Matt Manalo talks art, identity, and the future of expression in the United States
“So what are you doing when you’re not working on a project?”
“Oh gosh, hmm. Sleeping?”
For an artist like Matt Manalo, producing art is “full time” in a new sense of the term. He admits his projects sometimes even seep into his dreams. And with young children at home, art projects are a great way to pass the time. I hear his two-year-old son chortling in the background.
Born in Manila, Philippines, in 1984, Matt moved to Houston with his family in 2004 and has been living in the States since. He describes the cultural transition as smooth, given that the Philippines is heavily influenced by the United States. However, he suddenly became exposed to new cultures and cuisines. He discusses his realization that, despite the borders that divide us, we are all of the same planet, and therefore unavoidably connected.
His philosophy is therefore in line with the ideas presented by polyculturalism. Matt was raised Catholic, and in studying the history of that religion noted that both Islam and Christianity originated from Judaism:
“We all serve one God.”
For that reason, Matt doesn’t see the point in engaging in islamophobia. Colliding cultures are everywhere—“you can especially see it with food.”
Matt derives a great deal of inspiration from graffiti, as well as the natural decay of objects from Manila. In fact, a great deal of his work explores the themes of place and home. Recently, he has been exploring the concept of the white-washing of cultures. Because he has been living in the US for so long, he’s been slowly losing his language of origin. The process begins when you begin to forget a word here and there. As someone who has had to work diligently to preserve my native Portuguese, I can relate.
However, Matt did not find his path to art easily. In Manila, he pursued computer engineering. His parents pressured him to become a nurse once they moved to the States, but at some point,
“I told myself, you know what? I’m in America. There are a lot of opportunities. I want to do art.”
Matt graduated with a Bachelors in Fine Arts in Painting with a minor in Art History at the University of Houston, and now produces art full time.
I ask him about one work in particular, a project in black that says “Made in the Philippines.” It stood out to me because of the use of language, which he uses sparingly in his art. Matt tells me it is a sort of self-portrait, and a reminder to himself to not forget his origins. The shape of the material is imperfect, which was not a mistake: “I wanted to just let it happen, however it dried.”
He considered keeping “Made in the Philippines” in white (it’s constructed from paper pulp). However, he chose to paint it black as a symbol of activism within the arts. He observes that the art world is dominated by white artists, leaving little space for artists of color.
Matt is actively tackling the issue of under-representation of persons of color within the art world. He’s part of a group of artists that have developed a space of mutual empowerment and support.
Matt’s sense of purpose is strong. I ask him what he feels is his responsibility as an artist: “To always question.” He states. Then adds,
“Artists are always historians.”
Throughout history, artists have documented their realities, dating all the way back to the cave drawings discovered at sites like Lascaux, in France. Artists have a responsibility to narrate history. The deeper objective behind this, explains Matt, is for humankind to learn from past mistakes.
However, Matt notes, with no less conviction, that this will become more difficult in the United States, given recent plans to cut art funding and threats to freedom of expression. The duty of American artists has perhaps never been more imperative.