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Looking Out Is Looking In and Returning to Self for Artist Wawi Navarroza

by James Tana
Feb 13, 2023

( In Wawi Navarroza’s "Portals/Double Portrait (Self-Portraits)," she—herself as the usual subject of the works—faces another portrait of her carrying a child. A red curtain, adorned with flowers and ribbons, separates these two portraits into two seemingly different settings as suggested by the recognizable ‘80s and ‘90s Filipino floral blanket in one of the two backdrops. The said work illustrates the recent transformations in Navarroza’s life as she began her motherhood journey and while keeping on with her artistic practice.

It is included in the series As Wild As We Come, which was first shown at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London, United Kingdom. It is set to be exhibited through Silverlens, her home gallery, for the upcoming Art Fair Philippines 2023 at The Link in Makati City from February 17 to 19.

Portals by Wawi Navarroza
"Portals/ Double Portrait (Self-Portraits)" (As Wild As We Come, 2022) by Wawi Navarroza
PHOTO BY Courtesy of Silverlens

"It’s like a continuity of regeneration and this series has a lot to do with that from the transformation, from the unease, from all that conflict within that transformation, onto like the rebirthing. You know like a woman gets to be rebirthed as well when she becomes a mother. She’s not [only] giving birth to a child but she’s also giving birth to another aspect of herself, another layer of being a woman. Not that it’s a checklist that you have to be like in life," says Navarroza in an interview with

“[I] kind of like negotiating two sides of creativity. One creativity, making artworks, and [the] creativity of nurturing a child. Those are really loaded and this series kind of captures that transformative phase,” she elaborates.

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"And In a Moment We’re Almost Pure (lava rock garden suite)" (Dominion, 2011) PHOTO: Courtesy of Silverlens

Wawi Navarroza on Land, Landscapes, and Self-Portraits as Internalized Experiences

In 2011, a typhoon damaged Navarroza’s studio. The unfortunate incident was followed by a destructive fire that destroyed the same studio in Taguig back in 2016. These tragic events, forceful and perhaps violent, are obliterated in Navarroza’s photographs for her solo presentations Dominion (2011) and Medusa (2017), respectively.

"Whenever there’s something destructive that happens, to me it was externalized in material and in land, in geologic material. When your architecture has fallen, like when your architecture has been burned, what is this older, maybe something older can tell you the truth," she explains.

For Navarroza, she wants her works to speak of a kind of "triumphant faith" despite disastrous circumstances. In Dominion, she covered the lava rocks of the Mayon Volcano with a white cloth and turned its symbolic explosiveness into something serene and calm. The white cloth, in this case, could be a form of erasure, a symbol of surrender, or a burial of something—whichever that may help process a traumatic experience.


She shares that "[W]hen faced with a big landscape I always question, where’s my place in it? It’s kind of what happens when you’re looking at the panorama. You’re made to question your position in it. Landscape really is where you’re standing, where you are. In a way, it’s still a self-portrait because I was also trying to exercise other ways of making it that didn’t involve self-portrait."

Navarroza, who moves back and forth Philippines and Istanbul, makes references to Western history in her tropical landscapes as a way to examine and situate origins or establish juxtapositions and dualities, which is evident in Medusa where an image of man is "holding a marble. Well-polished marble and the title of that is tabula rasa and he looked like a dated figure like Michelangelo’s "David" figure but in a tropical sense," she narrates. 

Tabula Rasa by Wawi Navarroza
"Tabula Rasa" (Medusa, 2017) by Wawi Navarroza
PHOTO Courtesy of Silverlens
tabula rasa
PHOTO BY Gwen Bautista/ archives
Feast by Wawi Navarroza
"A Feast in the Forest" (Medusa, 2017) 
PHOTO BY Gwen Bautista/ archives
PHOTO BY Gwen Bautista/ archives

"The birth of Western culture and thought was shaped into marble, basically. So what is this marble doing in [our nation's] place?" a question she asked when she photographed the landscapes of Romblon Island. “[I]t’s not a memorial, it’s like this is a chance to write on your terms, it’s the tabula rasa (an empty slate),” referring to marble as a material used for a tombstone.


Also read: Unaverted Gaze: A Look at Wawi Navarroza’s Medusa

Directing the Gaze Back to Her Through her Own Gaze

"I never wanted my work to just entirely be auto-biographical," she says. "I am making a lot of self-portraits obviously using myself as the representation of real experiences, of lived experiences as a woman, as an artist, a Filipino, as Southeast Asian, as transnational."

The self-awareness of being photographed and deliberately photographing the self to embody the experiences of being a woman, to a degree, de-emphasize the male gaze in a very male-constructed machine like the camera. "I’m staging to serve the vision I have and not the other way around so there’s intentionality there and the scenography that I make is composition," she explains while noting that she’s both technician and her body is the medium of her works, that photography becomes secondary in her practice.

The Weightlifter by Wawi Navarroza
"The Weightlifter Orans / Auit at Gaua (Self-Portrait with Blue Ribbon)" (As Wild as We Come, 2022)
PHOTO Courtesy of Silverlens
Mouth of Pearls / Oryental & Overseas (Self-Portrait) (As Wild As We Come, 2022)
"Mouth of Pearls / Oryental & Overseas (Self-Portrait)" (As Wild As We Come, 2022)
PHOTO Courtesy of Silverlens Galleries

"I think my self-portraits have the quality of resistance about it. It’s in the spirit of defiance that I do it as [a] woman, as [an] artist… There’s always this photography that seems to me like freedom and a hindrance at the same time. I always have to battle with the medium."

Operating within the multiplicity of meanings, Navarroza’s photographs offer various entry points to access and understand them. “Do you want to enter through the material here, through the color, through the references I make? There are so many ways to get in,” she answers when asked about her own scenography or depiction of a scene in her landscapes and self-portraits.

She embraces all the tensions that may be depicted through her photos—the folk, the kitsch, the influences of the West and the East—and instead view them as the “collage of different places” without the exclusion of the present world that informs our personal and universal realities.

Homeing by Wawi Navarroza
"Homeing (Self-Portrait of a New Mother)" (As Wild As We Come, 2022)
PHOTO Courtesy of Silverlens

"The way I’m using photography is to bring real materials. You would know that this fabric is from Bali or this is the one I saw in Divisoria. This is the blanket that we used in the ‘80s. So these are actual material history that because of photography you get to develop that referencing in real-time." She continues, "Is this kitsch or am I decolonizing myself by going back to the real way I was brought up in the Philippines? This is our market, this is the color that I see."


"Do something whatever it takes to make it."

Navarroza, a keen observer of things, sees the design of life and living in a more “planetary” way now that she is a mother; perhaps the transformations, similar to her landscapes, take place and manifest both internal and external—as her own person and as an artist who has numerous finish lines to cross.

"You access parts of yourself that can really manage to arrange things, sort it out. Do something whatever it takes to make it. Apparently, I was able to do it. And I felt like I ran a marathon."

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Art Fair Philippines 2023 is from February 17 to 19, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at The Link, Parkway Drive, Ayala Center, Makati City. Tickets, which are available online, are P450. For more information, visit Art Fair Philippines' website.



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