Remembering the Japanese in the VIVA ExCon 1992: An Interview with Maria Lourdes "Nening" Domadiego-Villanueva
by Norberto Roldan

Norberto “Peewee” Roldan (NR): Since you were one of the organizers of the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) in Bacolod in 1992, and had interactions with both the participants and the public, what do you think was the impact of the Japanese participation in VIVA ExCon 1992 on the local arts community and the public in general?

Maria Lourdes "Nening" Domadiego-Villanueva (NV): The participation of the Japanese artists during the 1992 VIVA ExCon in Bacolod was not totally unexpected. I was aware of Peewee’s invitation to some artists through a gallery in Tokyo.

What was more surprising to me was how their works and performances made a positive impact on the public. The installations done by Teresa “Tei” Kobayashi, Tatsuo Inagaki, and Akatsuki Harada were installed at the Bacolod Public Plaza. A traditional Japanese taiko drum performance by performers Rieko Shimbo, Osamu Kitahara, and Hideaki Kaneko toured different schools in the city for a week and days would often end with a performance from them also at the plaza.

I remember very well that the public installations and the taiko performances always caught attention, drew excitement, and added a new dimension to the festival character of VIVA ExCon. I think it was inherent in the vision of VIVA ExCon not only to bridge the Visayan islands but to bridge different cultures as well. By bringing Cordillera culture, as represented by the Baguio artists, and Japanese culture together, VIVA ExCon was simply fulfilling its role in the community. What was also surprising to me was that the Black Artists in Asia (BAA) was able to accommodate the Baguio and Japanese artists with practically zero funding.

NR: Who among the Japanese artists do you remember most and why?

NV: It’s hard to remember all of them. Since they arrived from day one, they were occupied with exploring the city, sourcing their materials, and producing their work. As one of my tasks was to arrange accommodations, I recall that Charlie Co’s family hosted Hitomi “Hiten” Utami in their residence, Akatsuki Harada was hosted by you and Mel in your house, and the rest of them were billeted at the Family Pension House owned by Dennis Ascalon’s family.

Despite a language barrier, I remember some interactions with them. I recall how Teresa Kobayashi requested a truckload of sugarcane for her installation and how her local coordinator and assistants got worried and stressed out knowing how much it would cost. In the end, she settled for less than a ton of sugarcane that was provided by Dennis

I remember hearing from Tatsuo Inagaki’s guide that he attracted a lot of children in the areas where he visited. He went mostly to depressed areas near the seawall and the port where a lot of the urban poor live. His installation at the plaza was done with discarded lumber from a construction site.

During his down time, Akatsuki Harada would find time to hang out at BAA Atelier where he was able to strike friendship and establish camaraderie with our crew. He also made a taketombo (bamboo dragonfly) for Touki (Mel and Peewee’s son who was nine years old at the time) and told us that Touki’s name is similar to “tori,” which is Japanese for “bird.” I think Harada was the one who had interacted with us the most. I believe one Japanese who stayed in most people’s memory is Shimbo because of her stunning Taiko performance.

One funny incident I remember is that they missed the talk of Junyee who was the keynote speaker. The theme of VIVA ExCon 1992 was “Art and the Indigenous Elements.” We of course took note of the fact that, except for Utami and the taiko performers, the rest of the Japanese were installation artists using indigenous materials. On the morning Junyee was to deliver his talk centered on “Image and Material Sourcing” with Pandy Aviado, who was then the Director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Visual Arts and Museum Division (CCP VAMD), as the discussant, the Japanese were not in the plenary hall for some reason. When they came to the conference later in the day, Kobayashi — who spoke fluent English — asked when Junyee’s talk was scheduled since they could not find it in the program. They were told about Junyee’s presence earlier. Since you were the one who designed the program, you told them that the schedule of Junyee’s talk was definitely printed there, only to realize after showing Kobayashi a copy that the name “Luis Yee, Jr.” was printed instead of just Junyee. We later learned that they knew about Junyee’s work in Japan, and the theme of the VIVA ExCon on indigenous art and their hopes of meeting Junyee was what made them interested in coming to the Philippines.

NR: Why do you think the 1994 VIVA ExCon Dumaguete working committee decided to make the biennial exclusive to Visayans that year?

NV: I am aware where this question is coming from. There had been impressions that the 1994 edition of VIVA ExCon in Dumaguete was organized exclusively for Visayans because the regional artists became insecure of the presence of the Baguio artists — who were present since the first edition — and later on, the Japanese artists. There were insinuations that the local artists felt that they were being robbed of the center stage by the “outsiders.” I think this is unfair to the Japanese and the Baguio artists, and totally unfounded. There were many problems that needed to be addressed internally by the working committee, thus it was decided to keep the edition exclusive.

It was the first time VIVA ExCon moved out from Bacolod. It was also the first time that Charlie and Dennis were on their own in taking up leadership responsibilities for VIVA ExCon because you had just moved to Manila and could not work on ground, although you provided the framework and designed the poster. There were also problems with funds, logistics, and conflicts with local organizations. In my ordinary capacity as part of the core group, I saw how other individuals rose to that occasion to save the fledgling festival. I need to mention their names because if not for them, things would not have happened: Toto Tarrosa, Milton Dionzon, and Louie Dormido from Bacolod; Kitty Taniguchi, Danni Sollesta, and Yvette Malahay-Kim of Dumaguete; Brenda Fajardo and Bobi Valenzuela in their individual capacities; and Nina Maralit and Aurea Brigino of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Outreach Program.

There was never any decision for VIVA ExCon to be exclusive to Visayans. I am happy to learn that Inagaki participated in VIVA ExCon Iloilo 2016 and was part of the curatorial team of VIVA ExCon 2018 in Roxas City. I believe that the ties between BAA, VIVA ExCon, and the Japanese artists should be valued and nurtured.

The Tokyo gallery being referenced is Gallery Lunami.

This interview was conducted via video call on 24 August 2021. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Maria Lourdes “Nening” Domadiego-Villanueva has held key positions throughout the history of the Black Artists in Asia (BAA): she was Vice Chair, Chair of the outreach program, and administrative officer of the BAA. A cultural worker, she was an active member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) in Bacolod and was part of the CAP collective working at the forefront of the cultural movement in Negros. In 1987, she co-founded the short-lived Art Institute of Negros (ANI) for which she worked as Managing Director until it was dissolved in 1988. Villanueva managed the BAA Atelier, BAA’s livelihood venture, in 1990 to provide an alternative economy for artists until it ceased operations in 1994. Villanueva has since worked for a church-based organization and has remained active in advocacies for social justice.