She is known for her powerful surrealist sculptures, inviting her audience not only to examine her figures individually—a naked female form, a phallic object, a deity, or a pair of bronze bullets guarding an “Angel of death”—but also to enter the “inscapes” in which the artist has gathered these figures as in a tableaux.
In the past four decades, her art has been the landscape in which Agnes Arellano explored her thoughts on philosophy, mysticism, sexuality and spirituality, as well as grief—like she did in her debut show in 1981 following the tragic death of her parents and sibling in a fire.
Just as she’s boldly tackled life’s myriad mysteries, she has experimented with a wide variety of materials that allowed her to tell her truths and conjure different worlds. Beyond her staple plaster, cold-cast marble, and bronze, through the years there’s been lead, ant colonies, even body fluids—and she’s devoted many years to salvaging dead trees from construction sites and giving them one last glory.
She’s explored running art spaces too, founding the Pinaglabanan Galleries in honor of her father, and tried her hand in designing stage sculpture, masks and other set pieces for various musical concerts and the production of Anton Juan's landmark play "Death in the Form of a Rose" in 1991.
At 72, is there anything Agnes has left unexplored? Could it be her Catholic upbringing and how it’s reflected in her work? In these answers to questions posed to her by interviewer Devi De Veyra, about her youth and the dominant themes of her work, the artist does just that—tracing her journey from knowing the Hail Mary by heart to worshipping the moon, from being a slave of her own virginity to defending Mary Magdalene.
Mabait ako’ng bata.
My mom was very devout, and I was baptized a Catholic. Though I went to a non-sectarian, co-ed school, St. John’s in San Juan. I remember, my sisters and I would do the Wednesday novenas. Yung isang sister ko - we were part of the Legion of Mary – we would take the statue of Mary around the neighbourhood and lead the prayers. And we were part of the church choir. I went through the whole rigmarole.
Actually, happy ako to be a legionnaire … you know, offering flowers, then leading prayers. Mabait ako’ng bata… masunurin. Meron pa nga kaming scapular, but I can’t remember what it was for. It had something to do with the Virgin Mary.
But I also had a very clear memory of being rejected, being thrown out of the premises of a church. My friend and I were offering flowers at the grotto, and the parish priest scolded us – for trespassing! As a child, it didn’t destroy my faith in Mary. In fact, I got closer to her in a way. But this sungit man chased me away … haha! So I started kinda “disliking” priests. I never got close to nuns either – I steered clear of them . And then I went to UP. UP really just wiped all that away.
I was doomed with a broken hymen.
In UP kasi, they made you question everything, But the one that thing that really cut the ties [with Christianity] was the loss of virginity. Well, there was so much freedom in college that I just went through it like a breeze. Oh, sex … is that what it is? Let’s go!
From being a Catholic, merong guilt. Tsaka fear of sex. Kasi virgin ka dapat eh. You’re supposed to be like the Virgin Mary. And if you’re not, how can you recover that? Dead-end talaga yon. And I was expecting a lot of punishment from above … fire and brimstone! But then I asked, why does God have to be like that? Why does he have to be this masungit, punitive, old man?
So I thought, there must be another kind of god that’s more about forgiveness and compassion, who’s about giving you a second chance. Kasi, back then it was like, I was doomed with a broken hymen. Nobody—yung mga disenteng naka trubenized na polo, medyo matigas kwelyo—would want me anymore.
I remember this confidante of mine who lived abroad. He was the one person I had to write to (kasi he wouldn't judge me) that my hymen is ruptured. And he said “that’s just a piece of skin. Your goodness does not come from down there.”
Yung confession, isa pa yan. How am I supposed to confess each and every time, “I fornicated again?”
Even if [I left the faith], I still found myself saying things like “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee.” Tapos automatic na yung Hail Mary. I couldn’t really just abandon it, coz it's stuck inside my being.
Bumalik ako sa East, kasi nawala ako duon sa West.
I started exploring old religions, archaeological stuff. I started worshiping the moon, because it affected me physically. With the moon, I thought that, if we’re now praying to a God the Father, and if nature as it does comes in cycles, there must have been a time that we were praying to a Mother Goddess. And that’s where I wanted to be time wise, back when people worshipped Mother Goddess. I felt that Mother Goddess embraced me. And I felt welcome.
Naging hippie ako. Yung God ay cosmos, or nature, and hindi na personification ng isang tao. Nag Ananda Marga ako, Hari Krishna… But for me, Buddhism is the most peaceful. Eh di ba peace naman ang hinahanap natin? I turned to Eastern mysticism… bumalik ako sa East, kasi nawala ako duon sa West.
For me, my leaving the Catholic faith was a rebellion, and I really put my heart into it. I would have bad dreams, where my teeth are being knocked out and I’d be spitting them out one by one. And I realized that was my rebellion. Ang Freudian interpretation ng dreams of losing your teeth is sexual guilt.
My work for the show, the Black Magdalene – it’s a natural response to the theme of 500 years of Christianity, to reincarnate her.
Maraming recorded history about Mary Magdalene, which influenced me. I found the mystery so intriguing after reading this particular book—The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It’s research-based, and tries to establish that the bible has hidden so many things from us. After reading it, I wasn’t just emotionally attached to the idea of Magdalene. I was defensive of her, and restored her to my hierarchy of values.
My work is pro women.
My work is pro women, because I feel that we’ve been oppressed, repressed. Repression breeds hypocrisy, and if you want to avoid that, you seek the truth. You can’t stay with hypocritical beliefs.
Blackness is a traditional way of symbolizing feminine wisdom, which is more intuitive than rational. So the Black Goddess is an embodiment of knowledge that is hidden from us – stuff that we don’t see, but we know are there. Rather than stick to logic, I would rather explore my intuition – the “dark side.” And validate that instead of just saying, oh, it’s just a woman’s folly, or whatever. Because it's important for us to recognize that part of us.
Yung Black Magdalene, the third eye is open, but her eyes are partially closed. And she has the wounds of the crucifixion on her palms and her feet, which is saying—that she was also crucified. It took five hundred years to make her a saint, and therefore say that she is not a whore.
For me, as a person, she really existed. Parang remnant yan ng Catholic past ko. I still have that in me, at hindi na ata matatanggal yon eh.
[Agnes Arellano is part of the group show Transmitting: Thoughts and Prayers opening December 18 at Modeka Art. The exhibit features the works of more than 30 artists reflecting on 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. Modeka is in La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Avenue, Makati City.]
All photos courtesy of the artist.