Artist Stephanie Syjuco bought black and white photographs of what she thought were Filipinos seen in everyday moments a few years ago.
But when she looked a little closer, she realized the photos were staged. They were actually photos of the Philippine village at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where people from all over the world were on display in so-called living exhibits.
A collection of edited photos of this event is part of his exhibit at the St. Louis Museum of Contemporary Art.
Syjuco’s experience with the photos of the World’s Fair corresponded to a key concern in his work: how the relationship between colonized peoples and the nations that govern them was mediated by photography.
Born in Manila, she came to the United States at age 3 and lives and works in Oakland, California. Syjuco is particularly interested in how Filipinos were presented to mainland Americans during the almost 50 years that the Philippines was an American colony.
Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the chief curator of CAM, had Syjuco already in mind for an exhibition at the museum when the artist relayed her story in the old photos. Al-Khudhairi invited her to St. Louis for a 10-day residency during which she combed through the archives related to the 1904 World’s Fair. She examined documents held by the Missouri Historical Society, the St. Louis Mercantile Library and the St. Louis Science Center.
“Rogue States”, the exhibition on display until December 29, includes an assortment of photographs of staged Filipino village images in which Syjuco’s hand partially obscures the original image.
“It’s kind of a soft intervention,” she explained when setting up her show recently. “Not a way to destroy photography, but a way to question its ability to be seen as a neutral image of foreign peoples.”
During a recent afternoon at CAM, Syjuco assembled a new three-dimensional installation partially inspired by his archive excavation in Saint-Louis, called “Dodge and Burn (Visible Storage)”.
It’s a platform full of artifacts, many of which are prints of photos she found online, printed at full size and mounted on laser-cut wood. Some are stock images of tropical fruits, a note on how colonized people were artificially presented as exotic. There are also photos of Filipino revolutionaries who fought both Spanish and American forces. Syjuco borrowed images of Filipino baskets and knives from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
“They look like props,” Syjuco said. “They appear to have been taken from a museum collection, but in a way they were borrowed illegally, as no permission was requested to do so.”
The installation is presented as a companion piece to “Neutral Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime)”, a 2016 work that explores similar themes. It’s also a collection of items arranged on a gray platform, many of which are printed from images the artist found online.
They include a reproduction of a photo from Man Ray’s 1926 series “Black and White”, depicting a white woman posing with an African mask. There’s also a rattan peacock chair – a wicker piece of furniture designed in an original Filipino style – and several copies of a 1967 photo of Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton (attributed to Blair Stapp, with the composition of Eldridge Cleaver) posing on such a chair.
“There are a lot of images and photographs that have been re-pasted or reposted or re-contextualized,” she said. “I really think about how the images are highly manipulable, and that nothing is really neutral, especially in this age of politics.
Syjuco’s concerns about manipulating photography to shape our understanding of history are also reflected in selections from “Cargo Cults,” a 2016 photo series. These are black and white self-portraits of Syjuco in the style old photos that purported to show members of indigenous tribes from around the world. But she’s bought all the clothes she’s wearing in the photos in American malls; dangling price tags are visible.
“The topics and topics she explores seem very relevant to many conversations taking place in the United States,” Al-Khudhairi said. “Stephanie uses history and historical narratives to help us unbox and rethink our current situation.”
The artist said she wanted her work to be complicated. She would like viewers to make connections between the different elements as they move around the gallery. Much of it has a distinct sense of self-awareness – of taking historical raw materials and putting them together into something that isn’t quite real.
“What you are looking at is a giant construction. Whatever account is going on here, it has been highly composed; it is edited, there is nothing naturalistic at all. There are a lot of tricks about it, ”said Syjuco.
Jeremiah can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
Send your questions and comments on this story to email@example.com