In the middle of the exhibition space for Tokwa Peñaflorida’s “Langit, Lupa, Laway, Luha” at Gravity Art Space is a little stage with a chrome pole in the center. A butt plug oozing with hardened resin sits on top of the structure. Where the white drip ends on the pole begins the descent of shiny empty hands. At the base of the structure, flames with eyes and hands in praying position await.
I have been slinking on spinning poles in my free time for the past couple of months. And to my eyes, the piece is a dance pole frozen either in the moment of release after a performance. I, unfamiliar with the customs of mourning, would later learn that the base object is meant to hold prayer cards in funerals. But Peñaflorida indeed fashioned it to look like a stage. The artist, who partly took inspiration from the music video of FKA Twigs’s “cellophane,” imagines the hands not in praying position but in thunderous applause.
As a child, Peñaflorida liked going to funerals even for people he barely knew. He found what is supposed to be a somber event as something joyous because of the vibrant atmosphere, even during the darkest hours of the night. “For a young kid, ang ganda nun. Kahit magpuyat ka dito, hindi ka mapapagalitan kasi you're paying respect,” he says. And at the center of this is his fascination for the mass card holder. “Ang surreal niya sa akin kasi ang daming kamay. Para siyang magical creature,” he says.
When his grandfather passed away in 2020, Peñaflorida found himself observing Catholic funerary traditions up close again. But in that moment of grief, Peñaflorida also felt a pang directed towards his queer identity.
Religion, without permission, shapes our lives. And for queer individuals, this means a life that begins with shame. Even before we acquire the ability to marvel at the magnitude of our identity and our desires, we have been taught early on that queerness is a life sentence. Embrace it and we would have to live a life of suffering and hate. And what comes after is still shame.
Peñaflorida wonders, “Naisip ko, paano kapag may namatay na queer person? Mapupuno kaya 'yung prayer hands ng booklets? Pero does it matter? Gusto ba ng queer person 'yung prayers? For what? Para i-save siya sa damnation?”
In “Langit, Lupa, Laway, Luha,” Peñaflorida wades through his Catholic experience and intimate moments not to find god nor discern where the queer soul is headed. It is also not his intention to express remorse towards a faith that is constantly suppressing our identity. Instead, he molds them into a paean to queer devotion.
In this interview, we talked to Peñaflorida about the Catholic images that inspire him, why his characters are often in tears, and what sex means to him now.
To begin with, can we talk about the inception of the show?
I think the whole concept began when my lolo passed away in 2020. Usually, 'yung mga lamay sa province namin, bongga siya. Marami talagang mga taong pumupunta. Pero during that time, since lockdown, it was a very intimate funeral. Pumunta pa rin 'yung mga lola't lolo na nagpapadasal.
I'm grieving because I'm really close to my lolo pero at the same time, I'm being bombarded with these Catholic images. Parang may maliit lang naman na feeling pero I hate that I still have that. May kaunting kirot na [because of my identity] am I allowed to be here? Am I allowed to grieve? I was being reminded of how these images are basically against me and my identity. I guess doon siya nag-start. Inisip ko kung paano 'yung process ng grief ng ibang people like me kasi doon sa province namin maraming Catholic traditions. Madalas ‘pag may prusisyon or padasal, ang laging punong abala are the queer people. Sila 'yung nag-de-design ng mga karo. Iniisip ko 'yung tension kung nafefeel ba nila 'yun? Marami sa kanila tumanda na na 'yun ang ginagawa nila. Parang dine-dedicate mo 'yung life mo and talent doon sa pagsilbi sa something na basically is not a fan of your existence. Iniisip ko 'yung mga ganoong contrasting feelings. I guess this is also me trying to make new images and symbolisms that I can relate to, that I was trying to reclaim with the use of erotica.
It's not really about me bastardizing Christianity or whatever. It's not that. Nag-overlay ako ng certain memories, certain personal feelings sa something very traditional para lang magkaroon ng more comfort. Everything that I've shown in the show is inspired by different Catholic images at tsaka mga rituals.
I have this series of illustrations with my poem. Inspired siya sa Stations of the Cross. 13 pages siya na comics with 12 devotionals. I guess parang gusto kong gumawa ng something like Stations of the Cross pero more personal. You know, kapag pumupunta ka sa church parang epic 'yung buhay ni Jesus Christ eh. And never akong nagkaroon ng gaanong exposure sa strong na epic na featuring queer people. Pero nung ginawa ko ‘to, sabi ko huwag na lang nating gawing epic, gawin na lang nating very intimate. It's just a story between two people and then I'll display it like the Stations of the Cross.
'Yung materials na ginamit ko sa casts ay lampin, plaster, and resin. Iniisip ko rin kasi 'yung part naman na 'yan ay parang empathizing sa mga queer people who are forced to be locked down inside houses na hindi supportive sa kanila. Ang bed very intimate siya na space. Iniisip ko paano kung hindi ka supportive ng family or whatever? Secrets talaga 'yung [mga pangyayari sa buhay mo]. Tapos ‘pag nakikita mo 'yung mga lumps sa bed, sometimes it can remind you of your bed outside that house or somebody else's bed. It reminds you of your past lovers kasi 'yung touch and intimacy malaking bagay sa queer people. Ang dami nating hindi pwedeng i-display publicly, 'di ba? 'Yung sa bedroom, sa kumot, doon tayo nakakahanap ng solace sometimes. Inspired naman siya sa Veronica's veil, noong pinahid niya 'yung taurine sa face ni Jesus Christ and nag-leave ng impression. Parang ganoon 'yung gusto ko sanang ma-achieve doon — mga random crevices at tsaka 'yung mga lukot sa bed.
I have this piece din na maraming resin. Actually, umiikot din siya sa idea ng liquid kasi for me grief is very liquid. It doesn't have a solid form. It takes whatever space is available. Parang ganon din 'yung feeling ko sa bodily fluids. It makes its way sa mga malalalim na parts sayo and it covers you up. Parang grief din siya. Nakita ko lang 'yung imagery ng laway, luha and then 'yung Catholic imagery. Basically doon siya nag-re-revolve. That's why I included a lot of resin work doon sa pieces.
Is this the first time you used resin?
Well, dati nag-exhibit ako ng maliliit na pieces na mga assemblage. Pero this time, 'yun 'yung main pieces ko. Feeling ko siya 'yung perfect vehicle para doon sa gusto kong i-discuss, especially that kapag natuyo siya mukha pa rin siyang basa, mukha pa rin siyang liquid. Nag-experiment talaga ako these past few months. Actually last year pa nag-try na akong mag-experiment with resin.
May isa akong artwork doon na inspired siya sa tarot na death. Ode ko siya sa AIDS crisis noong '70s and '80s. Laging may discussion if kink should be in Pride. Sa akin kasi, during the AIDS crisis, kink community ‘yung pinakamalaking tumulong sa mga victims of the disease. Ganoon din 'yung pagsagot ko sa question na, bakit kailangan hubad or may bastos energy ang queer art? Sa totoo lang, hindi naman siya kailangan pero I think that's me trying to weed out 'yung mga tao na masho-shock doon sa work na 'yun. Bakit ayaw niyo? May certain threshold lang ba ang tolerance? Tsaka ang tagal namin ni-reclaim 'yung power just to be able to draw naked bodies ng queer people. Ang daming taong namatay at naghirap para lang magkaroon ng right to express ourselves. And bakit ngayong panahon na 'to na we are relatively progressive, why should I censor that? Nahiya naman ako sa mga tao dati na naghirap para lang ma-express natin 'yung sarili natin. If you're already appalled at that surface level and then maybe hindi ka pa ready to talk about queer history and theory.
And hindi naman talaga siya tungkol sa paghuhubad or sex actually. We're just using the imagery to talk about something else. ‘Yung card naman ng death sa tarot deck, it's not really about death; it's about change. “The Reaper” 'yung title ng ginawa ko. Dalawang layer siya ng resin. Noong natuyo na siya, dinripan ko pa siya ng another layer na mas loose like droplets. It can be reminiscent of wads of ejaculation or teardrops or if you're looking through a window and you see that figure outside the window. Ang daming effect ng liquid when telling stories.
There's another painting naman na parang si Eros and Psyche pero ginawa ko siyang si San Miguel and Lucifer. Nilagyan ko rin siya ng dripping. That's actually an old painting. I painted that 2018.
How did it figure into this show?
In-exhibit ko na siya before without the drippings. Gusto ko 'yung concept pero may something na nag-ho-hold back doon sa piece. Last minute decision na isama ko siya sa show. Sabi ko, walang mangyayari kung wala akong babaguhin sa piece na 'to. Ayokong maluma lang siya sa bahay, so nag-take ako ng risk. I added crushed pearl and pearl pigments sa resin. Nung nag-combine siya with the layer of clear resin, nagmukha siyang tamod especially sa dark parts ng painting. Na-feel ko na just like, you know, the secret parts of yourself, doon mas makikita natin 'yung core ng gusto kong magawa.
May isa pa akong painting doon na inspired naman by “Pink Narcissus” ni James Bidgood. He's one of the earliest na out talaga na queer filmmaker. Kapag pinapanood ko siya, na-sho-shock ako how recent 'yung feeling niya. Ang relevant ng aesthetics sa current times natin. He just passed away this year, so parang homage ko ‘yun sa kanya. ‘Yun din 'yung nagbigay ng direction sa iba kong paintings. 'Yung style ko rin before kung mapapansin mo, hindi ganon ka-divided 'yung lights, shadows, and colors. It started when I went to Negros and I visited the Church of the Angry Christ ni Alfonso Ossorio. Sobra akong na-mindblown sa experience na 'yun, especially after knowing that Ossorio is openly queer. Tapos he was commissioned by a church to create that mural na sobrang naging iconic 'yung church na 'yun. Ang powerful kasi may aggression sa work pero at the same time, it's not a masculine energy type of aggression. It's very sharp pero there's delicateness and tenderness in that aggression dahil sa stroke at mga shapes. Ang laking influence niya sa akin lalo na sa church niya ginawa 'yun. Simula noon, nag-decide ako na maybe this is the kind of work I want to do sa discussion ng queer identity and folk Catholicism in our country.
What’s your relationship like to Catholicism?
I grew up in a very Catholic tradition sa surroundings and family ko. Busy sa church things 'yung lolo at lola ko. Singer ‘yung lola ko sa choir tapos sila rin 'yung nag-aalaga ng mga santo sa bayan namin. I grew up being exposed to that kind of aesthetics. Although I'm not subscribing to that religion anymore, there's really this respect and love for that faith and I know how important faith is for other people. It doesn't really matter kung anong religion, faith is very important. Feeling ko it's very organic din for me to pursue this kind of work. I really love Catholicism and folklore. 'Yung mga ganong inspirations at tsaka mga narratives naapektuhan talaga 'yung body of work ko.
'Yung isa kong piece na parang may meteor shower, title is a mountain kissing a meteor. Para siyang combination of those two different worlds, cultures, and beliefs. Kasi 'yung sa Filipino pagan belief, [signifier] siya ng unos. Parang may tragedy. 'Yung western culture naman, kapag may meteor shower you make a wish. Gusto ko silang i-juxtapose sa painting na 'yun. I think parang ganon din 'yung queer love at pag-pursue ng queer relationship. You are not really sure if it's a tragedy or if it's granting your wish or whatever. (Laughs) Ang dami kasing unspoken things unlike our hetero counterparts na parang ang clear lagi ng rules.
I think we can find intersections in Catholic images and queer art. Parang ang daming religious images na they’re also showing skin, ‘di ba? I’m thinking if we have queer stories in the Bible. Right now, I’m thinking of the story of Samson. I think it’s easy to mistake that it was Delilah who cut Samson’s hair. May dramatic effect din siguro kasi ‘yung from love to deception. But ‘yung actuality na ‘yung servant ‘yung gumupit sa hair niya and how it’s often forgotten, parang reminiscent siya of how queer stories are often hidden or ‘yun nga forgotten din. I’m also thinking of Queen Esther and how she’s giving this slay kween vibe. Anyway, what I wanted to ask here is if there’s any story from the Bible or of saints that struck you as a queer kid? And how?
It was only during my adult years that I've dived deeper into it. I made a zine before when I was younger about the story of Samson and Delilah but it revolved around Regina Spektor's song “Samson.” I made the story about two men in love and the other one is battling AIDS. It was a college plate. (Laughs) I'm obsessed with St. Bartholomew, St. Wilgefortis (the bearded lady saint who has a queer history), images of St. Sebastian and how and why it became an image of queer eroticism, and St. Judith who beheaded Holofernes!
In “Laway at Luha,” you depict acts of sex. But as a viewer, it doesn’t really feel sexual to me. Since you often deal with it in your art, how has your perception or the way you depict sex changed?
I think I've never really explored 'yung realm na 'yun in real life as much as I wanted to. I've always been afraid of physical intimacy.
You know, parang 'yung questions about yourself na hindi pa ako sure. Alam ko na kung saan ako attracted pero hindi ko alam kung kaya ko siyang i-pursue. Tapos it's a very Catholic thing to feel that way na laging may guilt doon sa pleasure. Laging may penitence. Hindi ka pwedeng maging masaya, parang ganon. I think late din 'yung pag-explore ko doon. It went from very scary to curious. Lagi siyang magical and surreal for me kasi it's very foreign. Ngayon mas naging tender na siya. You know, being in a relationship, mas na-feel ko na mas maraming siyang yearning, mas maraming siyang longing.
In the past few years, you've been focusing more on queer masculine bodies. How do you approach that form?
Nag-start talaga ako sa female na mga diwata. I guess 'yung pinaka-honest na pwede kong sabihin is that I always found the masculine form appalling. It's not as beautiful as a vehicle for storytelling katulad ng mga babae, especially kung ang subject ay softness and fluidity. I think mas may challenge doon on how you can show gentleness and tenderness and femininity in the masculine form.
You know how it's easy to glorify certain bodies in the gay community? Do you think about body types in your work?
Consciously, no. Subconsciously, I think maybe that's why I always distort the body. I teach anatomy so I understand kung ano 'yung tamang form. But you know, it's boring. Reality is not something I'm interested in anymore. I'm not as consciously aware of the body types I'm drawing. Mas concerned ako sa what are they trying to tell with these bodies. I don't want to take away [the focus on the story] by presenting a hunk or whatever unless ang intention ko talaga is to make fun of the masculine form. Hypermasculine talaga 'yung gagawin ko. But you know, with the stories I'm sharing here na mas spiritual and personal, mas maganda talaga if I take the focus away from the "perfect body." Gawin natin siyang malambot, palakihin natin 'yung buto niya, palakihan natin 'yung hands.
You’re dealing with hypermasculine bodies in your next exhibit, right? ‘Yung Muscleboy covers?
Natatawa sa concept na 'yun. 'Yung beefcake magazine noon lahat sila hindi mawawala sa cover 'yung description na “for art” or “for bodybuilders.” May disclaimer siya lagi pero noong panahon na 'yun, if you're going to think about it, it's the safest way to put stuff like that out there. Ngayon kasi, using the current lens of a more progressive world, mas nakakatawa na siya. I find it funny and camp how all of these men are hypermasculine.
The gallery wanted the theme to revolve around consumerism. I didn't know how to relate my work to consumerism. I think it's almost anti-consumerism how queer and erotic my work is. I was trying to maneuver my work to the theme. Naisip ko bakit hindi na lang 'yung covers ng vintage beefcake magazines. At the same time, it's also a good discussion point on how we present queerness. Hindi na siya for bodybuilders, for art kasi it's really a queer magazine na ngayon. Interesting sa akin 'yung veil na 'yun because of time.
Dito sa atin, how has the landscape changed for queer artists?
Ngayon, pinaka-apparent 'yung mas nagbibigay na tayo ng importance sa queer spaces. Before, parang why does it have to be a queer space? It can be a space na parang tayong lahat equal. Iba pa rin 'yung confident ka and safe talaga. Malaking bagay 'yun eh. Tsaka 'yung strength din and care ng community. Ngayon mas marami akong nakikitang queer people and allies supporting queer people not like before na mas maraming bullies. That's why more younger queer people are coming out because they feel more safe now.
In terms of queer art, mas maraming galleries na 'yung nakakaintindi even though it's owned by straight people. Sa dami ng mga homophobic and very violent shows towards our community, nagkaroon ng mga discourse about it. Ngayon, mas nagkaroon ng understanding on how important it is for us to feel safe. Queer artist na nga ako tapos bibigyan mo pa ako ng another challenge? Hindi pa ba enough? Alam mo ba kung gaano katagal at kahirap 'yung pinagdaanan namin to create queer work? Kulang pa ba 'to? Ano pa ba 'yung kailangang i-push namin?
Our existence na nga is a struggle itself.
Ngayon mas marami na ngang galleries na legit empathizing. Hindi lang enough 'yung pagbibigay ng support or opportunities kasi sometimes they're just commodifying queerness para magkaroon ng diversity. Kami 'yung "brave" art, ganyan. Sasabihin nila, "Wow, you're so brave because you're bakla." Parang can I just exist and just do my work?
Do you think there are any issues with queer art that should be addressed?
Feeling ko masyado pang maaga to nitpick. Ngayon pa lang nagiging comfortable 'yung mga tao or nagiging honest sa queerness ng art nila. Right now, I just want more people to create more work with intention, clear intentions. You can't create queer art without being empathetic. I don't think that's possible na gagawa ka lang na queer tapos it's not talking to a certain community. 'Yun lang siguro. I don't even consider it queer art kapag walang intention or walang empathy.
Napansin ko na 'yung pag-iyak is always present sa work mo even outside this exhibit. Your eyes din parang it gives the feeling na...
I think may pagka-watery ‘yung eyes mo and ang prominent ng waterline mo. Pero mababa ba luha mo?
Oo, sobrang iyakin ko. As in naiiyak na ako ngayon. (Laughs) Sa totoo lang, kapag tinatanong ako kung iyakin ba ako, sasabihin ko oo tapos iiyak na ako.
Sobrang distant ko sa emotions ko before. Feeling ko malaking part din 'yung accepting myself na queer ako. Doon ko na-realize na, bakit ko pinipigilan pati 'yung pag-iyak ko dati? Natatakot kasi ako na sabihang, "ah, iyakin ka kasi bakla ka." Pero tanggap ko na fully na bakla ako kasi iyakin ako kasi bakla ako. Hindi naman sila connected pero ganon ako kasi ganon ako.
What draws you to tears?
I'm drawn to honest emotions, and one of the most honest emotions that I know is crying. 'Yung catharsis. You can always fake 'yung pag-iyak pero what drove you to tears, hindi mo mape-fake 'yun. I think it's really beautiful 'yung pagiging vulnerable and then facing the audience and showing them that you're crying. Ang courageous ng ganon na in touch ka with your emotions.
I read somewhere about queer time. That in place of conventional maturation markers available to straight people, queer people improvise by finding those instead in art, literature, and media. Growing up as a queer kid, what were the things that gave you comfort?
Anime talaga. Malaking power ang meron ang anime sa akin. Nabanggit [mo] 'yung improvising. I'm interested in how people create their own worlds and then give them powers and quirks or whatever. Na-amaze talaga ako doon. Hanggang ngayon, it's my number one comfort media. I just love how different it is from reality. Ang laking bagay sa akin ng “Magic Knight Rayearth.” I was so obsessed with “Digimon.” I really love isekai na nat-transport ka sa ibang mundo. Feeling ko ganoon 'yung queer experience eh. You always want to be somewhere else but here.
Do you still feel that way?
Oo, sa totoo lang. Like, who wants to be here? (Laughs) Hindi na talaga ako interested sa reality. Ang daming times na nag-a-astral project na lang nga ako. (Laughs) [Our reality] is so surreal. Mas surreal pa 'to sa surrealism.
What will make you want somewhere where we are right now?
Never ko 'yan naisip. Pero naisip ko rin na siguro kahit magkaroon ng perfection, hahanap pa rin talaga ako ng different place. It's a very constant need for me pero I hate traveling, I hate outdoors. It's just the feeling of wanting to be somewhere new. Laging may yearning na ganon. Wala naman akong childhood trauma na nakukulong or whatever. I think doon talaga siya nag-stem sa [fact na] bored ako sa reality. Hindi siya mawawala. I always find myself seeking a new kind of reality. I will always complain about something.
Gravity Art Space is located at 1810 Mother Ignacia Ave, Quezon City.