February 2016 Artist Feature: PAMELA YBAÑEZ
Pamela Ybañez is a conceptual artist, curator, and community facilitator based in Oakland, California. Her work discusses societal conditions around inequality and identity through photography, video, and community engagement. She is the founder of Epekto Art Projects; a collective of Filipino artists based in the Bay Area, and co-founder of The New Hall, a volunteer-run organization that organizes interactive art workshops in the Oakland community.
Pamela received her BA in the Arts from University of Hawaii at Hilo and an MFA in Fine Arts from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She has curated exhibitions in the Bay Area at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, the I-Hotel Manilatown Heritage Center, and with the Asian American Women Artists Association at the Sanchez Art Center. She has had solo exhibitions in the Bay Area, Buffalo, and in Hilo, Hawaii.
Her work is currently on view at Site:Brooklyn in Brooklyn, New York. She is also curating an exhibition at SOMArts with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center in May 2016.
Janna Añonuevo Langholz: Would you tell me about your personal and artistic backgrounds?
Pamela Ybañez: My personal background is that I’ve moved around a lot in my life growing up in many different cultural environments. It’s a strange process that has given me skills in community building and also, I think it’s helped me to deal with emotions around feeling alone.
As for my artistic background, I never thought I’d be an artist growing up. As a first generation Filipina-American, that just was not an obvious choice. My parents didn’t discourage me, but it also wasn’t an earnest discussion that this would be my future. Deciding to become an artist was very unplanned. I started out as a business major in undergrad and after one class I realized I would never survive doing this because it was too painful for me. I gravitated towards ceramics and then just kept taking more and more art classes.
I’ve had some tough teachers that allowed me to really be able to take criticism. And now when I teach, I try to remember how fragile those egos are. It’s funny because once I had a student that said to me, “It’s easy for you, art comes naturally to you.” And I thought, oh if only you knew me in my undergraduate days. I was the student who would use the wrong material or use material in the wrong way. I’d forget the steps and always worry I was going to break the equipment. Still, I stuck with it and now, art has become a necessity to me.
I only decided to go to grad school after I took part in a student exchange program and lived in NYC for one year. That changed everything. I saw so much amazing art in galleries and thought: this is for me! I never thought it was a possibility, but the New York City art scene really opened things up for me. Understanding the wide breadth of art, I think this is where I really started loving conceptual art. I was moved by seeing work of Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Faith Ringgold, and visiting so many different galleries.
JAL: I’m impressed that you’ve lived in New York, California, and Hawaii. How has having lived across the country impacted your work and process?
PY: I think moving a lot has many benefits and downsides. In some ways my community really expanded because I had to keep making friends with each new place. As I get older I understand more what it takes with each move and it makes me want to live in places longer. I understand how much work it is to build communities and strong ties with people.
Living in different parts of the US has allowed me to see so much of the country. I just felt that hey, if I don’t like a certain place, I can move. I don’t have to live with small town mindedness or overt racist attitudes. In Oakland, I feel I have found a place that gives me the diversity I need, with the urban energy that is good for making work.
As for my art, each place really influenced my work. In Hawaii it was super important that half the population was Asian. In fact, I only stood out because I was not local – which was clear when I spoke mainland English rather than Hawaiian Pidgin English. So I still felt like a bit of an outsider, but after a while I fell in love with the land, the people, and most importantly myself. I made mainly abstract work during my undergraduate days.
Buffalo while in grad school was a challenging place. Not only was it cold, but also I constantly felt “other” there. My work reflected that. Yet, I met great people and still have so much love for my Buffalo friends. My flag series began in Buffalo and continues still. It’s shifted from a personal narrative to studying societal conditions that we live in.
JAL: What is your connection to the Philippines?
PY: My connection to the Philippines is that it’s my birthplace and where a lot of my family still lives. At the same time, I also feel very disconnected from it. I think that is why I have tried to connect with other Filipinos to build that connection here in the states. Reconnecting with my family in Davao and Negros has also been an amazing process for me. It’s made me feel more whole. Another goal I have is to learn Tagalog. I have this idea that my daughter and I can learn it together as she gets older.
JAL: What motivates you to create socially-engaged work?
PY: I think about this a lot. What I am most excited about is that I see art as tool for sharing your thoughts with the world. It’s looking at life in a different lens, maybe one that I make up or re-construct from other lenses – a conglomerate of lenses really. They say we should create the world that we want to live in, and that world for me is filled with curiosity, ideas, and possibilities.
JAL: I love your short film Mga: Plural because it probably resonates with conversations a lot of Filipino Americans have had with strangers about their ethnic heritage. Can you tell me more about the film?
PY: That video was made during my time in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is the most segregated city I have ever lived in. I never felt more “other” there than anywhere else. So, I made this video to confront this feeling as the constant foreigner. It didn’t matter if I was 4th generation or 1st generation Asian American, people always asked: Where are you from?
I learned a few things while making this video. First, that not everyone was as ignorant as I thought they would be. Some people did guess I was from the Philippines. Second, that by me taking charge of the situation and asking strangers where they thought I was from made me feel more empowered. This project was cathartic for me.
JAL: What brought about Epekto Art Projects?
PY: Epekto Art Projects was part of my process in trying to find other Filipino artists out in the world, especially in the area that I live. I realized that I am a person that needs to see themselves reflected out in the world doing what I’m doing. During grad school I had only really learned about of a couple well-known Filipino artists who lived internationally.
So, I set out to meet other Filipino artists living in the Bay Area. Epekto started out in 2011 through my Craigslist posting and from there I found people by making more and more contacts. Now we have 13 members and it keeps growing.
There is a rich history of Filipinos in the Bay Area who were not only artists, but also activists. There is a lot of Filipino history in San Francisco. It’s amazing to be part of this community as I learn more and more about it.
JAL: I think that currently the majority of Filipino American Artist Directory readers are Texas-based. Do you have any ideas on how they can support and contribute to the Fil-Am community in the Bay Area?
PY: I think it’s important to foster community in where we live, so it’s wonderful to make this connection with your organization. In the Bay Area we are struggling to maintain housing to those who are currently living in the San Francisco and also Oakland, as we are undergoing another strong tide of gentrification. One way to combat this struggle is a movement to establish a Filipino Cultural Heritage District in the SOMA area. This is a way to preserve the history and contributions of Filipinos in SF. So perhaps just being aware of this, as well as issues affecting Filipinos in Texas and to start a dialogue by creating gatherings and social events. Keep building that community.
See more of Pamela’s work at: