As part of various new-year initiatives, I updated some of my writing recently. In adapting my artist statement for something I was applying for, I realized that I really needed to include something about Carlos Villa, and how much he shaped me as an artist. It’s implicit in my practice, but I needed to clarify it for those not crawling around in my head.
With this in mind, I dredged up something I wrote when I was invited to be one of the speakers at his SFAI memorial in 2013. I hadn’t read it since it was written: in re-encountering it, it seems like a piece of writing that I should probably revisit from time to time, to keep myself on target.
I miss him every damn day.
8 Forms of Utang (for Carlos Villa)
April 25, 2013
This past weekend, I went out to my storage unit in search of stuff Carlos had given me: like many of us, just longing to find something that still had some whiff of him. I’d inherited a bunch of office boxes filled with resource material related to Filipino American Arts a few years back.
Inside one of the boxes, I came across a text Carlos had written called “60 Forms of Utang”. It’s a gorgeous, meandering essay in the form of 60 numbered paragraphs, discussing a number of critical moments and individuals in Asian American Art, gently calling out some art institutions for their racist or sexist policies, and talking about his own journey as a Filipino American artist.
60 Forms of Utang, Carlos Villa
“Utang”, or “utang na loob”, is a Filipino term meaning your debt of gratitude. It’s like an obligation, but a loving one—it’s the desire to repay someone’s kindness, to pay it forward in some profound way. It’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates Carlos’ actions, and also his legacy: it’s what a number of us have been feeling, since we first met him and since he’s moved on now.
Here’s a small excerpt from Carlos’ essay, in his own words:
#14. Utang is the Filipino word for “tribute” or “what you owe”. “Utang”, the way my parents used the term, particularly when a member of the family died, took on a ceremonial aura. When it was used otherwise, there was a tone to it that carried an urgency; not to be taken lightly.
So with that “ceremonial aura” in mind, but with respect for the limited amount of time we all have to speak, here is a very short list of 8 of my own many, many forms of utang for Carlos.
1. For the first class of the morning of my first day of school at SFAI, 20 years ago, this September. The McMillen Conference room, Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” still sealed into the wall, but peeking out, looming. The class was Worlds In Collision, and it changed everything for me. Between Carlos in front of me and Jay in the wall, I learned so much that semester.
Worlds In Collision syllabus-as-artwork, Carlos Villa
2. For the Worlds In Collision project. For Other Sources. For Rehistoricizing. For Filipino everything. For marginal/diversity/feminist anything. For being an instructor who saw validity in making art about a Filipino American experience. For acknowledging that identity, activism and politics were valid topics for creative expression.
3. For being one hell of a teacher. For breaking down the boundaries between one’s personal art practice and one’s pedagogy. For making a syllabus a call to action and a work of art, all at once.
4. For teaching so many of us what participating in, and making, a creative community really means. For modeling a more intimate, connected, alternative to this nebulous, network-y place called the “art world”.
5. For so many of my deepest friendships, collaborators and cronies. For the fact that I am connected to many of the people speaking here today because Carlos had an uncanny knack for match-making. For this knowing acknowledgment, this unstated thing that immediately somehow binds us together.
Carlos guest lecturing in my Filipino American Arts course at USF.
6. For being the world’s cutest bully. For managing to guide so many uncertain young people in their work, for twisting all manner of folks around his finger and getting us to do whatever he wanted to, through pure charm and mellow grace.
7. For being the only artist I know who was such an insidious morning owl, calling all of us at 7 am, and gently insisting on morning meetings, despite knowing full well that the average 20something operates at diminished capacity until at least noon.
8. For giving me my own path as an artist and educator. For inspiring me to teach to diversity and to stories and artists often still relegated to the margins, to question the western Canon and its terms and conditions.
For all of these things and so many more many of us have utang: a deep gratitude, and a deep desire to repay Carlos, and to keep manifesting this work.
The last line in Carlos’ essay, #60, was this:
Everyday that I think of my parents, I feel warmed all inside from my Utang.
In that spirit of utang, I hope that any of us who think of Carlos carry that same warmth forward as well. I think he’d love that.
Carlos in his Grove Street studio, circa 1985.