Filipino American Visual Culture
- Sarita Echavez SeeSarita Echavez SeeDepartment of Media and Cultural Studies, University of California, Riverside
The visual display of Filipinos in the United States temporally and ideologically coincides with the American military conquest of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, a brutal and brutally forgotten war that some scholars have described as genocidal according to even the most conservative definitions of genocide. This intimacy between empire and vision in the Philippine case has shaped and sharpened the stakes of studying Filipino American visual culture and its history, aesthetics, and politics. As with other minoritized communities in the United States, Filipino American visual culture is a means and site of lively and often contentious debates about representation, which typically revolve around how to document absence and how to establish presence in America. However, because Filipino Americans historically have a doubled status as minoritized and colonized—Filipinos in the United States were legally categorized as “nationals” during the colonial period even as the Philippines was deemed “foreign in a domestic sense” by the US Supreme Court—the matter of legal and visual representation is particularly complex, distinct from that of other Asian Americans and comparable with that of Native Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. So, while the politics of Asian American representation generally can get mired in debates about the absence or presence of “voice” in literature and the stereotypical or authentic depiction of the “body” in visual culture, Filipino American studies scholars of visual culture have provided valuable, clarifying insights about the relationship between imperial spectacle and history. To wit, the hypervisible representation of the Filipino in American popular cultural forms in the early decades of the 20th century—from the newspaper cartoon to the photograph to the World’s Fair exhibition—ironically enabled the erasure of the extraordinarily violent historical circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Filipino’s visibility. This relationship between spectacle and history or, rather, between visual representation and historical erasure, continues to redound upon a wide range of Filipino American visual cultural forms in the 21st century, from the interior design of turo turo restaurants to multimedia art installations to community-based murals.