemic, and in response to Covid lockdowns, they worked with a single local artisan, NC, instead of making a large‑scale collaborative project. The Aquilizans have commented on how lockdown enforced a slower, more intensive engagement. NC is the last of the local metalworkers, known as pandaya, in the hamlet of Baanan in the town of Magdalena, south of Manila on Luzon Island. The artists’ enforced stay near the village for an extended period allowed them to focus their attention on their immediate surroundings and recognise the unique characteristics of the blades produced by the Baanan blacksmith. This prompted questions and conversations, which the artists explain:
'Just a few hours east from our studio and home in Los Baños is Laguna, where a panday works and lives with his two kids and his wife. He is self‑taught, learning from YouTube videos, and repairs and forges bolos (machetes) for the local farmers of Magdalena and neighbouring villages. As younger generations of Magdalena watch on, their yearning to learn grows. This young panday is one of the last practising blacksmiths within the province of Laguna. Baanan is the little farming village where we found this young blacksmith. Because the shape of knives, sickles and other farming implements, the forms are very specific to the place where it was created, the shape dictates the actual form of the wing. The Baanan wings look more fierce but equally more graceful.'1
The work is the latest iteration of the Left wing project, which the Aquilizans began in 2015. The series critiques contemporary economic globalism, a theme that the duo has explored throughout its collective practice. For the Aquilizans, the wing is a metaphor for the debilitation of communities in which the inherited skills and knowledge of local artisans, which once underpinned a district’s social structure and economy, are replaced with cheaper, industrially produced imported goods, disenfranchising artisans, damaging local economies and destabilising communities. Once powerful, local expertise has become undervalued and abandoned, ossifying like a rusted blade.
'This new series engages with pandayan: the traditional Filipino practice of blade‑making which existed long before the colonisation of the Philippines. Like an heirloom, the craft is passed to younger generations of families who have a panday (blacksmith). Now, it is a waning industry due to the processes of globalisation.'2
Wings Baanan series #8 will enhance the national collection’s group of works by Asian‑Australian diaspora artists, including Abdul Abdullah, Ah Xian, Khadim Ali, Kate Beynon, Guan Wei and Vipoo Srivilasa, who explore ideas around community, migration, identity, and Australian‑Asian relations.
Works by contemporary artists of Asian background, who, like the Aquilizans, are living and working in Australia, connect the National Gallery’s historic Asian collection to modern and contemporary practices, and facilitate conversations with the broader collection. The national collection includes a substantial group of textiles and devotional sculptures from across the Philippines, a major triptych by painter Rodel Tapaya, photographs by Filipino photographer Eduardo Masferré, and contemporary video works by Filipino‑Australian diaspora artists Club Até.
This story was first published in The Annual 2022.
- Artists' statement, email from Yavuz Gallery, 23 June 2021.
- Artists' statement, 23 June 2021.