Are Filipinos ready for more nude performance art?

Published March 26, 2021, 10:38 AM

by John Legaspi

Filipino artist Paolo Dumlao talks about the taboos and the creative intimacy that comes from performing and baring it all out

When it comes to stage fright, the oldest trick in the books is to picture your audience naked. But for performance artist Paolo Dumlao, baring himself to his viewer is the best way for him to express his art, and we bet that he doesn’t need to picture them naked to perform.

Unlike other artists, Paolo finds himself most at ease in front of his audience wearing nothing. While many conservatives will view his art in a different light, it is best to keep in mind that many of the world’s masterpieces have depicted the human body without any coverage.

Paintings such as “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso and “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli presented the sheer beauty of the female form. Famed artists like Michaelangelo and Myron mirrored the male’s anatomy through chiseled stones with their sculptures “David” and “Discobolus.” 

Although Filipino artists were never shy in presenting the naked body in their works—think of Fernando Amorsolo’s “Batis,” Jonahmar Salvosa’s “Diwata,” and Rene Villanueva’s play “Halik ng Tarantula”—with such a strong hold on religion and orthodox upbringing, one may ask if the Filipino audience is comfortable enough to see not just nude art but a performance. 

Paolo Dumlao

In a conversation with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Paolo aims to give an insider look of what it is like to go all the way in terms of his art. He shares what his revealing craft is all about, how it feels to do it, and how his audience reacts to him performing in the nude.

How did you start as a performance artist? What inspired you to do it?

I started doing performance art when I was 19. It was during an event we organized. Honestly, my main reason was very “mema,” to tick a box off my bucket list. But eventually I fell in love with the form and how you can create and tell stories and experiences through performance art. 

My main inspiration is my own story (I have bipolar disorder, I am a rape survivor, I am a suicide survivor… and all these things). I’ve dealt traumas in life that I was able to overcome, and I do think that is worth telling. But in order for me to do the storytelling, I have to create an experience for them (my audience) to be able to build connections and create empathy toward people. 

Did you do studies in the arts?

Yes, I did study the arts back in my time in the university. I didn’t finish my degree, though—it was because of personal reasons. Still, I was able to practice the things I have learned in school. I have always been fascinated with the arts and how it can be vague and elaborate at the same time.

I remember my favorite professors helping me conceptualize my plates and projects. I wasn’t the most skillful in school. Heck, my drawings are not as clean as my fellow classmates. What I do take pride of though is how I think and visualize concepts that could be considered out of the box. My mentors saw that and they were supportive of that.

Why did you choose nudity to be a part of your performance?

Nudity for me is such a blank canvas to work with. For most people, they see it as black an white—something taboo, sexual. But I see nudity in a different light. It can be sexual (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but it could also mean sensual, vulnerable, empowering, pure, tainted. Nudity is defined on how you execute nudity, it is defined based on how you want to define it.

Another reason why I love being a blank canvas myself is because I can use my body to create and tell experiences and share these experiences with people. I am able to connect through nakedness that doesn’t invade nor disrespect my audience.

Were you always comfortable with your body? How did your first nude performance go? 

No. Actually, I’m quite insecure with my body. As ironic as it may sound, I have never found myself attractive. I think that is alright. What I do acknowledge is how imperfect I am. I fell in love with my own insecurities because these flaws are the things that made me different and unique among everyone else. There was a time that I was interviewed after a nude performance art. I wasn’t able to look at people directly because I felt very vulnerable even if I was already clothed. That shift between confidence and shyness has always confused people. Most would probably think I am someone who is cocky or too confident of his body but I am not. I know that mine isn’t the ideal. I know mine could be disturbing to others. And that is okay, because I am built differently. We are all built differently.

My first nude performance was a funny experience. It was on a rooftop place in Mandaluyong. I wanted to end our event with a bang. So I got drunk, and stripped naked. I had paint and I let my audience put paint on my body. I didn’t know I could do it. I was so scared and nervous but I did.

After that, I no longer need to be buzzed with alcohol to do my performances. Most of the time, I am sober when I am doing my performance art.

What do you think about nude performances here in the Philippines? Do you think Filipinos are ready to see more of it?

Filipinos, generally, still think nudity is taboo. Thus the endless feeding of rape culture toward women who wear revealing clothing.

To create art out of nudity is one way to detach the taboo. It will create a different point of view that can and will open people’s eyes. Nudity isn’t just about the body. It is also about consent, power, feelings, and emotions—very personal aspects of being human. 

I do think Filipinos are ready! It has been a part of our pre-colonial culture and there’s nothing taboo about it. Nudity has always been part of our lives. We were born naked and we will die naked. 

How about your family? How did they react to your performances?

Just like the usual reaction to anything foreign or new to them, at first they were disgusted by it. They questioned my form and my art. They even tried to convince me to do a different “style” or use a different medium. But I do think I was able to convince them that nudity and bodies aren’t being “bastos.”

I am glad that they saw that. I guess, it’s all because of the invites I had and how others reacted to my art wholeheartedly.

What kept you busy during the pandemic?

I was so out of the loop during the first few months of the pandemic. I lost my job. I wasn’t eating right nor wasn’t doing well.

But I was still able to do art during the pandemic. I am part of a theater group, Ikarus Theatre Collaborative, that creates Podcast Theater every month. I was able to collaborate with Langgam Performance Troupe for an online email performance art. I was able to be part of an online alternative drag show curated by OV CUNT: “Deadflies.” I was able to do different guestings for TV and for digital contents. But whenever I am not doing those, I was able to find an online community through a Survivor Online Roleplaying Games with the reality show’s fans. I was able to elevate my recipes and develop a passion for the culinary arts. I do watch art documentaries on Netflix or on Youtube.

Basically, even if it’s difficult to cope, I make sure I find ways to keep myself busy and continue doing the things I love. One of the things I love the most is growing and learning different things. I think I am able to do that with the amount of time I had during the pandemic.

Why is it important for artists to continue creating art even during the quarantine?

We need to have something to look forward to after this pandemic. Honing our skills, learning new things, and creating new things will help us build not just ourselves but our relationships with others. Doing art is not just creating a drawing or a painting. But for me it’s searching for new things and building and creating stories out of these new things and sharing these stories with others. These shared stories and experiences will help build a better future for people. I do think that is the reason why we need to continue doing art despite the pandemic.

Check out more of Paolo’s work here and on his Instagram @themoonandotherstories.