An Interview with Stephanie Comilang: 2019 Sobey Art Award Winner
Dividing her practice between Toronto and Berlin, Filipina-Canadian artist Stephanie Comilang probes issues of dissolution, migration, mobility and labour in her experimental, documentary-based works. A graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, Comilang has exhibited globally, including at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Asia Art Archive in America (New York), SALTS Basel, UCLA, and the GHOST:2561 Bangkok Video and Performance Art Triennale.
Most recently, the 39-year-old was named winner of the 2019 Sobey Art Award, representing Ontario. In its announcement, the jury cited that it was “impressed by her ambitious practice which engages in a complex manner with what has been lost through colonization.”
In this interview with NGC Magazine, Comilang shares her journey into the art world, including the narratives she seeks to explore in her compelling science-fiction works.
NGC Magazine: How and when did you first become interested in art?
Stephanie Comilang: When I was young, I was into the same things that every kid my age was – TV, pop culture and music.
Around the age of 16 or 17, I found a VHS copy of Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977) in my parents’ basement. Tahimik is the godfather of independent cinema in the Philippines, and he happened to go to school with my father. They are both from the same city – Baguio, which is an old American military base. In the film, Tahimik explores growing up in this small town and being obsessed with NASA and outer space. At that point in my life, I had never seen this kind of film, or a person like Tahimik who was producing art like this. It was something I could relate to and look up to, and it set a precedent for the possibility of what I could make.
NGCM: How did you channel this inspiration into the production of your own films?
SC: I ended up going to art school, and after graduating, started touring with a musician and making music videos. From there, I made my first documentary, Children of the King, which was about children of Elvis impersonators and their experiences growing up (my father is an Elvis impersonator). I focused on countries in Asia where his pop stardom translated most – Thailand, Japan and the Philippines, which apparently have the most Elvis impersonators per capita. The resulting film was about American imperialism and familial relationships.
NGCM: You’ve expressed that your work is grounded in the concept of home. What is “home” for you, and how does the concept manifest itself in your work?
SC: My parents immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in the 1970s following political unrest caused by Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. I grew up in an environment where the home meant one thing and the outside world meant another. These ideas kept shifting in my head, and the concept of “home” ended up being something that I was always thinking about as a kid, as a teenager, and now, as an artist.
For me, art has to be really personal, and home is the only place I can start from as an artist. The things I naturally gravitate towards are ideas around diaspora and migration, and how immigrants and migrants create spaces for themselves.
NGCM: Two of your pieces were shown in a group exhibition for the 2019 Sobey Art Award at the Art Gallery of Alberta last year. Can you tell me about these works?
SC: The two works are part of a trilogy and both contain the character of Paraiso, or “Paradise” – a ghost or spirit played by a drone. Paraiso narrates both pieces and watches over the other characters in the films. The first, Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me Paradise), is a science-fiction documentary centered around three migrant workers in Hong Kong. The second, Yesterday in the Years 1886 & 2017, is about two Filipino migrants who both lived in Berlin, one in 1886 and one in 2017.
NGCM: Why were you inclined to use a drone, and to have your mother voice Paraiso?
SC: Drones have traditionally been used for military surveillance and war. I wanted to subvert this and give the drone human, female-like qualities through its movement and voice. The result is the viewer always looking at the world through the perspective of the drone. I also wanted to be able to control the camerawork myself without needing to hire an intermediate camera person. In the beginning, I wasn’t quite sure who would be voicing the drone. I live in Berlin part of the time, and my mother lives in Toronto. As she was helping me translate over Skype, it just clicked for me – it made sense that she would become the voice of Paraiso.
NGCM: What’s next for you?
SC: I’m currently working on a large-scale, collaborative exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Saskatchewan with my partner, Simon Speiser, based on pre-colonial ideas about female shamanism in the Philippines and Ecuador, where we are both from. We are working with VR, video installation and sculpture, and will be making our second trip to the Philippines and Ecuador this year. I am very excited about it. The exhibition opens in May 2020.
Nominations for the 2020 Sobey Art Award open 29 January 2020. Sobey Art Award 2019, jointly administered by the National Gallery of Canada and the Sobey Art Foundation, was hosted by the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton. Stephanie Comilang's exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina opens in May 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.