Rising Tides: The islands of Martha Atienza


Martha Atienza’s video work Our Islands 11°16’58.4″N 123°45’07.0″E 2017, installed at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) during The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9), is a dreamlike procession beneath the sea that draws attention to climate change and issues of migration and labour in the Philippines. We spoke with the artist about working with her community and using video as a tool for social change.

Hear Martha Atienza discuss her video projects and see behind-the-scenes footage from the making of ‘Our Islands’

SUBSCRIBE to QAGOMA YouTube to go behind-the-scenes at events and exhibitions / Martha Atienza, The Philippines/The Netherlands b.1981 / Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E 2017 / Single-channel HD video, 72 minutes, colour / © Martha Atienza / Courtesy: The artist and Silverlens Galleries, the Philippines

Born into a family of seafarers, Martha Atienza creates video, sound and installation works that explore the experience of being at sea and address histories of migration, labour, environmental degradation and identity. More than 400,000 Filipinos work onboard some type of vessel, making them the largest group of seafaring people in the world. Atienza uses art as a tool for social change by working directly with the community of Madridejos on Bantayan Island, where her father was born and she was partly raised, to address the problems this small fishing community faces due to poverty, environmental change, and the long absence of family members at sea. Atienza’s work, while based on specifically local concerns and culture, has global significance and highlights common issues shared across the more than 7,000 islands of the Philippines.

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Martha Atienza as a child (right) / Image courtesy: The artist

Atienza became fascinated with the medium of video from a young age. ‘I have always been filming so that I could hold on to time as everything around me changed’, she says.She began recording her family and neighbours while they carried out everyday rituals and activities, but she became increasingly obsessed with their relationship to the sea. From 2010, she started to follow and film local fishermen and international seafarers from Bantayan Island.2

Her practice also embodies a strong sense of social and communal responsibility. After filming, it was important to Atienza to share the images with the people of the island. ‘As a result, our community started to see themselves from a different perspective’, she says. ‘The video images triggered questions and highlighted social, environmental and economic issues.’

Atienza’s video archive, titled Para sa Aton (meaning ‘for us’ in Visayan, one of the languages spoken on Bantayan Island), gives an indication of how this transformed her community — women especially are conscious of the power of video to explore their own lives, including the psychological impact on families of members being at sea for long stretches at a time.3 A group of young people who had been involved in her Bantayan Island projects since 2010 established the youth group Atonisla (Our island), with a focus on art and encouraging emerging filmmakers to find their own voice. ‘[Through video] we discover our old belief system, discover our lost culture, understand who we are today as a people, start imagining our future together, and hope to inspire others.’

While filming fishermen and sailors, Atienza began to record Madridejos’s version of the national Ati-Atihan festival, which takes place every January. Initially she filmed the festival as entertainment: ‘[W]hen we were doing the other projects and talking about such heavy issues and watching videos, we put the image of this procession in as a kind of entertainment, to laugh at ourselves.’ Ati-Atihan was originally a festival of the Aeta people — the earliest indigenous inhabitants of the Philippines, who preceded Austronesian migrations — but, under Spanish rule, it became a festival to celebrate the infant Jesus (Santo Niño). In Madridejos, it has taken on a unique form, where the men of the purok (neighbourhood) parade through the town dressed in costumes of their own devising in response to current news events and histories in the Philippines.

‘Processions are common in our culture’, Atienza explains. ‘They are religious but are also a way we express ourselves. Each year, current events, dreams, hopes and even protest are expressed in costumes, music and dance. Visions of who we are and want to be as a people march through our towns.’

Related: Martha Atienza

Martha Atienza, The Philippines/The Netherlands b.1981 / Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E (details) 2017 / Single-channel HD video, 72 minutes, colour / © Martha Atienza / Courtesy: The artist and Silverlens Galleries, the Philippines

Atienza gradually realised that placing the festival in a different context might bring together the various threads in her practice. Our Islands 11°16’58.4″N 123°45’07.0″E, filmed in 2017 in the waters near Bantayan Island, re creates the parade on the ocean floor; the divers progress slowly forward against water currents among the damaged coral. In APT9, the video is back-projected onto a plexiglass screen, creating the illusion of an aquarium, with the men close to life-size.

Shooting the footage took months of planning and rehearsals. The divers wore the original costumes from various parades and used makeshift compression hoses to breathe underwater. In addition to the infant Jesus in red and gold, the figures include an orange-suited international seafarer; a maid carrying a suitcase, who represents the Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs); a drug dealer followed by President Duterte’s anti-drug squad; and Manny Pacquiao, the popular boxing champion. As Atienza explains, the costumes reflect recent events in the Philippines.

Divers from Our Islands watch themselves on camera / Courtesy: The artist

‘Some of the costumes you see include the Yolanda survivor’, she says. (Yolanda is the Philippine name for super typhoon Haiyan, which tore through the country in November 2013, displacing around four million people and killing more than 6000.) ‘In 2014 they created that costume, “we survived the typhoon”. [But] the procession . . . mainly dealt with the drug war [in 2017]. And it’s not something we really talk about.’

Atienza was also concerned with highlighting the hardships of men’s labour and the impact of climate change on the island. The onceplentiful supply of fish has dwindled and, in desperation, fishermen have been forced to turn to the dangerous practice of compression diving. The grey and barren ocean floor and colourless lumps of coral are evidence of the enormous changes that have affected the region. As the island’s ecosystem is increasingly under threat, its inhabitants have had to abandon their homes and professions, leaving their families behind while they look for opportunities elsewhere.

Bantayan Island in the Philippines / Photograph: Martha Atienza

On Bantayan Island, Atienza has witnessed the sea engulfing the shore, forcing settlement back inland and leaving ruined houses and waterlogged trees in its wake. Through Our Islands, she and her community reach out to other small island nations in the hope of affecting change.

‘We want to look beyond our borders at other islands — in the Philippines, but also beyond — and not only share our story but find commonality’, Atienza says. ‘The issues that face us we do not face alone. Other nations, cultures and people are disappearing around the world.’

Abigail Bernal is Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA

1 All quotations are from an interview with the artist in November 2017 or from an unpublished statement supplied by the artist.
2 This research formed the basis of installation works such as Gilubong ang akon pusod sa dagat (My navel is buried in the sea) 2011 and Endless hours at sea 2013.
3 Para sa Aton, <http://parasaaton.tumblr.com>, viewed December 2018.

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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.

Martha Atienza has been supported by the Australian-ASEAN Council.

Feature image detail: Martha Atienza’s Our Islands 11°16’58.4″N 123°45’07.0″E (still) 2017

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