Yael Buencamino Borromeo

Co-curator of Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering, featured exhibition of the Philippine Pavilion in the 59th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia

Yael is Head of Programs and Audience Engagement at Lopez Museum and Library and was the director of the Manila Museums Summit 2021. Her professional interests lie in interdisciplinary initiatives in cultural institutions and museum development. She was the founding Executive Director of Areté, the creativity and innovation hub of Ateneo de Manila University (2017-2019) and managing curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery (2007-2017). She contributed to the book Making Museums Work: A Zero In Handbook. She holds an MA in Southeast Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Can you tell us about your background in curating? How did you get started?

I did my masters in Southeast Asian Studies with the focus on art and archaeology. I taught for a bit on the subject of Southeast Asian Studies and Art History. Then I really started working as a curator when I joined the Ateneo Art Gallery in 2007. I was the Managing Curator of Ateneo art gallery for 10 years then I became the Executive Director of Aréte, the creativity and innovation hub of Ateneo – which was not as directly related to visual arts as the Ateneo Art Gallery but it involved putting people of different disciplines together. It allowed me to continue to work with artists but also writers, designers, people that worked in theater.

What got you interested in art, particularly in Southeast Asian studies and art history?

I was always interested in art. I think my decision to study art history at some point of my life started with a trip to Italy when I was in my high school. My aunt took me to Florence and I fell in love with art. How can you not when you are in Florence? I was fascinated and I wanted to learn more about art and art history.  So in college I took an art appreciation class under the curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery, Eric Torres. After college I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila for a couple of years then I did my masters. I decided to focus on Southeast Asia because this is the part of the world that I am from and I knew so little about its history, culture and artistic traditions.

So your love for art started in Italy and now you’re back in Italy for the Biennale.

Yes. It’s quite wonderful I feel like I’ve come full circle after more than 30 years.

As a curator, is there is a responsibility that you have for the artist and for the artwork?

Being a curator definitely means that you have a responsibility for the artwork and to the artist.  I think that’s the most basic description of a curator, caring for the physical objects and providing the artist with a platform for their voice to be heard. When they are in a group show you need to ensure that their voice isn’t drowned out by a grand narrative that was developed to weave the show together.  It is an opportunity to see artists work in a larger context, in relation to other works, providing new angles of looking at the work.  

The form that the exhibition has taken in Venice is the result of countless conversations between the artists – especially Gerry – Arvin and me. That is the role of curators, to discuss an artist’s work with him, to prod and question so that he can distill his ideas and be determine what it is he wants to present, to help him think about the most effective way to do this.

It’s very interesting to know how it evolved from how it was in Vargas to its current state now. This exhibition is like the convergence of contemporary art and traditional art because it touches on the sogna, a chant from Kalinga, and on indigenous traditional textiles but presented in a contemporary manner. How do you think this exhibition will impact people’s understanding of contemporary and traditional art?

The Metro Manila series of Renderings is more than a feedback loop, none of them are just straightforward translations of one medium to another.  With each rendition, from sound to transcription to design to weaving, there is interpretation and creative input. It is a reflection of living culture that is added to and grows and incorporates new ideas.  

So in answer to your question about how I think it will impact people’s understanding of contemporary and traditional art, I think that it will expand our notion of the traditional. The sogna where we got the title from for example, is a traditional art form but was done extemporaneously by Jose Pangsiw for a family gathering.  Sometimes we tend to think about the traditional as something set in stone, with rules that you cannot deviate from.  But an art form that is not open to innovation or to creative input will harden and stagnate.  

The same is true for weaving, techniques and patterns are passed down through generations with weavers becoming stewards of the tradition.  They ensure that the practices of their forefathers are remembered.  But for the art form to continue to be relevant to them, there has to be room for their own experience to inform what they do.  This allows the art form to flourish rather than become fetishized as an artifact. 

On the other hand, I am hoping that the exhibition also expands people’s conception of what contemporary art is – that they can come see the textiles in the exhibition in the same way that they come to expect sound, and video and found objects, as part of the language of contemporary art.

Did you encounter challenges in putting the exhibition together?

Challenges yes. Definitely not being able to work physically and to meet physically with Arvin, Gerry, Fe, and Sammy was difficult. I feel that relationships grow when you are working together physically. We had Zoom meetings like the rest of the world, but there is so much that gets lost when you are confined to the screen, and you do not have time to just hang out after for while we are working at the concept. For me that was the difficulty while working during the pandemic. The logistics weren’t bad, the PAVB team was excellent, they are very familiar with the logistics of the Biennale. After having the architecture Biennale, they seem used to be mounting exhibitions during pandemic. So what was lost was the opportunity to spend time with the artists and my co-curator.

What do you think is the trajectory of contemporary art at least in the next decade? What are we looking forward to?

I think that we will continue to hear more voices from the “peripheries” of the art world so to speak. 

Having worked as a curator for a museum, I have had the privilege of working with many curators. I have seen different types of curating both by curators or artists/curators. I’ve worked with Jose Tence Ruiz, Boots Herrera, Lisa Chikiamco, Patrick Flores, Gina Farley and other colleagues from Australia. Watching a lot of other curators work, I am inspired by their work ethic, their attention to details, and their dedication to the artists they work with. I think that is the thing I have taken away from the curators. Although they conceptualize the exhibitions,  the artists are their collaborators in putting the show together. It is not the curators idea, they do not just pick artists that will flesh out their ideas, if you know what I mean.

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