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Joel Vega’s “Perfectionism in Terrorism, 2018”, vintage photo collage, acrylic fibers, wooden letters, cigarette box, 7.6 X 8.25 X 3.9 in (open), 2.5 X 7.6 X 4.5 in

This Pinoy artist creates pieces on remembrances for lost loves

“Death is the dark side of life. It is futile to struggle against it,” says the poet and artist as his faith-themed show runs at Art Informal.
Barbara Mae Naredo Dacanay | Jan 25 2019

Netherlands-based journalist, multi-awarded poet, and artist Joel Vega has been creating pieces on remembrances for lost loves, with obsessive devotion and delirious veneration meant to make viewers imagine his kind of loving.

In a third solo exhibit “Devoted” at Art Informal which opened on January 12, Vega has aced 21 art pieces with a “fetish on loss and obsessive remembrances.” His visual exploration of devotion is based on humanism and existentialism (man-oriented), he insisted, even if his works with images of Christian veneration and African witchcraft could also allude to a kind of devotion based on external (spiritual and soulful) sources of love, magic, and mysticism.

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Apart from his show at Art Informal, Joel Vega, with his "Devoted" in the background, will have a collection of poems published early this year. Photograph courtesy of Art Informal

At the AI exhibit, Vega has continued using his signature medium which he has used since he began exhibiting in 2014: old sepia photos of babies, children, couples, men, and women, all sourced from flea markets. These images are transferred, with acrylic gel, on cloth and canvas. Now, he has super-imposed them on sculptural forms such as antlers, boxes, sofa, including Christian images and puppets spiced with African voodoo tradition. Adorned with embroideries, soft yarns, including found and sculpted three dimensional objects, Vega’s art works are thick with texture and narrations.

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Joel Vega's "Devoted, 2018", embroidery on on photo tranfers, vintage jewelry case, thread, found objects, lamp, 16 X 41 X 15 in (open), 15.5 X 10.5 X 12 in (closed)

Vega’s assemblage entitled “Devoted” is an open antique European jewelry box transformed into a reliquary. Its middle portion has a battery-operated plastic votive candle that lights up the photo of a serene Christ-like figure, threads of embroidery on his face fall like a beard, while small sculpted light lilac petals fly across his face. Four jewelry cases—they open up like a fan on the left and right side of the box—have 12 photos of male Caucasians placed against a background of felt. A full photo shows two navy men with embroidery on their faces, beneath the photo is an elaborately embroidered part of a song (of the American pop rock Bangles in the 80s): “Close your eyes, hold my hand, darling!” Two other soldiers are colored with embroideries and a drawing of a skeleton; two more soldiers have a three-dimensional rifle insignia (of two crossed guns) super-imposed near their crotch; and two dandies have embroidered crossed guns above their heads. Four close-up photos of men are heavy with super-imposed objects. One has a green candy tin box, inside of which is a glazed and baked clay shaped like a heart, including a small figure with a pouch, a talisman (with cut hair, potion, curse, or prayer), near the man’s chest, and a song, “Do you feel my heart beating?” embroidered at the photo’s lower end. A second close-up photo has a peppermint candy container with silver leaf under a man’s chin; a third has violet paper flowers below his chin; and a fourth has antique spoon superimposed like a patch on his right eye, and silver hearing-aid batteries assembled like a tie under his chin. 

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Joel Vega’s “Deer Hunter 2 (A Broken Sofa Tells More Tales), 2018”, resin, baked polymer clay, fabric, thread, upholstery foam cushion, photo transter on linen canca, 11 X 9 X 6 in

“‘Devoted’ might have references to Christian discipleship (as in Christ and his apostles), but that reference is not ideological nor theological in my piece. I was exploring the obsessive impulses or near spiritual levels (of man’s devotion) that unfold at a time of personal crisis,” explains Vega, adding, “In ‘Devoted,’ the reference to Christian theology, if at all, is purely emotional for the viewer to bestow the work with a certain kind of spiritual thought.” In other words, behavioral psychology or naturalism—Vega’s explanation for man’s deep sorrow and avid remembrances—is best dramatized when associated with spiritual forms which have emotional impact on viewers.

Vegas has also used witty titles for Virgin Mary-inspired artworks so that his spiritual forms are not mis-interpreted as theological. A woman’s face, depicted not with a photo but with red abstract-like line embroidery on cloth, is entitled, “Our Lady of the Miraculous Nosebleed.” A Virgin Mary-like assemblage – composed of a flat woman’s photo with metallic wire metals on her head, a three-dimensional A-line body made of blue and red strands of yarns folded and rolled like flowers, all propped up against an antique wooden frame with a metal container of holy water is called “Our Lady of the Miraculous Rosebleed.”

Likewise, the paganistic intensity of his African-inspired puppet sculptures is not to shock nor to make voodoo exotic, but to dramatize man’s rugged overcoming of grief.  Entitled “After the Rain 1” and “After the Rain 2,” are puppets with abstract faces made of clay, arms made of folded yarn, and bodies standing on sticks. One puppet is heavy with colorful vials, like potions. The other with small pouches, with pictures, like talismans stuffed with items to win love objects or bring about desired events. Art works with antlers are entitled “dear hunting,” a pun, but also a naked clue about sadness.

Art and death are inextricably intertwined in Vega’s art making. His mother Flora died of lung cancer in Baybay, Leyte, on January 4, five days before the opening of his exhibit at AI.

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Joel Vega’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, 2018”, photo transfers, cigarette box, baked polymer clay objects, paper, textile metal stand, 17 X 6.75 X 4.75 in

Vega recalled embroidering feverishly on photos for his first exhibit entitled “A Stitch in Time,” at AI in February 2014, while his partner Sjef Kerkhof was dying of leukemia in a hospital in the Netherlands. After Kerkhof died on July 12 that same year, Vega held his second exhibit entitled, “What Falls Apart,” at AI in 2015. At the time, he used stitches and beadings on photo images that were transferred on cloth, baby dresses, and house dresses. “My second exhibit was about being broken, a feeling of loss, and avid remembrance,” Vega says. Then he wrote an essay, “A View from Masada (a personal account of Kerkhof’s death),” which became a first prize winner in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2016.

“Death is the dark side of life. It is futile (or absurd) to struggle against it. If you resist it, you won’t connect with the one who is going away. I missed that moment when Sjef was dying. It was an invitation for me to have a glimpse of that rare moment. I should have been more pliant. I vowed not to repeat this resistance when my mother was dying,” says Vega.

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Joel Vega’s “Loretta, 2018”, embroidery on photo, dried flowers & grass, vintage glass reliquary frame, 12.5 X 7.5 X 1.5 in

When asked to talk about his sadness, he confessed giving up his Protestant faith when he became politically active at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos where he graduated in 1984. “At that time, I began to write poetry. The early poems and those that followed, the red line among them is that sense of alienation, derailment and disconnection. The sadness is not merely a sentiment, but something larger, one that addresses salient existential issues,” he explains, adding, “Art has the power to express these anxieties in concrete and dramatic ways.”

Drift, a collection of Vega’s 55 poems will be launched by the University of Santo Tomas in early 2019. The collection includes “Latitudes and nine other poems,” Palanca’s third prize in 2010; and “The Fifth and Careful Season and 13 poems,”—Meritage (online) Press’ first prize in 2004.


Photographs courtesy of Art Informal

“Devoted” runs until February 9. For more information about the artist, visit