It's rare that artists are able to make something so ugly, in terms of its content and context, have such an arresting and beautiful power. Leslie de Chavez explores the darker side of his country's imperial past in his bleak oil paintings that are all laced with vital hopes and dreams.
The Filipino artist seems to draw on the South American visual and literary sensibility of magical realism. Despite the foreboding and overwhelming dark hues, his art has a sparkle that allows the content to transcend the gritty realist style that they could easily fall into, and instead invites the audience to take a more proactive and introspective approach to understanding the pieces.
Narrative-based, there is action in his images. His figures seem part of an emotive tale, often involving some kind of hierarchical system - a stark reminder of the darker days that his homeland has lived through. First colonized by the Spanish and later American forces. For many, their home has never quite felt like it belongs to them.
After the Second World War, the islands of the Philippines gained their independence but it means that their culture was deeply controlled by others and has developed into a sort of hybrid combining past powers. The future might be there, but their history is not. The subjects of de Chavez's paintings clearly draw on this diversity of ethnicity and religiosity.
The subjects require a tender and thoughtful approach and by drawing on the icons and symbols of his country's history, rather than depicting outwardly violent images, we can understand the multifaceted lineage that combines into the paintings without a meaningful understanding of the history behind them. Making artwork that is as relatable as it is, to a degree, local - there is an educational aspect to his work.
It's clearly not just anger and resentment that fuels de Chavez's work, but a yearning to understand what it is that has made his country the way it is now. Filipino culture isn't particularly well documented in Europe, but through these works, we are able to have a window into this complex culture that speaks over 150 different dialects and languages spread over its many islands and 105 million inhabitants.
Amongst all of these people there is a wealth of religious and ethnic diversity that are all simultaneously their own and Filipino. These all coalesce in de Chavez's paintings in an almost ethereal manner as if the meetings are dream-like occasions of cosmic entities rather than true-to-life moments. As ruminative as they are, there is a strong sense of idealism that underlines the harshness of the scenes depicted.
The juxtaposition of cultures is strengthened by the clash of subject and background. In one image a man struggles to carry another who looks either injured or tired. Despite the emotionally resonant depiction of the protagonists, the backdrop of a cornfield and an almost gold-leaf sky makes it looks vaguely post-apocalyptic.
Although these dichotomous themes sit side-by-side, they never weaken each other, rather only reinforce. It's not a case of black and white mixing to create grey, but a pattern of the two meshed together, telling a story where both are as important as each other and without the other would undoubtedly be weaker.
Leslie de Chavez is building a body of work, now evolving into multimedia, that offer a rare insight into a culture that Europeans are so often neglected of hearing. On the news we get the crime, the weather, the natural disasters, but never the way that this diverse nation, perhaps the most on the entire planet, can create a cohesive whole. Luckily, they now have a voice in the shape of a young artist who is eager to tell his country's story.
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