Dutch-Filipino artist Martha Atienza received the Baloise Art Prize 2017 for her work, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017. Atienza, whose main medium is video, showcased her work at the Statements section of Art Basel, the world’s premier modern and contemporary art fair. Four hundred galleries applied for Statements this year, of which only eighteen were selected.
Our Islands is a 72-minute silent video played on loop showing a sub-aquatic procession, a submerged edition of an annual community festival called Ati-atihan . “Video became a way to tackle very serious issues and create dialogue in my community, Bantayan Island. The Ati-atihan began as an animistic festival. Then, it was appropriated by the Catholics. Nowadays, people are adding their own characters. The community will put characters in the festival based on major events of the year, ” says Atienza.
Starting the parade is a man dressed as the Santo Niño (patron of the islands), and carrying a doppelganger statue. Much like the terrestrial celebration, the man raises the statue repeatedly, slowly, leading the march. Following him are men in bastardized costumes from the religious to the iconic, from Roman centurions to Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao, pushing themselves slowly against shifting currents.
The depiction of violence—both natural and political—is part of the spectacle. One can spot participants with signs indicating they are survivors of supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan). There is also a segment referencing the current administration’s War on Drugs as well as the OF phenomenon. “In Bantayan, people are seen as successful when they are able to work overseas. Using humor, the fishermen make fun of this concept of success so they dress up as nurses and seafarers lugging luggage underwater,” says the artist. In the video, one can see also the damaged state of the seabed and the corals.
Our Islands is the new Ati-atihan: the relationship between the sea, the islands, history, and social transfigurations. Reenacting current events–the elections, the Papal visit, labor migration, the war on drugs, sea levels rising and marine life dying– participants assume other personas creating a slow and silent underwater protest. A protest against our global climate change and our local cultural decay. Inspired by their ancestors, they are powerful, god-like, mad.
“This prize is not just for me but for everyone I’ve been working with in Bantayan Island. Now, we have have a way to continue the work we’ve been doing. The issues we’re dealing with are not things you address with one art piece,” says Atienza.
The Baloise Art Prize is awarded annually to two young emerging artists the Statements sector of the Art Basel. The award includes a cash prize of CHF 30,000 each. In addition, Baloise buys groups of works by the prizewinners with the object of donating them to two leading European museums, currently the Nationalgalerie-Staatliche Museenzu Berlin and the MUDAM, Luxembourg.