Kuh Del Rosario talks about building roots, trust, and an artist residency in Poblacion Batan, Aklan, Philippines.
CARFAC BC Board Member Kuh Del Rosario recently moved to Poblacion Batan, Aklan, Philippines to launch Elmo’s House Artist Residency—“a contemporary art project designed to connect Philippines, Canada and the rest of the world through the sharing of ideas and creative resources.”
Kuh has been organizing events and curatorial projects throughout Vancouver, BC for the past fifteen years. She helped establish a vibrant community within Dynamo Arts Association’s relocated studio, an artist-run space she co-managed from 2011-2014. Now, Kuh brings her strengths in community organizing to Elmo’s House “with the goal of fostering cultural exchange and dialogue with lasting impact between local residents and visiting artists.”
In this interview, she chats with CARFAC BC Membership & Programs Coordinator Elizabeth Ellis over Skype about the process of setting up the residency and how, in a way, it has become an extension of her own artistic practice.
Can you help us imagine where you are now?
The house is situated in the middle of the town centre. Batan is a town made up of twenty barangays, which are little villages. When you look out of the front gate there is the plaza, and across the plaza is the town hall. My dad’s house, which has been converted to the residency, is actually taller than the municipal building—we are the tallest building in this town. Our location and heft of the building creates for an uncanny presence in the town. This gives us visibility without even trying.
The house started off as a modest bungalow built in the 60’s by my grandfather. It used to be a bi-level, and over the years my dad has built onto it. And you can do that here: you can just build as you go. It’s kind of a really peculiar house that my dad has imagined. The house is mostly cement with little pebbles embedded in the walls, along with some bricks. Hardly any paint was used, making for a very stark environment. It’s weird and almost castle-like [laughs].
In reality, this house belongs to my dad, his brothers, and their children. I look at myself as the present keeper of this legacy.
I can hear the roosters in the background…
What else…we’re surrounded by water. There are lots of rice paddies and mangroves (halophytes). Mangroves are huge root systems of trees that can survive with saltwater or soil. They protect the land from typhoons and really strong winds. With the last couple of typhoons in 2013 and 2014, a lot of the mangroves were destroyed, so there has been a big effort to replant them. It’s beautiful to see all these rows of mangroves sprouting right on the beach. You don’t have to try to make things grow here. Water here brings life.
You note on your site that Elmo’s House is the first residency program in this region. How has it been received so far by the community?
Well, what is being felt the most is all these foreign faces. It seems people are very curious about what we are doing. They ask if we are vacationers and that's when I have the opportunity to explain what we are doing here. I'm not sure it's clear since this concept is pretty new here, but I am sure over time people will understand they are part of the bigger picture. The people are what make this place so beautiful.
I was born in Manila and moved to Calgary with my mom when I was eight, so I am still discovering this place almost through the eyes of the artists that come here. I am the mediator; I have connections here that I can use to assist artists with, in terms of sourcing materials and things like that. My Tagalog is also getting really good. But other than that, 2017 is a time for me to discover these things as well.
The first artists that came here, Tsēma Skubovius and Jonathan Igharas…they were super energetic and open. We would often find artisans and craftspeople while commuting between towns, because a lot of activity is set up along the highway. It was just a matter of keeping our eyes peeled and also not being shy about asking around: “we need your business, can we build this relationship?” That was a great way to engage with the locals and start the interaction.
With Elizabeth McLean, who was here for a month, it was more about interacting with people on a day-to-day basis. She would go to the wet market everyday to break up the work day. She would get her daily fruits and pastries, and through this simple ritual, faces slowly became familiar and people got to know her. Once you get to know the vendors and start to buy from them exclusively, that relationship is called suki. That is a really important relationship that you build with your community, because it is built on trust—you will give them consistent business, and they will give you their best product or deal. And that trust creates rapport. It’s really about this slow learning about each other, which was a nice reciprocal act that she was doing.
In terms of long-term goals to connect with community, what I was envisioning when I was in Vancouver was to find artisans willing to come into the studio to teach us what they do. So far, people that I have asked have been super hesitant and don’t want to do it, especially in front of foreigners. I think those things will come after we have been here for a long time and people are a little bit more receptive to those relationships. I definitely want to dispel that apprehension, especially here in a small town where people aren’t used to seeing people from other parts of the world walking around in their neighbourhoods—or when they are, they are tourists. It’s a really palpable separation, and what we are trying to do here is take that separation away. So, I think it is just about time.
Kind of like suki—the day-to-day building of trust.
In some ways, that is exactly what I have to do. But the trust will build over time. Trying to integrate with the community during this first year will certainly help with that. It’s about being consistent and letting people know that I’m here, and eventually people will be comfortable enough to ask,“hey what is this thing you are doing?” It’s just about building roots here and facilitating an exchange of knowledge and skills. Everything will come in time. This place has done a great job teaching me about patience and peace of mind that everything always works itself out.
What prompted you to start Elmo’s House?
Well, there were so many factors in deciding to embark on this project. My dad has said—and I don’t know how true this is now [laughs]—that he has added onto this house in anticipation of me coming home and living with him. This was his vision of what an artist studio would be. So the intention, has been for me as an artist to come and work here. This project is certainly helping realize his vision and then some.
My dad and I are still in the process of getting to know each other. Since moving to Calgary, I’ve only been back a handful of times about every four or five years. So when my dad’s health started declining in these last few years, I really wanted to figure out how to continue growing the relationship in a more meaningful way.
The only thing I could do to in order to put these important elements of my life together was to build an artist residency. That’s what made the most sense. This way, I am facilitating a new way of contributing to the arts community, while engaging with the culture I hope to connect with. I will try and achieve all of this while living in the same neighbourhood as my father, giving us the opportunity to nurture our relationship. I’m also utilizing this house that has never truly realized its purpose until now. In between artists, I’ve slotted some time to nurture my own practice, to think and create in the studio.
It sounds like there are a lot of parallels with this project and your own art practice.
Yes. I haven’t been working in the studio, but this process of setting up the house and supporting other artists seems to be part of my work right now. There are so many of my dad’s things still left here. I’m tending to his things, like his library that has been overrun with termites. Taking care of that is a way of getting to know my dad without even talking to him—like looking through all these books and titles and all the things he has decided to keep. It’s definitely a process I didn’t quite envision, but it’s becoming really beautiful. Learning to communicate with each other has been quite a challenge, so this has become a really important way for me to connect with my father.
I imagine the house actually looking a lot like your artwork. Layers stacked together, things embedded in the walls…
Well, the thing is that it reminds me so much of my work! And that’s one of the things that compelled me to come here in the first place. There is so much commonality between how I deal with materials and how my dad deals with materials. He collects these rocks from all over the world…
..and places them into the bricks.
Yeah, and it’s just like, oh my gosh, he is my father, and I am his daughter. And no matter how much we collide, it’s just more evidence of why I need to know more about him. Our connection has transcended the distance between us. I am in search of unfolding this mystery for my own sake and my art. And all these things are important and they are somehow intersecting, and with artists being here, it’s added another layer of depth to this whole process.
Kuh has been living in Poblacion Batan, Aklan since February and officially opened Elmo’s House to artists in April 2017. For more on Kuh’s work visit http://kuhdelrosario.com/, and to learn more about Elmo’s House Artist Residency visit http://www.elmoshouse.org/ or follow along @elmoshouse_artistresidency.
Images were provided by Kuh Del Rosario, and used with generous permission.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.