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Wawi Navarroza and the unbearable strength of the female artist

By Nicole Soriano, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 20, 2023 5:00 am

Agoddess-like figure stands at the center of a dazzling, dizzying stage. Lush drapes; fake, pastel-colored flowers; ornate, mismatched rugs and wallpapers; and colorful bags of rocks and soil engulf her. She lifts her gaze up towards the heavens. She raises her arms as if in prayer—or surrender. She sports red gloves, a striped blouse, and a bright floral skirt, melding with the chaos of the background. She is, at least on the surface, the artist Wawi Navarroza.

In 2020, Navarroza moved from Manila to Istanbul, Turkey, where she made the image above, “The Weightlifter Orans/Auit at Gaua (Self-Portrait with Blue Ribbon).” There are few places in the world where East and West, ancient and modern, collide more beautifully; and the country’s rich, pre-Christian imagery soon captivated her.

“All the Anatolian influences, the mother goddesses, and just the different womendifferent (forms) of women—Ishtar, the Babylonian, everything,” she says. There, she learned the orans—a prayer position with outstretched arms and palms faced up. She found it powerful, as if a woman was summoning the powers that existed within her.

Wawi Navarrozas’ photo series ‘‘As Wild As We Come’’ was shown during Art Fair PH 2023. The Istanbul-based artist reflects on weightlifting women, motherhood and female artists through works.

These ancient icons coalesced in her mind when another image pierced through—this time, present-day, earthly. It was 2021, a year into the pandemic. Navarroza was far from home and anxious for the future. Then, one day, a young Filipina lifted what for a moment felt like the weight of a country at the Olympics. Before breaking into tears, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz thrust barbells almost four times her weight to the sky— winning the Philippines its first Olympic gold.

It was a spitting image of the orans.

“It was such an ‘aha’ moment... Hidilyn and the ancient,” muses Navarroza. “It’s essentially the same. When you do the orans, you’re literally bringing heaven to earth. And as women, we do that.”

“Mouth of Pearls/Oryental & Overseas (Self-P ortrait)

She adds with a laugh: “I mean, even daily, I think.”

The Weightlifter Orans”belongs to a new series of work called “As Wild as We Come”—self-portraits that Navarroza made as she was on the cusp of profound change. She was adjusting to her new life in Turkey; the soil in the bags in “The Weightlifter Orans” allude to stories she heard of migrant women holding on to soil from their home countries. She had also, at 41, just given birth.

When Navarroza makes self-portraits, she channels not only her life, but the lives of other women and artists who have come before her.

In 2022, Navarroza featured this series in a solo show at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London; now, it’s been displayed at Art Fair Philippines 2023—the first time she’s unveiled the images to Filipino audiences.

Composed of carefully constructed, in-studio photographs, the series continue an aesthetic Navarroza forged in a previous series called “Tropical Gothic,” where distinct elements of Philippine culture fused into bright, brazenly chaotic tableaus. Folk and pagan motifs; vestiges of Spanish colonial baroque; the hot, piercing colors of the country’s eternal summer—all collided to confront viewers’ stereotypes of the exotic. This new series, however, layers traces of her life in Turkey. In one image, she wears a silk kaftan and sits in front of a balikbayan box. In another, she is a vessel for a river of blood, gushing down from the ceiling to her feet.

Portals / Double Portrait (Self-Portraits), 2022

These tableaus “celebrate what we’ve been conditioned to be ashamed about,” Marv Recinto writes in the exhibition notes. Wildness, kitsch, excess, womanhood—all of it. At first glance, the works indeed radiate joy and celebration. Explosive colors and patterns evoke the artist’s memories of vibrant Manila fiestas. Two pieces quite literally depict birthday cakes.

But beneath the revelry, there is something intensely vulnerable about them. Motherhood shook Navarroza’s core, and these works bare the feeling of one’s identity shattering to pieces.

“You don’t recognize who you are,” says Navarroza, recalling the months after childbirth. “You’re like, ‘What happened? Who am I?’

She wrestled with the question: Am I still an artist if I’m not making?

In 2014, famed artist Tracey Emin said in an interview, “There are good artists who have children. Of course there are. They are called men.” Historically, galleries hesitate to invest in the careers of women of childbearing age, perceiving them as a risk. It’s no wonder, then, that artists like Navarroza still feel like motherhood is taboo in the art world. “There’s this anxiety that the art world might be hostile to this,” she shares. “That I would be forgotten.”

‘‘The Weightlifter Orans/Auit at Gaua (Self-Portrait with Blue Ribbon)

In “Portals / Double Portrait,” Navarroza juxtaposes two versions of herselfOn the left, she sports shiny blue pants and bold red heels, as if ready to disco; on the right, she is more subdued, wearing a long dress and holding her son on her lap. Their gazes meet. They confront one another—but, tellingly, do not compete. Neither version of herself is portrayed as larger, or above the other. Instead, there is balance.

Seismic changes over the past three years left Navarroza with a haze of questions as to who she was. This work, however, seems to symbolize a breakthrough—a poignant embrace of her richly complex, expanding self. Now, Navorroza believes that one can be both mother and artist.

“You’re still an artist until the day you die,” she shares. “Because that’s who you are. It’s your being.” She seems to speak to herself—but also, to a crowd of other mothers. Artists.

When Navarroza makes self-portraits, she channels not only her life, but the lives of other women and artists who have come before her. “It’s me showing up for all the others who also have gone through the same.” Women, she believes, are “so complex that we enter through the experiences of other women as well.” In this way, empathy is essential to her process.

And how does she do this? How does she enter through the lives of others in its most raw, visceral sense?

By “going back to the body.”

As she made “As Wild as We Come,” Navarroza suffered an autoimmune condition called Graves’ disease. It left her exhausted, demanding that she rest at every step of constructing her photographs. Hang the curtains. Lie down. Set up the lights. Lie down. Ready the camera. Lie down. Pose as the subject. Lie down. And then get up to care for her child.

“It was very surreal. I don’t remember how it was all done,” she says. She persevered by going beyond herself. She believed her work mattered — that it would help not only herself but others. She did it for her son. She did it for everybody. When she finally finished 10 pieces, she was in disbelief. “Wow, I actually made it?” she says, laughing.

“It was magical, and at the same time, almost a miracle.”

It was almost like witnessing a young Filipina lifting four times her weight up to the sky, giving the world a glimpse of heaven.