“There should be a change in the system that gives value to cultural workers.”

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Artist Carina Santos talks about growing up in a family of artists, debunking myths, and the government’s obvious disregard for cultural work. Photo by REGINE DAVID/Courtesy of CARINA SANTOS

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — "Basta gawin mo lang" is the advice that Carina Santos’ artist parents gave her when they asked them about how to paint. It’s simple advice yet complex in its bearings. Santos introduces herself as a “self-taught” artist and perhaps it is the curiosity embedded in the spirit of DIY that has led her to her other creative practices such as information design, publishing, and writing. She’s recently taken up knitting and book-making. However, she hasn’t been able to practice the latter, since she wasn’t able to access her studio during the three months of lockdown in London, where she has been residing for almost three years. London is also where she finished her postgraduate degree in Art: Theory & Philosophy at Central Saint Martins.

She says, “I've been working, for example, on larger work, and more textured oils, and lots of printed matter that require visits to some facilities that I therefore haven't been able to go to, because of lockdown. I didn't get to go to my studio for three months, just to stay out of other people's way.”

"Latent Fictions III" by Carina Santos. Photo by SOLER SANTOS

"Latent Fictions VIII" by Carina Santos. Photo by SOLER SANTOS

“It was really hard because I used to go to my studio to clear my head and sort of work through my stuff, and I couldn't really do that at home,” she adds. “It was very slow-going at first, for sure, but you get the hang of it and you get used to working with what you do have at hand.”

Without her usual materials, Santos reverted back to painting, the product of which is her show “Latent fictions,” currently on view at MO_Space in Taguig.

Santos has been painting landscapes since 2016. While our idea of landscapes may come from their idyllic nature, Santos has been using the picturesque images to pour in her anxiety and restlessness. The fact that she’s living in London but rooted in Manila has given her a sense of nowhereness, which is apparent in these paintings. Land as a physical and emotional anchor forms the core of these paintings. In her 2019 exhibit, “Here as Elsewhere,” the colors swirl like elemental fugue, roving about the lonely mountains. In “Latent fictions,” the details are more pronounced, the strokes are more softened, but yield to the underlying states of anxiety and uncertainty.

Below, Santos talks about growing up in a family of artists, debunking myths, and the government’s obvious disregard for cultural work.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

My approach to my work isn't particularly business-oriented, so I do place value on more arbitrary traits that have to do with the work. I have so much respect for artists and creatives who have a specific vision and point of view, and who constantly work through thoughts and ideas by making work that responds to these things in their own way. There are so many people who copy other people's work, and I just never understood the appeal of that way of making art.

But, there are many reasons why people enter these fields. Some want the prestige or reputation that may come along with it. For me, if you are in it to make beautiful or thoughtful work, then you should really love what you do — as in the processes — and how you make your work. There are so many things that cloud your brain, and perhaps it's tempting to work towards likes on social media, but I think it's essential that one keep interrogating their work and their response to issues around the world or themselves, in their own way.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

My parents are artists, and when we have asked them to teach us how to paint earlier on, they just said, "Basta gawin mo lang." I don't think I've consciously adopted that philosophy of doing things in my work, but reflecting on the question, that seems to be how I've approached most things. If I don't know how to do something, I usually look up how to do it and learn. I think it's important that you keep learning how to do things, because not knowing how to do something shouldn't stop you.

And how does that relate to your current project? 

My latest art project is a solo exhibition of paintings called "Latent fictions." It's on view at MO_Space in Taguig until August 2nd. I originally wanted it to be a very different show, because it's my first solo show at MO_Space, and I had been working on making books and printing things. But, the pandemic happened and I lost access to a lot of facilities for that duration, including my studio, because of lockdown.

I ended up making do with what I had around me and getting the show done: basta gawin mo lang. It worked out, because I really love what the series of works ended up being. It feels like an outpouring of feelings and projections of my own restlessness of that period. They're landscapes, sure, but they are in a way portraits of the time spent stuck in a place at a time when I thought I'd be making major changes in my life.

What skills do you wish you had?

I wish I was better at the business side of things and networking, just because it's handy to have. I don't have a natural flair for it, and it seems like a necessary beast if you want to work within certain industries. I wish I was also handier at handling power tools and doing things like framing my own work, and maybe driving. I've learned how to stretch my canvases, but I'm not very good at it. It's just good to learn things that you wouldn't need to outsource labour for.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today?

I think it's really that you depend on a very fickle market. If you make art your primary sort of job, then it's just really scary to sort of commit to that instability and precarity. You never know how people will respond to your work. Your survival is constantly at the mercy of other people. That's partly why I've never been a full-time artist. Not all artists are privileged to be sought after, so most of us are lucky when one or two people show interest in our work. You hear about these relatively young and new artists who make millions off of one work, but the reality is that it's not like that for most of us.

It's also really hard to stand out and position yourself as a singular artist, particularly when there are so many people who are talented and some who may have more connections than you. I've certainly been lucky in that my parents are artists and I grew up around that scene already, so it was much easier na dumiskarte when I was starting out. It's not the case here, in London, where I don't know very many people in the scene. Art is such a solitary process, that you take for granted that it can be very much a social industry, too. There's a weird tension of wanting to keep some sort of purity in the work, but having to answer to what others may want out of your work, too.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That it's an easy way to make money. Most artists — whether you like their art or not — exert some sort of labor into their work and it's time that you can't put into something else that's more lucrative or stable. The overhead can be very expensive, too. It's really, really, really hard to be a full-time artist, and people who can afford to be are very lucky, because they have support, either from patrons or their family, who let them do what they love to do.

I don't think it's my place to try and debunk myths around the art world, to be honest. I'm a very small fish in a very large pond.

How safe do you feel about going back to work as usual?

I don't think it's safe, at all, and most of the people who are working are doing so out of necessity. I am actively still looking for work, because I can't afford to wait it out, if I want to stay here longer. I think the most we can do is to take precautions as much as possible and remain vigilant. I live in a country where it seems like people aren't taking the pandemic very seriously, despite having one of the highest recorded death tolls in the world. That's insane to me. I understand people who need to work, but I can't wrap my head around those people who are so very mask-averse. It's really the least you can do to protect yourself and others, if you do need to go out.

How is this pandemic changing how you approach your work?

It's just been very hard. On the one hand, you are reliant on other people for support. And it's tough because, on the other hand, you understand that some people who would have supported you in the past may not be in the position to do so now.

I think there is very little protection from the government for art workers, and it's been true even before the pandemic. There is such an obvious disregard for cultural work, and I understand that there are other, more urgent things that should be addressed. Even so, culture is such an important part of a country's identity, and there should be more support given to art workers — not just artists — who need it.

Right now, the onus to help is on private companies and individuals, but that's always been true. I could say that it would be helpful for people to invest in your favorite artist's work, but that's not a sustainable change, really. There really ought to be a change in the system that protects and gives value to cultural workers. It's not entitlement to expect some standard of care from the government. That's their job.