Reflections on exile

Published June 20, 2022, 7:50 AM

by John Legaspi

Julio José Austria presents his experience living in the Big Apple with ‘Retro Decade’ exhibit

Pursuing a life abroad to build a better future in the homeland is a story many overseas Filipino workers can relate to. There are more than a million Filipinos scattered around the world, braving new cultures and, like a sponge, absorbing new experiences good and bad. Eventually, they become storytellers sharing their narratives with new audiences. The same goes for Filipino-American visual artist Julio José Austria. For years, Austria, also known as Jojo in the arts field, has been staying in New York. As he comes back to the Philippines, he shares his life in the Big Apple through his latest exhibit dubbed “Retro Decade.”

Jojo Austria

Born in Manila on Aug. 11, 1979, Jojo has always been creative ever since he was young. He describes being an artist as a calling, a life that is filled with adventure and devotion, something that offers a chance to explore things beyond normal. He honed his skills at the University of Sto. Tomas by pursuing a fine arts major. After graduating, he went to the other side of the world with his arts and talents as his ticket. He became a recipient of the 2009 Asian Artist Fellowship Award in Vermont Studio Center, a Joan Mitchell Foundation grantee for the Ox-Bow School for the Arts in 2010, and Ruth Katzman scholarship awardee by the Vytlacil Campus of the Arts Student League of New York.

Urbanization and migration are some of the recurring themes in Jojo’s works. Shown in his paintings is his life living in a foreign environment depicted through a “delicate composition of symbols and ideographs” echoing the daily entries in his journal.

“I have to be sure I am always present in all the work I am doing,” Jojo says. “It’s just like ‘getting lost’ in a book that you read or a movie you watch, I want to transport myself to the stories or scenes. It gives me a better understanding of my world views and [and allows me to] be more empathetic and grow as an individual.”

That’s what viewers can expect to see in his latest exhibit. But rather than a view of the beauty of the Statue of Liberty, the flashiness of Times Square, or the towering glory of the Empire State Building through a Filipino immigrant artist’s lens, what they will witness in “Retro Decade” are concerns and issues he has encountered in New York.

“It tackles how migration, labor, diversity, pandemic, history, and culture correlate with my life between my home here in the Philippines and my other home, which is New York City,” the artist muses. “It is different from my past exhibitions because for this show I explored several general ideas and issues that resonate with me the most over a decade of living in New York City and presented them in one show. I am also exploring the possibility of expanding each issue into an individual show.”

With his unique play on colors, Jojo creates images with hints of mystery, darkness, and chaos as he blends earth and soft hues, and even uses other materials like pages of newspapers to perfectly delineate his stories. He started working on them in New York in 2021 and finished them when he came back to the Philippines in December last year. One can see an abstract image of a person wearing a facemask and a Black Lives Matter nod in some of his works. His favorite pieces are the “Spectacle” and “Modern Slavery,” which both create hazy and dreamy images as if you’re looking at the artist’s memories.

“As I engage in experimentation, I collect and gather things and observations—save what’s necessary and important and let go of what is not, and release my entries through abstractions, sometimes using a sponge by adding and erasing colors,” Jojo says. “I always have a motivation for longevity that’s why I made to journal my personal encounters and views and expressed them through art.”

Even before he went to New York, painting has been Jojo’s master tool in presenting his body of work. Art, for him, is an infinite journey, an avenue to deliver a message that we can leave behind in our lifetime.

“[My goal] is to learn new things in creating. [To] explore more possibilities and to expand into multidisciplinary practice, and to resolve conflicts in my process of art-making,” he says. “I will just carry on executing all my ideas and experiences that I had collected from my journals, and let my existing works mutate on their own.”

Check out his works below:

“Absorbed” and “99 Percent”

“D.E,A.I.” and “Modern Slavery”

“99 Percent II” and “Absorbed II”

“The Spectacle”

“Dissentralize”

“Retro Decade” is now on display at Art Cube Gallery located at Unit 104 G/F Bldg. 3, OPVI Centre 2295 Chino Roces Ave. Ext., Makati City.

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