My name is Matt Manalo. I'm an artist based in Houston, Texas. I'm also a community organizer. I founded the Filipinx Artists of Houston, and I also run an alternative art space called the Alief Art House. Filipinx is basically the word that we are using to have inclusivity in our community from basically anyone who identifies themselves as Filipino, Filipina, and other genders.
I moved here in 2004, and when I had left Manila, I was already in college, and I was pursuing computer engineering. It wasn't the greatest. I felt it wasn't for me, and maybe I should think about another profession. I sought advice from my family, and they suggested that I should go into nursing. I did for two years, that didn't work out. I sit down with my parents, and I had to tell them that I wanted to switch to fine art. so around 2006, that's when I decided to get into the arts and get my education in that. Then in 2011, that's when I graduated with a bachelor's of fine arts and a minor in art history in painting at the University of Houston.
I've worked several jobs in the museum, doing install, doing some grunt work, security work, being a ghost painter. Finally, I decided to be a full-time artist and be working for myself, have my studio at home, and then building community through the Filipinx Artists of Houston and through the art house.
I mainly work in mixed media. I collect a lot of materials and, in a way, collage them to a single piece. I always try to include elements of drawing, photography, printmaking, and sculpture in them. My current work is, it also gives into the whole idea of breaking bread and being inviting. But at the same time, exposing some truths, ugly truths from history. Because I work in different materials, I have objects—and these are objects that are either made in the Philippines or use materials from the Philippines. I have a vintage placemat that was woven in the Philippines, and it was given to me by a good friend that I decided to reclaim and embroidery it with words that say "Not Your Brown Brother" on it.
I have two hardwood chairs, which my family and I brought from the Philippines when we moved here. But I started to carve on them and add encaustic wax on them as well, on the surface. There was a response to that poem by Mark Twain, which was a satirical essay titled, "To the Person Sitting In Darkness." it's those two chairs that are contrasting to each other. Then on top of the words that I etched out of the seat, then I put the encaustic wax on top of them. Inviting, but not.
A lot of my work act as a self-portrait, because I'm always identifying and researching about what the Filipino identity is. A lot of it talks about colonialism, being a victim of colonialism, having a colonial mentality as an effect of that. Then coming out of that, also trying to look back into pre-colonial history and how, I guess now we're trying to bring that back into our society, that wisdom and knowledge that we've used before we were colonized by Spain and the US.
I'm mostly focusing right now on the traditional way of tattooing, which was called batok. When Spain first came into the Philippines, they were surprised to see that everyone was basically tattooed from head to toe. We were called "Pintados." every pattern that was seen or that was tattooed on every citizen basically told them about their identity. That talks about their origin or their families or where their family originated from. It talks about their profession as well. To me, the whole idea of having like, your family tree basically tattooed on your body and what the body means, it brings so much excitement for me. I decided to also get a batok on myself.
One of the museums here in Houston, the Menil Collection, I was walking in there, and I decided to walk into their artifacts wing. It's in the museum that has always been familiar to me. But for some reason, once I started looking more into, there was a piece there that stood out, but it was a print of a Filipino covered in tattoos. , you know, his history or his story was basically, you know, he was from an Island in Mindanao, and he was brought to Europe as a slave, and he was shown like, in a human zoo. he was basically being exotified because of his tattoos and his—or the different language that he spoke, or his looks.
Unfortunately, he died with smallpox after a few months of being in Europe. Then they decided to skin him or take his skin off and display it in Oxford. I reached out to the Menil. Originally, I didn't get a response, but then I was already able to get in touch with their curator, and they want to do some programming around that artifact. Yeah, and I was super excited in finding it out, you know, that it existed there, because being a Filipino in Houston is, I don't know, strange, because Houston doesn't have a revolutionary moment in its history, like, the grape workers or the Delano strike in California for Filipinos in Houston, it's mostly professionals. We don't have anything to ground ourselves from other than not a festival in Houston where they brought Filipino natives and displayed them a human zoo, the ones that they did at St. Louis World Trade Fair. We as Filipinos here in Houston, we're trying to find something where it would — grounding ourselves as a community here.
Social practice hasn't always been a part of my art practice. It didn't start until last year when I founded Filipinx Artists of Houston. It's mainly a creative space in the community, organized for Filipinos, Filipinos and Filipin Xs who are looking for community and a sense of place to be creative here in Houston.
I had a conversation with Bridget Bray of Asia Society of Texas from an opening where they were showcasing Filipinx artists from different States. Around this time, I was meeting with Bridget, and we were having conversations about what it is, what does it mean to be a Filipino or Filipinx artist here in Houston. Then almost at the same time last year as well, I was also starting my Project Freeway Fellowship with DiverseWorks. The whole fellowship is basically about building an art project within different neighborhoods of Houston. So I chose Alief. That's also known to be the most diverse district here in Houston. It's also where I reside.
The Alief Art House is basically a communal space for artists or creatives, or anyone basically who wants to approach or communicate creatively. It's mainly for artists who reside or make work or have deep connections to Alief, which is a district here in Houston. DiverseWorks is an amazing arts organization here in Houston. It is run by five amazing women who are doing a lot of great stuff for the city, especially for artists. They put the artist first, you know, in terms of needs and making sure that the artists get gets paid and making sure that they're also getting a lot of other opportunities after fellowships or other projects that we've done with them.
I even talked about it on my last common field session on how Houston was a good place for an artist to be at because of where they're at, and, you know, there's funding, there's community, there's culture, but now that that's going to be a problem, what are the art institutions going to do to be able to support themselves? For me, you know, because I also run an art space and focusing on the live community, I feel in a way there's a silver lining to that. If you want to be progressive and you have to focus on where you're getting your money from because for myself, I'm not getting any funding. I mean, at the moment from fellowship, yes, but then to be able to run the space completely independently from all the things that we think is not good, is also paving the pathway for a more progressive approach into programming and how to be able to support other artists in the community.
An ideal future for me would be able to build a community that is able to sustain itself creatively and in ways where spaces are provided for everyone and by everyone, meaning people with disabilities, people who are immigrants, who are black indigenous people of color, people of different genders. Basically, a completely inclusive community that's able to sustain itself creatively. That would be the future that I am dreaming of.
I feel with my personal work, I'm making that for myself, from my own research and from my own—to satisfy that voice inside my head, because it is also my personal work and my way of decolonizing myself. that that's where my community, the Filipino Artists of Houston comes along and having a space the Alief Art House, you know, comes along as well, because with the Filipinx Artist of Houston, we're also trying to collaborate with other communities and not only with Filipinos and mainly Filipinos, but we're also trying to collaborate and do projects together and how we can together fight problems racism or transphobia, or homophobia. Especially for undocumented folks. Then for the art house, you know, basically providing a space, even for folks, you know, not being judgmental of where folks are in their career, being able to have a space where they can promote, or they can express their creativity with the guidance of a community that already exists around it.
Those are the two things that will achieve or help achieve that feature that I dream of. Before this whole pandemic happened, I was trying to work with local high schools within Alief and try to showcase like, whoever was going above and beyond homework in art classes, and be able to start that conversation of is art a career that you're looking into, and you're having problems with trying to convince your parents, you know, thing.
I'm trying to be a mentor in a way because I also have the backing of some art institutions here in Houston. Being able to be a source of guidance is one of the goals of the Art House and being in the community we're in right now. It's important that we dig into something that we're passionate about or a conversation that we've been having that we haven't had any type of courage to bring out.
I wanted to have an art space in Alief and, you know, I'm not a great writer either. Being able to reach out to some friends and see like, you know, having conversations basically, and then maybe help them look over whatever your application is, then go for that. Because it's always good to look outside of ourselves and seek guidance on a lot of things, you know, even like, if it's an art application or if you want a project done.
Anything personal is always the best way to express ourselves, because if it's not personal, then you know, that thing is going to exhaust itself quickly. I'm speaking from experience. I've done work that didn't speak to me at all, and I've quickly had to paint over them right away. It's the most that I've struggled with, but when it was something personal, you know, I knew the story. I know what I'm talking about, so my art comes up easily.