Artist: Marikit Santiago
The exhibition Coca-Colanised at Verge Gallery is Marikit Santiago’s most recent, and perhaps most political, solo exhibition yet. The show takes its title from the concept of ‘Coca-Colanisation’, a term describing the globalisation of American culture.1 Showcasing Santiago’s broad range – from paintings to installation – the show carefully examines an ongoing preoccupation of Santiago’s practice; the intersections of identity and colonialism through the lens of a Filipino-Australian artist.
Filling the gallery space with a careful selection of works, Santiago simultaneously interrogates the ramifications of Western globalisation and colonial occupation in the Philippines whilst positioning herself both within and against this reality. It is at this very interstice of the personal and the political that Santiago affirms the shows aim ‘to illustrate the competing and complex tension between my dual cultural identities as Australian nationality and Filipino ethnicity, but also demonstrate the established pattern of colonial benevolence between Australia and the Philippines’.^2
Entering the gallery, an immediate sense of comfort and familiarity overcomes you. You’re quickly drawn towards the heavy red-bodied wall to the left – a haphazard rupturing of paint that at first glance is reminiscent of blood. You recall seeing hand-painted signs and billboards in the Philippines not far from Barangka, with most advertising a restaurant nearby, and always remaining pristine and polished.
Upon closer inspection, the mural depicts the iconic Coca-Cola logo – flipped upside down and only partially complete. As a symbol of American cultural dominance, the work Enjoy (2018) is a physical embodiment of the shows curatorial premise. Santiago’s decision to invert the text and deliberately leave the mural in an unfinished state reads as an act of rejection against the dominant colonial paradigm. This subtext is emphasized in the starkness of its title and carries through to the audience encounter, making us second-guess what is truly to be enjoyed here. It is a statement of disruption and hesitation that acknowledges but refuses to endorse colonial attitudes.
You think of the question: is the glass half empty or half full? Except in this case, the glass is a Coke can and the artist is full Filipino and you are half Filipino. You think about the colonial mentalities that you’ve internalised as part of your identity and ask yourself this: are you half empty or half full?
In her exhibition statement, Santiago highlights the ‘established obedience’ of the Philippines, to the extent that the country has been ‘reduced to a state of colonial dependency’.^3 Challenging this notion is the work Thank God It’s Friday Fast (2018), a painting that playfully depicts the Filipino food chain mascot Jollibee as a religious icon with a halo shadow, looking back at the viewer encouragingly, wide-smiled and with outstretched arms. Dressed in a workers’ uniform and a chefs’ hat, Jollibee signifies colonial resistance in all its glory; the Philippines is the only place in the world where McDonald’s ranks second in the fast food market. Here, Santiago positions Jollibee at the forefront of this resistance as a figure of Filipino optimism, a figure of dominance and national pride.
When you went to Jollibee’s with your cousins, you’d always try to order in Tagalog but the cashier and your cousins would always grin listening to you fumble your words and stretch your tongue, so you’d switch back to English and finish by saying, salamat.4
Be (2017) and Blessed Virgin Fierce (2018) both subvert religious iconography to reflect on the spectacle of American celebrity culture. The paintings are instantly recognisable as a double appropriation of Beyonce’s pregnancy and birth announcement, as well as the image of the Virgin Mary. Veiled and adorned with flowers and leaves, Santiago inserts herself into these iconic images as a figure of maternal sacrifice. In re-constructing an image that is already juxtaposing multiple layers of literal, symbolic and religious references, Santiago asserts her presence powerfully, meeting the gaze of the viewer and appearing at once vulnerable and empowered.
You recall a large white wax statue of the Virgin Mary that sits atop the dresser in your mother’s room, next to a vase of fake flowers and a CD player. Often she spends her afternoon reading prayers and singing along to Filipino music – something you struggled relating to.
Similarly imbued with cultural symbolism and religious references is Mary Manananggal (2018), an installation made up of a mannequin clothed in packing tape and decorated with flowers constructed from second-hand garments and linen. The Mary figure represented here exists in a tense dialogue with the ‘spectacular’ nature of the paintings Be and Blessed Virgin Fierce by alluding to the reality of the Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) and perhaps more specifically, the migrant mother as a figure of hope and prosperity for the family. Santiago also indirectly refers to the Balikbayan box here through the inclusion of items that migrant Filipino families typically send to relatives back home. By removing these materials from their utilitarian purpose, Santiago reflexively acknowledges the privilege of doing so as an artist and reframes these garments as symbols of excess and consumption within a Western art context.
A large red LBC box still sits opened in your parents living room, waiting to be filled with chocolate, household items and garments to send back to family overseas.
Coca-Colanised is a weighty exhibition. Its strength lies in Santiago’s ability to interrogate the affects of colonisation and migration on national and cultural identities without feeling too didactic. Experiencing these works in dialogue with one another is at once deeply sentimental and political. In this thoughtful consideration, Santiago captures the uniqueness of Filipino-Australian identity, constructing a space that demands the audience engage with a more nuanced and pluralistic discussion of an often-overlooked Asian-Australian experience.
Exiting the exhibition, you feel less comfortable than when you entered, finding yourself reconnecting and disconnecting, pulling towards and pushing against your dual Filipino-Australian identities, ultimately remaining in a position of familiarity and foreignness.
June Miskell is a writer based in Sydney with a particular focus on contemporary Australian art and auto-theoretical modes of writing. She is completing her Bachelor of Art Theory at the University of New South Wales, Art and Design.