Spirits and ghosts seem to float forth from the densely painted canvases in Maia Cruz Palileo’s compact exhibition, “Meandering Curves of a Creek,” currently on view at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. For her source material, the artist looked to ethnographic photographs taken by Dean C. Worcester, an American zoologist who documented non-Christian tribes living in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century and who helped orchestrate the sale of the Philippines to the United States from Spain, in 1898. He later became the Secretary of the Interior of the colonial government in the Philippines. Worcester took thousands of photographs that were used to support the American mission to colonize and “civilize” the indigenous people of the archipelago, and the images portray men, women and children, often bare-chested and engaged in daily activities; sometimes smiling tentatively; other times posed stiffly, looking pointedly at the camera. The portraits are eerie, breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Palileo’s paintings, on the other hand, are otherworldly. As a way to reclaim the narrative of the exploited, the Filipino-American artist singled out people, animals and objects from the original photographs and placed them in dreamy, mystical settings painted in deeply saturated blues, greens, yellows and reds. The works feel sleepy, thick and transportive, and an element of magic realism persists.
“I was drawn to certain figures and I wanted to literally take them out of that context and put them into a different context — a newer, more humanized, more dignified context. The magic realism in a lot of those landscapes is imagined,” Palileo said in an interview with ALL ARTS. “I was literally imagining a new world for these figures.”
The artist succeeds here, although the new world depicted in the works feels deeply somber and heavy hearted. Worcester’s lens — and his subjects’ gazes, projected back at him — was, afterall, the starting point for this body of work. Palileo’s paintings capture more than the individual spirits and dignity of the subjects depicted. The ghost of Worcester and other early-20th century colonizers seem to swirl through the lines, too, as if refusing to release their stifling grasp on history.