Artist Interview: Joey Cobcobo (Mandaluyong, Philippines)

Tell us more about the importance of community in your practice.

The exhibit of Propaganda was prepared in November 2014: it began when I met with Ricky Francisco and Cedie Lopez-Vargas, the then-curator and executive director of Lopez Museum respectively. They commissioned me on this project, albeit with limited funds. So I spent a month thinking and researching, until the idea of using stairs and ladders popped into my mind on my way back home one day. I thought repurposing them would be the best Christmas gift that year for my community. So I took photos of some old, dangerous and rugged wooden stairs and a set of ladders in my neighbour’s house as part of my installation, and asked the owner if we can help replace them with new, stable and stronger ones. Some of them were carpenters, so it was easier for me to explain and buy all the necessary materials; the labour was free, as they committed to making their own. This collaborative process was also important, as I was able to talk to my neighbours about my project and its intentions, supported with the budget. For me, being poor has shaped us in positive ways also, such as kneeling down and worshipping God, asking for wisdom and understanding especially in decision-making by humbling ourselves; and the sponsorships we receive from our city mayor, congressman and other city officials for artistic purposes and endeavours, representing the country abroad. As a token, we can respond by preparing an exhibition and conducting an art workshop upon returning.

Through hardships and tears, we saw many viewers, participants, collaborators, students, friends and audiences taking part so enthusiastically in the participatory project. I love embracing this community, while saying “Kaya natin to!” Like a pair of bakya, you have to walk in sync – it’s hard to walk without the other.

Tell us more about your heritage and how it has impacted your practice.

In 2002, when I won the Art Petron painting competition, I chose the theme of woodcarving in Cordillera, making Bulul sculpture and rice terraces as the start of my research on my own identity and heritage.

Then in 2003, when I was awarded the grand prize for the Piñana art competition, it brought the winners to Banaue, Northern Philippines and I had a chance to visit the village, attending ensembles, hearing ethnic chants like Hudhud, which is considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity recognised by UNESCO – these are narrative chants traditionally performed by the Ifugao community to yield good harvest. They offered to help me translate my drawings into woodcuts. They commissioned the making of a calendar for Filipino souls, which would be launched for sale in the Philippines or in Japan. They also hired Mr. Donato, a woodcarver who converted my designs into woodcuts. They then referred me to Mr. Jess Flores, a printmaker and AP officer who taught me how to create my first zinc-plate etching. Lastly, several Japanese sponsors – including the founder of Masa Ecological Inc., a company creating handmade paper using saba, piña, salago, mulberry and rice straw – enabled me to use and explored their papermaking materials. It is then I met Mr. Asao Shimura – who is now a friend of mine – who helped to hand-make the paper in Propaganda. These cross-cultural experiences, coupled with my fond memories of them, had a big impact on my practice as a whole.

Why did you decide to combine painting and wood carving with printmaking, in your work Plataporma?

To me, printmaking can be seen as a combination of painting and woodcarving. I draw and paint on a plate or matrix first in a way that expresses my personal style and message, often using techniques inspired by my roots, identity, and the cycle of urban life. After that, I making woodcarvings or woodcuts, which is a traditional skill practiced by the Igorot tribes.

Plataporma is the title of my print series, and it directly translates to platform or plate-form, in a play of words, with “Plato” referring to a food plate in Filipino. Recently exposed in the project of Kabit at Sabit 2019 by Loadnadito, I participated with my theme of, “Nakakain ba ang art?” or “As we always say, Can art be eaten?”, an installation and print workshop using the 10 plates of representing broken vows and promises by the politicians. These are the same works that I presented in a 2010 group exhibition entitled, “Plataporma”, headed by TUTOK and Slash Art group.

Nowadays, I’ve been very much inspired by the saying, “But the biggest sin of the industry is to maintain” by Lav Diaz, a famous filmmaker and director, as well as something Jerito Delacruz, a former college classmate of mine, shared: “Try the possibility of nostalgia or going back to the roots”.

What are some of the motivations behind creating such large-scale installation work?

“It’s too ambitious!” These words were thrown to my face by Ms. Gilda Cordero, a respected writer and a grandmother included in my LOLA 101 project. Overcoming this assumption motivated me to work beyond initial expectations and hesitations.

Large-scale works continue to be a challenge I present to myself, because they don’t fit in my studio and I cannot do it alone; however, through prayers and by God’s grace, I can do everything. Ito rin kasi yung naputol kong pangarap (This was a dream of mine) – when I was awarded by CCP Thirteen Artist 2012, nanggigigil ako kasi hindi ko nagawa yung gusto kong pyesa (I stopped at first because I didn’t seem to be able to do what I wanted to do). Despite the hurdles I faced in achieving my dreams, my family, church, artist friends, community and even my struggles in life existed to inspire me then, to help me push boundaries and possibilities in printmaking, which led me to finish my unfinished project.

You’re also a member of the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (AP). How has this benefited your practice?

“No man is an island, unless you have a lot of money!” As said by Pandy Aviado (former AP president).

Yes, since 2005 when I was a finalist in their print competition, the AP president Ambie Abaño encouraged me to join the association. I went every time they invited new artists from abroad to conduct workshops and talks, and I was able to make new discoveries with the help of the group. As an officer and member, we initiate a lot of projects including the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Print Folio, art in the bay, open studios, workshops and regular exhibitions.