Wawi Navarroza marks a celebratory return with her new series of self-portraits that embody the wildness that lives in the heart of creation.
You are never the same, I quietly told myself while taking in the view from our balcony in Istanbul looking over the panorama of Beşiktas and the grand Bosporus, the slice of water dividing the massive continents of Europe and Asia. Three-month-old baby Gabriel cradled over my arms in a body that felt quite un-mine. There’s an eerie stillness that covered the land in the white winter of 2020, still in the middle of the pandemic lockdowns, away from family, no friends, no art. Who am I?
I am suddenly a new mother at 41 and a transplant from Manila to a new world, the storied city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, Byzantium. A romantic place perfect for the imagination, but difficult to penetrate like the robust Theodosian Long Walls still threading through the modern metropolis, a culture made of multi-cultures, thick with intricacies and contrasts. I’m a Manila lowlander and a daughter of the Pacific with a natural setpoint for Latin languages and Catholic humor, but this mysterious Turkic world is—truth be told—not very familiar.
In the span of two years, I saw myself stretched and recoiled in shapes I didn’t recognize.
A private transformation was happening. Dark night of the soul, in the cave we see a woman and an artist transfigured to a mother. From creator of art (ideas into matter) to creator of a fruit of the womb, a child. Disorienting, destabilizing, a turbulent identity crisis of a peculiar kind. Although there is no other joy in the world than the love of a mother for her child, I was now to change a huge chunk of my identity, which is an artist who is a consuming beast of vision altogether, a magician who required infinite amounts of time and energy to create the work—all this now going to be reassigned to a beautiful baby who needs his mother.
A friend calls it “dreamtime.” The haze of a newborn and a new mother intertwined clockwork; when nights and days roll by in a seemingly endless continuum and there is no time for any other thing. Pinch-me moments, many of them, new sounds, miracles day by day. The baby is magic and I am exhausted. He smiles at me for the first time, and I melt. Body recovering from childbirth, internal organs all over the place but still must nurse the young; plus a house that needs to run, the laundry, the cooking, the dishes. You are now a feral animal that has no off-days. Mother.
Gone are the days imagining ideas for hours on end, to distill for months, then make works in the studio, hone it, prepare it and season it, then show it to the world. Time, energy and purpose are no longer just mine. Gabriel needs mama. And I answer a resounding yes. Mi amor, sí, aquí estoy. I’m here with you. Always. Forget art.
But then there are days I wonder where is that self of mine that hunkers on expression, the one who is a member of a larger buzzing world of art, intelligence, grit and high adventure. Another pinch-me moment: where have all the emails gone? Crickets. It seems the world has retreated further ashore and I’ve become a precarious little island. Was this the worst nightmare I feared when I was in art school asking a professor if women can be great artists and can be mothers too? The artist is now a mother, leave her alone, she has a baby, she’s busy, don’t email, don’t invite for projects, stay out. On the other hand, I remember when I was pregnant, I was asked “So, what are you working on right now?” I said “I’m working on… a spine, a heart, a little human being. Zoom in on my belly and you will read what I wrote in pentel pen: NEW WORK.”
This lenticular vacillating picture of artist-and-mother is a fraught one, definitely a W.I.P.
Elaine Navas and Isabel Aquilizan, two artists I deeply admire and who are mothers, let me in on their self-assured advice: “You will find time.” Judy Sibayan, my mentor, once told me, “Don’t be afraid.”
In the artworld, like most workplaces, there’s a lot to be desired. This has come up in my conversations with fellow artists Nice Buenaventura, Olivia D’Aboville, Len-Len. The system is not set up to assist mothers in culture/freelance work, mother-artists, infants, families. There is no maternity and paternity leave, healthcare, support systems for daycare, grants and opportunities that don’t exclude with age limits and single-ness, etc. It simply isn’t sexy to bring it up. Even as I write this, I don’t want you to think of me as a “mama artist.” Sometimes I want to scream Nikki Luna’s work—“Mom is not my name!”
Isolation from the pandemic paired with isolation from new motherhood was a very vulnerable period for me. Postpartum anxiety is real and with all these rapid changes, I took to meditation. I was living in fear with a fight or flight nervous system on overdrive, chronically fatigued. My psoriasis was at an all-time high with flare ups all over my body including my face. Heart beating 140 bpm while sleeping, I was hospitalized and further diagnosed with Graves’ disease, another auto-immune disorder. What my heart couldn’t take, my immune system took the hit.
2022 was the year I declared I will have none of these. I will heal myself (and I did!) I decided my way out and through this was to return to making art. I colonized the apartment and created a studio and made what is now my new series “As Wild As We Come.” I was still ill but I pushed on setting up the materials, the layered fabrics, the backdrop, the lights, camera, and myself in front of it. When I felt unmotivated, I would put on the podcast The Great Women Artists and listen to the stories of other women artists as I go about my slow process. I was accompanied by women past and present, powerful women who went through a lot, same as I did, or more. As the season turned, I finished 10 new elaborate artworks. It felt like I made a hundred.
For the piece entitled “The Weightlifter Orans / Auit at Gaua (Self-Portrait with Blue Ribbon),” I’ve been deeply moved and inspired by Hidilyn Diaz, a renewed symbol of pride and joy for a country who has gone through so much, at the height of the pandemic no less. For me, her win transcends national morale but is also a contemporary allegory of the extremely important experiences of Women who in one form or another carry the brunt of the weightlifting at home, in society, in childbearing, caretaking, in labor, and in her own complexities of the female Self.
What if we reframe artist-and-motherhood as a strong vantage point to create? It’s not all tender and beige, and it’s not all bloody and visceral and breast pump machines either. To me it’s a supercharged way of seeing that is at once feral and potent that can pierce through anything because we have one hand dipped in the mushy clay of the universal—whether it results in a completely austere minimal conceptual work or an elaborate and ornate embroidery craftwork with traditional folk art. The earth is our language; we have howled in the bowels of the earth; we have known paradise.
Dear Woman, Mama, Artist, you can always come back to yourself. You are made for a thousand rebirths. It has been this way for a million years. You are nature. Take your time.
The self-portraits are my form of resistance. I’m still here no matter what. I sit in for myself, for mothers, for women who feel unseen—a defiance not to disappear.
I have returned—and I’m never the same. I am stronger, more savage.