Words like “Down with US-China imperialism”, “Educate, agitate, organize, mobilize”, “Address the roots of armed struggle”, “Resistance” and “Justice” populate Cian Dayrit’s artworks. As much social activist as he is a visual artist, his commentary on the expulsion of indigenous peoples from their land, exploitation of natural resources, reproduction of feudal land relations and damage of neoliberalism in his native Philippines is a call to action — to stand one’s ground, rise in arms and persevere.
For him, art is not limited to making artistic objects for exhibitions or to end up in art collections; it is a means to participate in the struggle against systemic oppression and to become a place of hope where social justice can survive and thrive.
Mixing archival references, symbols of power and identity, grassroots counter-mapping and protest imagery, his works respond to the plight of communities on the fringes of society. It is a critique of colonial and privileged perspectives not only from the viewpoint of the Philippines, but also of the so-called Global South (broadly, a reference to lower-income countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania) and all who have been victimised worldwide.
Often, they take the form of embroidered textiles, with his needlework transforming historical cartography into depictions of social conditions. He might, for instance, mark out on a map the extraction of natural resources, land grabbing and dispossession, thereby redrawing the boundaries of “official” history that distribute resources unequally.
An emancipatory exercise, the counter cartographies disrupt boundary lines and reconfigures power, inviting viewers to rethink the ways in which they spatially perceive and interpret the world.
“Growing up, I was always fascinated by how [maps and colonial imagery] commanded so much power by dictating how civilisation is perceived. I was equally entranced and horrified by how the people who made these things could impose their perspectives onto everyone else,” Dayrit recalls.
“I wanted to challenge the perspectives that somehow monopolised the framing of history and heritage. Activism taught me that by learning from and putting to the fore the narratives of the deliberately silenced marginalised sectors, social justice can be realised. By subverting the language of these institutions, I felt that I was filling in the gaps and democratising the functions of narrative.”
Earlier this year, group exhibit Threads and Tensions at Yeo Workshop in Singapore featured his textile wall art — modern-day tapestries embroidered with pictorial representations that are a powerful medium for storytelling and communication.
“Use of fabric is double-edged: when stretched, displayed and lit in a museum hanging, it has a commanding presence yet is somehow intimate,” he notes. “When folded, it can be covert, mobile and nomadic. The stories should outlive the materiality of the work. The textile pieces we make are not the sole bearers of the narratives we echo.”
His Tree of Death and Decay (2018) immediately brings to mind the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, a symbol of God’s life-giving presence that’s widely known among Filipinos, a devout Catholic populace. But here, its trunk, branches and roots are filled with phrases portraying the harmful effects of imperialism and the harsh realities of the lives of Filipinos, many of whom are trapped in what Dayrit calls “semi-colonial and semi-feudal” structures.
Another textile artwork Neocolonial Landscape (2020) is set against the backdrop of a photograph of an Aeta circle dance, an aboriginal ritual. It was taken in 1901 by American colonial public official and zoologist, Dean Worcester, who is notorious for his opposition to Philippine independence from the US.
Framed by the gaze of colonial domination, Dayrit has had hand-embroidered, in bright red thread, a fictional topography referencing the displacement of Aeta communities from their ancestral lands in central Luzon today. It showcases a motorway slicing through hills and rivers with text in Tagalog spelling out a “pathway of big, fancy cars” and a mountain called “sacred mountain that is about to be turned into a golf course”. The artist’s mind map reflects the circumstances that the Aetas face in the 21st century, driven out by massive infrastructural projects that have seen them progressively exiled from their own homes.
Born in 1989 in Manila to a middle-class Catholic family, Dayrit studied painting at the University of the Philippines and is a recipient of the 2017 Ateneo Art Award and the Cultural Centre of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists Award in 2018.
“I don’t remember exactly how I came to be an artist,” he discloses. “There were several factors, one of which was recognising that art, cultural work in a broader sense, was an opportunity to engage in direct action to learn and address the contradictions of our current social order, which of course I was yet to fully understand.”
“I remember watching some videos of a massacre of farmers protesting in 2004. I was totally destroyed by the idea that such injustice had been happening just outside my comfortable urban bubble.”
A member of SAKA, the Artist Alliance for Genuine Land Reform and Rural Development in the Philippines, Dayrit’s practice is influenced by the narratives of peoples who are victims of “spatio-cide”. The term was coined by Syrian-Palestinian author Sari Hanafi to describe the elimination of the places people inhabit.
“My practice is activated by solidarity in the struggles of oppressed populations,” he states.
He holds map-drawing workshops with indigenous communities, the urban poor and refugees in the Philippines as a platform for them to air their grievances, voice their collective aspirations and underscore the undeniable connection between life and land.
In turn, the narratives he ascertains from them informs his artistic and activist practice, and allows him to create cartography from bottom up, rather than with a conventional top-down bird’s-eye view that shrinks and divides the earth.
“Artists need to keep learning by immersing themselves in the stories of others,” he says. “We need to condition ourselves to extreme empathy and continuously strengthen solidarities. As we develop our practice, we should also deepen our connection with everyone else. Cultural work should never be isolated from the rest of society.”