During a walk-through of the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, one will find hanging canvases with neutral, earthy colors sprinkled with pre-colonial Filipino script. The script expresses a cultural part of who the artist is. These canvases are part of the Gallery’s most recent exhibition, “Skin Codes.”
Isabel Manalo is a Filipino-American artist who recently returned to the U.S after living in Berlin for three years. It was in Berlin that she began this body of work. She wanted to create something non-Western and seek out a tradition that is connected to her. Two of her most significant influences right now are the pre-colonial Filipino script, called Baybayin, and the ancient art of Filipino tattooing.
The name “Skin Codes” is appropriate because Manalo said as she began to work with the ancient tattooing symbols and with different kinds of canvases, it felt to her like she was tattooing different skin.
In many of the pieces, there are English words mixed in with the Filipino codes. A large canvas hanging over the gallery features a number of names, including Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. One piece towards the front of the exhibit reads “climate change is real” to symbolize the oil drilling in Alaska. Another piece has the words #WithSyria because Manalo is concerned about the current refugee crisis in Europe. One piece that Manalo said was one of the first for this body of work reads “#blacklivesmatter.”
“I always felt hesitant to include it in my work as a younger artist.” Manalo said, talking about including her social or political views into her artwork. “Now that I’m older I feel like this is part of me and I’m not going to deny it anymore.”
She said she has always been a political person, but knew that if she was going to incorporate that into her work, it needed to make sense and be more subversive.
For this exhibit, she felt it was the right fit to include. The names and hashtags go along with her linguistics theme. She said the Black Lives Matter movement means a lot to her as an American.
“If you have something to express as an artist and you can do it in a way that is visually impactful then you should do it,” she said. “You shouldn’t deny what’s moving your gut.”
It was a busy opening night for the exhibition.
Guests were buzzing in and out and the live violin music, performed by Manalo’s sister, set the tone for relaxed art viewing as well as intellectual conversations.
Jon Millings, a junior biology major, walked around the room stopping at almost every piece. Millings attended the opening for a class he is taking, but said that he really enjoyed the art.
He said he liked to look at the pieces and read along with the program because he found Manalo’s process of creating her pieces to be unique and interesting. He said his favorite was a piece called “Serotonin”, partially because he is a biology major and partially because he really liked the structure of the painting.
Sydney Gaglio, a sophomore theatre arts major, also made her way through the gallery slowly, examining every piece.
She said she comes to all of the exhibits at the Zuccaire Gallery. For her, the incorporation of different social movements into Manalo’s artwork was a hit.
“I think it’s really cool to work social movements into art, because it’s about making a change,” Gaglio said. “I think art is specifically supposed to be about making a change and for a cause. Working things into art is moving. People see it and they get inspired by it.”
“It’s a real pleasure to have Isabel’s work here in the gallery,” Karen Levitov, the curator and director of the gallery said. She talked about how she has known Manalo for years and has watched her grow as an artist. Levitov had the idea to bring Manalo to the gallery to do an installation since she began working at the gallery about a year and a half ago.
While Manalo was on campus installing the exhibit she took time out to talk to a lot of students. She spoke to several undergraduate classes and visited the graduate student studios.
“It’s a real opportunity for the students,” Levitov said, “We’re really pleased with how generous and wonderful she has been.”
Manalo is just as pleased to have her art displayed at Stony Brook in the Zuccaire Gallery.
“It’s an amazing space,” she said. “I’m really excited to be here. This university community seems amazing with great people and very interdisciplinary thinking. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Manalo will return to Stony Brook for an artist talk on Nov. 18.