Weaving a Multicultural Identity

Bhen Alan | MFA 2022 Painting

Graduate Painting student Bhen Alan MFA 22 PT was recently recognized by Boston’s St. Botolph Club Foundation with an Emerging Artist Award as well as this year’s Mary Shannon Award for Public Art. A native of the Philippines with a growing history in New England, Alan is currently living in Providence and turning his winning proposal into a physical piece. Here he reflects on his evolving creative practice, life at RISD and hopes for the future.

“New England has been a new home for me ever since I left the Philippines.”

Tell me about the project the St. Botolph awards are funding.
The St. Botolph Club Foundation is all about supporting artists who live and work in New England. I have been here for 11 years now. New England has been a new home for me ever since I left the Philippines. The work I’m doing borrows from my identity as a Filipino and also the experiences of immigrants and diasporic Filipinos here in New England.

Pabitin (2020, oil on canvas, 64 x 84")

What medium are you working in?
It’s a woven piece made from plastic waste—mostly Amazon Prime bags. It references the importance of weaving in the Philippines and sustainability, which is something I’ve been advocating for my whole life.

Where will the completed piece live?
I’ve been speaking with Providence’s Arts, Culture and Tourism Office about installing it in Kennedy Plaza when it’s done. So, I’d like to incorporate colorful foil streamers or other recyclable materials that will move with the wind.

Still from Bathalang Maylalang performance video (2020)

Did you start making art as a child in the Philippines?
I studied folk dancing when I was young as a way to preserve the culture of the Philippines and our tribe. That was the form of art I grew up with. My grandmother also taught me how to weave. During the Japanese-American war in the Philippines, people hid underground and covered the holes in the ground with woven grass and rattan. Over time they developed this weaving technique.

Wow. So, weaving runs deep in your history.
My first encounter with mat was when I was born. I was born on a mat. It’s an extension of my identity and my body, part of the cycle of life.

When did you develop an interest in painting?
I lived in Canada for two years before I came here, and painting was one of my therapies for dealing with homesickness. I decided to pursue it when I moved to the US, first at Bristol Community College and then at UMass Dartmouth.

“I lived in Canada for two years before I came here, and painting was one of my therapies for dealing with homesickness.”

Does RISD’s Painting department feel like a natural next step?
At RISD, I’m gathering all of my life experiences and putting them together in one practice. I’m really excited about the possibilities it’s showing me. My professors are so supportive. They’re connecting me to people doing weaving, dancing and performance as well as painting.

Excess (2021, public performance at India Point Park, Providence)

Any particularly inspiring RISD moments you’d care to share?
Last semester Angela Dufresne led an amazing performance video class called Bodies, Spaces and Power. I was creating immersive work incorporating identity, gender, religion, just everything—and using that as a space to perform. It was an aha moment for me.

I see you’ve exhibited your work in many group shows. What do those experiences offer?
I love being involved in the community. Preparing for exhibitions and looking forward to something I’m part of always motivates me to work harder.

Station of the Cross I (detail, 2021, rattan, abaca fabric and fiber, discarded canvas, dried fruits, coconut leaves, twine, coins, 36 x 25 x 16")

What are your hopes for your upcoming final year at RISD?
I can’t believe next year is my last year. It’s flying by so fast! I’m planning to do an Independent Study Project focused on weaving. I’m so grateful to be working with a Filipina instructor at RISD, Cheeny Celebrado-Royer, who teaches in the Experimental and Foundation Studies division. I’m also working closely with Duane Slick in the Painting department.

Any thoughts about where you’ll go next?
I really want to do a Fulbright after grad school. I’m in the process of writing my application with help from the Career Center. I want to go back to the Philippines—not to my hometown but to different Indigenous communities, where I can learn more about their weaving techniques, rituals and spirituality and then take that knowledge back here to the US and incorporate it into my practice.

interview by Simone Solondz