FILIPINO exhibition series Pulo Project is back until August with a new set of art, design and fashion from Filipino and Filipino American creatives. 

Born as a “passion project” by Filipina American curator and designer Michelle Aquino, Pulo Project popped up at the downtown Los Angeles flagship of luxury retail store Please Do Not Enter, as well as The Lab, its gallery inside the NoMad hotel starting in May. The series was further supported after a trip Aquino took to the Philippines with Please Do Not Enter’s French owners, Nicolas Libert and Emmanuel Renoird, earlier this year.

Inside Please Do Not Enter, a luxury retail store in Downtown Los Angeles that is hosting Filipino exhibition series Pulo Project until August 4. Photo shows conch light installation by Kenneth Cobonpue and Luisa Robinson and display cases with MAAARI’s funeral masks and jewelry. | AJPress photo by Christina M. Oriel

The first round featured Aquino’s Bohol-inspired outfits, furniture and accessories by Kenneth Cobonpue and Luisa Robinson, installations by contemporary artist-designer Leeroy New, jewelry by Ken Samudio and clutches by Neil Felipp. 

“This show was also a challenge to the American audience, meaning what do you know about the Philippines? Are you ready to go and learn about it? People are really impressed,” Libert previously told the Asian Journal. “It’s also a challenge to the Filipino designers because we asked some of them to work on the show as a tribute to the Filipino aesthetic and the craftsmanship and to give us their own vision and what they could bring to the table. That’s something that connects the Philippines to America.”

The second chapter of Pulo, which debuted on July 9, again takes over both the flagship and NoMad locations and runs until August 4. 

“The feedback was good for the first round as the clients definitely gravitated more toward the accessories and it prepped me for this one,” Aquino, who also serves as store director for Please Do Not Enter, told the Asian Journal. “I was aware of what was needed, which was more so the descriptions and how to tell the stories of the artists.”

Inside the Please Do Not Enter flagship store are pieces by Filipino American designer Carlyle Nuera and MAAARI, an accessories and home goods brand by three Filipina Americans. 

“What I would like guests to experience is a different take on Filipino American designers, where I feel we are all trying to figure out our roots and connect with Filipino culture and have it in our products and designs,” Aquino said. 

Carlyle Nuera, lead designer for Barbie Signature at Mattel, debuts ‘Panit,’ a collection of five skin-colored ternos to represent the skin tone range of Filipinos. | Photo by Peter Jung

Carlyle Nuera

Nuera, lead designer for Barbie Signature at Mattel, makes his debut as an individual artist and designer with ‘Panit’ — the Waray word for skin — a collection of five ternos showing a range of Filipino skin tones. 

“The range of skin tones is a common experience for all Filipinos. If you’re dark, your family tells you to stay out of the sun. But when you’re light, you are upheld as a vision of mestizo beauty,” Nuera told the Asian Journal. “In my work, whatever it may be, I always want to have some kind of meaning behind it. It’s not just visually arresting, but emotionally arresting too.” 

Carlyle Nuera’s Mutya Barbie and original sketches are on display at Please Do Not Enter’s flagship store alongside MAAARI’s Banga ceramics. | AJPress photo by Christina M. Oriel

The ternos, which are made from silk organza, are positioned in a row of mannequins “within a context with each other” and are intended to be sold all together (priced at $6,500) as more of an art piece to show that there is no one singular idea of what the Filipino/Filipina should look like. 

Going to the Philippines for the first time this past June confirmed Nuera’s notions about ‘colorism’ and he witnessed firsthand the skin whitening products sold at drugstores and the one-dimensional images on billboards and advertisements that don’t accurately portray the diverse appearances and skin tones of everyday Filipinos.

“All of that just validated the concept that there is still this colonial mentality that white skin is deemed better,” Nuera said. “But it’s not about denigrating pale skin, typically those thought of as pretty ones, because they’re still Filipino also. The point is to bring all of us to the forefront.”

He hopes that his terno collection will start conversations amongst non-Filipinos who may not “have a frame of reference for colorism” and for Filipinos to see that it is possible to pursue a career in the creative field. 

Nuera’s Mutya Barbie doll, which was part of Mattel’s Global Glamour Collection in 2015, as well his original sketches are also on display at Please Do Not Enter.

“This project has given me inspiration and momentum to continue to explore my Filipino identity through using fashion as the medium,” Nuera said. “Hopefully, if this collection sells, I can use that money to invest in the next collection.”

Jeanette Sawyer, co-founder and chief design officer of MAAARI, poses next to the Lunar Jewelry collection | Photo courtesy of MAAARI

MAAARI

“When I learned about MAAARI, I was interested because, for me, it definitely speaks to traditional Filipino design in a more contemporary way,” Aquino said of bringing the brand on board for Pulo Project.  

Founded by Filipina Americans  Jeanette Sawyer, Ivy Ocampo and Samantha Roxas, MAAARI is a “uniquely Filipina” modern accessories and home goods brand that pays homage to traditional design and cultural practices. 

MAAARI partners with Filipino-American and Philippine-based artisans and designers, such as La Roca in the Romblon province and the T’Boli community in South Cotabato, to hand produce the line’s pieces with a mindful and sustainably-focused approach.

“By taking and preserving traditional Filipino craftsmanship, we give them a new market access so they can sustain their livelihoods,” said Sawyer, a graphic artist and exhibition designer based in LA. “We present elevated and modern pieces that we would wear ourselves but in a respectable manner.” 

MAAARI’s Lunar Jewelry collection on display at Please Do Not Enter | Photo by Adrian Martin

Sawyer, together with jeweler Misty Summers, crafted a special Lunar Jewelry line for Pulo Project, using healing and grounding stones like onyx that are for “empowering women” and absorbing negative energy. Some pieces on display and for sale include the Lunar Collar, Lunar BBS (lunar stud earrings), Lunar Drops (pendulum earrings) and ethically sourced mother of pearl hoop earrings made by women in southern Cebu.

Ocampo, a creative based in New York who handles the branding for MAAARI, designed the ceramic products for the brand, such as the Banga Collection that is available at Please Do Not Enter. The vases and pots — traditionally used for cooking, water, food storage and bartering — are a “testament to the strength and altruistic nature of the Filipina spirit,” Ocampo said in an email. 

MAAARI’s Ritual Mask Burners, which honor the Mindanaoan indigenous funeral masks ritual. | Photo by Adrian Martin

MAAARI’s funeral masks were exclusively made for Pulo Project, drawing upon the centuries-old indigenous ritual of covering the faces of deceased loved ones with gold masks. “They were a beautiful aid in the grieving process so we made Ritual Mask Burners to honor this act,” Sawyer said. Bayabas (guava) leaves from local wellness company Herbalaria are also sold as a recommended smudging tool, as those were used in ancient Filipino practices similar to sage or palo santo. 

“We hope our line can show that Filipinos are on the design map. We grew up as Filipina Americans who were curious about the Philippines and what we could do to support the talent back there consciously so we’d like to merge those two worlds,” Sawyer said. 

Zacarapata (Zacarias 1925 x Garapata)

Meanwhile, a few blocks down is The Lab, Please Do Not Enter’s gallery and gift store at the bottom of the NoMad Hotel.

Bags, home goods and lamps by Zacarapata, a collaboration between ZACARIAS 1925 and Garapata, as a commentary on “the global infestation and coupling of art/design/fashion world commercialization. | Photo by Adrian Martin

“When working with the Filipino artists coming in from the Philippines, they’re all trying to go outside of the country and are going toward a more contemporary thrust. There are two different dynamics at play here,” Aquino noted.

Rita Nazareno of ZACARIAS 1925 during the opening night of Pulo Project on Tuesday, July 9.
| Photo by Adrian Martin

Zacarapata is a collaboration between Filipino street artist Dex Fernandez, known as Garapata, and Zacarias 1925, a handbag line by creative director Rita Nazareno. The line debuted at Aphro in Manila last year as a commentary on “the global infestation and coupling of art/design/fashion world commercialization,” the artists said. 

Fernandez’s multi-legged caricature of the garapata (tick) is emblazoned on Nazareno’s wicker bags and other objects, such as lamps, fans and desk ornaments. 

“Garapata has simple line drawings and mixing those with a 3-D bag becomes this intricate object born out of simplicity,” Nazareno, whose grandmother started famed Filipino brand S.C. Vizcarra in 1925, said. “A big part of what I do, why I do it and how I live my life is trying to find the fun in everything. I hope there’s a wit to the bags that I make.”

All of the pieces are made at Zacarias 1925’s workshop in the Philippines and are influenced by her global travels, art, architecture (e.g. one bag modeled after the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) and cinema.

Inside The Lab at the NoMad Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles are handwoven bags by ZACARIAS 1925, pieces by Zacarapata under the brand’s collaboration with artist Garapata, and scents by Barratt Riley & Co. AJPress | photo by Christina M. Oriel

“My bags have different shapes and weaves, they’re very architectural, but the material itself connotes beach bags or nostalgia. The people who buy my bags have a discerning quality where they see the wit or reference behind the bag or perhaps get the unusual shapes,” Nazareno said. 

The designer said Pulo Project visitors will learn about the “skill and creativity of our weavers” as well as “how Filipino Americans are bridging the arts and culture between their two identities.” 

“Our craftsmanship in the Philippines is bar none and there are so many examples of that,” Nazareno said. “It’s a very creative country. The work we make by hand has character and soul. You hope more of that energy comes out for more people to enjoy. Our products are global and well-designed that can speak to people beyond race or with where you were born.” 

Barratt Riley & Co.

Los Angeles-based candle and aromatherapy brand Barratt Riley & Co. — founded by psychologist Dr. Tyler Barratt and Beverly Hills beauty guru Christian Fitzgerald Riley — introduces four custom scents evoking the Philippines to tie the visual experience inside The Lab with an aromatic dimension.

“I wanted to create an experience where the minute people come inside the space, they feel something, a sense of the Philippines,” Aquino said of working with the artisanal brand for this limited-edition line. “The only way I felt that you could do that besides visual is by smell.”

Scent stations by Barratt Riley & Co, a Los Angeles-based brand that created custom scents, using sampaguita, kalamansi and other botanicals inspired by memories of the Philippines.
| AJPress photo by Christina M. Oriel

Inside The Lab, visitors can find stations, adorned with plants common to the Philippines, inviting them to smell and share reactions to the scent creations. 

Though they haven’t been to the Philippines themselves, Barratt and Riley have been exposed to Filipino culture and food through friends over the years. 

“We’ve been around elements of Filipino culture and through the experience of making these scents and research, the culture has become part of our own too,” Riley said.

The four scents — Pulo, Manila, Kalamansi and Sampaguita — are the results of research on the flora and fauna of the Philippines (one book called “Flora de Filipinas” by Spanish friar and botanist Francisco Manuel Blanco was particularly helpful) and interviews with Aquino and other Filipinos who shared stories of the country and growing up Filipino.

In the Pulo blend, ylang ylang, jasminum sambac (also known as the national Philippine flower, Sampaguita) and green herbs were used and are naturally fragranced by 100% pure botanical essential oils. The Manila scent — which has a smoky element to it — captures the hustle and bustle of the capital city using palmarosa, labdanum and cedarwood. Kalamansi, considered the Philippine lime, has a blend of different citruses, basil and elemi essential oil. The Sampaguita, which is a blend of essential oils and perfume grade fragrance, fuses the flower with honeysuckle and white musk. They are sold in botanical mist (perfect to use anywhere to cleanse and relax), candle, body oil, salt scrub and essential oil forms.

“These are interpretations of the stories people entrusted with us, whether it was the emotions or the smells they remembered from their grandma’s house or their travels back to the Philippines,” Barratt added. “Through the line, they’re experiences and memories, not just products.”

With the warm feedback on the inaugural Pulo Project, Aquino promises that it’s just the beginning with a second phase coming in summer 2020, organized alongside Clarissa Esguerra, associate curator of costume and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). 

We can expect an experience that will combine Filipino and Fil-Am “wellness, fashion and culinary elements,” Aquino said. 

** 

Pulo Project can be viewed at the Please Do Not Enter Flagship from Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 549 S. Olive Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013 and the Please Do Not Enter / The Lab / inside NoMad Los Angeles from Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 649 S. Olive Street, Los Angeles, CA 90014. More information can be found at https://puloproject.com/

CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Clarissa Esguerra’s title at LACMA. She is the associate curator of costume and textiles. The article has also been updated to reflect that MAAARI also works with Filipino-American designers and the accurate description of its Banga Collection. 

Christina M. Oriel
Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is the Managing Editor of the Asian Journal Weekly Newspapers.

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