Marikit Santiago is one artist who found a silver lining from the gallery shutdowns and exhibition postponements generated since the pandemic. Her current exhibition, For us sinners, at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney was originally scheduled for 2020 but became indefinitely delayed. As a result, she entered one of her artworks into the Sulman Prize exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and promptly went on to scoop the prize. Eighteen months later, Santiago’s solo exhibition at 4A has finally been realised and still features her award-winning work The divine, 2020. This and the other paintings on display explore themes of Christianity, particularly the Catholic notion of “original sin”. Meeting with the artist at her home studio in Parramatta, Western Sydney, she explains:
It considers the original sin of Adam and Eve of the Creation story, where we can only be absolved of it once we are baptised. And so, it takes into consideration my own experience as a mother and, I guess, creating my family, and considering what they will inherit from me, whether it’s my genetic traits, my characteristics, my talents, or my sins.
Raised as a Catholic, this series explores Santiago’s ambivalent attitude towards her faith. She also openly reflects on her domestic domain and the struggles inherent in maintaining a successful practice as an artist whilst being a “present” mother for her young children. She has managed the balance so far by working out of the garage behind her family’s two-bedroom flat. From here, she paints on large sheets of cardboard sourced from a freighting company, which she then mounts onto Belgian linen.
Visually striking and muscular in execution, her rich sensual compositions feature naked figures surrounded by tropical vegetation, challenging the viewer in their themes and content. An Australian artist of Filipino descent, Santiago explores gender roles and her bi-cultural heritage through figurative painting, and does so with a distinctive eye and perception that confronts our prescribed views on such subjects. She often features her own image – with a strong and defiant gaze directly engaging the viewer and her at times bare body proudly displaying her brown skin. Her figurative paintings stylistically embrace western classicism while rejecting the way women have been portrayed throughout art history – objectified as demure, passive and inevitably pale-skinned.
“It’s important for me to represent the Philippine diaspora and Western Sydney. I think the more I explore my identity, the more I am confident, or the more I seek to really represent those communities that I’m part of.”
Grand in vision and mostly large in scale, Santiago creates her work in a small space that is open to the elements, and at times with three small children in tow. She paints on cardboard sections, later to be unfolded into a multi-panelled work, much like a children’s chatterbox game. Her practice is a true family collaboration. Her husband, children and parents regularly feature as subjects; her kids decorate the background of many of her paintings. Substance and meaning in her compositions come from representing those most close to her. For this artist, the personal is political.
Santiago interprets her Christian faith as a force of love rather than judgement. Her major work in the exhibition, Thy Kingdom Come, 2021–2022, makes reference to Hieronymus Bosch’s 1503–15 work Garden of Earthly Delights: “It’s the moment where God introduces Eve to Adam, but Adam remains seated. My work engages with a lot of Catholic themes but also challenges them, so I’ve reverted the gender roles,” says Santiago.
The painter often features animals as Christian symbols – sacrificial lambs and God-like lions, as well as serpents that are a force of good as well as evil. She also incorporates Filipino Creation stories as part of her work:
“I love using the imagery of the serpent because it has a biblical meaning, but in other cultures, the serpent has a completely different meaning. Because they’re ground dwellers, people believe that they can slip in between the underworld and the living world; they have that magical power. And because they shed their skin, they’re also a symbol of regeneration and new life.”
The rich imagery that fills Santiago’s compositions – whether derived from Catholicism or Filipino folklore – all form part of her cultural make up. Her vivid baroque-like paintings offer open inquiry into the nature of faith. They are celebrations of life, fertility and renewal, rather than of judgement or retribution.
Victoria Hynes is a Sydney-based arts writer and editor.
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
26 March to 15 May 2022