Julius Manapul’s Cabinet of Queeriosities
By Marissa Largo
The Cabinet of Queeriosities (2014) is a new body of work by Manila-born, Toronto-based visual artist Julius Poncelet Manapul. This exhibition took over first floor of the new art space Studio 386 (386 Ontario Street), and consisted of installation, sculpture, animation, digital collage, and mixed media, which looked at the artist’s experiences of sexuality, gender, and race in an age of globalization. The exhibition ran from June 21st to June 27th as an Affiliate Event of WorldPride 2014 Toronto. As a Filipina Canadian scholar and artist, curating this show allowed me to marry my interests in contemporary art criticism, Filipino Canadian Studies, and social justice education.
A central motif of this body of work is Manapul’s queer butterflies. Viewers are presented with seemingly innocuous images of lovely winged insects. However, upon closer inspection, the butterfly wings are digitally collaged using images of men’s bodies, comprised of human body hair, protruding veins, various tattoos, pierced nipples, semi-clenched hands, and faces of men in ecstasy. Most unexpectedly of all, the bodies of the butterflies are fashioned from disembodied penises stylized to resemble the insect’s anatomy.
This jarring juxtaposition is a distinctive visual strategy of Manapul. This seemingly absurd biological pairing of men’s bodies as butterflies belies our first impressions. What we eventually come to know is that these collaged images are culled from explicit gay sexual material from the Internet. They are ubiquitous images that are one Google search away, representing dominant representations of queer flesh as sexually available, commodified, and objectified. For Manapul, this explicit material is the perpetuation of homonormative representations, or in other words, narrow depictions of what being gay is and looks like.
“As an immigrant I had gone through tough experiences within the queer community that I apparently belong to, only to find myself on the fringe,” Manapul describes. “I claim my own identity through my art practice.” Through his art, he critiques these dominant Western representations of queerness, to which he does not identify.
“We need a shift from these representations and we need to challenge them. If we ignore these issues the queer community of colour will be rendered and remain invisible”, Manapul states about the social importance of this work.
The title of this exhibition is in reference to sixteenth and seventeenth European Wunderkammer. These cabinets of curiosities contained and displayed wonders from the natural world and human made artifacts, like works of art. These collections, often procured from colonial territories, represented the travels and tastes of European elites and were meant to educate its viewers. The cabinet of curiosities is widely attributed as the precursor to the modern museum, which even today carries the same colonial logics of collecting, categorizing, decontextualizing, and exhibiting for edification.
Manapul’s allusion to the historical collecting practices of colonial elites echoes the fetishization, exoticization, and idealization of particular queer bodies, as elevated in gay pornography. This is seen in his Butterfly Cloches, assemblages containing his queer butterflies perched on white-washed sticks. Some house Ken dolls – iconic pop cultural images of white masculinity – which demonstrate for Manapul “perfect specimens”, a dominant standard to which gay men are held. The glass cloche in horticulture is intended for the protection of plant life. Manapul ironically appropriates the cloche as a preservation and display technique to highlight these lifeless objects for what they really are: social and cultural constructions of gender and sexuality.
In the animation, Queerious Patterns, Manapul symbolically expresses his sexual identity as a diasporic, gay Filipino man. The opening scene of the animation consists of the queer butterflies statically arranged on a stark, white background in symmetrical formations, creating a radiating pattern. As the animation progresses, hints of life emerge as the butterflies begin to flutter their wings and finally take flight. Manapul’s ornamental aesthetic illuminates the ways in which categorization and containment of identities are elusive. These queer butterflies do not conform to the entomologist’s taxonomic classification; instead, they dance in synchrony and circle beyond the frame of the screen and gallery into infinity. Like the artist’s identity, they resist easy categorization and capture. These queer butterflies are literally impossible to pin down.
The Queerious Text Series further demonstrates Manapul’s interest in subverting perception and dominant representations through the ornamental. Curvilinear designs are cut from the same source material as the butterflies. Embedded within the lace-like designs are words that have pejorative provenance such as bakla (Tagalog term that describes homosexuality and effeminacy), bading (a more polite version of bakla), and other homophobic slurs in English. However, by ornamentalizing these words, Manapul subverts these potential sources of traumatic feelings and reclaims them as part of his own aesthetic. By refiguring them into decorative motifs, the words are remade and simultaneously serve as reminders of pain that looms in the shadows, but like rays of light that shine through, also communicate the possibility of hope and transformation.
Chiseled, white male mannequins inhabit two of the enclosed gallery spaces. Visible only through the vitrines, they are clothed in fantastical outfits composed of hundreds of intricately cut and assembled butterflies of various patterns and sizes. These Queerious Hybrids reinterpret various forms of dress influenced by Spanish colonial style and also indigenous regalia of the Ifugao, Cordillera, and Ati Peoples. The “butterfly sleeves” (which has a quite literal meaning in Manapul’s rendition) of a terno, are combined with aspects of the Barong Tagalog, along with a Maria Clara-inspired skirt silhouette. Here, Manapul disrupts the binaries of male/female, modern/traditional, and colonized/colonizer by creating hybrid iconography through dress. Hybridity, here is the hallmark, not only of Filipino culture, but also the artists’ creations and the artist himself.
A butterfly’s astounding life cycle from a lowly caterpillar to a colourful creature capable of flight makes it a common metaphor for transformation. Manapul’s investment in envisioning change comes from the belief that the world can be better for him as a gay Filipino man in the midst of normative standards and values that deny his existence. For him, art is a way of imagining transformation.
“For me, the butterflies seemed to invite the viewer to bring a particular kind of gaze that is both invasive, fearful, and anticipatory, while simultaneously interrogating one’s affective reaction. Part of the experience was as much an examination of my own normative assumptions as admiring the artistry that Mr. Manapul brought to each piece,” says visitor Eunice Chow, who attended the opening reception. “This is a must-see for those interested in art that undoes, disrupts, and challenges.”