de los reyes
Artist: Jay Cabalu.
2018, collage on panel, 48" x 72"
Jay Cabalu is a Vancouver collage artist whose art has evolved into a way to reframe his experience as a person of color beginning a new life with his family in Canada. Taking myriad cultural and pop images from magazines collected since childhood, these references are purposefully reconstructed into collage art which reverse expropriates popular culture into beautiful and highly personal statements about the role of culture in shaping our identities, and finding our place in the world.
As the youngest in a family of Filipino immigrants who moved to Vancouver 30 years ago, I looked for evidence of my existence in my new home. I wanted desperately to fit in and contribute, but the lack of diverse representation in media implied that my voice was not important or relevant to the western world. During my childhood and teen years I collected hundreds of comics and magazines, learning through the lens of something I found fun and inspiring. It was during this time that I consumed the most television, constantly searching for myself in the limited scope of Asian characters. The only Filipino person I saw was a live-in caregiver who had one line of dialogue in an episode of The Sopranos. She spoke in untranslated Tagalog. At the time I remember thinking, “OMG, we’re on the TV!”. In hindsight it confirmed a troubling thought about how Filipinos were seen.
People often look to pop icons to feel empowered, but that message resonates so much more when you share a physical resemblance with them. When I talk about the importance of representation, I use the analogy of drawing. Most artists cannot draw a bowl of fruit in perfect detail without observing it in front of them. Similarly, it is much harder to create a truly empowered life without a reference.
Last year I was approached by Spencer Interiors, an ultra high-end furniture showroom, to create a large-scale work. When I walked into the space, the first thing I thought was “This is not my Vancouver.” It was during this period that I was also forced to leave my apartment in the West End to make way for a new development - a neighbourhood I had lived in for 10 years. I thought about the struggles my family experienced moving to a new country and starting over in a place where they felt they were outsiders. I thought of my mother, Maria Bernadina De Los Reyes Cabalu, who went from being a stay-at-home mom for 12 years to working at Wendy’s for over 20. I thought of all the live-in caregivers who have to leave their families in order to support them. I thought of the difficulty of having to endure so much because of your status in the world, and of having to do so without heroes who understand exactly what you’ve been through.
Artists have the privilege of being able to transform their struggle into a beautiful, tangible thing. This is my Vancouver. I see symbols of privilege all around me, and as a gesture of resilience and recognition of the struggles that outsiders face, I raise mine - this symbol of Filipino pride.