Dissent starts silent

Jo Tanierla

Jesa Tamayo, Mothers, 2019 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Mothers carries a faint dissonance achieved through subtle contradictions. One might rest on the hands before tracing the arms toward their borders, urged to speculate what’s outside the picture plane. But this urgency is soon redirected towards the soft background. And here’s why, probably: the arms, bearing the visual tension from the fingers, quietly dissolve into the transparent washes on the paper (notice how the left arm and its shadow are rendered in the same weight). And so the gaze lingers inside the picture, and back on the hands both vivid and phantom.

The figures’ simultaneous negation of and adherence to gravity completes the dissonance. Observe how the hands and arms are seemingly suspended above ground, yet cast a transparent shadow without edges, giving certainty of a solid surface just beneath. However, adopting these arguments does not resolve the unsettling sense we get from the work. The visceral potency of Jesa’s graphite and gouache drawing persists in spite of the analytic. Consequently, this nebulous quality gives enough room for conversation, and allows for a reading not limited to individualist tendencies.

Color outlines another relationship between the figures and the background. Similar to oil painters using a mother color to unify their palettes, Jesa harmonizes the picture with warm hues diluted to near-white tones. This prevents an aseptic surface and keeps the achromatic hands and the warm ground within the locality of each other.

Consider more details: a trace of the left thumb; the reflected light along the edges of the fingers; the folds of the knobs surgically rendered; low light into deep darks; shades into lines both assured and reluctant. Depictions slow and careful. Jesa engages in tedious toil, describing the hands and fingers until their softness becomes palpable. The labor stops before the figures are complete, but more affective because it ends with an intimation, a formidable calm.

At this juncture, the work’s meanings are no longer bound by its iconographies. Technique becomes a conjugate, an active participant. The diligent dragging of graphite around the softly lit areas, the fading of grays into lint, the controlled strokes, the thoughtful maneuvers — all these gestures perform a meaning of the work. However, and let me stress this proposition, the work’s silence renders reading optional, as meanings meander contented within. They are nevertheless ready to negotiate or affirm, to be grappled with. And the viewer is given this option to either stay on the material or read further.

And so let’s take the latter and speculate on more possibilities.
The work, a small piece at seven by nine and a half inches, draws one in, allowing for quietude to those willing to be still. It shares an exhaustion, or the repose after, perhaps a brief stop before working all over again; an infinite cycle of labor certainly familiar to mothers. And a keen awareness of this circumstance makes the presented intimacy sincere. Jesa wields honesty: the subject is depicted without pretense to emotion, and more importantly, with an affection almost impossible to fabricate. See the right hand, notice how the middle and ring fingers tend towards each other, as if two persons bearing their circumstances together, one on the other’s shoulder. The tenderness of this scene, of the figures as a whole, could be a reminder of those whom we hold dear; their hands a secret only a few know.

The work potentially gathers the esoteric; intimate narratives unknowingly tapping into a preexisting commune with an affinity for caring, even when situations are difficult. It encourages paying attention, extending empathy to those outside one’s routine.

This ethos is conditioned to spread. And it must do so, especially now that a controlist state is wielding intimidation, violence, and even the pandemic against us. Complacency only reinforces the status quo.

As an assignment of sorts, a friend had asked me to consider a possible scenario in the aftermath of a successful revolution. They hinted that we would likely return to similar situations, but of course under more benevolent conditions. What they meant remains elusive to me but maybe it’s something like Mothers — narratives we’ve always known, circumstances so familiar.
We often repress the act of caring to meet external expectations, to comply with the demands of the various ecosystems we participate in. Maybe we should cure this repression. Maybe caring can be an antidote, an act of dissent, a cultivation of resistance. And we can start here, in these intimate fingers, so that resolute affections may thrive outside the picture plane.

Jo Tanierla is a visual artist. He lives and works in Quezon City.