“To create a real and lasting impact, our work's narrative must transcend beyond the canvas”
The challenging stretch that is 2020 has opened our eyes to many things, including the importance of creativity amid difficult times. We're acquainting ourselves with a guild of artists who challenge societal norms and hold accountable the leaders who govern us—especially now when we need it most. Everything has become eerily political, and we must admit we're better for it.
John Nofiel AKA Alagadngsining, a visual artist and illustrator from Cavite, employs his works with the deliberate choice to be makabayan (patriotic) and, ultimately, seek change. Art and politics intermingle, especially at a time when information design has helped many stay informed and make educated opinions about current issues. The 22-year-old is also a manggagawang kultura (cultural worker) for VINTA Gallery in Toronto, specifically a surface designer who “highlights the flora and fauna that can be found in the Philippine archipelago.”
We caught up with the young artist to talk about his creative journey, his zest for preserving our natural heritage and the relationship between art and politics.
Wonder: Could you give us a brief background on how you learned to illustrate and design?
John: My dad draws, but he never taught me anything about art-making. He just kept on reminding me that talent is a pursued interest and, if I want to pursue it, I have to learn, practice and discover it by myself. I graduated BS in Graphics Design and Multimedia at De La Salle University-Dasmariñas back in 2018, but now, I’m still regretful [I didn't take] Fine Arts [in] college because I really want to experiment using traditional media and learn more about the forms of art beyond its physicality.
W: How would you describe your diverse, multi-faceted body of work?
J: Category is: Malaya ang Diwa ng Sining (the spirit of art is free). By nature, talent and expression flow through various mediums. I used to think that being all over the place is messy, but then I met this amazing guy from Mt. Makiling, saw his oeuvre, and it completely changed myself [upon] seeing the dimensions of expression and application of human creative skill. I want young artists to always remember that you shouldn’t box yourself because you’re not limited to working in a single or traditional art form.
W: Your works highly integrate flora and fauna from the tropics. At what point did you decide to fashion this signature style and why?
J: I guess it’s because I grew up surrounded by the natural environment and having this innate curiosity and tendency to seek biological connections with nature and other forms of life. (Context: When I was 4-years-old, my mom would religiously watch National Geographic with me; my grandfather, who works at Manila Zoo, [would take] me for a stroll every weekend; and my aunts even forced me to eat lawn grass. Hahaha.)
In human culture, nature and the environment can become meaningful in literary and artistic representations or through symbolization. I consider the integration of the subjectivity of nature, flora and fauna [with] my art not as a style, but as ecosemiotics—an ecological visual language that communicates and gives a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves. Every specie attributes meanings to the environment based on their needs and umwelts; scientific and visual representation in art plays a big role because it can serve as a portrayal of a political idea and influence the natural environment through human actions.
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The Philippines is a biodiversity hotspot and most of our native species are threatened and in the brink of extinction due to the capitalist and imperialist over-exploitation, habitat destruction and illegal wildlife trade—to be part of the artistic movement that creates to speak and connect people with nature helps in engaging and educating our society and the future generation to convey the importance and urgency of preserving and conserving our natural heritage. While many people aren’t familiar with [these], I believe it’s my duty to share their value and the story of their challenges through art.
W: What do you do as a manggagawang kultura for VINTA Gallery?
Everyone in the creative industries is a cultural worker. To create art is to create culture, and to call oneself a “manggagawang pangkultura” or cultural worker, as opposed to a creative, is to essentially say that your labor, or at least a particular fraction of it, occurs with the intention to uphold a certain culture. It proposes that your practice as an artist, your labor in the field of art is accountable to the idea of culture.
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VINTA Gallery is a bespoke and ready-to-wear modern Filipiniana fashion brand that is designed in Toronto and ethically made in Manila. I’m currently working for them as a surface designer, highlighting the flora and fauna that can be found in the Philippine archipelago. Decolonizing contexts in design, upholding and innovating traditions and using nature as the recurring element of my works based on symbolic, figurative and folkloric meaning, I aim to bring recognition, inspiration and awareness on the value of native species and bring nature closer to people who are so disconnected from it today.
W: The works you produce, even the language you use on your platforms, are evidently patriotic. Has this always been the case? What fuels this deliberate choice?
J: Knowing the language is to know the people and the environment. For me, it gives me something to be proud of, an identity I can share with other people, which I hope will be able to help others learn how to value our culture and natural heritage.
In parallel to my art, it’s the same thing as giving the spotlight to the Philippines’ native species. Art is a visual language. Our traumatic colonial past shaped not only the way we view nature and the environment, but also nature and the environment itself. Not to be a purist, but our education system and pop culture don’t even give high regard to our native species. And we must change that. Visual-linguistic proficiency of our natural heritage will be able to help in preserving and sustaining cultural and natural connections to our home country’s identity.
W: Would you consider art to be political?
J: First, by defining the term “political” in a broad sense, it does not only mean direct political affiliation but any public affairs, discussion of, or any thinking about relationships of power between the artist and audiences. As one of the human activities and communication tools, art has always been and will always be political, because art itself possesses the ability to generate power relations. Every choice and idea in our daily life is political. And in this sense, art can never be independent of politics. Even all that “art is not political” stuff is political. Periyaaat!
W: How do you use illustration and design to comment on the state of the nation? How do you integrate the two to get your message across?
J: By simply trying to be true not only to my craft but also to myself.
Before we became artists, we were citizens first. I believe that it is our obligation as artists to defend the rights given to every citizen of our Constitution. No matter what the practice, the artist is always a participant. For it is the supreme duty of the artist to investigate the truth, no matter what forces may attempt to hide it. Our works must reflect the fact that we want to be free from the chains of poverty, from the suppression of our freedom of expression, to be free from the enslavement of foreign capital, to fight the oppression of politicians who enrich the people's wealth.
Which brings me to my last point that the responsibility of the artist is to participate in the larger political discourse. To create a real and lasting impact, our work’s narrative must transcend beyond the canvas.
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Photos Hannah Nofiel
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver