Patrick Cruz says he’s sort of joking when he makes a suggestion about his new work at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
He says visitors should bring along a Filipino friend to understand what’s going on with the mixed-media installation.
It’s called “si mabait at si malihim, mga agam agam sa kuro kuro”. It’s part of the gallery’s ongoing exhibit, Vancouver Special: Disorientations and Echo.
Some of his previous works carry a title in Filipino—the official language in the Philippines that is based on the Tagalog dialect—and include an English translation. This one doesn’t have a version in English.
Cruz obviously had a lot of fun creating the concept, which explains why he was very amused with the first question asked by the Straight in a phone interview.
What’s his official translation for “si mabait at si malihim, mga agam agam sa kuro kuro”?
“Sometimes there are just things that you can’t translate,” the Philippine-born artist said gleefully.
There’s a good reason why, and it’s that a literal English translation doesn’t even begin to unravel the world informing the work.
One version could go something like, “the kind one and the secretive being: doubts about a point of view”.
However, mabait, or the “kind one”, doesn’t refer to a person or perhaps a god. For a number of Filipino speakers, it’s slang for rodents or mice.
Cruz recalled his aunt saying, “Nandyan na yung mabait,” which means that rats are around the house.
It’s a clear indication that after centuries of Catholicism, animistic beliefs—which predated western colonization of the Asian archipelago that became the Philippines—have survived and were passed on across generations.
Before Spanish conquest and Christian conversion, natives believed, and many still do at present, that spirits dwell in creatures and natural features like trees, mountains, and rivers.
Animals were considered sacred, and so one shouldn’t say bad things about them. Hence, this may explain the friendly allusion to rats as kind beings, lest they become angry and start destroying crops and household items.
As for the whole installation, Cruz said that visitors should expect to “get lost within the images”.
“I guess the installation is disorienting. There’s so much to see. And a lot of the elements do echo with each other,” he said.
The exhibit is a maze of paintings that Cruz hung on a clothesline. Moreover, “It’s accompanied by this radio drama through a mouse hole.”
So it’s back to the subject of mice, which ties in with the other elements of “si mabait at si malihim, mga agam agam sa kuro kuro”.
To explain, Filipinos of a certain age will remember the late Fidela Mendoza Magpayo, who was considered the queen of radio dramas in the Philippines.
Popularly known as Tiya Dely (translation: Aunt Dely), Magpayo’s comforting voice would fill the airwaves, dispensing advice to those who wrote her, mostly regarding their problems about love, family, and relationships.
The “Tiya Dely” inspiration is behind the “agam agam sa kuro kuro” part of the title. This speaks to a person’s doubts about how to deal with a particular situation, and so the need to seek advice from someone.
For the fun part, mice hiding behind the walls probably listened to the same radio dramas. In homage to this, Cruz edited an audio piece from the show, which can be heard through the mouse hole of his installation.
As for malihim, or the “secretive being”, Cruz said that it is a reference to the sphinx, a mythical creature that symbolizes mystery or the unknown.
Because art is a language common to all cultures, Cruz noted that an English translation of his work is not really necessarily for viewers to gain something from it.
Cruz said that he uses Filipino titles for some of his works from time to time as a way for him to reconnect with his heritage.
“I learned much of my art through a western lens, through western histories, so I think doing things in Tagalog or thinking in ways through a Tagalog lens allows for an alternative perspective, a different vantage point,” he said.
Cruz was 18 when his whole family moved to Canada in 2005. He was then a fine-arts student at the University of the Philippines.
The second of three siblings finished his arts degree at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. He completed his master’s at the University of Guelph. He has taught in Canadian universities, and will work as an instructor at Emily Carr starting this September.
Cruz travels to the Philippines to host the Kamias Triennial, which has grown to become an international event featuring Canadian, international, and local Filipino artists.
Cruz started the exhibit, which runs every three years, in 2014 in the neighbourhood of Kamias, a district in Quezon City in Metro Manila.
He grew up in Kamias, which was named after a citrus fruit that is used to make sour soup, or sinigang.
Cruz was in the Philippines for the third Kamias Triennial around the time when the COVID-19 lockdowns started in early 2020.
“As an expatriate from the Philippines, you slowly disconnect with your culture,” Cruz noted. “You become Canadianized…I think, for me, it’s still important to go back to the roots.”