Marikit Santiago

In Artist Profile 54, shortly after a Sulman Prize win, Marikit Santiago wrote that "My process is driven by a blatant disregard of advice, a twenty-five metre extension cord, and the school bell." Celebrating the opening of Santiago's most ambitious solo exhibition to date, For us sinners, at Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, we share her reflections on the dynamics in the studio at her family home, her experience growing up in Australia with migrant parents, and defying advice given in her art education.

During my last years of art school, at a critical point in my studies, on the verge of establishing my practice, a respected lecturer and accomplished artist told me I can’t sustain a practice on autobiographical themes. I was totally and utterly dejected. If I couldn’t make work about the only thing I have complete and confident authority over, what else was I supposed to do? So, I went ahead and made my final body of work drawn from my personal history anyway. And now, my career is almost entirely invested in the autobiographic. 

I was born in Australia to migrant parents and so experienced an upbringing where Filipino and Australian customs would often clash. I was painfully shy as a child, and having the name “Marikit” and dark skin made me quite different to my peers. 

I was embarrassed to call my parents Nanay and Tatay in front of my friends who all addressed their parents as Mum and Dad. I resisted speaking Tagalog for a long time and I always resented people asking what nationality I am. “I was born here. I’m Australian.” These experiences made me reject my Filipino heritage. It’s only as an adult, as an artist and more significantly as a parent that I’ve learned to acknowledge my ethnic identity. My practice investigates this personal conflict of cultural plurality, articulating the complex sensations conditioned by my experiences in and between adopted and inherited cultures. Confusion, uncertainty and discomfort is potent to my practice. Articulating these sensations draws my most interesting work and most rigorous processes. 

I have made my studio from the garage of our humble two-bedroom apartment in North Parramatta. The garage is located along the shared driveway of our block and to let natural light and ventilation in, I open up the counterweight garage door and the inner door exposing my working space completely to any passing neighbours. I run a twenty-five metre-long extension cord from the studio to the shared power point at the side of the building and I am granted access to extra lighting, the printer, a heater (in winter), and speakers. My working space is shared with all the other items that are usually found in garage storage; kids’ bikes, beach buckets, outgrown clothes, Christmas decorations. The allocated working space is limited, but it is productive. I’ve made my best work here.

I’m a full-time practising artist and a mother of three. These are demanding pursuits, and in neither am I willing to compromise. In order to make work that satisfies my artistic desires, and still be the mother that I want to be for my children, I must work within time constraints between school drop off and pick up. The household duties and cooking are attended to first after drop off to clear the remainder of the day for studio production until pick up. This leaves between three and four hours of studio time. In this limited time, I must be diligent and work intensively.

An art practice is not exclusive to the easel. Often, when the lights go out in the children’s room, my laptop flips open. While the day is reserved for the studio, evenings are spent writing, researching or image searching. I want my work to be laden with rich imagery and symbolism, and accomplishing these intentions are reliant on this principal research.

My work is forged by, with, and for my children. My practice is informed by my experiences as a mother and my artistic processes are dictated by this maternal role. Art practice and motherhood are not segregated duties but are instead collaborative, though offering both reciprocal favour and hardships. My interest in articulating the complexities of my cultural identities has only been heightened by motherhood and my work seeks to expose this personal conflict, not only for myself, but as a legacy for my children. Their naïve yet confident mark-making which is entwined with my sometimes rigid and refined technique adds a visual intrigue and deep sentimentality. Their collaborations with me are reserved only for the deeply personal and passionate pieces in which they are the muses. 

I’ve been told you can’t sustain a practice on autobiographical themes, but it turns out you can. And sometimes, you might even win a prestigious award for it. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

For us sinners
26 March – 15 May 2022, with public programs throughout
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related