An Interview with Terry Acebo Davis

by Victoria Alba

Terry Acebo Davis, Self in Terno, screen print, 42" x 30", 1998.

For years Palo Alto resident Terry Acebo Davis has simultaneously balanced the careers of nurse, visual artist, arts educator and activist. Yet her Filipino heritage has guided her through them all.

Being a health professional has meant lending her voice to the under-represented. As a pediatric nurse she is a caregiver and an advocate for families, many of whom do not speak English and are caught in the midst of a complex medical system. At Stanford Hospital where she has worked since 1976, Acebo Davis was also a union representative who helped negotiate better conditions for the hospitals Filipino nurses.

It is her artwork, however, that most passionately reflects her ethnic background. Her installations and works-on-paper continually evoke Filipino and Filipino-American history and culture. They are personal and political; sources range from her own familys oral histories and photographic albums to materials gleaned from public archives and books.

Her works are both figurative and abstract, and allude to narratives. The installations, in particular, are highly representational and incorporate skillfully manipulated photographs, audio recordings, as well as actual objects invested with symbolic meaning, such as field crates, thongs casted in bronze and banig (woven mats used as bedding). Her prints, on the other hand, draw upon a vast array of printmaking processes and collage to call attention to form, color and line. Often, fragmented images are judiciously arranged to suggest content through subtle association. Text is as important as iconography, and letters and numbers are sometimes treated as discrete design elements. The surfaces to be printed on are equally critical: for example, a Filipino theme might be paired with Philippine handmade paper fabricated from cogon, a fragrant native grass.

Acebo Davis is also a principal artist with the artists collective DIWA, and has worked with them to create video installations and performances that involve the Filipino community. In addition, because her work is identity based and frequently autobiographical, many of her works address womens issues, as is the case with Fishing for Eggs an allegorical series of prints and large charcoal drawings that deal with the topic of fertility. Moreover, her interests in medicine and art converge in her numerous pieces that depict the body anatomical references that at times enlist the tools of 20th-century technology. In the Acebo Davis works, for instance, a foot might appear as a drawing, photograph or x-ray; or the brain can manifest as a CAT scan (computerized axial tomography).

Acebo Davis never intended to pursue such seemingly disparate fields. During her first year in college, she focused on art. But being the eldestof six children in a solidly working class, lower-income household, Acebo Davis was pressured to sacrifice her dreams for reality. Friends and family advised her to put her art career on hold and switch to the more practical path of nursing. In doing so, shed also be setting an example for her younger siblings. She was born in Oakland, where she lived until her family moved to Fremont in the early sixties. Her Philippine-born parents each immigrated to the United States after World War II. Her father, the eldest of twelve children, came as a Merchant Seaman. Her mother, one of the youngest of five, was the daughter of a cook in the U.S. Navy, which was their passage to America.

Acebo Davis received her first Bachelors degree in Nursing from California State University Hayward in 1976, and pursued her graduate degree in Pediatric Oncology at University of California San Francisco in 1983. Her art degrees consist of a BFA in Printmaking from San Jose State University in 1991 and an MFA in Pictorial Arts from San Jose State University in 1993. In 1997 she was the recipient of the James D. Phelan Award in Printmaking and the Radius Award given to emerging South Bay artists sponsored by the City of Palo Alto. For the last nine years she has been a key member of the Asian American Womens Artist Association and is the project coordinator for their first catalog which debuts this Fall.

This interview occurred in June 1998 at the Washington Square Gallery in San Francisco, where one of her smaller installations, a series of prints from an Artist in Residency in Belgium, and recent drawings were on exhibition.

When did you start seriously examining Filipino American history?

I began studying Filipino-American history back in the seventies, before there were even courses on Asian Americans. Also, being born and raised in California, Ive lived through a great part of Filipino-American history that the textbooks have not been able to keep up with or are simply not acknowledging. In college I was involved in staving off the eviction of the International Hotel residents [who were largely Filipino and Chinese senior citizens] and I participated in the anti-Marcos movement. Our history as Filipino Americans is an oral history; we learn much of it through the stories of our parents, uncles, aunts and fellow kababayan (countrymen).

Ive noticed that words also play an important role in your art.

Absolutely. I look at how words are arranged on a page and how certain phrases can have impact. There is usually a graphic element in most pieces; this could be words, numbers, letters, or even Alibata, ancient Tagalog script. Graphics serve a dual purpose. As forms they become design elements. Take the number 3: a wonderful shape but there are also semiotics behind that number. It could symbolize something religious, mathematical or meta-physical, referring to a number of trinities. There is a set notion as to why a particular form happens where it does. I remember being told by a professor to just toss the collage papers onto the table and use that randomness. I tried it, but had to rearrange them in my fashion. For me there is no randomness; there is order, reason and fate.

Besides identity politics, what issues or themes do you address through your work?

Gender issues are powerful. The pieces Im working on now deal specifically with the strength of women in the Filipino family. Im collecting pictures of my so-called aunties and other Filipina women of my parents generation. Im photographing their palms and feet to incorporate these into an artwork. One print I completed in Belgium contained my own hands and feet. Im also reworking a piece about Adam and Eve. Adams head is modeled after Adam in the Ghent Altarpiece [a 15th century polyptych painting by Hubert and JanVan Eyck]. I constructed Adams body with Filipina womens hands, to convey the sense that they were supporting him. You see, I believe Adam was brought into this world by a woman. Without women, men would be non-existent. A few other themes Ive addressed through my work are Filipina mail order brides, the Filipino domestic worker and Filipino creation myths.

Was there one experience in particular that led you to probe your Filipino identity?

My first encounter with prejudice slapped me into realizing that I was not white. I was in high school and the person who made me feel this way was the mother of the fellow I was dating, who eventually became my first husband. This woman said to her son You shouldnt go out with her, she is black as far as Im concerned! I think we married just to get back at his mother for being a racist, which, of course, is the wrong reason to marry. This first incident made me want to delve into who I am, and the meaning of pride.

All the same, I sense no bitterness or anger in your work.

There was one painting I made while I was an undergraduate art student. I screenprinted four magnum guns onto raw canvas. One read yellow, another red, another brown, and the fourth black. It related to Russian Roulette and was inspired by the Rodney King beating. I was thinking about the crazies who believe that they can take a pot shot at someone because they arent the right color.

Could you describe a work or series of works that puts to use your knowledge of Filipino American history?

During graduate school, I created a group called the Manong series. Manong is a respectful term, used to refer to a Filipino elder. This series of assemblages focused on moments in Filipino American history, such as the International Hotel eviction, the Watsonville Riots [1929 anti-Filipino race riots occurring in Watsonville, California] and the Tydings-McDuffie Act [an exlusionist law that established the Philippines as a commonwealth, restricted Filipino immigration to the U.S. to 50 a year, and reclassified Filipinos in the U.S. as aliens]. I juxtaposed misnomers and racial slurs with historical images, a kind of fact versus fiction. I used a variety of materials and sources, such as charts, old maps, anatomy references and history textbooks, particularly a primer used to teach Americans the language Ilokano. Ilokano is a Filipino language spoken in the provinces of Northern Luzon, the birthplace of my father. I suspect that this text was probably intended for use by the U.S. military stationed in the Philippines during war times. Some of the phrases used in the primer were so inappropriate, actually insulting if used, like: Your house is just a bamboo thicket, or Who are the boys who threw the stones? So I tore out these pages and put them into my art. Many of the photographs I used were borrowed, from a photographic archive made available to me by Fred and Dorothy Cordova of the Filipino American National Historical Society based in Seattle.

Another work in this series dealt with World War II and addressed the close relationship between Black soldiers based in the Philippines with the Filipino people. It included a photograph of an African American soldier standing in attention, a temperature chart of Typhoid, which many soldierscontracted, and a map of Leyte Gulf, where the greatest naval battle of the Pacific was fought.

Do you worry that people who do not have a background in Filipino American history and culture might look at your art and not understand what you are saying or appreciate the nuances in your work?

I believe there are universal messages and vignettes in my art if one looks closely. But in the end I can no longer worry about how or even if my work is interpreted correctly. As soon as I put the art out there the work is no longer mine. I respect the fact that the viewers explanation is as valid as my own. However, if people ask me about my artwork, I am only too happy to share my process.

You were at first reluctant to study nursing, but you learned to enjoy it, didnt you?

Nursing school was difficult because I was living at home helping with the upbringing of my younger siblings and working three jobs. How was I supposed to study? I graduated only an average student, but I found the coursework in anatomy and physiology stimulating, thus the figurative elements in my work; and was always fascinated with the world under the microscope, my basis of abstraction. Out of nursing school my first job was at Stanford working with brilliant teams of nurses and physicians. I was 22 years old, in charge of peoples lives. My patients were coping and often dying of cancer, chronic lung and heart disease, kidney failure, or stroke. I ran a nursing team of women, some old enough to be my mother. I was once a timid and shy person, but nursing helped me develop confidence and compassion. Now I work in a very autonomous and challenging position, as a Pediatric Critical Care Transport Specialist. Seldom are there dull moments in the intensive care working with children and their families. Besides providing my livelihood, nursing also allowed me the ability to travel. Through Interplast and other volunteer organizations I was blessed with opportunities to visit, work and teach in China, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Vietnam, and the Philippines. As a nurse Ive met a true cross section of the world, people I wouldnt have met solely as an artist. Even if I could work full-time as an art professor, as do many of my dearest friends, my life would not be as complete without nursing. As an artist I can only be assured of one thing, I will never run short of content or experiences to guide my vision. My lifemy vocations have been full of rewards, that render far beyond my expectations."

by Victoria Alba Copyright 1998 Victoria Alba. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.

Victoria Alba is a freelance arts writer. She teaches courses on
Filipino American arts and artists at San Francisco State University.

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