Melissa Yeung Yap:
Indibeginning was The Form
By Cid Reyes
A couple of things sparked in the mind as one pondered the artworks of Melissa Yeung Yap, which she has wittily titled “Indigenius.” The coined word of course conjoins and connotes the richness and brilliance of Philippine indigenous forms.
The first was the phrase “a damaged culture”, a damning epithet that through the years has assumed a life of its own. The originator was the American journalist James Fellows, who a year after the Edsa Revolution, wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly, branding the country with that memorable, albeit wounding, phrase. Expectedly affronted, hurting our amor proprio, we Filipinos, still in euphoria, rose in verbal arms, in turn branding the ungrateful tourist as a “parachutist”, meaning “a foreign correspondent who flew into the country on a Sunday, looked around Metro Manila on a Monday, flew out on a Tuesday, and wrote an ‘in-depth’ study about us as a people.”
Did the American journalist not in fact touch the truth of a raw nerve? For Yap, the healing, thus the rediscovery and appreciation, of our culture has become of utmost importance to her life and her art.
The other was the serendipitous reading of an article by Filipino journalist, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, bearing the title “The Genius of the Filipino poor.” The opening paragraph startles with another stinging truth: “Sometimes it takes a non-Filipino to discover something great about us that we often ignore, do not notice, or take for granted. Sometimes we need foreigners to make us believe that there is more to what we already see.” Doyo was in fact reporting on a book written by the British journalist Thomas Graham about the work being done for the country’s poor. As if alluding to the offending Fellows, Doyo writes: “Graham could have been any parachuting foreign journalist, the kind that makes a quick descent, covers some ground, leaves in a rush and gives the world his or her expert views and analyses. Then calls this country “Gates of Hell” or something…Graham stayed. He immersed himself among the people – that is, the materially poor and those who work and live with them. He struck gold.”
Melissa Yeung Yap has struck gold, too. Certainly not in the materialistic sense, but in her discovery of the innate wealth of her country’s artistry as manifested by our multifaceted and multicolored indigenous forms. Through her social enterprise “Got Heart”, she works to create opportunities for the marginalized ethnic communities. Doyo’s description of Graham parallels exactly what Melissa as an artist has been doing for another cause: the preservation from neglect of our indigenous forms. A press statement related to her first solo show “Indigenius” reads: “A graduate of Development Studies at Ateneo de Manila, Melissa has dedicated her life working with marginalized indigenous communities throughout the country. Her travels, immersion, exposure to foundations and NGOs engaged in social development deepened her fascination in Philippine cultural heritage and anthropology.
In the “Indigenius” works, Yap confronted the challenge of allowing indigenous forms, so fixed in time and place, to navigate a modernist pictorial space in a context of painterly execution. To freeze them in their original context would be to merely duplicate what the National Museum has already so efficiently done in the service of cultural documentation. Yap had to reveal the flexibility, the adaptability, the versatility, and the capacity of indigenous forms to transcend their natural beauty beyond their exotic allure. Indeed, her first solo exhibition was a testing ground for her vision. True to her instincts, Yeung literally plunged her forms, as it were, into a sea of artistic formats in a sink-or-swim situation: in Mother and Child themes, floral still lifes, geometric configurations, pattern painting, figural renditions of Man and Woman, and very charmingly in her evocations of aquatic creatures such as the pawikan, the dugong, the butanding, the octopus, and the seahorse, whose lives are perennially at risk of extinction from the heedless, unconscionable depredation of man.
To be sure, the swirling and graceful arabesques can be enjoyed as pure form, as evidenced by their delightful presence as dragon, vine, and the classic Sarimanuk design applied on the panolong, an architectural feature of Muslim houses. Unmoored from its structural function, the panolong has emerged as a versatile format or vessel for these indigenous forms. The okir, a design tradition that shows the marked influence of Indian and Islam design, is deeply and organically embedded in the decorative dynamics of Mindanaon life.
Succeeding the “Indigenius” show are the works now billed as “Indi3D”, a reference to 3D printing, a technological advance in Yeung’s works, thus, merging the concept of past, present, and future of indigenous forms. The artist is on a roll as she wraps her artistry on a feast of inspirational design, ranging from Maguindanao cloth, T’nalak patterns, Tagbanua scripts, even cogon grass which is abundantly used as roofing material of the Aetas and the Manobos, and of course, the Banaue Rice Terraces. How Yap manages to weave these various strands of design, in splashes of the royal colors red and gold, should be a marvel to behold. From up north to down south of the archipelago, she is determined mine the design wealth of her country.
“I see culture as an important tool for enrichment,” says the artist. She has taken inspiration from the example of Japan, where ancestral culture is alive without disconnect from its state of advanced state of modernity. Yeung believes that we as a people, in our embrace of our cultural roots, can find our true identity and transcend the stigma of having “a damaged culture.”
As Melissa grows through the years as an individual and an artist, more and more she will remind us of an American artist who found the source of her true calling. At a turning point in her life, the beloved American artist Georgia O’Keefe moved from the distractions of New York to paint in the solitude of New Mexico. A curator described her as “amazed by the landscape, but there is also a really strong cultural fascination that she expresses immediately.” A critic remarked, “She became enchanted with crosses, adobe buildings, and bones, which would later appear in her paintings.” Thus as the curator exclaimed, “What’s clear is that she’s on fire with all this new cultural and visual stimulation.”
Melissa Yeung’s Indigenius works are also driven by her own personal flame.
Cid Reyes is an award-winning critic and author of coffeetable books for Filipino National Artists Arturo Luz, Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, J. Elizalde-Navarro, and Napoleon Abueva.
MELISSA YEUNG YAP
Melissa Yeung Yap's artworks are inspired by Philippine indigenous culture and the environment. Her works revolve around the themes "IndiGenius" (indigenous ingenuity), and "ARThropology" (fusion of art and anthropology). Her paintings offer a modern glimpse of the past with the hope of inviting audiences to look back with gratitude towards our indigenous heritage and to move forward into the future with deep appreciation and love for the environment, art, and culture.
Melissa dedicates her life working with marginalized communities. She crosses oceans and climbs mountains to work with tribes, farmers, and fishermen. Her travels, immersion, and exposure to social development deepened her fascination with cultural heritage and anthropology. Committed to resolving the paradox of poverty amidst a rich cultural heritage, Melissa founded the Got Heart Foundation in 2007 as a platform for the creation of sustainable livelihood models, allowing communities to create wealth while promoting their culture.
Melissa has been conducting art therapy sessions for underprivileged children and those affected by disasters since she was 13 years old. Professionally, she has been exhibiting in Manila and Singapore in solo and group exhibitions as well as charity art auctions. In 2017, she built the Got HeART Gallery as a venue for the promotion of art, culture and local artists and artisans.
In 2013, Melissa Yeung Yap was presented by the Junior Chamber International (JCI) Osaka to the Imperial Highnesses Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masaka of Japan as one of five recipients of The Outstanding Young Persons of the world (TOYP)