Stephanie Comilang is a Berlin based Filipino-Canadian artist interested in the experience of migration across histories and species. Her latest exhibition Search for Life is an impressive project that traverses across film, installation, and textiles. This traversal, simultaneously drawing a link between the migratory experience of humans and non-humans, reveals the deep colonial history inextricable from any post-colonial present. Comilang’s exhibition presents that confrontation between the modern globalised world and its globalising past.
The central feature of the exhibition is a film - a diptych connecting this exhibition to a 2025 show in Sharjah, UAE – which centralises the experience of Filipino workers on ships. It draws both on her personal Filipino heritage and extends backwards to unveil the colonial link between the Philippines and Mexico as a Spanish colony. An excavation of this history reveals the always interconnected experience of migration, which is interwoven within a broader search for home. If anything could unify humanity, this desire for belonging may have some hope. And so it is the invocation of this common desire which makes Comilang’s work most powerfully and universally affecting.
Search for Life is Comilang’s first major solo show in Spain. It is presented by TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary as part of its programme at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National museum. The exhibition is curated by Chus Martinez and is organised in collaboration with the Sharjah Art Foundation. It is on show from now until 26th May 2024.
Where are you right now? You’re from Toronto originally, yes?
I’m based in Berlin. I was born in Toronto and spent most of my life there before moving here in 2012, so I’ve lived here a while now.
Starting from the beginning then, what was your first introduction to art and the creative scene in Toronto?
I think from an early age I always knew I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t really know what that would look like. I think when you’re a kid you don’t know what that looks like, but the idea of something creative was something that I was thinking about. I ended up going to art school in Toronto for my BFA. Through that, I became involved in the art scene in Toronto, and I actually started making music videos before documentaries, which then eventually led to more documentary and experimental style films.
Why did you decide to move to Berlin? Did you feel you were missing something in Toronto?
I actually moved with an ex-boyfriend who got a residency in Berlin! (laughs) I imagined something bigger for myself and knew that I wanted to move outside of what I knew, which was just Canada. So we moved to Berlin together and then I decided to stay. It took me a while to get comfortable and find my place in Berlin, but now I really love it. My gallery is here and I have a really great community of friends. It’s a great place to be an artist (maybe not right now), but there’s so many different people here. The art scene is so large, there are so many pockets and it’s always changing.
Yes, I suppose it’s such a young population as well, lots of people are moving to Berlin at the minute.
Yeh exactly, there’s always new people and spaces that open up all the time. There’s constant movement in the city and that makes it really interesting.
You’re mainly focused on film as a primary artistic medium, did you go through a transition from painting or any more traditional mediums before moving into film and documentary?
No, I never was into painting. When I applied to art school for my undergrad, I was so young I didn’t really know, so weirdly I applied for jewellery making. I still really love jewellery, but back then I had just come back from a trip to the Philippines to visit family. I made a portfolio based on that trip and a lot of it was more installation based, so I got into school because of that. I ended up on an integrated media course, which actually made sense for me because I’ve loved film since childhood. I wasn’t a film nerd, but I watched all the auteurs like Won Kar-wai and Godard - the kind of films you watch when you’re young and giving yourself an education. I was also really into experimental film. There’s this Filipino filmmaker called Kidlat Tahimik, and he’s the godfather of experimental cinema in the Philippines. That was the first time I’d seen someone I could relate to, whose work was similar to what I wanted to do.
I did a residency for a year in Florence with my school, and I was using an overhead projector because I didn’t have a film camera. I used that to create films, then I toured with a musician and started making music videos. So I was always interested in using technology and twisting it to the way I wanted to use it. I still do that now, I’ve used analogue technology, drones, iPhones, VR. It’s always a tool for me.
More thematically, you mention migration is a key theme in your work. What’s the most fruitful points of inspiration you gain from that?
I’m drawn to it because my parents are immigrants and they came to Canada from the Philippines. I’m always thinking about how immigrants create homes in places that aren’t theirs and of the division between inside and outside the home. Inside the home language, food and customs are different, so when you leave home everything changes. I always gravitate towards themes of migration as an artist. It’s just what I know, the experience is familiar. It’s always personal, right, the things we draw from?
How does that theme feature in your exhibition?
The exhibition is about monarch butterflies who are the longest travelling insects in the world. It’s also about Filipino seafarers. 25% of the world’s seafarers are from the Philippines. I’m also thinking about the colonial trade routes between the Philippines and Mexico connecting Manilla to Acapulco for 300 years.
What made you focus on the seafarers story? How did you come across that?
During the pandemic there were lots of stories in the news about people who couldn’t come home, people stuck on ships or sometimes even stuck in their home ports. A lot of them were from the Philippines. I was thinking about how that would feel if you could see your home but couldn’t return to it. That’s how it came about. I was asked to make a short video for ocean archive an online platform for TBA21 related to that. Search for Life turned into an expansion of that video, called Diaspora Ad Astra.
Is there any link between nature and humanity more generally in your work?
I think about objects that connect places. In the past it’s been a pineapple for instance.
Oh yes, there’s a textile element in your exhibition, is that made of pineapple fibre?
Yes, so in the Philippines it’s called piña, which is Spanish for pineapple. The name itself has a transglobal element to it. The pineapple is from South America and was brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards. There’s so many things that travelled during that colonial period, you only need to focus on one object and there’s always a much larger story behind it. I focused on the pineapple in another project called Piña Why is the Sky Blue? about precolonial shamanism in the Philippines and Ecuador.
I don’t always take from nature, but I think in relation to migration and colonisation there’s so many things you just need to look at once and you see it: sugarcanes, potatoes, chillies, chocolate, vanilla, palm, coconut. All of these things which come from nature and have such a deep history, there’s so much to talk about in them.
You describe your films as “science fiction documentaries”. Could you expand on what this doubled genre marker means to you?
I made a film in 2016/17 called Come to me Paradise about Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong told from the perspective of a ghost, played by a drone. For that film I knew I didn’t want to make a straightforward documentary because I have issues with proposing a supposed truth. For a documentary or film to propose the truth feels like a strange thing. I don’t want to do that and I just don’t think I’d be good at it. I always create a fictional narrative or alternative voices to propose something other and challenge the documentary truth. For me it feels easier to speak from a voice that doesn’t exist in the real world. It somehow gives a rounder picture. I also find writing from a fictional perspective easier to write from because I’m thinking of multiple different characters rather than one individual.
Yes, that’s really interesting. The idea of trying to avoid asserting any determinate truth even in documentary. I think it lends itself well to thinking about the role of the audience in that. How they can reinterpret different meanings by coming to an artwork with their own history and change the meaning through their singular experience of it. So, I guess, do you ever think about the observer and the role they play in your pieces?
I know my past work appeals to such a broad range of people because a lot of my work deals with the amorphous ideas of home and we all have different ideas of what home means. It’s not this obscure storytelling or cryptic form of art, so I know it will appeal to many. I’m not actively trying to do that, but I know that the themes I deal with speak to a lot of people.
And you mentioned your parents emigrated to Canada in the 70s, do you feel like that’s had an impact on you personally?
Yes of course, the environment always affects us when we’re growing up. Toronto is a pretty multicultural city and there’s a big Filipino community. Canada has an interesting and strange geopolitical placement because it is beside America, though it distinguishes itself from it, and is also part of the commonwealth so it’s partly British. On top of that a lot of the discourse and problematics centre around indigenous people and their land, which are super important issues. So these are things that are and have been in my orbit growing up. Since my parents are from the Philippines, this other place was always something I had in my background periphery as another home, another part of me. Whenever I go there I simultaneously feel like I belong but don’t. It’s kind of like that in Canada too, very familiar but also never entirely my home.
Has that made any questions arise that you’ve carried throughout your life?
I think it just means that home came be many different things and it can always change. It’s complex and it’s something I can always tap into with my practice. It’s always a central theme for me.
The exhibition is called Search for Life, if it’s not too much of a metaphysical question, do you know what the end of that search might look like?
Well, you know the title comes from a song that’s in the film. It plays at the end as one of the seafarers sings it in karaoke. It’s by an American band called Dirty Projectors, you should listen to it! It’s really beautiful and reminded me of the way I imagine a butterfly would write, it feels like it’s from a butterfly’s perspective so I knew I wanted to put it into the film. Also Search for Life can be heard as a kind of command. There’s an urgency to those words reminiscent of astronauts or space travel. There’s lots of interesting connotations to it, but I also just love the song and knew that I wanted that as an element in the film before I made it.
That’s a good answer! So to end, other than the song what else is inspiring you at the minute?
Well, I used to get my nails done all the time and I haven’t done that in a while. I have an archive of nail inspiration online that I’m obsessed with looking at. I’d love to do a project about nails. Now I’m just focused on part 2 of this project in Sharjah for the Sharjah Biennial 16 in 2025. I’m going to go to Sharjah in April. It’s also a historic port town, so I’m looking forward to seeing the things that pass through the port and talking to people there. It’s made up of all migrants, the UAE, so that’ll be really interesting.
There’s so much to draw on, I feel like this theme could sustain you for an entire artistic career.
(laughs) At least for two projects!