Agnes Arellano Sculptor

Roaring Tigers, Desperate Dragons in Transition

TRADITION/TENSIONS: Contemporary Art in Asia

Asia Society Galleries, New York 1996

Page 34


Agnes Arellano's life-size body casts have decidedly ambiguous connotations. Her strange and compelling trinity of Dea, Lola & Vesta (1995) represents the nude women as mothers, Marys, and mythological creatures, and reflects the artist's desire to explain the apparent conflict between ideologies and beliefs. Although she uses the female body as the basis for her sculptures, Arellano's work does not fit comfortably within the canon of feminist art. Arellano draws inspiration from various mythologies (Diana of Epheseus, Mebuyan of Bagobo, the Mexican Mayauel, the Sicilian Black Virgins) and diverse writers (the French Surrealist Georges Bataille, the noted mythologist Robert Graves, and the anthropologist James Clifford). Her works can be seen as a process of shedding skin as layers of interpretation are molded and uncovered.

The central female figure, Dea, is actually a fantasy self-portrait in the posture of the Buddha seated in meditation and sheltered by Muchalinda. This image was inspired by Buddha statues similar to those in the Rockefeller Collection at the Asia Society. The feminized figure has multiple breasts like Mebuyan from the underworld, whose body is delicious with milk glands. Between her legs is a female cobra with open hood, erect like a phallus. Her skin is turned inside out like that of a snake in the process of molting. Her arms have metamorphosed into wings which are folded and clipped. The image becomes a deification of self/mother/goddess, who, as Arellano describes her, "is repressed and gagged" by motherhood.

The right-hand figure, Vesta, depicts a young pregnant mother in a posture derived from Hariti, the Indonesian goddess associated with fecundity. Her left hand opens in a mudra of generosity; the other holds her left nipple. As a vessel of creation, she is bursting with life. A lizard (bayawak), symbolic of fertility, clings to her back. In contrast, the third figure, Lola, is woman as an aged crone who is no longer fecund; her skin is wrinkled and folded. She seeks divination through introspection, as suggested by her closed eyes and the mudra of teaching turned inward. Like the black goddesses Kali and Durga, she is capable of supernatural powers. In this trinity, Arellano not only inverts her own female-based pantheon but also interrogates the sexual ambiguity of deities by ascribing to her goddesses the attributes of male gods. Arellano's fashioning of hybrid characters from multiple sources also challenges the fixed cast of the stereotypical national imagination. As Arellano quotes Bataille, "God is nothing if he is not a transcendence of God in every direction... vulgar... horror and nothing. It is by blasphemy that man is God." But for Arellano, God has no phallus.