Bay Area artist Stephanie Syjuco focuses on a different kind of ‘prison’
By Lou Fancher
There’s ample risk and abundant reward for viewers of Stephanie Syjuco’s contemporary art that encompasses photography, sculpture, and installations involving handmade materials, digital editing, and archival excavations. Risks arrive if a person is bedazzled by the brilliant intellect churning behind the Oakland-based artist’s work and its themes and fails to appreciate the aesthetics.
Viewers overly determined to assign message-is-all narratives, Syjuco suggests in an interview, are often forced upon artists of color. But multiple rewards surface with the realization that her artwork offers it all: deeply considered reflections on art, history, culture, identity, society, and imagery, and a visual payoff founded in top-level skill applied to composition, color, line, form, texture, materials, placement, framing.
“Thank you for asking about aesthetics. Nobody ever asks me about that and this happens to a lot of artists of color,” she says. “The most interesting art can inhabit meta or conceptual underpinning, but can also be aesthetically fascinating. When I create, I’m always thinking about principles of aesthetics. The foregrounding of ideas is usually what is brought to immediate attention with artists of color, because it’s a stark contrast to a more common narrative. It comes at the expense of the artwork as aesthetic choice and informed art positions.”
Stephanie Syjuco contributed a 2021 work, “Shutter/Release,” to a Berkeley exhibit addressing themes of incarceration. (Courtesy of Stephanie Syjuco) Syjuco was one of 12 artists invited by Arizona State University Art Museum to participate in”Undoing Time: Art and Histories of Incarceration,” a group exhibition centered on thephilosophical, sociological and historical roots of mass incarceration. Her “Shutter/Release” (2021) and the exhibit are presented through Dec. 18 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Syjuco’s installation applies the “healing brush” tool in Photoshop to archival 19th- and 20th-century ethnographic photographs of people at Bilibid Prison in Manila.
Born in the Philippines in 1974, Syjuco immigrated with her mother to the United States in 1977. She received her Masters of Fine Arts from Stanford University and Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute.
“I was raised by a single mother and with the addition of my stepfather, I’m thankful they always valued creativity. My stepfather was a cartoonist and was always drawing.Whether or not those drawings made it into the world or were just for his personal sketchbook, art was valued. My mother was too busy attempting to make a living. Later in retirement, she became a printmaker. She examines vintage photos, cyanotypes, natural objects and (considers) personal and historical views about being Filipino and motherhood.”
Similarly, Syjuco’s practice most often explores the photograph-as-truth paradigm as viewed through the prism of historic image-making. One project, “Learning to Love YouMore,” had her investigating and reimagining with young students famous artwork in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. An online collaborative iteration of7,000 video submissions took 36 days to view and when screened at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art she says gave each person at least “15seconds of fame.”
In 2019’s “Black Out the Sun,” she used her own hands to cover up images of 1,200 indigenous peoples of the Northern Philippines coerced at the 1904World Fair in St. Louis into becoming part of a “human zoo” display she suggests was created to justify colonialist practices of the time. Using images held in the MissouriHistorical Society’s collection, her hands obliterate the exploitation of the people portrayed.
“My work is not about my trauma or emotional state. It’s not about my being a damaged individual,” Syjuco says. “But when I saw those images, it was interesting to think about radical empathy. They were taken over 100 years ago and are in the history books and archives and will always be there as a public record. I wanted to reach out and shield the people put on display.”
“This came after weeks of sifting and looking through so many of them,” she continues. “How do you process that? My gut instinct was to shield them, to create new images to counter the camera’s power and its having consumed them originally. It’s not rewriting history; these things happened. That’s the irony. But what can we do 100 yearslater to have a more radical connection to them?”
Syjuco says there’s demand for artists of color or artists who represent marginalized spaces to present an educational display of their work.
“I’m much more interested in examining the construction of Whiteness,” she says. “How archives, institutions and collections have been a foundation on exclusionary practices. That’s different than making work about being Filipino American. My work is not about that. It’s a lens on a construction of an identity. I’m interested in how the American historical lens has constructed a vision of ‘the other.’ That’s why I work with a lot of American museum collections: with things foundational to the construction of American history. For example, with 19th-century paintings, people see those as factual. (Albert) Bierstadt’s fanciful paintings of Yosemite or the American West were very theatrical projections of what American landscapes look like (to show) that manifest destiny couldbe enacted.”
For her work “Shutter/Release,” the “healing brush” serves as a metaphoric tool that doesn’t eraseor negate the injustice of people “captured” by a camera. Instead, it asks, “What are thedamages and what is healed?” The images left behind are remnants, fuzzy outlines and phantom smudges.
“I worried about what the audience would get. Would they connect with them?” she says. “I decided to show the after-effects and hope the openness would be intriguing. You’re not seeing images of violence, subjugation or forced posing, you’re thinking about what it means to let something go, to free something. Because the show is about incarceration, the most obvious thing the audience expects to see are images of incarcerated people. What is the way around that totalizing image that would lock people into criminality? That was the challenge. These people have been released from having to pose forever as an example of criminalized people. To have been conscripted into that forever is awful.”
Historical photographs in today’s ever-circulating digital environment hold unprecedented power to lock entire civilizations, cultures and misconceptions into fixed places of judgement, says Syjuco.
“Photographic images can keep delivering the same message even if we think we know better. They show historical dress, culture, style, people as they were. But also they come wrapped with colonialism and people positioned in ways that are indicative of violence below the surface. If we look at them as only gorgeous and don’t think of why and how they were taken, we have a problem.”
Asked if she believes recent moves to reconfigure the art world as more inclusive are anything more than temporary and performative, Syjuco expresses a mixed mindset.
“It’s like three steps forward and two steps back because after the 1990s, there was areal backlash against ‘identity politics’ work. Now, there’s a feeling of we’ve arrived, of apost-identity, inclusive world. But that language around success is too early. How do weacknowledge some changes but not give it too much credit? For lasting capacity; there’smaintenance work attached. I am hopeful, but it’s constant awareness and vigilance thatmeans it will stick. If people keep it sticking, it will stick.”