By all accounts, the New Year was off to an anxious start, beginning with Taal Volcano’s hissy fit that sent thousands fleeing to evacuation centers. Bicol’s Mount Mayon radiated with an eerie glow just weeks later, a coy reminder that this whole volcano drama isn’t exactly over. Around the same time, the rapid spread of the coronavirus, officially named Covid-19 by the World Health Organization, sent the world on a wild tailspin.
Such was the situation when ALT Philippines 2020 — or the “other” art fair in case you’re out of the cultural loop — launched its inaugural edition at SMX, SM Aura. At the recently concluded fair, artist Jellyfish Kisses, the erstwhile Anton Belardo, created what we need to cope with the paranoia: a fantastical panic room. It emerged as one of ALT’s top draws.
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Those who’ve seen the “room” will agree that it’s a panic room like no other, rendered in the artist’s pop surrealist style. Titled Your Warm Embrace (The Jellyfish Kisses Panic Room), the installation is scaled and designed to resemble a life-size psychedelic doll house, which Jellyfish painted with cheery colors and filled with otherworldly soft sculptures. There is a monitor where videos of the artist, who is also the panic room’s resident sob sister, are on continuous loop.
In full-on drag for the entirety of the four-day fair, Jellyfish is an even more perplexing apparition with her chlorine-colored hair that matched her Salad Day dress, tights, and even her foundation. Add to that dizzying ensemble, the hyper-surreal makeup — replete with mismatched circle lenses — and the white knee-high boots. “Soft punk,” she cheekily says of her style. “Fragile, feminine, but in-your-face. Vintage meets horror … hahaha!”
For the benefit of the confused, she decodes the persona, starting with the name: “Jellyfish, which is both beautiful and dangerous, is my alter ego. “Nabuo siya kasi socially awkward ako. I don’t know how to approach people. So I thought, pa’no nila ako makikilala if I don’t even know how to say hello? I decided to bring my perception of my inner self outside. So, Jellyfish is actually a collection of my obsessions and traits.”
In spirit, Jellyfish comes close to the tragic mid-century housewives she saw in various foreign films. “Doon ko na rin nalaman na pareho yung oppression and unhappiness na nafi-feel din nila, because of the lack of options based lang on gender. Parang [everything is] candy-coated and perfect on the outside pero madami silang issues deep inside.”
While the panic room looks freaky, a freak show it is not. Just like her assumed persona, Jellyfish’s concept for the room was thoughtfully shaped. Her intention was to recreate a safe space for ALT’s viewers, which they can enter for a “brief (meaning 5 minutes) unburdening session.” Jellyfish herself assumes the role of confidante, who can listen, give advice, or “prescribe a snack" as the artist sees fit.
“Very weird yung upbringing ko. I was home-schooled by my father, who was overly protective. I was also already very feminine even as a child, so I was interested in girly things, which he would give me.”
“It’s a physical version of blahtherapy.com,” the 33-year old Jellyfish says of her work. She found the website seven years ago while searching the net for chat rooms. In her younger years, creating art helped the artist cope with bouts of depression which started during high school. There were times though, when Jellyfish simply needed to pour out her thoughts and feelings. “If you’re having a bad day, you can log on to the website and talk to an anonymous person, or just rant or listen, without judgement.”
The website fits neatly with Jellyfish’s notion of a safe space, much like what she enjoyed as the sheltered youngest in a brood of four. Her father, Virgilio Belardo, doted on his fragile, sickly child. “Very weird yung upbringing ko. I was home-schooled by my father, who was overly protective. I was also already very feminine even as a child, so I was interested in girly things, which he would give me. And he was very supportive of my other interests, like science and art. Siguro duon ko nakuha yung confidence na, you have to be yourself.”
The idea of havens, as well as feminine elements are recurring themes in Jellyfish’s art.
Virgilio passed away when Jellyfish was 11. In the succeeding years, Jellyfish’s experiences outside of her delicate bubble eroded her confidence, especially when she started to cross-dress, (wear clothes associated with the opposite sex) in her early teens.
“Bata pa lang ako, I wanted to [dress as a girl] na,” Jellyfish admits, “pero I was scared pa. Nag-start ako around high school, pakonti-konti. Tapos, tumodo na ako nung college. Pero high school pa lang, na-feel ko na yung discrimination.”
Jellyfish was humiliated, and sometimes bullied, in bars, stores, and other public places. One time, she wanted to try on a dress that she saved up for. The store attendant, however, refused to let her fit the dress. “Napahiya ako kasi sinabihan ako na ‘Ay sorry. You’re not a girl, so you can’t fit it. If you want, you can buy it, but you can’t fit it.’”
“Napahiya ako kasi sinabihan ako na ‘Ay sorry. You’re not a girl, so you can’t fit it. If you want, you can buy it, but you can’t fit it.’”
Bouncers in Makati’s bars and clubs would ask Jellyfish to take off some of her ornaments before allowing her to enter their premises. “Ang dami nilang papa-tanggal sa outfit ko, headbands, earrings, etc.,” Jellyfish recalls. She would comply, but put the ornaments back on once she’s inside the bar. “Tapos papa-tanggal uli. So, tatanggalin ko lang, tapos babalik ko pag wala na yung bouncer.”
“Number one issue sa kanila yung high heels. You can’t wear them especially in high end Makati bars. So I’d wear flat, pointy shoes, or long pants that covered my feet. I was around 17 or 18 at that time, but I was really tall so I got to enter bars.”
She was a “regular” at the Discipline Office of the Philippine Women’s University, where Jellyfish took up fine arts. “I got into trouble for wearing women’s shoes with the school uniform. Kaya ko nakilala yung trans community sa school kasi palagi kami nasa Discipline Office. We would warn each other pag nagi-ikot yung head ng DO.”
Jellyfish will also create a safe space for her Trans sisters in this weekend’s Art Fair.
One incident was particularly traumatic. Jellyfish visited a friend in Tondo, and ended up trapped there for hours. “I was in 2nd year high school; naka skirt, platform shoes, band tshirt and goth makeup.” The neighborhood toughies threatened to beat her up, necessitating an intervention from community leaders.
In a safe space, whether physical or virtual, Jellyfish is able to reclaim what her father gave his beloved son: the freedom to be herself, without fear or judgement. She sought out, and found, her own safe havens, like a favorite coffee shop where she likes to work. “Places where I won’t feel bad about myself, at hindi ako mababastos.”
Jellyfish also became a regular at LGBT-run parties, such as Fluxxe, Elephant, and club acts like Panty Monsters (at Today X Furure) and Poison Wednesdays (at Nectar). “All these started as a protest,” explains Paulo Castro, who co-founded Elephant with Jujiin Samonte and Shahani Gania, “because transwomen and drag queens used to be thrown out of parties! I’m proud to say that this group not only parties, but we also fight for the community.”
The idea of havens, as well as feminine elements are recurring themes in Jellyfish’s art. Even in paintings, the artist conveys a feeling of comfort and features some form of female portraiture. “Parang sobrang hirap maging babae, kasi maraming issues like inequality, racism, etc. Super important ang female figure for me. 'Yon ang talagang backbone ng work ko na lagi kong binabalikan. Yon ang obsession ko na hindi nawawala since bata pa ako.”
Though she touches on the anxieties of queer and female genders, Jellyfish’s art doesn’t appear whiney or angry. It is rather courageous, with the artist confronting her fears and pains. “It’s okay to be vulnerable. You’re not weak if you show your vulnerable side. On the contrary, actually strong ka pa nga if you show the real you, instead of pretending to be happy.”
She considers the panic room her most fulfilling work. During the fair, people from all walks of life and different backgrounds visited her panic room. More importantly, they engaged with the artist, telling her about their own problems, hopes and fears. “They were mostly young people, students who felt lost. Nahanap nila ako sa mga post. Nalaman nila that they can go to a safe place, kaya sila nagpunta.”
There were none-fans as well who saw the panic room as escapist. “They say it’s like a bubble. But bubbles are important in life. It gives you a space to rest and catch your breath before facing the world again. May moment ka for coping with the situation outside. Tapos, fight ulit!”
Jellyfish’s panic room showed us that art can expand our understanding of the queer or feminine experience. It also demonstrated art’s redemptive power, to lift our burdens and calm our angst.
Jellyfish Kisses will also be at the Art Fair Philippines, from February 21 to 23, at The Link carpark in Makati. Photographs by Tammy David