Collaging Narratives: Interview with Jay Cabalu

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition: Artist Interviews

Posted on 02/08/2018
Ryudai Takano participated in the ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition, 26-28 June 2018, at SOAS, University of London. See more here

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Reconciliation, 2018. Collage on Panel. 40″ x 24″

What experience or education led to your artistic practice? Could you briefly explain your trajectory?

Growing up in an immigrant family in British Columbia, Canada has had a significant impact on my art practice. We didn’t have much in the way of entertainment at home—no cable TV, no video games—so my sister and I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore at the mall where I would pore over Archie and Marvel comics and magazines like Entertainment Weekly, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Over time I started collecting these comics and magazines, many of which I use in my work. I was also aware of my cultural displacement from a young age. As someone Filipino, Canadian, and gay, I grew up juggling three identities, which was very isolating. Popular culture became a refuge from this feeling, but even in the magazines I flipped through, I saw little of myself. There were no representations of Asian men that were reflective of my sexuality. When I started pulling from my personal collection to create collaged portraits, my first inclination was to depict celebrities and models. However, as I grew older this was eclipsed by a desire to represent my adult self as the person I was looking for in the material I browsed as a child.

As someone Filipino, Canadian, and gay, I grew up juggling three identities, which was very isolating.

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Godfrey, 2015. Collage on Canvas.18″ x 24″

Could you describe your work for the Bodies x Borders exhibition?

The four pieces I have in Bodies x Borders reflect the evolution of my approach to collage over the past few years. The earliest work, Godfrey, is a portrait of Taiwanese-Canadian model Godfrey Gao and was the first piece I completed using entirely collaged materials rather than a mix of acrylic paint and collage. A Tension is a literal take on tokenization. The people of colour in this work are used as a device to add dimension to the white figure, who is the focus. Vortex was a milestone for me as my first self-portrait done entirely in collage. I ripped and cut material to present the medium, and myself, as inherently fragile.

A Tension is a literal take on tokenization. The people of colour in this work are used as a device to add dimension to the white figure, who is the focus.

Reconciliation, my most recent work, was born out of the anxiety surrounding body and race. As a gay Asian man, I have experienced extensive invalidation in and out of the gay community. In this piece, I drew upon influences from pop culture, classical and baroque art (particularly Caravaggio’s Medusa), as well as fashion (Versace) and social media. The visual references highlight the ideas of narcissism and self-recognition. In Caravaggio’s piece, he depicts Medusa, who was formerly a beautiful mortal, at the critical moment when she sees her reflection in Perseus’ shield and is horrified by what she has become.

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A Tension, 2016. Collage on Panel. 48″ x 24″

Could you elaborate on your general artistic process? What was the process for creating the specific work in the exhibition?

For my self-portraits, I take a video of myself on my phone to serve as a reference image. The video format allows for more opportunity to perform my state of mind and capture a fleeting moment. As I start the collaging process, most of what gets included in the work comes from an instinctual reaction I have while going through materials. In this sense, it’s a mood board that reflects my personal cultural fixations. I also choose clippings from varied sources that draw on themes related to the bigger picture.

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The Count of Monte Cristo, 2018. Collage on Panel. 48″ x 36″

How do you think your work relates to the theme of Bodies x Borders?

My immigrant background allowed me to question my surroundings with an outsider perspective. As I was consuming films and television as a kid, I was keen to notice the restrictions surrounding Asian identities in the media. There were only certain personas that Asian people could to embody. For example, it was acceptable to have an Asian man be subservient to a white protagonist, usually as a doctor or scientist, but the sexually empowered roles were reserved for white actors. While I noticed this problem, popular culture was exciting and uplifting to me during a time where I was closeted and experiencing the most turmoil. In Reconciliation, I use my own body to cast myself in a light that was not typically meant for someone who looked like me. It’s a fun way to celebrate pop culture tropes, while shining a light on their oppressive tendencies.

There were only certain personas that Asian people could to embody. For example, it was acceptable to have an Asian man be subservient to a white protagonist, usually as a doctor or scientist, but the sexually empowered roles were reserved for white actors.

Do you have any expectations for how audiences will respond to your work? Are there any messages you wish visitors would take away after seeing your work?

I have my reasons for what images I include in my collages, but sometimes the reasons are too personal to be obvious. My work contains a lot of information and the audience can interpret the work in any way that satisfies them. I have a lot of fun hiding Easter eggs in plain sight, inviting the viewer to take a closer look and draw connections between the larger picture and the fragments that compose it. This type of art making forces me to look at small, isolated images and see them as something else to create a larger picture. I often remind myself of this concept in my every day life and I hope others do as well.

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Jay Cabalu Installation Image, ‘Queer’ Asia 2018.

Jay Cabalu is a Filipino-born, Vancouver-based collage artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Kwantlen University. His practice includes a growing list of private commissions and, more recently, self-portraiture. At the age of four, his family moved from Brunei to Canada where he became hyper-aware of his cultural displacement, as well has his queer identity. Popular culture became a refuge from such anxieties, but over time the lack of queer-Asian representation in popular media caused new tensions to arise. As well, Jay is interested in how social media and popular culture have informed our identities and perceptions of the world. The collages he creates are personal and obsessively detailed, created with magazines and comics he has collected from a very young age. Jay has exhibited in numerous spaces in Vancouver, such as the Federation Gallery, the Roundhouse, Hot Art Wet City and Ayden Gallery. In the Fall of 2015, he appeared on season one of CBC’s competition-reality series, Crash Gallery. In May of 2018, Jay was featured in his first international exhibition, “On/Off Grid,” for the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media in Chicago.

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