Darwin Guevarra is seen dragging a wooden trolley around Tashkeel on the opening night of his exhibition. The flash of photography lights up his white face, revealing caked on make-up and bright, accentuated red lips that make him look like a frightening, forgotten member of Kiss. The trolley has a mass of modern detritus stuck to it: fake gold watches, half of an artist’s wooden mannequin, a circuit board. He’s shouldered a chain to pull the thing along, and keeps adding more debris that’s dotted around the gallery to this portable box of junk.
Semi-immortalised by a video on Guevarra’s blog, this performance by the Dubai-based Filipino artist has a momentous atmosphere about it. Not least the tragic image of this long-haired figure labouring around the space and intermittently handing out brushes for the crowd to splash paint across his clothes, but also that this may be the first ever solo show in Dubai of a Filipino artist.
Filipino artists turned out in force for the I Am Robot event at thejamjar earlier this year. Wander around the annual Art of Can competition and the number of Hispanic-influenced Filipino names is overwhelming.
All of these artists, graphic designers, musicians are based in Dubai and still this huge community remains absent in the city’s galleries.
It’s lamentable. The art that we see coming from that part of the world, by and large, is interesting and tends towards the graphic. There’s a love of illustration, animation – a cartoon-like jollity set against a dark and slightly comic obsession with some foreseen dystopic vision of modernity. Human bodies are spliced with machinery, figures kept in bondage by pipes and gears and there’s an engagement with graffiti and found object aesthetics.
Obviously, it’s tough to generalise, but these themes are often present in what little art we get to see from this community. Despite his soft-spoken and self-effacing manner, Darwin Guevarra appears to have no confusion about the key factor that might be holding Filipino artists back. ‘How many times have I applied to a gallery, showed them my portfolio, only to be told that they are afraid [the works won’t sell] and that there is no place in the gallery for it. There’s no money for my artwork, they say.’
Guevarra was taken on by Lateefa Bint Maktoum, owner of Tashkeel gallery after she saw his works as part of the New Signatures art competition. After a tentative date in December for a solo show at Tashkeel, the display of this collection of new works was postponed until now.
In the interim, Guevarra’s work has developed significantly. From a collection of murky paintings of the body (adorned with zips, pipes and a lead-like pallor), his ideas have strengthened and took focus. Large scale canvas-cum-installations now dominate the Tashkeel space. Found objects are interspersed with painted sections giving a chaotic, mechanistic appearance. They are like decaying engines that are giving out their final guttural outbursts. The compositions are packed with detail to the point of confusion and, characteristic of the ideas that Guevarra engages with, mingle human and machine.
‘You work in the morning until evening, then you divide and sacrifice your extra time to sleep, you have deadlines constantly.’ While the nuances of our mechanised lifestyle might be well-trodden ground, it’s Guevarra’s next statement that provokes more interest. ‘Nobody can help you, only yourself,’ he says with a tremor. ‘You need to be a machine or you need to have more strength than the others.’ The artist seems to suggest that there is a responsibility to remain human within this encroaching mechanisation. And only the fittest survive.
Guevarra talks about his situation openly. ‘My artworks are big, around one and a half metres wide, some of them. I have only bedspace here, man! That’s 2.5 sq m of space to create these things, how can I do that?’ In a series of photographs that accompany the show, Limited Space For Unlimited Dreams, we see Guevarra sleeping foetally on a heap of paintpots, masks and the paraphernalia that makes up his art. ‘I need to adjust myself to fit into one small space,’ he says.
In a city where people cram into houses to save money, Guevarra’s works speak of the reality that sort of lifestyle entails. An individual slots into a tiny space, goes to work, returns and then has to do the same thing all over again the next day. It’s as if Guevarra is saying, with this tormented collection, is there space for my dreams in this relentless machine?
Tashkeel (04 336 3313) Until June 11.