Art is a vehicle of expression, values, and passion. And while artists have a plethora of reasons why they create, Matt Manalo, a Houston based artist, uses his work to educate others about Filipino heritage. On top of that, what's equally important is his passion for sharing his message through sustainability as a way to emphasize his cultural upbringing. This is what makes Matt special, and his work compelling.

Matt was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. His family immigrated to Houston, Texas, in 2004 when he was 19 years old. As a child, he spent a majority of his time in his mother’s garden, collecting rocks, and playing with dirt. He also recalls creating his own sketchbooks out of printing paper his dad would bring home from work instead of sketching on books. In 2011, Matt received his Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting with a minor in Art History at the University of Houston.

It wasn’t an easy choice for Matt to make. There are certain expectations and stereotypes that most Filipino-Americans can agree they grew up with. Going outside of that can be a risky move and you may never hear the end of it from your parents, which can be understood for first generation or immigrant families. Making the move to a new country is hard, and they only want their children to find security in a lucrative job. However, for Matt, his passion won over—and with that he can share Filipino history and culture with the rest of the community.

His work illustrates the impact of colonization in the Philippines and his identity as a Filipino immigrant through his environmentally conscious artworks.

Part I: Colonization and Immigrant Identity

The Philippines, located in SouthEast Asia, is a country with a vibrant and rich history. It was once colonized by the Spaniards for around 300+ years and was followed by the American colonization after the Spanish-American War in 1898. It wasn’t until July 4, 1946 that the Philippines gained their independence from the United States.

During the U.S. colonial reign over the Philippines, Filipinos were viewed as savages. According to William Howard Taft, the first American governor-general of the Philippines and the 27th president of the U.S., Filipinos will require years of supervision to resemble the “Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills” and coined the term “Little Brown Brothers”. Even though Filipinos and Americans were allies during World War II and fought together against Japanese imperialism over the Philippines, Filipinos were still seen as savages by Americans.

In Work II, the Evolution of the Filipino, was made ‌of acrylic paint on rice sacks. On it is the image of Kenkoy, the first Filipino cartoon character, to illustrate how Filipinos were seen as “model” minorities. According to Matt, Filipinos were portrayed with big, bright smiles, and had to be funny and sociable. This image is the acceptable version of being a Filipino. To speak to this evolution of what a Fillpino was depicted as vs. what they “should” be, the piece starts with a face painted fully black with no features and slowly transitions in a sequence, as the skin of the face gets whiter, a full bright smile appears, and facial features develop. Eventually, the face disappears completely into a blank slate to showcase the complete erasure of identity.

Similarly found in Work II, Clouded Identity was made ‌of paper mache, spray paint, waxed thread, cowry shells, and burlap. Spray painted on it is the phrase that states “a colonial mentality”. Matt recalls reading a piece of writing during fourth grade that started with the phrase. He remembers how the piece is all about supporting local goods as well as accepting and loving the color of your skin.

The phrase “loving your own skin” can be taken even further. It means to know, appreciate, and love where you came from. Matt recalls how he used to conceal his Filipino accent and perfect his English to fit in. In Work I, Matt created three versions of Assimilation pieces made ‌of raw canvas, paper, tracing paper, raw cotton, recycled denim, concrete, acrylic paint, ink, and wood glue on a panel. These art works closely relate to how he was an immigrant assimilated into American society. The color black on top of the pieces symbolizes the dread of trying to fit in and slowly losing oneself or self-identity. As the piece progresses, the black section grows, but it does not completely go down or completely disappear because there’s always the need to assimilate in any form.

Part II: Environmentally Conscious

His childhood creativity and innovation of using natural and recycled materials never truly went away and can still be seen in his most recent works. In fact, his artwork has adopted a more eco-friendly approach. According to Matt, paints used by artists, such as acrylic paint, rely heavily on fossil fuels to obtain its pigment. He admits that he still uses paint on his works but he is more conscious about using them and much rather relies on what the objects’ natural color tones are. This is one of the reasons Matt started the Alief Art Garden, a community garden that focuses on sustainability.

The Alief Art Garden is a current expansion of the Alief Art House,a shipping container located in the grounds of Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center, with a mission to showcase local artists and make art accessible to the community. The Alief Art Garden is an extension of that, and its main goal is to grow plants that can withstand the Houston climate. Plants grown in Alief Art Garden can serve multiple purposes such as providing colors, pigments, and fibers from nature and also provide community-based produce.

Even though Matt tries to be more environmentally conscious of his materials, he still focuses on maintaining a connection between the natural materials and the Philippines. A couple of examples can be found in Work II, Balisong and Clouded Identity, which uses shells found in the Philippines.

Another way that Matt practices the ritual of celebrating his heritage is by collecting handmade Philippine souvenirs found in thrift stores around Houston. He plans to replicate these items using clay, which goes back to his childhood memory playing around in his mother’s garden. According to Matt, these souvenirs are reminiscent r of a memory. He has a personal mission to recreate these items and send the original back home to the Philippines and lay them to rest, while the replicas can be showcased. At the same time, Matt admits finding a home within these souvenirs from the Philippines. These items remind him of his birthplace.

Currently, Matt Manalo is doing his residency at the Asia Society of Texas. He will showcase his work on August 10 for the Artist on Site Studio Tour. On August 26, he will be curating a show at Houston Climate Justice Museum for the anniversary of Harvey In the following months, he will put together a show to talk about incorporating soil in their work, put together a tribute for Mark Aguhar during Trans Day of Remembrance at the Alief Art House, and open his solo show at the Houston Contemporary Craft next year.

Samantha Fencil, Editor

Angie Pantaleon, Layout

Visit Matt Manalo's Website at:

Instagram: @mattmanalo

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