Comic book art exhibition celebrates and reflects the diversity of the Fil-Am community and experience

“Isugid Pinoy!” (ee-soo-ghid), is “tell it Pilipino!” in the Philippine Bisayan language. Presented by Kularts, the premiere presenter of contemporary and tribal Pilipinx art in the United States, “Isugid Pinoy!” is a graphic storytelling project led by visual artists Don Ellis Aguillo and Rafael “Raf” Salazar in partnership with members of the SOMA Pilipinas community to reflect and celebrate the diversity of the Filipino American experience.

As the nation’s premiere presenter of contemporary and tribal Filipino art, Kularts’ curatorial approach with its programs is geared not only to uplift artists and their work but also towards a deep and meaningful engagement with our community. Community engagement goes hand in hand with community building and preservation. By engaging our community, we contribute to its education, empowerment, and for our heritage to thrive which are sources of strength, pride, and identity.

Aguillo and Salazar have their first major exhibition of their comic book art with “Isugid Pinoy! Mythic Warriors of SOMA Pilipinas” at the third floor of the main branch of the San Francisco. Public Library from October 5, 2019 to January 23, 2020. Featuring large-scale renditions and especially laid out panels and displays of comic book art, the exhibition is free and open to the public during library hours.

Currently the largest Asian American group in California, Filipinos have a long history in San Francisco. During the 1920s and 1930s, San Francisco had the highest density of Filipinos in the country. Waves of urban renewal and redevelopment pushed the Filipino community out of Manilatown in Kearny Street, the Fillmore and the Yerba Buena neighborhoods. Many Filipinos settled in the South of Market (SoMa), and by the 1970’s were the dominant population there. To this day, SoMa continues to be the cultural center of the community.

On April 12, 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the establishment of SOMA Pilipinas, Filipino Cultural Heritage District. Bounded by 2nd Street to the east, 11th Street to the west, Market Street to the north, and Brannan Street to the south, SOMA Pilipinas is a “historic and living cultural heritage district with ongoing new generations of migrant workers and immigrant families forming the lifeblood of the South of Market.” It is home to a thriving community of generations of residents and organizations of the Filipino diaspora.

“Filipinos have a rich immigrant history in San Francisco. The stories about the Filipino immigrant’s challenges, struggles and perseverance to find opportunities for themselves and their families is the history of future generations of Filipinos in the U.S. This is their history. They should know, claim, and celebrate SOMA Pilipinas,” said Bernadette Borja Sy, Director of the Filipino American Development Foundation and Bayanihan Community Center.

Aguillo and Salazar pursued multiple stories driven by the ideas and narratives of SOMA Pilipinas based organizations: Arkipelago Books, Bayanihan Equity Center, West Bay Multi- Service Center, and Bindlestiff Studio. For the first six months of the project Aguillo and Salazar focused on creating the 10-20 page community-driven comic book by conducting focused surveys and interviews with people from SOMA Pilipinas anchor organizations.

In addition, Aguillo and Salazar created large posters that each organization can exhibit on their storefront windows. Piecing together these various stories into a narrative whole, they have rendered a mythic version of these notable organizations and members of the Pilipino community who had fought and were instrumental in the establishment of SOMA Pilipinas.

“When shaping the stories of ‘Isugid Pinoy!’, I interviewed people deeply rooted in the SOMA. It was extremely important for the direction of my story to understand where these people came from and what was driving their cause. Their experiences were powerful and emotional and inspiring. Ultimately, my goal was to immerse the audience into a fictional world that was still grounded by truth and real life struggle. I wanted to highlight everyday heroes as my superheroes,” says Salazar.

Both from the East Coast, Aguillo and Salazar began to seriously explore their Filipino roots and heritage when they moved to San Francisco. Their entry point was through Philippine folkloric dance by joining Parangal Dance Company. They became more involved in the Bay Area Filipino community that eventually led to an opportunity to work on projects as commissioned artists of Kularts that resulted in the creation of the comic books “Clan of Saints Bay” and “Isugid Pinoy!”

“I think Filipino comics can still very much echo western work, though it is being given its own agency through the autonomy that creators are enjoying now through self-publishing,” says Aguillo. “They’re telling stories more true to Filipinos,” says Salazar. “The ones most people are familiar with were pretty much doing what western comics were doing.”

Aguillo and Salazar has since co-founded In Hiatus Studios, a print and publishing house in San Francisco. One of their goals with their business is “to continue to create comics.”

By creating our own SOMA Pilipinas heroes and mythology through the medium of comics, we evoke pride and inspiration and empower our community in the present as well as the future.

“I believe the beauty of comics goes beyond the capes and masks, but in their ability to throw readers into colorful new worlds and perspectives. They can reach broader audiences and at the same time, bring forth the power of awareness. Important events or issues we may otherwise overlook in our daily lives can be brought into light through thoughtful story telling and imagery. One such event is what’s happening right here in the SOMA; where rapid development is disrupting the community and a group of passionate people is working tirelessly to keep their home and fight for their clan,” says Salazar.

Aguillo acknowledges the importance of looking up to our own heroes to inspire and motivate us.

“‘Isugid Pinoy!’ is an alternative lens, and for those it spotlights, a mirror, on the forces that make the SOMA Pilipinas, Filipino Cultural Heritage District relevant and formidable. These individuals are the movers and shakers of this great community, and this project through Kularts is a way to acknowledge their accomplishments and continuing endeavors to activate and preserve this long-standing community in the heart of San Francisco. This body of work serves as a lens not only through which we see these individuals rise to challenge, but also so that those individuals can see themselves.”

To be able to imagine ourselves as empowered beings through the arts allows us to reclaim our power, strength, sense of pride, and identity. Creating our own superheroes based on our own stories and ourselves gives our community mythic role models that we can relate to. “Isugid Pinoy!” is a result and continuation of a deep level of engagement as part of an ongoing process to decolonize, empower, and strengthen our community.

“Isuguid! Pinoy” is on exhibit until January 23, 2020 at the San Francisco Public Library at 100 Larkin Street.  For more information visit www.kularts-sf.org.

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