Sheer piña fabric from Philippines presents layers of meaning for Vancouver dance artist Ralph Escamillan

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      It’s the finest and rarest of textiles from the Philippines.

      Made with fibers from pineapple leaves, piña (pronounced pee-nyah) represents a quintessential item of luxury.

      The textile is produced by only a few people from the province of Aklan in the central portion of the country.

      Because of its rarity, piña is reserved mostly for the barong Tagalog, a formal men’s wear, and the terno, an elegant gown for women.

      For Ralph Escamillan, the sheer and lustrous fabric presents many layers of meanings.

      The Vancouver dance artist and choreographer was born and mostly raised in Canada.

      Escamillan accesses his mother’s Filipino culture in part through visual representations like clothing, and specifically the barong Tagalog and terno.

      As an artist, costume plays a key role in the artist’s creative process.

      “When I design a costume, I’m thinking about how the dancer will interpret it, how it will look with the light, how it will sound against the music,” Escamillan told the Straight in a phone interview.

      In coming up with the concept for a new work, Escamillan was intrigued with the piña fiber that is intimately connected with the barong Tagalog and terno.

      He explained what while the fiber is transparent, it also lends itself as well to layering.

      "For me, this idea of layering is like an accumulation of histories, of cultures,” Escamillan said.

      The Vancouver artist noted that Filipino identity itself represents a layering of influences.

      These influences include Spanish colonization that brought, in addition to Catholicism and others, the pineapple plant to the islands, which is the source of piña fabric.

      “We found a way to make it our own,” Escamillan said.

      Because the tradition of piña weaving survived through generations, Escamillan said that there’s meaning to this as well.

      “It kind of embodies resilience,” he said.

      Another reason why Escamillan is interested about the fabric is because it evokes fragility on different levels.

      One, he notes that there is a lot of dialogue about how to protect and conserve the piña weaving industry in the Philippines.

      Escamillan added that the human body is delicate as well that it “makes you want to protect it and take care of it”.

      It’s the same for cultures, which can be fragile as well in the sense that it is “always shifting and that it is changing”.

      Used for men and women’s formal wear, the piña textile is an item of elegance and luxury.

      Escamillan’s new production work around piña is due out sometime in 2023, and he is not in a hurry.

      “It’s important for me to make sure I take the time,” he said in the interview about his preparations.

      Escamillan’s research continues, and meantime, he will be presenting some of this thoughts and sketches in an online talk presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery.

      The event happens on May 13, starting at 5 p.m.

      Escamillan will be joined at the event by fashion historian Gino Gonzales and textile designer Carlo Reporen Eliserio.

      To register, click here.