Arts & Culture

Tropikalye: Makings of familiarity

Life and culture in the Philippines according to Nice Buenaventura

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The mind distinguishes experiences from unique to ordinary when the five senses adapt to forms of repetition. To residents in a neighborhood, the daily commute’s terrain are home’s familiar backdrop, rarely instigating cause to search for meaning in the mundane. 

A bricolage of DIY objects on the pavement is a typical sight in Filipino neighborhoods. For anyone who might wonder why there exists a hodgepodge of sidewalk scenery, if such forms follow function, and for whom, a community index like Tropikalye could be a delight to partake in. Spoiler alert: the blue wall on on your friend’s Instagram isn’t just a blue wall.

To visual artists Nice Buenaventura and Costantino Zicarelli, materials and colours that compose daily life are patterns worth looking into. In Tropikalye (Tk), a co-learning online resource for contemporary Filipino aesthetics, concrete visuals that are part of a wide demographic’s reality reflect a place’s history and state. 

Nice takes B-Side inside the core of her platform and through a charming, colourful, and at times heartbreaking tour across Filipino vernacular culture.

Photo courtesy of Tropikalye website
Old umbrella canopies and wood draped as a protective layer against heat for a dog house in Quezon City

Welcome to the grey area

Nice begins by pointing out that a chunk of Filipino culture has been overlooked in the arts and the academe. Cultural sectors pour institutional support on indigenous peoples and the cosmopolitan elite. Tk is less concerned with these ends, dwelling instead in the non-polarising centre. Majority of Filipinos live in this post-folk grey area, which was established from centuries of colonisation and internal migration.

“Folk acumen travels with the breadwinner from the province, merging with sensibilities imposed on newcomers by gritty urban landscape,” Nice says, as many continue to leave provinces for opportunities in a megalopolis like Metro Manila. Culture is reshaped as elements are lost and adopted with the constant displacement between people and places.

“Too often the dialogue is replete with easy references that only play up what makes us [Filipinos] exotic as a people and as a place.”

She witnesses the cost of the limited discourse surrounding identity. Filipinos are world renowned for caregiving because of stereotypes perpetuated by Western media. “There are prevailing pan-Asian and Chinese-centric Asian identities that to a significant extent, erase ‘Other Asians’ from global narratives.” Misrepresentations signify there’s a lot of work to be done in understanding what it actually means to be a Filipino today. “It’s work that must be done as a community. Post-colonial identity must be insider-first as well as polyvocal,” she adds.

Built by community

As a professor of Philippine Design in Ateneo de Manila University, Nice avoided rehashing old dichotomies to her students, instead initiating a project to fill the gaps and shift attention to the grey area. “I knew the project is bigger than what I can achieve alone,” she says, since Tk has been communal from the get-go. It’s a feat to cover the entire archipelago’s regional trends alone.

Photo courtesy of Nice Buenaventura
Nice documenting an assortment of textbook covers for #TkChromax #TkParaparaan

With origins in the classroom back in 2018, Tk has grown into a collection of photos and texts shared publicly on Instagram. The app’s image-focused interface supports the project’s visual and community components. Some of Tk’s posts spark conversations in the comments section and trivia is shared.

From research to publication, Nice and Cos sort through submissions as facilitators of information in the community. Tk self-regulates by adhering to ethical guidelines to ensure responsible discourse. Members keep each other in-check to steer clear of appropriation, fetishisation, and other-ing. 

“We work on the project out of genuine interest, almost bordering on compulsion. It operates in the subconscious spontaneously, like an auto-shoot function that self-starts whenever we go outside.”

Photo courtesy of Nice Buenaventura
Cos on spontaneous Tk fieldwork duty

Attending to the ordinary

The name Tropikalye is a nod to the country’s streets and tropical conditions, even suggesting a colonial past. “Kalye” is a Tagalog off-shoot of the Spanish word for street “calle.” Concerned with the vernacular context, the index cultivates attention to ordinary things that pique curiosity in a place where there’s plenty of stimuli. People rarely look up from their screens, focussed on getting to another place.

“Some objects are so prosaic that whenever they exhibit a kind of unusual beauty, they can be said to possess aesthetic value.”

Nice refers to her own art as lay ethnography, seeking solutions in unlikely places. Never confined to traditional art-making, research, gardening, and parenting are part of her process. Her mixed media varies according to what she’s responding to at the moment, shuffling between painting, installations, and writing.

Listening to her musings on culture and daily life, it’s apparent that she’s an artist engaging in dialogue to make sense of what she sees. Tk ties into her body of work as it “re-articulates the queering of unproductive binaries through art.” She continues, “the fact that I do all these different activities in the same space contributes to a serendipitous alignment of ideas.” 

Photo courtesy of Nice Buenaventura
Nice working on her graduate show with an elusive tropical fern called the Dilimán fern from Quezon City
Photo uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
Repurposed plastic bags as hanging planters for vegetables tackling food security and waste management for #TropiKovid #TkParaparaan

Portraits of daily aesthetics

Filipino material culture is a landscape that is both organic and simultaneously artificial, owed common use of tropical flora and plant fibres, as with the ubiquity of plastic. Tk gathers visual trends that locals may be accustomed to seeing but haven’t found the words for or the avenue to discuss their relevance.

Nice first noticed an inclination for polychromy in Japan’s neon way-finding signs. Tk identifies this pattern as #TkChromax. The flair for festivity embedded in Filipino culture expresses itself in hundreds of customs and the redundancy of vibrant colours bleeding into everyday life.

Along a similar vein, #TkColorCooling records the prevalence of cool-toned hues in and around homes and establishments painted in shades of teal, sea-foam green, and bright blue. This preference which might be perceived by some as unfashionable does have pragmatic motivations. Locals would say, “malamig sa mata,” to describe the colours’ potential effects as retort to year-round heat. A homogenous palette can be found in India, Cuba, and parts of the Global South an earshot from the equator. 

Photos by @daniellaherself
A screenshot of the #TkColorCooling archive uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
Photo courtesy of Nice Buenaventura
A snap of visual trend #TkColorCooling on Instagram

#TkMoreIsMore is a composition discernible in every city. Graphics and information are overcrowded in small eateries and packaging, slapped onto rows of large billboards and tarps. Nice likens this to horror vacui: the filling of empty spaces with ornate detail. This seemingly random predisposition for maximalism is rooted in the theory that “clear space is a waste of paid space, since every surface is a blank canvas for the value-seeking FIlipino.” She adds that while there isn’t a direct English translation for the expression, “sayang” it denotes pity and dislike for wastage, including wasted opportunities. 

When Nice lived in the UK, she couldn’t help but compare London to Manila at the sight of sandbags used to weigh down temporary street signs. #TkParaparaan refers to modest resources that make clever solutions, usually Frankensteined urban and household items. “Diskarte” directly translates to strategy, telling of a brand of local ingenuity. Life hacks and improvisation seem necessary to supplement everyday life.

Photo uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
Makeshift no parking or caution structures to keep people from slipping on wet moss made from concrete for #TkParaparaan

Form follows function

Through Tk, tangible manifestations of culture uncover that there’s more method to the madness so to speak; perhaps forms do follow function. The ordinary and familiar allude to creative ways of navigating and world-building in the Philippines’ congested neighborhoods. Residents continue to make the most out of little, despite an abundance of struggle. Visuals blur into a place’s DNA but they’re not as arbitrary as the five senses lead on. 

Nice sees these images as “triumphs over scarcity and hot weather.” Much of Filipino aesthetics and material culture is a result of environment: nature itself and the socio-economic climate. She wishes people were more conscious of feats built into the many ways of doing things in her home.

Photo by AJ Miraflor uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
Communities flooded during Typhoon Rolly 2020 for #TkChromax #TropiKovid
Photo uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
Drying rags and household items after a storm found in Quezon City for #TkParaparaan

“Many interesting things you’ll see on the streets and in the homes of ordinary Filipinos are born out of need. The cosmetics of things is secondary here and at times, only considered if it’s afforded.”

She notes that since people here are preoccupied with life’s difficulties, it’s a challenge to raise an awareness for culture. “It’s difficult to care about beauty when basic needs aren’t being met,” she adds, depicting the relationship between aesthetics and socio-economic class and how its significance and output vary. As notetakers of observations, Tk urges those who can to do the work in finding meaning in the accidental intersections of aesthetics with everyday life.

Finding Filipino identity

Filipino culture however remains receptive to external influences, and Nice ascribes this to “a function of colonial residue where most foreign things are still considered aspirational [here].” The lack of shared identity is inexorably linked to the shortage of knowledge on vernacular culture. 

“We’re not able to automatically associate [Filipino] culture with labels and visual representations. This is where I imagine Tropikalye helps. By articulating these under-discussed areas in our culture, we can begin to form positive associations about our own identity.” 

Photo uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
A jeepney spotted in Metro Manila decorated with Hello Kitty in Pepto Bismol pink submitted for #TkChromax #TkMoreIsMore

After all, Tk’s main conceit is decolonisation. It utilises aesthetics as a framework to understand culture, a prerequisite to developing a secure sense of identity. “By gathering and presenting observations of the community by the community, vernacular wisdom isn’t lost to the wind.” As the index re-introduces these hidden but familiar ways of life into mainstream consciousness, people ascribe more value to actions dismissed as ordinary solutions.

Consciousness in change

“We’re witnessing an expansion of our reality from tropical and postcolonial to also post-pandemic, it’s a bit unnerving,” Nice says, referencing recent visual trend #TropiKovid. She anticipates changes in the resource as the pandemic alters everyday life and ushers in one new normal after another.

She fondly recalls seeing a news feature about a man who made a kiddie pool out of fallen banana trunks as lockdowns keep families from their usual summer destinations. Stories of folk ingenuity are receiving more media coverage than ever. Nice is optimistic that a dent in mainstream consciousness has been made. 

Photo by K Caniezo Hongitan uploaded to @Tropikalye on Instagram
A jeepney in Baguio City uses recycled juice packs as physical distancing barriers for #TropiKovid

When asked about the role aesthetics plays in the experience of pandemic life, Nice acknowledges that it inevitably takes a backseat for both collective and individual consciousness in a time of crisis. “Any aesthetic value to be found and processed from a time of great difficulty must be more accidental than usual. It might reveal inner-workings such as our psyche as a people,” she concludes as Tk continues its work in and outside of homes, along the streets, and online.

“Aesthetics carries a belated utility. Art and beauty help people make sense of life and suffering when the worst is over.” 

The team looks forward to physical exhibits and publications. As first-time parents, Cos and Nice are embracing a slower pace. They hone a new relationship with their art, still in conversation with each other and the world around them. 

Photo courtesy of Zeus Bascon
Cos and Nice discussing work at artist Zeus Bascon’s temporary studio

Explore the community index here. To learn more, visit the Tropikalye website.

Nice is one of the 2021 recipients of the Fernando Zóbel Prizes for Visual Art at the Ateneo Art Gallery. She is also a 2021 recipient of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines’ 13 Artists Awards. View her work here.

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