Teaching Gender with the Archive
[Author: Simon Soon is a professor in the Visual Arts Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. His interests and contributions to art history and related fields are wide! His research focuses primarily on 19th and 20th-century art and visual culture in Southeast Asia; the region he studies is framed along two temporally and spatially expansive and overlapping corridors – the Indian Ocean and the Third World.]
One of the joys of being an art historian in this day and age, is the amount of digital copies of archival sources that one receives through professional networks or by the simple virtue that the person passing on the materials to you thought that you might make something of it. Time remains the chief obstacle for any researcher when faced with such an overwhelming store of archival materials. But time also teaches us that our inability to fully utilise these archival sources in the writings we do as art historians doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other uses or value. To tilt the perspective a little, perhaps it is from the materials themselves that we are able to learn about the archive’s many other ‘patterns of intention’.
These patterns offer other theoretically possibilities in thinking about power when constituted as an archive. To extend further Derrida’s critique on the genealogical roots of the archive as a state-sustaining enterprise, its 21st century deconstruction often comes in the informal economy of networks and circulation that produces a parallel academic universe centred on generous exchange, even as the corporatisation of academic institutions of learning have irrevocably closed off many official channels through which one might find academic work meaningful and engaged.
Four years ago, I received a digital folder filled with diary entries, letters, gallery logbook, photographs, newspaper clippings from a Vietnamese American PhD candidate who was working on her dissertation on experimental art practices in the Philippines at the University of Michigan. She was in the midst of doing her fieldwork in Manila, and so happened that she chose to do her visa run in Kuala Lumpur. We met on that occasion and for some reason that can only be described as the ‘generosity of an overly excited grad students on the archive trail’, she decided to deposit a copy of the document with me, perhaps thinking that I might be persuaded to also study it carefully.
The documents belonged to Joy T Dayarit and are principally housed in the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings (yes, Philippines is kinda woke like that) at the Rizal Library of the Ateneo de Manila University, the Philippines. She figured very marginally in my horizon then. All I knew about her was that she was involved with an avant-garde circle that hung around a pioneering conceptual artist Roberto Chabet during 1970s. Later, she went on to open her own gallery that would continue to show and support many of the artists in that circle.
Since my brief meeting with the graduate student, other more pressing matters came into view after our conversation. Consequently, the materials sat in my external hard drive, untouched for the next three years.
Late last year, as I was preparing for a lecture on gender and art history, I was inspired enough by the special issue on gender in the March 2019 issue of SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia to begin exploring the possibility of finding other ways to communicate the theoretical possibilities in the doing of a ‘gendered’ art history.
Recalling vaguely there was a stash of materials that might be of use, I opened up that long abandoned folder to see if it could help. Needless to say, in the right place and the right time, the archive came to life. I spent a sleepless night working through the documents, piecing together the life story of this person that I was neither intellectually nor emotionally drawn to previously. But archives have a special way of creating a whole labyrinth of trails that take the researcher on a journey of discovery. It does so by introducing complexity so that one’s assumption and pre-judgment is torn down. Piece by piece, the story of Joy T Dayarit fell into place.
Then it occurred to me that the thing that we as art historians would normally experience as a long drawn-out research project involving deep-diving into the archives is the one thing that I wanted students to experience. While in reality this process of discovery requires a much longer period of time that cannot be condensed into a three-hour class, by seeking out a body of archival materials with the right scope, the experience of this discovery can be tailored for a class room project.
We tested this in my class late last year. Over the three hours, participants mapped out the cultural universe that Joy inhabited. Using free concept mapping software such as Whimsical, they began to organise the documents and took care to note down historical details that were deemed important. When a clue is discovered, the team member would raise this in a discussion, they would then speculate and make informed guesses. The discussion format furthermore helped them to sharpen as they worked through the probabilities. I then took the opportunity to point out that this dialogical process is a microcosm of the larger scholarly community, to drive home the point that meaningful research comes out of a conversation, and never in isolation.
Later, we discussed about gendered perspectives and voices, comparing it to say Joy’s mentor, the late Roberto Chabet’s archive that digitised and made publicly accessible by the Asia Art Archive. Here, we reflected on the value of having a woman’s perspective on the 1970s Manila, as opposed to reading it solely through the lens of the major male artist of the time.
What I enjoyed most about the diary entries is that it gave a human face to a type of privileged life in 1970s Manila. It was admittedly very different to the tableaux of social struggles connected to the social realist artists whom I wrote about in my dissertation. Nevertheless, archives always breaks down black and white identity politics, and open us to the nuances of living in a place and time, and the capacity of human beings to make-meaning out of his/her/their circumstances. What I particularly found meaningful here are those unexpected moments recorded in her diary, like her describing a lunch date at the invitation of social art historian Alice Guillermo in her very first diary entry – which suggested that the ideological lines were never as hardened as we like to imagine.
Some of the passages shown here covered her angst, love, hope, ambition, insecurities, admiration, suspicion, carelessness, and sincerity that bring to life a human being in all of its fragility. She invites us to discover alongside a woman who was finding her own voice. At certain point, a sneaking suspicion arises in me of the possibility that in writing her diary, she was always conscious of addressing her future readers.
At the end of the class, we have a research map of an archive. It offers a summary of the complex networks that this person has lived through. We came out learning about the many hats she wore, she wasn’t just an art groupie and gallerists, but also her ambition of becoming a short story writer. This in turn clarified her immense contribution to one of the greatest conceptual game that came out of the period. It was common knowledge in the Philippine art world that the contemporary pioneer Roberto Chabet had an alter-ego that went by the name of Angel Flores. Before Chabet’s passing inn 2013, Angel Flores was also the widely known disguise of Chabet through which he engage with the Filipino art scene on social media. What is seldom discussed then is the genesis of this alter-ego.
From the archive, learned about the elaborate story of the early demise of an American-domiciled Filipino modernist artist that was conjured into existence by Joy in order to stage a contemporary art exhibition about her discovery of this artist, as part of a meta-commentary that humorously reflect on the writing of an alternative modernist canon. In this universe, Angel Flores becomes an icon of parity rather than belatedness – so that the former colony was no longer simply catching up in this reckoning, but was right there at the heart of US modernism, actively shaping and co-producing a modernist world larger than the East Coast of the United States.
Structuring my class on gender this way, students not only got the story of modernism that I wanted to tell it. They too had a chance to also contribute to the discovery of this story collaboratively. The exercise reinforces the importance of collaboration in research and students got a taste of being a researcher in action. Seeing them go through the materials, dividing work up amongst themselves and slowly unraveling the life story of a person through discussion made me reflect on the journey that my own research has taken me.
I think the students had a lot of fun because at the end of the class, they have actually completed research work. They also learned that perhaps what is most valuable in humanities research is that the researcher gains empathy in the process. They learn of this by dwelling, imagining and thinking about the life of a person and the trails they leave behind that generously invite us into another person’s mind.
Lastly, in the study of these minor ‘figures’ of the artworks, I am constantly brought back to the plea made by Linda Nochlin many, many years ago that if the category of greatness is foreclosed in the destiny of a gender class, what is the art history that we should be doing to address these unequal fault-lines?
The archive of Joy T. Dayarit suggests one possibility. In the sad reality that even if women artists don’t often get the recognition they deserve in our valorisation of the artist as the laudatory heroic icon of conventional art history, they nevertheless played a major role in the story of infrastructure building on so many levels. Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez has considered this in a much more theoretically rigorous and reflexive manner than I can ever hope to aspire in her essay. Therefore, doing feminist art history sometimes require us to shift our perspective a little to find value in the invisible labour that makes the art world go round.