“Is This How You See Me?:” Conversations with Painter Mek Yambao in Her Studio
A case of (literal) self-introspection
A graduate of Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting at the University of Santo Tomas, Mek Yambao considers herself a more traditional painter. She is best known for using wood as her medium, after all. She paints in layers of oil media incorporating the wood grain of the panel and laces it with surreal drawings; it’s honest-to-God breathtaking.
Her first job out of college was actually restoring paintings. She worked on a Botong Francisco mural for 4 months and considered it a steady job (though tedious). The time she spent “rubbing the canvas with a huge cotton bud” was not futile. There, she realized that she would rather make the painting that people would restore in the future—than do the restoring. She also picked up wood as a medium from her director who educated her regarding its longevity.
Her studio is a personal museum of beloved—and forgotten—mementos. Here you’ll see splatters of dried paint tucked away in every crevice, an abundance of fancy acrylic paint, a vivid poster of Star Wars, a book about Guillermo del Torro, a quirky graphic novel by David Mazzucchelli and ironically a Kindle, too. She displays one wooden painting board after the other. I ask if she’s ever mistakenly dipped her paintbrush in her tea cup; she hasn’t. (Did I mention the puppies? God bless ‘em.)
For Mek, the most noteworthy pieces in her studio include her stack of old sketchbooks—time capsules from yesteryear. She looks at it from time to time to read about ideas put in the back-burner. Her postcards and posters are acquired from all over the world—vital to the energy of her space. She also has a pile of used paper palette sheets to see the variations and development of color palettes she’s used throughout the years. Like a kid in a toy store when going to different art shops, she gets sentimental about using her *special* brushes.
At the very corner of the room stands atop a painting on a canvas pad of her beau; she is very happy. She shares, “It’s special for several reasons. I made it at a time when I was feeling burnt out; it rekindled the joy of painting for me. It’s also the first male painting and forward-facing portrait that I’ve made. Funnily enough, I painted this before I met him. When he flew over to visit me last June, it became more special. It’s undeniably gorgeous and I still get kilig when I look at it.”
Is This How You See Me?
Her second solo exhibit Is This How You See Me highlights how we modify ourselves to feel accepted or desirable to the public. It features 7 paintings of mirror selfies—of herself and friends—capturing the exact moment when we look at ourselves in the mirror. It opens on July 27 until August 16 at Metro Gallery in San Juan. We sat down with Mek to know more about it.
Wonder: Your second exhibit is called “Is This How You See Me?” Can you talk to us about it?
Briefly, it’s about how much people modify themselves before presenting to anybody. [Why I started] working with wood is ‘cause I feel like textures, layers and how people present themselves have been constant in my life. I [was] born with a skin condition—you probably didn’t notice. It’s a very rare genetic skin condition but it doesn’t show in photos or anything. I feel like my whole life I tried to ignore it.
W: So, when you started with wood as a medium, did you already have these thoughts?
Parang I kinda knew na, at the back of my head, but it’s not something I was comfortable talking about yet. It was a journey for me to start actually working with this idea, that I started to execute it. Now I feel like it’s time that I actually should be visible. There’s nothing shameful about it especially now that the standards of beauty [are] being challenged anyway. I know a lot of people who struggle with skin conditions, but we never really felt allowed to talk about it because it’s always passed up as a “cosmetic problem.” Oh, it’s “nothing,” but the truth is it really affects the lives of people greatly. I’ve been at peace with it for a long time but there [is] still a part of me that is not comfortable talking about it. I just forget that it exists, until someone asks me.
W: Is it more difficult for you to be the subject of your work then?
I think I draw energy from painting myself and using my body as a subject. It’s the subject I’m most familiar with and I get to inspect it all around. Practically, my body is the easiest form of reference.
W: You mentioned that this was not the original theme of your exhibit. What was it then?
There are a lot of things that I want to do but it’s more interesting for me to do them [at] the right time. My original show was supposed to be last March; back then I was in the headspace of dating. It was mostly about how those things go, especially when it’s long-distance; maybe I can do it for the future. I have a lot of concepts where it doesn’t feel like they’re baked, so I just put it in the back-burner.
W: Where do you draw inspiration from?
The least I can do is put myself in a situation or an experience that would be open to such concepts. It’s immersing [myself] and being open to whatever comes—like seeing shows of other artists, whether they be local or not. It comes from everywhere. It’s hard to tell, sometimes it’s from the most mundane stuff.
W: What else is next for you?
I have this goal to work on a huge installation space mala Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room. I don’t know how people get to that but I guess step-by-step. I want to command a space that I can actually manipulate with whatever medium—not just my paintings.
W: Lastly, do you think that the [creative] landscape in the Philippines allows artists— painters specifically—to thrive?
It’s tricky, it’s not a profession you apply to. It’s something that we just figure out how to navigate through so there’s a lot of potential, definitely, but with how conducive it is, I really am not sure. It’s hard, especially when you’re justifying art against people who go hungry—but I think that’s a flawed argument. I think about that when I hear schools dropping art classes. Pero I heard in a podcast na “The results of art and creativity are unquantifiable.” Just because you can’t grade [creativity] doesn’t mean it’s not useful.
Mek Yambao is a 29-year-old contemporary painter who is best known for working with wood as her medium. She also does installations. Her advocacies include environmental protection and intersectional feminism—the latter becoming the basis of her first solo exhibit in 2017 May I Have Your Attention Please? which addressed the visibility of women. Here she used the female form to “illustrate a story of female labor and systemic inequality.” Follow her work on her website and her Instagram.
Photography Elisa Aquino
Art Alex Lara