Wawi Navarroza: The Other Shore @Silverlens

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 large scale color photographs, hung against white walls in the main gallery space and in the smaller front entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints mounted on aluminum or dibond, with wooden mat boards and artist’s frames that include wrapped fabric, lace, artisanal patadyong textiles, frames custom-tinted to the artist’s skin tone, and other colored frames. All of the works were made between 2016 and 2023. Physical sizes range from roughly 37×29 to 48×61 inches (or the reverse), and the works are available in editions of 5+2AP or 7+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: A few decades hence, when we look back on the photography of the 2020s, one of the themes that will likely stick out is a much broader sense of inclusive artistic individuality. While the lives and perspectives of white male heterosexual photographers from American and Europe once dominated the discourse, we’ve quickly become more open to (and intrigued by) the stories told by basically everyone else. Categories of gender, geography, race, sexuality, age, and other labels provide some high level organizing principles to this flowering of interest, but plenty of artists check multiple boxes or live complex hybrid lives, creating sophisticated art that liberally pulls from all these disparate histories and lived experiences.

Wawi Navarroza’s bio starts with the simple fact that she is a female photographer from the Philippines, which is sadly something we don’t encounter all that often in New York. But of course, her story is more layered than that, with a life of movement that includes time in Manila, Madrid, and Istanbul, along with an educational stop here at the ICP and the recent life change of becoming a mother. Most if not all of these forces and influences show up in her work, which as seen in this survey of recent imagery, is centered on elaborately staged self-portraiture.

Cindy Sherman has famously protested that her photographs that use her own face and body as subjects aren’t self-portraits, but Navarroza makes no such disclaimers. Aside from a small group of still lifes, all of the works in this show are overtly marked as self-portraits, and feature the artist as the central figure. Her surroundings come and go, her clothing changes, her hair color wanders from blonde to black, and her body swells with her pregnancy, but we’re never really confused about who these pictures are about. Instead, Navarroza creates a dizzying range of personal variants and symbolically overstuffed installations, each a nuanced mix of not only her Filipina heritage, but many of the other interlocked pieces of her personal puzzle.

This is a show that overflows with bursts of bright effusive color, each individual tableau a carefully constructed riot of color and texture. Navarroza’s works have been called “bricolage self-portraits” and that sense of chaotic gathering undeniably fills her frames. Like Mickalene Thomas’s interior setups filled with African fabrics and Black decor, Navarroza’s studio installations have an obvious tropical flavor, which then brushes up against and intermingles with Western cultural signifiers left over from the colonial history of the Philippines. Tropical flowers and plants, like orchids, anthuriums, and parrot flowers decorate many of the setups, as do local fruits like pineapples, coconuts, plantains, bananas, and even dragon fruits. These are then surrounded by draped fabrics and textiles, some coming from traditional Filipino craft traditions, while others feel decidedly Western. She then hybrids in the Catholic and Hispanic aesthetics and cultural influences that came with colonization, making her scenes and arrangements even more layered and conflicted.

Many of the somewhat earlier self-portraits in the show (from 2019) find Navarroza playing with her own visual identity, stretching it and testing its limits. One reclining setup celebrates the many places she’s lived and visited, while others probe her life as an artist (including a red-tinted arrangement made after a fire destroyed her studio). Along the way, she subtly unpacks and undermines various “other Asian” and “Oriental” stereotypes.

In 2022, with new motherhood upon her, Navarroza’s compositions lean into themes of transformation and reproduction. Several images play with the idea of being a vessel, with water jugs, vases, and amphorae digitally layered atop her belly or placed between her legs flanked by the phallic spike of an anthurium blossom. Another doubled portrait decorated with eggs seems to collapse time, with the artist with and without child in the same scene.

The most recent works in the show find her circling back to previous themes, but with different perspectives and energy. One work casts her as the female character in a popular folk song, with her cameras and child’s shoes tucked in a nearby basket, while another picture returns to the East/West duality in her life, via two heart shaped rocks held in her rubber-gloved hands, one from the Atlantic and one from the Pacific.

Seeing these works by Navarroza, it seems likely that there is an instructive group show to be organized that brings together installation-based self-portraiture projects by women, comparing how women from different backgrounds, geographies, and life histories use props and staging to tell their own individualized stories. In Navarroza’s case, with many years of artistic effort already behind her, this first solo show in New York is quite a bit more nuanced and sophisticated than many first outings. Her bright colors and ornate agglomerations provide for easily consumed visuals, but underneath those flashy eye-catching trappings are deeper stories and overlooked complexities that are worth teasing out.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $8000 and $18000, based on size. Navarroza’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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