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How one Filipino American artist influenced the work of a generation of others

When Carlos Villa asked about Filipino artists as a student he was told: there weren't any.

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Portrait of Carlos Villa in his studio, 1985.
Portrait of Carlos Villa in his studio, 1985. Patricia Arian | Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

In 1958, when the late Filipino American artist Carlos Villa was studying at the California School of Fine Arts, he asked one of his teachers where he could learn about other Filipino art.

"His teacher said to him there isn't any," said Mark Johnson, co-curator of Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision, a retrospective of Villa's work at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

That response inspired Villa to go beyond his own art, and make it his mission to help other artists of color.

"His whole career was trying to focus on filling in that story both for himself and for artists in the future," said Johnson, who co-curated the show with Trisha Lagaso Goldberg. Both curators have deep ties with Villa as a friend, collaborator and mentor.

Villa died in 2013, but his legacy continues. As a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for four decades and a powerful community organizer and mentor, Villa had an outsize impact on dozens of younger artists. His students included Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley and Mission School art pioneer Barry McGee.

Villa devoted his career to uplifting others, but now he is getting his due as an artist in his own right: The exhibition at the Asian Art Museum is the first in the country to give a Filipino American artist a major retrospective.

It includes the artist's paintings and installations, many of which explore multiculturalism, decolonization and Filipino identity, like his resplendent feathered capes, evoking both the vestments of Villa's Catholic youth in San Francisco and robes worn by the Hawaiian aristocracy. A companion exhibition at the San Francisco Arts Commission features his later works, and an earlier iteration, which included both shows, closed at the Newark Museum of Art in May.

One of Carlos Villa's feathered capes, on view in the exhibition.
One of Carlos Villa's feathered capes, on view in the exhibition. Kevin Candland | Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

The Asian Art Museum show also features pieces by his protégés. For example, a vintage motorcycle and side-car — a typical way Filipinos get around — tricked-out with sparkly lights, bright pom-poms and a karaoke machine, created by two former students, Filipino Americans Michael Arcega and Paolo Asuncion.

Sometimes the motorcycle tools around the Bay Area. But behind the fun is a serious political message about making space for Filipino American voices. "We want to signal that we are around and present," Arcega said.

Arcega said this use of art as literally a vehicle for increasing Filipino visibility was inspired by Villa, who thought street life should be an inspiration for art.

The 'TNT Traysikel' — a tricked-out motorcycle side-car installation by artists Paulo Asuncion and Michael Arcega on display at the Asian Art Museum
The "TNT Traysikel" — a tricked-out motorcycle side-car installation by artists Paulo Asuncion and Michael Arcega on display at the Asian Art Museum Kevin Candland | Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

"I came into visual arts through graffiti art and have kind of carried that pride because of Carlos to this project," Arcega said.

New York-based Filipino American artist Paul Pfeiffer also studied with Villa. He said his mentor worked to increase the visibility of artists of color in the white-dominated art world by organizing a slew of landmark conferences starting in the 1970s.

Those conferences changed his life. "It felt like the first time that I was seeing a kind of conversation about art and art history that felt like it included me," Pfeiffer said.

Today, Pfeiffer is an internationally-recognized political artist with work in the collection of New York's Guggenheim Museum.

His video installation in the exhibit shows a boxing match in which one of the contenders — prize-fighter-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao — faces off against an opponent whose presence on screen has been erased by the artist. The piece explores the Filipino body under assault, fighting invisible forces.

Pfeiffer said Villa helped to shape his political awakening. "He opened the door," Pfeiffer said. "He clued me into it."

The Mail Order Brides' installation at the Asian Art Museum, 'Chatsilog Revisited.'
The Mail Order Brides' installation at the Asian Art Museum, 'Chatsilog Revisited.' Kevin Candland | Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Reanne Estrada, an artist in Los Angeles, said another of Villa's superpowers was bringing young artists together. "He exposed me to a different way of thinking about how to be an artist," Estrada said. "How you connect with other people."

Estrada is part of the surrealist art collective Mail Order Brides. She said the Brides came into being nearly 30 years ago when Villa introduced her to fellow Filipina Americans Eliza Barrios and Jenifer Wofford.

The Brides' multimedia installation in the exhibition playfully pays tribute to their mentor. Villa's face beams from a video screen, as footage on nearby screens shows Estrada, Barrios and Wofford bumbling around a kitchen making the traditional Filipino breakfast dish silog.

"Even after decades of working together, we're still a bunch of slightly wacky ladies wearing granny panties and egg aprons," Estrada said. "Carlos would be proud to know some things don't change."

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Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The name Carlos Villa is not widely known outside of contemporary art circles, but the late Filipino American visual artist had an outsized impact on dozens of younger artists who had him as a teacher or mentor. NPR's Chloe Veltman visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where a Villa retrospective is underway, and caught up with some of his proteges.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Exhibition co-curator Mark Johnson tells this story.

MARK JOHNSON: So in 1958, when Carlos was a new student at the California School of Fine Arts, he went to one of his teachers, Walt Kuhlman, and asked him where he could learn about art of the Philippines and Filipino American artists. And his teacher said to him, there isn't any.

VELTMAN: That inspired Carlos Villa to become not just an artist, but someone who helped other artists of color.

JOHNSON: And his whole career was trying to focus on filling in that story both for himself and for artists in the future.

VELTMAN: He also became a teacher, a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for 40 years. A few years before he died in 2013, Villa told students there he always considered the classroom as a place not for professorial lectures, but rather for open-ended inquiry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLOS VILLA: As far as I'm concerned, all I'm doing is I'm having a conversation with you guys.

VELTMAN: The Carlos Villa retrospective can be seen as a continuation of that conversation. It includes the artist's paintings and installations exploring multiculturalism, decolonization and Filipino identity, like his series of large spray-painted canvases with animal bones attached and his resplendent feathered capes. The exhibition also features pieces by some of Villa's younger proteges, like former students Michael Arcega and Paolo Asuncion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DJ: So if you're inspired to sing, we love group sing.

VELTMAN: The two San Francisco Bay Area-based artists recently DJed a karaoke night at the museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VELTMAN: The artists tricked out a vintage motorcycle and sidecar, a typical way Filipinos get around, with sparkly lights, bright pompoms and a karaoke machine. Some people sat on the motorcycle or in the sidecar to sing. The fantastical contraption, which sometimes tours around the Bay Area, is in the exhibition, and it's delightful. But Arcega, who is Filipino American, says behind the fun is a serious political message.

MICHAEL ARCEGA: To mark a space for Filipino Americans, to signal out there that we are around, present.

VELTMAN: Arcega says this use of art as literally a vehicle for increasing Filipino visibility is something he learned from Carlos Villa. His professor often spoke about how everyday life on the streets could be an inspiration for art.

ARCEGA: I came into visual arts through graffiti art and have kind of carried that pride because of Carlos to this project.

VELTMAN: New York-based Filipino American artist Paul Pfeiffer was another student of Villa's. He says his mentor worked to increase the visibility of artists of color in the white-dominated art world through organizing a slew of landmark conferences starting in the 1970s.

PAUL PFEIFFER: It felt like the first time that I was seeing a kind of conversation about art and art history that felt like it included me.

VELTMAN: Villa's activism lit a fire under him. Today, he's internationally known as a political artist. Pfeiffer's work is in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and he's appeared in the Whitney Biennial. Pfeiffer's video installation at the Asian Art Museum shows a boxing match where one of the contenders is Manny Pacquiao, a famous prizefighter-turned-politician, and the other one has been erased. So what you see is this man fighting against himself, beating himself up. It's about the Filipino body under assault, battling against invisible forces. Pfeiffer says Villa helped to shape his political awakening.

PFEIFFER: He opened the door. He clued me in to it.

REANNE ESTRADA: He exposed me to a different way of thinking about how to be an artist beyond just your immediate self, how you connect with other people.

VELTMAN: Los Angeles-based artist Reanne Estrada says another of Villa's superpowers was bringing young artists together to create things, like the surrealist art collective she's a part of, Mail Order Brides. Estrada says the Brides came into being when Villa casually introduced her to fellow Filipina American artists Eliza Barrios and Jenifer Wofford. That was nearly 30 years ago, and Estrada says they're still going strong.

ESTRADA: Sometimes we jokingly refer to ourselves as Carlos's Angels because there are three of us and he's like our padrino, kind of our godfather.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VELTMAN: The Bride's multimedia installation at the Asian Art Museum playfully pays tribute to their padrino. Villa's kindly mustachioed face beams from a video screen as footage on nearby screens shows Estrada, Barrios and Wofford, heavily made-up and wearing egg-yolk-colored aprons, bumbling cartoonishly around a kitchen making the traditional Filipino breakfast dish silog.

ESTRADA: Even after decades of working together, we're still a bunch of slightly wacky ladies wearing granny panties and egg aprons.

VELTMAN: Estrada says, though Villa are pushed for change in the art world, he would be proud to know some things stay the same.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.