Queering Gender: Exploring the expanses of identity in Club Ate’s Ex Nilalang

Written by K Hayward

Figure 1: Club Ate (2015) Jai Jai Balud, Ex Nilalang [Production still]. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti 2015 Phasmahammer website, accessed 11 July 2022. http://phasmahammer.com/exnilalang

Figure 2: Jai Jai Balud, Club Ate (2015) Ex Nilalang – Lolo ex Machina [video still], Phasmahammer website, accessed 11 July 2022. http://phasmahammer.com/exnilalang

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Hayward P (2018) ‘Scaled for Success: The Internationalisation of the Mermaid’, John Libbey & Company, Limited, United Kingdom.

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This essay explores the notions of gender identities and queerness beyond the western colonial structures. Given the breadth of this topic, this essay will discuss the series of filmic portraits Ex Nilalang (2015 – ongoing) by artists Bhenji Ra and Justin Shoulder, who are together known as collective Club Ate. I first look at how the artists use decolonisation to overturn oppressive notions regarding gender and queerness. I then discuss how they explore the concept of hybridity and intersecting identities. I will go on to discuss the emphasis on importance of community. This essay concludes by investigating how club ate utilises their practice and mediums to challenge the dominant white cis heterosexual narratives and look at what lies beyond them. Queer in these works is a broader concept not simply a sexual identity but as a challenging of binaries and heteronormative structures (Antoinette 2017).

I want to quickly disclose my personal positionality as I believe transparency is important. I am a white queer Australian person currently residing and undertaking study on the unceded lands that belong to the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin nation.

In Ex Nilalang the artists challenge colonial narratives present in mythologies and illuminate precolonial notions of gender and sexuality reclaiming tales and creatures. In the first filmic portrait Balud, the artists explore the mythos of the Manananggal, a creature described as a hideous vampiric woman who detaches from the lower half of her body and sprouts bat wings (Ramos 1971 cited in Antoinette 2017). Balud examines the other dimensions of this monster. The portrait opens with scenic shots of the Philippine Island of Leyte and of the community, where children are singing and dancing. After these peaceful shots, we are shown what seems to be the aftermath of disaster, wrecked homes and destruction. This the result of the tragic super typhoon Yolanda that hit the Philippines in 2013 (BBC 2013). The film suddenly cuts to a closeup of a fabulous creature. Her skin is blue and sparkling, she has long dark hair and decorative beaded earrings hang from her ears. The camera zooms out revealing her large lace like wings and the absence of her lower half. Her shimmering beauty contrasted by her sadness as she performs the song Balud, a local Waray song of mourning, she expresses sorrow for her lost half. At the end of the portrait the camera pans out again revealing an audience of children that watch the performance in the run-down outdoor setting, a wall in the background bears a fading slogan reading “I [heart] Tacloban”. Here the Manananggal, portrayed by Jai Jai a performer from Tacloban, embodies a glamourous empathetic creature which is a stark contrast to the horrific ugly monster in the folklore.

The artists explain that the folklores ties with colonial propaganda (Antoinette 2017).  Spanish colonisers threatened by women’s sexual liberation and high regard for non-binary and trans people in turn created stories to demonise them. Historically, notions of gender and sexuality were more relaxed in Southeast Asia. Pre colonisation, same sex relationships, transgender people, non-binary identities and women in positions of power, were not absent concepts in the region and have been documented taking place (Lenzi 2015). Like the practice of Babaylan shamanism which considered a primarily considered feminine occupation was not restricted to female-sexed individuals (Inton 2015). The artists fight the oppressive narrative decolonising the mythos embracing pre-colonial notions. Feminine and queer coded elements of lace and glitter are used to decorate the Manananggal The creature is empathetic, her emotional performance revealing her not to be a two-dimensional monster and it draws in the island children who are not shown to fear her but to listen to her song with open curiosity. Club Ate takes the Manananggal, a figure created to demonise women and transgender people after colonisers encountered a way of life different from their own and transforms the narrative. Nilalang has a dual meaning it means both to create and creature. This reflects the work being a reimagining of existing mythologies and the creation of new ones (Phasmahammer n.d). Club Ate explore a deeper newer empathetic mythology reclaiming a tool of oppression and reimagining it as a figure of empowerment and connection to culture.

Ex Nilalang acknowledges that gender is a concept interwoven with many other aspects, facets of identity do not exist in a vacuum and this series explores the complexities of these intersections. In the third episode Lolo Ex Machina, artist Justin Shoulder performs as a jeepney/ Sarimanok creature that traverses a jeepney yard after dark. The creature has a square silver head with headlights for eyes, a body covered in ‘feathers’ made of plastic, balloons and other refuse materials, and it wears a cape made of silver tinsel. This chaotically colourful creature a trademark of Shoulder’s practice, in which he has created a series of fantastic creatures and works with reclaimed materials. This jeepney spirit is deliberately crafted, the mechanical elements are cohesive with the bird body the neon and metallic feathers travel up to speckle the sides of the creatures’ head while the silver cape flows down tinsel mimics the flow of the feathers harmoniously. This conscious cohesion in design signifies that this creature is not simply elements cut and pasted together but an imagination of a new being. Part jeepney referencing the iconic transport of the Philippines, vehicles abandoned after US occupation taken by the people of the Philippines and repurposed into transport vehicles mirrored in Shoulders use of refuse material (Antoinette 2017).

The jeepney also has personal connections for the artist as his Lolo, grandfather, was a jeepney driver in the Philippines. The birdlike aspect of the creature is in reference to the Sarimanok a colourful rooster-like bird regarded by the indigenous Maranao people as a medium of the spirit world that bring good fortune (Madale 1997 cited in Antoinette 2017).

This episode is layered as Shoulders performance and practice, originating from his experience in queer performance spaces (QAGOMA 2018), is used as a medium to connect to family lineage and in making that connection explores cultural heritage. Bhenji Ra states:  

as a trans person I can't talk about my transness without firstly also talking about my Filipino cultural heritage and I can't talk about being Filipino without also talking about decolonization and I can't talk about decolonization without also talking about capitalism and I can't talk about that with that talking about climate change so there's actually so much that goes on in our own and our own identities (Creative Time 2019).

Aspects of identity cannot be separated; each aspect informs another gender and queerness are present in every other aspect just as the other aspects effect one's notion of gender and queerness.

The presence of support systems such as family and community play an important role for an individual being able to explore and grow their identity and the existence of groups are essential in standing up against the current systems of oppression. The series acknowledges the importance of community, for both artists community is integral to their practice, this value is appreciated in the artwork and in its creation. In Balud the connection between the reclaimed mythological symbol and the island community showed decolonisation reintegrating marginalised figures. Lolo Ex Machina explores the connections of culture and heritage, significant for the artists identities as members of the Philippine diaspora. The second episode views the importance of chosen family and the empowerment provided by queer communities and spaces. In Dyesebel, see Figure 3, the second episode of Ex Nilalang we are shown a trio of siren/mermaid creatures as they interact in an aquatic utopia. The mermaids are dressed in long sheer gowns that flow in the water, they wear dazzling silver crowns and ornate pearl pasties, have soft pink makeup and pearlescent manicures. They frolic in their watery world illuminated by colourful lights; they admire themselves and each other. This portraits mythology is based on mermaid stories such as the little mermaid and the tv show of the same name as the episode Dyesebel, originally a comic book, a story of a half mermaid half human struggling to find her place in either world (Hayward 2018). This story is likened to the experience of transgender women in urban Philippines Ra performs as Dyesebel while two friends of Ra’s from Manilas trans nightclub scene, Love Mari and Love Kaori, perform as the other two siren-mermaids (Antoinette 2017).

This portrait is full of light and colour, is uplifting and depicts the notion of queer family and the spaces of the queer nightclub scene as beautiful utopias. Beyond depicting the beauty of these connections in the art, the artists focus on the cultivation of connection within their practice as well. For both artists, community is naturally apart of their practice, Bhenji Ra is a dance and body cantered artist involved in the voguing style of dance, a style that originated in the black gay and trans Harlem ballroom scene, while Justin Shoulder is a performance artist that started work in Sydney nightclubs (QAGOMA 2018). The collective Club Ate formed in 2015 after the two artists met in a nightclub in 2014. Ate meaning big sister in Tagalog, the artists describe the collective as a performance community created to celebrate the work of people of colour (O’Hara 2016). The artists centre their communities’ voices, Ex Nilalang is filmed in the Philippines and the work is created in collaborations feature other queer and Filipino artists (Phasmahammer n.d). This commitment to their communities is part of their goal to ‘reformulate kinship in ethical, non-violent ways’ (Phasmahammer website n.d).

Through Ex Nilalang’s episodes the artists prove how expansive the notions of gender identities and queerness really are. The series Ex Nilalang explores the complexities of queer identities of the Filipino diaspora through the framework of mythology (Phasmahammer n.d). The intersections that the artists explore is a queering of the concept of identity, exploring identity as ‘always under negotiation and transformation’ moving through time and national boundaries (Antoinette 2017). The politicisation of the body has meant that the act of a queer person’s existence becomes a political statement (QAGOMA 2018). Deviation from the “norm” is seen by society as an explicit stance, this series in contrast explores inherent queerness in past, present and future narratives. Club Ate prove that the dominating cis white heterosexual societal ideals have only been enforced recently and that exploration of identity takes many forms. The art itself is designed to queer the constraints of the art institution. Video medium has the ’potential to suspend the physical realm and become something completely new’ (QAGOMA 2018).

The initial three works were commissioned by QAGOMA for the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial, but these works will not stay on a wall in a museum behind closed doors. This video series has the potential to be viewed beyond the galleries and its structure as a series has meant the work is generative, a fourth episode From Creature to Creation, see Figure 4, commissioned by ACMI and Blacktown Arts Centre in 2017. The work challenges oppressive structures and positions itself in a world beyond it is a window to a queer expanse.  

Artists Bhenji Ra and Justin Shoulder explore the idea of gender identities and queer identity through the architecture of mythologies. They deconstruct colonial demonisations of the feminine and queer exploring the notions of precolonial southeast Asia. They acknowledge that aspects of identity are intersecting and constantly negotiating with each other and that facets of a person do not exist in a vacuum. The artists forefront their communities, as a collective, in their creative process, and in the final artwork. As community creates space that nurtures exploration and expression. In these fantastical portraits they share with us a queer view of the expanses that come with the notion of identity. Encouraging a radical togetherness to ultimately challenge the systems of patriarchal cis white heteronormativity which are holding back humanity.