A few minutes into the interview with Yeo Kaa—pronounced Yoe Ka, and its her real name, too— there is an almost instantaneous realization that she is her paintings. She emits a certain variegated personality—not in a way that reminds one of rainbows and unicorns, but in a way that calls to mind the whimsical nightclub lights in the eyes of an inebriated partygoer. It’s dizzying. It’s fun. Then, in more instances than one, the lights just dim.
But the colors never go away in the 28-year old artist’s most recent works, although the messages they send downplay the Boom! Splat! Pow! effect of her canvas. "My art is like a rainbow with dark colors," she once told a magazine. Arndt Fine Art says she paints "a fantasy world of sorts that exists only in dreams and the imagination." In truth, each of her work is a depiction of, mostly, her innermost struggles, longings, obsessions and pain.
Yeo, who was born in Zamboanga City and raised in the province of Palawan, did not plan on becoming an artist. In college, when she failed to continue her business studies at the De La Salle University on Taft Avenue, she decided to enroll at the College of the Holy Spirit because an aunt told her, “Maraming magaganda doon,” the artist recalls. “No’ng time na ’yon, gusto ko ng magagandang girls. Gusto ko lang ng girls.” She took up advertising, thinking it was similar to her course at the De La Salle, which was Bachelors in Business Administration, Major in Advertising. In Holy Spirit, she belatedly found out the advertising course was under the Fine Arts department.
But she met new friends and had the time of her life, and soon, the semester turned to a year.
After failing in different subjects, including—if you can believe it—several painting classes, Yeo went through depression and was diagnosed with trichotillomania, a mental disorder where a person has the urge to pull out his or her hair. She started taking meds then and couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on in her head.
The year 2010 somehow pushed her to press on with art despite her personal struggles. The students in her course were required to join the annual University of Santo Tomas Museum event called “Inter-School On-the-Spot Painting Competition.” She won. Later that year, she joined the Metrobank Art Design and Excellence competition. She took home the Special Prize Winner award.
Yeo says her early works were influenced by the artist Pacita Abad’s trapuntos. It is a technique used by an artist to add another layer or dimension to a flat piece of art. Yeo says her trapuntos were influenced by Pablo Picasso. Not perhaps in style but in philosophy. She had just been made aware then of the Spanish painter. “Sabi ko, ‘A okay pala, e. Hindi mo naman pala kailangan gumawa ng realism para maging magaling,’” says Yeo. “Hindi talaga ako magaling, e.” To hear her say it, being introduced to Picasso’s art set her free.
A huge part of her work—even the more recent ones—is influenced by the famous Japanese artist, Yoshitomo Nara, who is most known for sculptures and paintings that juxtapose big-eyed, child faces with gory details. But Yeo admits that she had to refrain from observing Nara’s works after some time. “Malaking chance na maka-copy ko ’yong work,” she says.
It was through a documentary about Nara that she learned one remarkable lesson which she still upholds to this day: “Pine-painting niya ’yong mga taong nasa paligid niya kasi hindi niya kailangan magpaka-deep. Kung ano lang ’yong nakaka-influence sa kanya, ’yon lang pinipinta niya. So ’yon na ’yong ginawa ko.”
Yeo started mining her own life and immediate surroundings. “Kasi no’ng 2011, nag-struggle pa talaga ako kung anong gusto kong gawin.” She wanted to do everything. She wanted to fill her canvases with everything. And she did. “Puno ’yong mga painting, parang sobrang gulo. ’Tapos parang halo-halo masyado,” she recalls. Two years later she realized she needed to scale down. Declutter. But she didn’t stop herself from indulging on the subjects she enjoys pursuing: violence, for instance, and figures of gore. “Eto ’yong mga bagay na nag-e-enjoy ako, so hindi ko kailangan mag-paint ng maganda lang,” she told herself. “Gusto ko i-paint yong gusto ko para kahit hindi nila gusto, at least gusto ko.”
If Picasso and Nara set her free, and made her value her own ideas and narratives, the man she would soon forge an intense relationship with would—as can be gleaned from her stories—weigh her down with quite the opposite.
After graduation, Yeo met a mentor who would help her, along with her fellow up and coming artists. They formed the art collective called Studio 1616, after the address where the group was created in 2011. (She requests that we don’t name the guy, although those who follow the art scene will be familiar with who he is.)
While Yeo and her work were starting to gain recognition, the relationship was also getting intense. The partnership would eventually become emotionally and mentally taxing. It would make her feel worthless. Up to this day, when that time in her life is brought up, she feels the agony of that past.
The relationship compounded her depression and mental struggles, and became a gravely significant fragment of some of her works. To this day, she tears up and her voice cracks when she talks about that phase in her life.
Yeo has just recently moved to an airy townhouse in San Juan, where the walls are white and the art—her own—and furniture are neon. She lives alone, but there is the occasional help. She just got a dog to keep her company.
She looks like some TV host—is it Iya Villania?—and she talks like one, too, and fast. One is charmed by the sense of innocence in her tone. One is scared with the amount of detail she lets loose. The innocence draws her listener in, the pleasant sound of it, the bashful chuckles. But perhaps unconsciously she nudges the same listener to take a little backward step when she unexpectedly—and almost unmindfully—reveals details of her life most people would deem too private. When not spoken, these details come out in her paintings.
One painting from five years ago shows a girl staring at a reflection of herself hanging from the ceiling. Another painting is called, “Killing Yourself is Like Killing Everyone Who Loves You,” a portrayal of how she fights with her demons. “So ako ’to,” she points at a black painted girl in the middle of a group hug. The others are her family. “So parang pag nagbaril ako, hindi lang ako ’yong namamatay, pati silang lahat.” The painting was displayed at the Art Basel Hong Kong. During one of the exhibit dates, Yeo was approached by a mother and her child. When Yeo told the mother that she was the artist behind the painting, the mother cried and was unable to speak. The child then explained to Yeo that her father committed suicide in 2015. “’Tapos parang gusto kong umiyak no’n,” she remembers. “Kasi pakiramdam ko ’yon ’yong mama ko. After no’n—hanggang ngayon, siyempre may time pa din na may episodes—pero iniiwasan ko kasi iniisip ko ’yong nanay ko.”
To honor her mother, in 2018, Yeo had a surprise solo exhibition for her called, well, For My Mother, at the Blanc Gallery in Katipunan Avenue. For the show, Yeo forged paper into different kinds of flowers, a subject Mrs. Kaa loves.
Also this year, she had an exhibit at the Arndt Art Agency in Berlin which she entitled rather unambiguously, Anxious Lustless Pechay. She expounds with equal unambiguity: she decided to relax her body by loving herself—if you catch our drift. It was better than crying. But it took a toll on that primal drive. Ngayon, fuck, parang hindi ako nalilibugan, wala akong drive!” Again, she explores the changes in her body through her art. “Matanda na ba ako? Ganito ba yon pag matanda na? Kaya sobrang, pechay”—as if speaking to her vagina—“okay ka lang ba?”
The dry spell became the Arndt show’s driving theme. “Nakakagulat lang na na-e-experience ko ’yong ganito, ’tapos pagdating mo doon [sa exhibit], ganon din pala ’yong ibang tao,” she says, adding that people suffering from the same condition would approach her during these shows. They would tell her, “‘Kami din gano’n, so hindi lang ikaw.’ Dumadaan pala talaga tayo sa phase na gano’n. Nakakatuwa din…Kasi siyempre ’yong mga painting ko naman, parang ako lang naman. So kung ano ’yong weird experience ko, yong gano’n [ang ipipinta ko].”
In 2017, her relationship with her mentor came to a close. In early 2018, she showcased the harsh reality of that relationship through an exhibit called, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. Her ex-boyfriend confronted her about it. She cried in her room, but felt proud she survived the encounter. “Sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘[email protected]#gina, ginawa mo ’yan. Ang galing mo. Okay lang ’yan, ginawa mo yan para sa sarili mo. Ikaw naman.’”
Indeed, it is Yeo’s turn now—siya naman. She has played the quiet girlfriend, the second fiddle, when her colors and images seemed to be screaming she will not be ignored. She is the artist of the moment, and an artist of her time. Her work reflects contemporary hot-button concerns—depression, mental health, an obsession with looking at the self. In the art scene today, collectors talk about her work like her paintings are this year’s ‘It’ handbag: extremely covetable but also very limited in number. And speaking of bags, just this October, Yeo opened a show in Paris, some of the elements for which are on the floor of her town house at the moment: Balenciaga handbags and sneakers made of resin and painted white.
She explains: “Lahat ng stress ko nalipat sa shopping. ‘Nagtrabaho naman ako, e,’” sounding like she's convincing herself the spending is fine. “Hindi naman ako gumastos nang mahabang panahon after ko lumipat [ng bahay]. Nag-stress online shopping ako. So ’yon ’yong concept ng painting: bilhin mo na ’to para puwede ko ding bilhin ’yong gusto ko. Parang gumawa ako ng painting na random. Kasi hindi naman niya kailangang laliman kasi ’yon naman ’yong point no’n.” The Paris show was called, Buy This Painting So I Can Buy This Shit, and yes, it is exactly what the words mean, and exactly the message Yeo Kaa wants to put across.
Portraits by Andrea Beldua
Styling by Mano Gonzales
Styling assistant Carla Villanueva
Hair by Francis Guintu
Makeup by Hanna Pechon
Interview by Jerome Gomez