Follow us!
© 2023 Spot.PH

Artist Yeo Kaa's Brutally Vibrant Works Hide an Unexpected Optimism

by Mia Rodriguez
Feb 15, 2023

( An overly helpful cab driver in Kyoto, Japan is the catalyst for Yeo Kaa’s Art Fair Philippines 2023 exhibit. How so? Well, you can chalk it up to serendipity and the artist’s own strength.

Yeo Kaa is known for her vibrant works of art; animated figures going about life in bright pinks, greens, blues, and whatnot—all with a sinister undercurrent. At first glance, her candy-colored world invites you into a whimsical fantasy, only to be greeted upon closer look by figures in the midst of violence or unabashed sexuality. Or sometimes they’re simply staring right back at you, a loaded blankness in their starry eyes.

artist yeo kaa seated at home with art works around
The artist at home surrounded by her own collection.
PHOTO BY majoy siason
yeo kaa art work
Spot several studies around the main living area. 
PHOTO BY majoy siason

You’ve likely seen the artist’s colorful works before, from Art in the Park to her 4,000-strong Instagram followers, plus fun commentary on the erm, quirks of society (read: a show entitled Buy This Painting So I Can Buy This Shit). Throw in accolades upon accolades into the mix and there’s no doubt Yeo Kaa’s works have viewers in its grip. And now she’s bringing all of that to the Art Fair’s return to The Link, only this time, buried in the brutal and bright imagery will be a rather unexpected sense of optimism.

Also read:
10 Artists to Watch at Art Fair Philippines 2023
Art Fair Philippines 2023 Goes Sustainable with Locsin and Partners

PHOTO: majoy siason

Flowers for Art Fair Philippines 2023

“Sa mahabang panahon, ayoko ng flowers. Hindi ko ma-gets kung bakit gandang-ganda ‘yung ibang tao sa flowers,” Yeo tells in a chat, one sun-filled afternoon in her equally bright San Juan studio. “Tapos naiinis ako sa mga tao, bakit nila gusto ng flowers? Anong meron?

The artist explains that that inability to see what others saw was the crux. She had spent most of 2021 in her own self-mandated (and partially government mandated) house arrest—leaving her home only to hang out with the neighbor’s kids. “Mga ano sila nung time na ‘yon, 11, 13, [at] 14, tapos nagalalaro lang kami lagi. Basta, alam mo yon, lagi mong kausap ‘yung mga bata tapos ang pinaka-problema lang nila school? ‘I dont wanna go to school anymore’ ganon, reklamo,” the artist shares.

watch now

At that point, she had also gotten off of Facebook and wasn’t speaking much to friends. Most of what she saw of the outside world was through her neighbor’s kids, and all the Korean content the eldest one had gotten her into. Though on a sidenote, she explains that she had always been into South Korean content, it just grew by a lot thanks to the kid. So she simmered that way at home for quite a while, reading books, watching films—until a turnaround in 2022 landed her in a Kyoto residency for two months.

Nagugulat nga ako sa sarili ko. Na parang ‘O sige, gagawin ko ‘tong mga bagay na ‘to kasi ibang tao na ako,’” she shares with a hint of well-deserved pride.

PHOTO: majoy siason

So it was in Kyoto that it happened. Yeo Kaa had actually wanted to go elsewhere—only she couldn’t seem to pin the exact location on her phone’s map, instead showing the cab driver the botanical garden on her phone, which just so happened to right beside where she was aiming. Yes, that kind soul we had mentioned at the beginning.

Nakatayo na ako sa may ticket [booth] kasi inaantay ko siya umalis, tapos inaantay nya ako bumili ng ticket. So ayon, ang ginawa nya, bumaba siya tapos binilhan niya ako ng ticket,” Yeo shares laughing. “So okay, e de papasok na lang ako.

So there are two thank you’s in order. The first goes to the cab driver who must have thought Yeo Kaa a hapless tourist, because otherwise the artist would have never realized that “Ang ganda-ganda pala niya.” For the first time in a long time, Yeo understood why it was that others valued flowers so much—not just for their beauty, but for their ability to grow as well. It was at that point in her life that she was able to look outside of herself and see what she couldn’t before.


Tsaka ko lang na-realize na pagka nasa mas masayang part ka ng buhay mo, makikita mo kung ano nakikita ng iba. Sabi ko ‘maganda nga pala talaga siya’. Dati para siyang may harang para sa akin na hindi ko makita... Ngayon na parang mas okay ako, nakikita ko na yung nakikita ng iba.

artist yeo kaa in studio sitting
In front of a wall of paintings that will soon be part of ArtFairPH 2023.
PHOTO BY majoy siason
yeo kaa artist seated at studio with dog
Meet Fakey, Yeo Kaa's constant companion and resident studio star.
PHOTO BY majoy siason
yeo kaa artist studio
Studio scenes.
PHOTO BY majoy siason

And so for ArtFairPH 2023, Yeo Kaa is bringing in flowers and the strength they signify. She has a whole lot of space, one she’ll be filling in with different media centering around her theme. Yeo Kaa’s signature world of bright and happy colors will be there, including a full wall’s worth of tiny paintings making one big one, a massive sculpture at the center, and even an interactive piece consisting of rows and rows of tiny doll heads, ceramic plants, and spray bottles full of paint—keep a closer eye out though, for while the colors and content speak of brutality, so too will that disjunction signal strength.


PHOTO: majoy siason

Growth takes strength

Yeo Kaa’s relationship with her brain started long before her relationship with art. Well, that is stating the obvious, but it points to the straightforward answer she has as to why she creates such happy looking art about uncomfortably raw topics—"Kasi mukha akong laging masaya, tapos sobra, sobrang sad ko na person.”

She was still in high school when she started going to a therapist after her mother found out she had been plucking her own hair—100 strands in the morning and another 100 at night, she recalls—landing her in the office of the so-called “Baliw doctor.” “20 years ago, wala namang mental health nun,” Yeo continues. Add in the fact that this was in the then close-knit community of Palawan’s Puerto Princesa City and there was a lot to contend with.

PHOTO: majoy siason

Even while she was attending undergraduate studies at the College of the Holy Spirit and after, it was a continuing battle. Where painting was concerned, realism, the more accepted style at her school then, was not it. “Hindi ako magaling,” the artists says cheekily, a statement we find hard to believe. It was when she was exposed to the works of artists like Picasso, and most especially during an internship where she was introduced to Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, that she realized realism was not the hard and fast rule—so she continued on.

All that led her to closing off in 2021, before eventually picking back up in Kyoto, right into the kind driver’s cab and off to the Botanical Garden.

Nakatingin ako sa salamin,” Yeo tells us after she got back to her place from the garden. Tears were involved, of course, and so was a much-needed realization. “...tapos sabi ko ‘Wow, ang galing. Buti na lang hindi mo pinatay sarili mo. Masaya ka na na buhay ka nga.’”

yeo kaa art work for art fair ph 2023
PHOTO BY majoy siason
yeo kaa art work for art fair ph 2023 close up
These paintings are from sketches kept in her diaries since 2011. You can even spot real life figures, such as her college socio prof who has helped her figure things out along the way.
PHOTO BY majoy siason
yeo kaa seated
Yeo Kaa also points out she is aware not everyone can simply up and change their environment. She is aware of the privilege she had when she attended the residency in Japan.
PHOTO BY majoy siason

It’s still an ongoing battle, the artist says. Perhaps a little easier now, but it’s never been a line that slopes straight upward. And this is where the second thank you comes in, for Yeo Kaa who continues on. “Akalain mo, hindi ko alam naabot ako dito na magiging okay ako. Na totoo nga lilipas lang siya. Siempre hindi naman siya nawawala, na cocontrol mo ng kahit papano, kaya siya lahat naging flowers, kasi nag-go-grow siya. Kaya siya stronger.”

There is a lot of talk about the tortured type of artist; that pain, violence, tragedy, are what speaks most to a viewer. On some level, this rings true for the works of Yeo Kaa, with an in-your-face delivery that arrests you with a brutal honesty, yet it also stands as a testament to the strength of its maker. Despite the hard truths and origins of her works, Yeo Kaa is still here, continuing on—and so are you. You may want to sometimes thank yourself for just that.

Photos by Majoy Siason.

Also read:
Boredom Transports Artist Pow Martinez Into a Ridiculous But Authentic World
Artist Faye Abantao Dwells on Collective and Personal Memories
Looking Out Is Looking In and Returning to Self for Artist Wawi Navarroza

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. 


More Videos You Can Watch

Latest Stories

Load More Stories