Will the Magic Last Forever?: An Interview with Kanade Yagi
by Mayumi Hirano
Mayumi Hirano (MH): When did you first visit the Philippines and what brought you here?
Kanade Yagi (KY): The first time I came to the Philippines was in 2013. My purpose was to learn English. I wanted to do an artist residency abroad, so I thought I had to start by relearning English. At that time, studying English in the Philippines was becoming more and more popular among Koreans and Japanese because of its lower cost compared to Western countries, and there were already many English schools in Cebu. I studied there for eight weeks.
MH: How did you know about the folk healing practices in the Visayas?
KY: In 2016, I began my research on spirituality and creativity in the Philippines. A grant from the Japan Foundation Asia Center (JFAC) allowed me to conduct this research for three months.
I had very little knowledge of spirituality in the Philippines, but in those three months, I learned many things that became the basis for my current research. "Tawas," "aswang," and "Siquijor" were the key words I learned at that time, and they would determine the direction of my subsequent research.
I first heard about tawas from a friend. One day, she told me that there was a healer in Makati who used an egg to perform a divination-like healing. I immediately thought it sounded interesting so I booked a therapy session. The method is called "egg tawas," in which a raw egg is cracked into a glass of water and interpreted mainly by the shape of the egg white and the movement it makes in the water. I thought it was like a work of art: reading the images, paying attention to the movements that change with time, and the sculptural world that emerges in the glass.
The healer told me about the history of folk healers in the Philippines, how tawas can be practiced using various materials, and about the island of Siquijor, where many healers are said to live. I wanted to know more about the tawas method, which uses eggs, rice, or candles to diagnose diseases. I also decided to visit Siquijor Island at the time.
I heard about “aswang” from some of my friends. According to friends, aswang looks like a normal human being during the day, but at night, the upper half of its body flies in the sky and kills the babies in the bellies of pregnant women. I thought it was just a superstition, but when I went to my friend Zeus Bascon's house, he told me in all seriousness that he and his family suspected that their maid was an aswang. So I understood that the aswang was not just a superstition, but a real and mysterious being among people.
Later, I remembered a book written by a Japanese anthropologist and I started reading it. The book was a research paper on aswang and religious practices in Roxas City, Capiz, written by Kentaro Azuma. In the book, there was a picture of a healer standing up an egg to diagnose a disease, which attracted me and made me want to see it in person.1
MH: Can you share how your research was in Roxas City and Capiz?
KY: I visited Roxas City for the first time in March 2019. As I mentioned earlier, I was interested in the healers who perform egg-standing healing, which I knew about from Kentaro Azuma's book, so I came to find them. According to the book, the healing method was called “tadja” in the local language. Fortunately, a woman I met at a carinderia in town and a boy from the family I was staying with helped me find a tadja healer. Miranda Robin Vallar, a Roxas City-based artist introduced to me by Mark Salvatus, also helped me. It was a short stay, but I was able to meet and talk to three tadja healers.
The second time was three months later, in June 2019. Norberto “Peewee” Roldan let me stay at the Water District house and introduced me to young Roxas City-based artists Mark Vincent Omega, Jason Rufino, and Kalayn Calvez, to help with my research.2 They accompanied me on interviews with healers, took documentation, and interpreted for me. We sometimes cooked and ate together at Water District and discussed whether or not aswang exists and whether or not they believed in mystical, traditional healing. Mark was very interested in mystical stuff. Jason said he did not believe in anything mystical, even though his grandfather was a healer. He also claimed that when he was a child, he had been bitten by a dog, had a high fever, and was cured by a healer who is an expert in animal bites, but he still did not believe in it. Interestingly, despite his disbelief, he seemed to be familiar with folk medicine, perhaps because of his grandfather's influence. Later, Jason, Mark, and I visited Jason's grandfather and the animal bite healer to conduct an interview.
One night, Mark, Jason, Kalayn, and I were talking about aswang. We were talking about how when someone dies, you can tell if they are an aswang or if they have been possessed by a bad spirit. They said that if you throw the corpse out of a window and a plant grows out of the corpse, it proves that the person was an aswang or was possessed by a bad spirit. It's called baylo. I imagined a corpse falling out of a window and a plant growing out of it. Baylo sounds like a horrible word for the locals, but for me, an outsider, it seemed like something nice. As we talked, I drew an image of a baylo, and Kalayn began to draw one too, imitating my drawing but with the three eyes that are characteristic of his street paintings on the face of the corpse. I liked his drawing because it’s kind of an instant collaboration between me and Kalayn, so I asked him if I could have it.
In Roxas, I did two things as a result of my research. One was a street painting of baylo. Jason found a wall and negotiated with its owner, and Kalayn lent me paints and brushes. Jason, Kalayn, and I painted together one night. I hope it's still there. I also made stickers with the words “tandok” (the term for animal bite healing), “baylo,” and “anagas,” and put them all over the city. For both baylo images — the wall painting and the stickers — I used Kalayn’s drawing of the baylo corpse with three eyes. The reason I did something like this on the street was because the streets are a field of expression for the young artists in Roxas, and I wanted to be a part of it.
My answer so far has already been long, but let me write one more thing about anagas. I first heard the word anagas from Manila-based artist Neo Maestro. When Neo went to Roxas for the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) Capiz 2018, he found a drawing. The drawing was done by an artist in Capiz, but he did not know who it was. The drawing depicted a person lying in a bush, with clothes, bags, necklaces, and computers hanging from the trees around him. The word “ANAGAS” was written next to the drawing, but he couldn't make out its meaning. Neo guessed that it might be a healing process that takes place in the forest. When I heard that, I was interested. Healing in the forest! I would love to meet such a healer if I could! I promised Neo that I would do some research on anagas in Roxas.
When I arrived at Roxas, the research was easier than I expected. I showed Jason the drawing Neo had given me and told him I was looking for the Capiz artist who had drawn it, and he immediately posted it on a thread in the Capiz artists' Messenger group. After a while, he got a reply from the artist who drew it. It was Rolan Bulaclac. Jason contacted him and I was able to meet Rolan later that day.
According to Rolan, the drawing was a plan for an installation that he and another artist had planned for VIVA ExCon Capiz 2018. But unfortunately, it was rejected and was never realized. Anagas, he said, is a traditional folk healing practice. A few days later, Mark and I visited Rolan in Panay City. He took us to a healer and we talked to her. According to her, anagas is mainly used to cure skin diseases. When the healer drapes the patient's clothes over the anagas tree, their disease gets cured, she said.
After the interview, the healer — along with Rolan, Mark, and I — went to the place where the anagas tree which she actually uses for healing is located. There were many tattered clothes hanging on the small tree, which reminded us of the passage of time. The thought that this tree actually tells the history of how people have been healed gave me a vivid yet beautiful image. I was so impressed and I thanked Rolan for showing me this tree. At that time, I told him that I would love to collaborate with him on the anagas project. However, since he suddenly passed away in 2020, this promise did not come true.
I went back to my conversations with Neo, Rolan, and Mark to remember the research on anagas. In the process, I rediscovered that Rolan had sent me a note with a plan for the anagas project that he had devised for VIVA ExCon. I should have started planning for a collaboration with him as soon as I left Roxas. I hope to carry on his legacy and one day make our project a reality.
MH: Were you able to establish some connection, or even friendship, with a particular folk healer?
KY: I only stayed in Roxas for about a month, but I met many healers. However, this short time was not enough for me to make connections and friendships. I would like to return to Roxas to revisit the healers that I had visited before to deepen my research.
On the other hand, in Siquijor, I was able to build very deep friendships with the healers. I think this is because I stayed in Siquijor for 14 months and spent about five of those months in the homes of the healers, not only through Holy Week and Lenten herb gathering, but also through fiestas and various family events. I have gone from being a “foreigner who wants to know about traditional healing” to a “member of the family” for them. For me, too, they have gone from “healers” and “research subjects” to “Siquijor family” and “trusted friends.”
MH: Is folk healing in the Visayas, which is generally ritualistic and herbal-based, similar to folk healing in Japan?
KY: When I think of folk and alternative medicine in Japan, I think of acupuncture, moxibustion, shiatsu massage, and osteopathy. They are very common and readily available to people. They are like the hilot in the Philippines. The therapists have both the knowledge of meridians and acupuncture points based on Eastern medicine and the knowledge of anatomy based on Western medicine.
We also often use Eastern medicines called Kampō. A Japanese acupuncturist who came to Siquijor saw the healer's medicinal herbs and said, "This is almost the same as Kampō in the parts used (bark and roots) and the way it is used (decocting and drinking).” Kampō can be bought at pharmacies, and is sometimes prescribed by doctors at hospitals.
Reiki and qigong are perhaps closer to spiritual healing. I don't know if this is the right way to describe it because I don't know them well, but I think patients go to reiki or qigong when they have unexplained ailments that cannot be helped by hospitals.
There is also family medicine. They drink tea made from wild plants or make poultices with pastes made from plants and vegetables. When we take a bath every night, we may add herbs or natural spring extracts. We also make our own lotion or tincture by soaking wild plants in alcohol to moisturize our skin and repel insects.
To answer your question, I think there are some similarities between Japanese and Visayan folk medicine in terms of the use of plants. However, the spiritual and ritualistic aspects of Visayan healing are not so common in Japan.
MH: Have you learned to practice some folk healing?
KY: I have been learning about folk healing in Siquijor Island. From healers and herbalists there, I have learned how to gather herbal plants, how to treat them, and how to make medicines. They use about 300 different plants for their medication. That means they have knowledge of more than 300 different plants. The names of the plants are in Bisaya, so it is not easy for me to master their knowledge. I would like to learn it little by little until I am like my grandmother.
I have never studied any other folk or alternative medicine in Japan, but I have always been interested in their practices. I think we Japanese are generally very health-conscious. For example, even if you have never learned “pressure points” or spots on the meridians, you could find many books and articles about them on the internet.
MH: Please tell us about your research methods, and how you translate the research findings into your artwork.
KY: To answer this question now, I need to look back on my attitude toward research. I can find these tendencies in my attitude, so I think these are kind of my research methods and ways of translating the research findings into my work.
Research Method 1: Through People, by Chance
I tend to value the triggers that happen to be given to me. I do research on materials, but I am more drawn to the things I happen to see, the stories I happen to hear from people, and the words I happen to learn. I start to feel a connection and attachment to keywords and concepts that happen to appear in front of me, which eventually leads to research. Remembering the starting point is also important to keep track of the research process. Aswang, tawas, anagas, Roxas, Siquijor, etc. are just some of the things that came to my attention in this way.
Research Method 2: Go and Meet People
Once I get a keyword or concept, I research it. I read books and do research on the internet, but I also go to meet people. There is a special power in going to see someone. It's like watching a film or being shown the entire life of a person. It may be a bit presumptuous to say such a thing after only a few hours of meeting, but there is an enormous amount of information in a person and the space surrounding that person. By meeting people, I can see the next path.
Research Method 3: Know that Misunderstandings are Part of Research.
In research, I believe that there is no such thing as a complete understanding, without any misunderstandings, especially after having only met once. I do not speak Bisaya or Tagalog. I speak either English or through an interpreter, so there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. But even if I understand the language perfectly, there will still be misunderstandings. This is because misunderstandings are inherent in communication, as seen in “the message game.” When you discover your own misunderstanding, you can correct it. To do this, you must not always think that you understand correctly. It is actually one of the joys of research to see how one's knowledge, including misunderstandings, is updated over time. And also, misunderstandings can sometimes be converted into artwork.
Research Method 4: Save a History of the Change in Thinking
Research is about encounters. Encounters with the unknown. Encounters with new experiences. Encounters with new people. Encounters change the way you think. Keep track of the differences in how you think before and after these encounters. In this way, you can look back and see what changes occurred as a result of the encounter. With overwrite saving, you cannot check the history. I think that overwrite saving may cause us to misperceive other people's thoughts as if they were our own. There may be a way to update yourself in that way, but I prefer to see what I originally had and what I got from others.
How I Translate the Research Findings into My Artwork.
1. Parodic Expression
In my solo exhibition The Probability - neither yes nor no - at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 2019, I used the egg standing healing method called tadja and a string divining healing method called tigi. Although it was not a conscious decision, both try to replicate the original healing method in humans. I also created my version of tigi, where I changed the six threads used in the original method to 100 threads. I think of parody as a kind of simulation. By changing some of the elements that make up the method, the original method can be seen from a different angle or more vividly.
2. Take Advantage of Coincidences.
This is similar to Research Method 1, but I often use coincidental encounters as an opportunity to create artworks. For example, in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (2019), a work on the theme of disappearance, I explored the mystique of Siquijor and the spirituality of the Philippines through the phenomenon of disappearing seashells, a strange event that I came across by chance. In Trace the Wall (2018), an exhibition and performance at Load na Dito, I created a work by reading abstract shapes, the traces of paint that appeared when old paint was removed to repaint the wall, as newly created tawas. Both were products of coincidence, but I connected them to what I was thinking at the time to create this work. In other words, the process of making coincidence seem inevitable is the link between my research and my work.
Actually, I’ve been struggling with how I could translate my research findings into my artwork since I began to research on spirituality in the Philippines. Perhaps there is no need to connect them directly. What people are doing is somehow connected and they influence each other. When we talk about the study of healers, we feel that we must be inspired by healing methods, but the healing methods are not the same as the healers. I am interested in not only the healing methods, but also the other aspects of the healer, the events around the healer, that are not directly related to the healing method itself. Maybe I want to show "the society with healers" rather than the healers themselves.
MH: Please tell us about the exhibition that you are currently holding in Japan.
KY: The title of the work and the exhibition is Kalibutan カリブータン. “Kalibutan” is the Bisaya word for “world.” Coincidentally, this year's VIVA ExCon online exhibition, curated by Patrick Flores, has the same title.
The work consists of 45 videos by 45 speakers as well as texts about the speakers. All videos were shot in Siquijor between May 2020 and May 2021. The speakers are of 19 different nationalities and there are 16 different languages used in the videos. Although they come from such diverse backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: they are or have been in Siquijor. Normally, tourists stay for a week and then leave, but due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19, the shortest stay on the island was at least four months. Four months is long enough to build a relationship and influence with the island. My perspective in this work was that all the temporary travelers, migrants, and people born and raised in Siquijor are in Kalibutan. Each of us has our own identity and we have different values. But still, we are on an island, and that is the Kalibutan of or on the island. I think I came to this point of view as a result of my persistent research into healers.
As soon as I returned to Japan in May 2021, I contacted some friends of mine who were running a space and asked each of them if we could have an exhibition at their place. So it was decided that I would exhibit at ya-gins in Maebashi, FIGYA in Osaka, and PARA in Tokyo. These spaces are not big institutions, but they are run by artists who have integrity in their activities, and I trust them. It is a pleasure for me to be able to connect with these places through this work.
It was an interesting challenge to try multiple ways of exhibiting a single work in multiple venues. I wanted to present the work as if it were a musician — they move around with their instruments, hold sessions wherever they go, and flexibly change their performance to suit the location and the audience. I thought it would be great if I could exhibit this work in such a way. That's why I want to travel with this work. Hopefully, I would like to exhibit it in other venues in Japan, in the Philippines, not only in Manila, but also in the Visayas region (at Siquijor, of course), and in various other countries.
MH: How does your constant movement between Siquijor and your hometown of Saitama shape your art and life?
KY: Before 2020, my cycle was to spend half the year in the Philippines and the other half in Japan. Since my art activities do not generate money, I would spend all my money on art activities in the Philippines and then return to Japan to work and save money. Then I would go back to the Philippines. I used to jokingly call it OFW.3
In this cycle, my art activities in the Philippines and my working days in Japan were totally split up. When I was working in Japan, I hardly did any art activities, so it was a blank period for me as an artist.
However, when I began my long-term stay in Siquijor from 2020 to 2021, a different cycle of time unfolded. It was the first time that I was staying in a place with no fixed end to my stay. It was also the first time that I had no obligations at all. It is rare for such a totally free and empty time to appear in one's life, but for me it happened on the beautiful tropical island of Siquijor. I was simply lucky. There, I created not for a residency, not for a grant, not for an exhibition, but just for the sake of making new art work. I was very happy.
After returning to Japan in May, I have been editing the videos and writing the texts. I have also been working on the exhibition Kalibutan カリブータン since October. I feel like I've been running at the same pace ever since 2020. Since my stay in Siquijor, the previously split me-in-the-Philippines and me-in-Japan have so far stayed connected. This may be one of the magical things about Siquijor.
I wonder how this feeling of connection will shape up. That will be a story for the future. I don't know if this magic will last forever or if it will suddenly cease to be effective. I don't know what the future holds, but I have a lot of things I want to do.
MH: What's on your wish list when you return to Siquijor?
KY: I want to build a house, plant plants, cook in a big kitchen, make souvenirs for tourists, and welcome artists from Manila, Japan, and other countries, as well as welcome my friends and yours there.
1 Azuma, Kentaro. Anthropology of Reality and Alterity: From the Field of Magic in a Modern Philippine Local City. Sangensha, 2011.
2 Water District is an artist-run platform. It occupies the former Roxas Metropolitan Water District. For more information: facebook.com/waterdistrict.rxs.
3 In reference to Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW).
This interview was conducted via email in November 2021. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Kanade Yagi obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from Tokyo Zokei University of Art and Design, Tokyo, Japan and completed the Research Program of the Center for Contemporary Art Kitakyushu. Since 2013, she has been traveling extensively to research various socio-cultural conditions in Southeast Asia. In recent years, she has been spending half of each year in the Philippines to research and to create work, focusing on spirituality in the country, and the creativity in its expressions. Her recent work has been shown in solo exhibitions and collaborative projects including Kalibutan カリブータン (ya-gins / FIGYA_SPOT / PARA, Japan, 2021), The Probability - neither yes nor no - (Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, 2019), Trace the Wall (Arts Tropical, Okinawa, 2019) and Metabolism of the Wall (Load na Dito, Manila, 2018).