Cover Aze Ong (Photo: Albert Labrador / NCCA)

After her public art installation project in Queens, New York, the Philippine fibre queen weaves her rightful throne as Art Fair Philippines 2022's centrepiece

Aside from being an integral part of the development of our fashion, the cultural tradition of weaving has always been an esoteric practice by our pre-colonial ancestors. With patterns and symbolic figures coming from dreams to certain colours having meanings for respective occasions, textiles and fabrics not only clothed our skins nor decorated our homes but also shaped our consciousness and sensibilities as a nation.

Taking this tradition further into the contemporary art scene, Aze Ong embodies Homer's Penelope in the classic Greek epic Odyssey by embedding her own emotions, spirituality, and state of mind. "Ang sining ang pagtatahi ng aking puso sa isip, katawan, at kaluluwa (Art is the weaving of my heart to my mind, body, and soul)," Ong shares with Tatler.

Her magnanimous piece for this year's Art Fair Philippines truly captures this transition. Entitled Transcendence, it is her biggest work to date with approximately 40 x 12 feet. Aside from it being a visual message of who she is as an artist, the process of creating it also required her to "transcend into a higher state"—leaping beyond her physical and psychological challenges, accumulated hand injuries, sheer patience and determination.

Her artistic journey

Ong never realised she was creating art until she was 33 years old and Lirio Salvador, so-called the "Father of Sound Art" in the Philippines, told her. Salvador was Ong's teacher and later her mentor when they reconnected 14 years later after college.

"I was about to exhibit my crocheted bags at Likha Diwa, a vegetarian restaurant, and there we've met again and told me that I was making art," Ong recalls.

After college, Ong volunteered for the Associate Missionaries of the Assumption (AMA) and was assigned to Kibangay, Bukidnon where the indigenous people Talaandig live. "I immersed in their culture and was so interested in their way of life," Ong says. "This heavily influenced me as a person and realised later how similar their creative processes were to mine. I was not yet active in the art scene at this time but it has largely influenced me."

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Having no idea where she will be assigned, the experience seemed a fateful one, as it propelled her to ask herself why she felt such an affinity for it despite not coming from a family with such culture or tradition. Later, she realised that "everything we experience and go through is part of our growth." She then remembers Salvador telling her that she does not belong to a tribe "Kasi gumagawa ka na ng sarili mong tribo. Yan na ang tribo mo at tinatawag mo itong Liwanag  (You do not belong to a tribe because you are making your own. That is your tribe and you call it Liwanag)."

Liwanag, which translates to 'light' was Ong's first solo show that has travelled many times in various locations, thanks to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and The Drawing Room Gallery.

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From crocheted bags and other crafts, she repurposed these into hanging art pieces that resemble cocoons. She relates this piece to the metamorphosis of butterflies, much like her self-awakening.

"I hope that people, when they visit my large-scale installations, are enveloped with loving, calm, and positive healing energies," says Ong referring to all the works she has done. "[I hope] that they realise something common can be extraordinary and that anything is possible if you will it. I weave and sew my own narrative, in the environment I live in—through fibre."

Of how she was drawn into this particular medium, Ong explained that it was because her mother has a garments business, which started in their home's garage. "I wake up breathing and exhaling fibre and fabric around me," she says. "I would play with scrap fabrics and threads and play 'house'. In school, we were taught crochet and sewing. Being left-handed, it was difficult for me to translate right-handed instructions. And this challenged me to continue my projects in free form, learning the basics, and experimenting."

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"This was liberating that I did not have to follow patterns or counting, yet I create something that I like that is not available in the market nor was it like the uniform white doilies," she shares. "I could not sleep when I start one project until it is finished. The surprise of a finished work excites me as I did not sketch nor have a final form in mind. The flexibility, domesticity, tactility, and how gravity can affect its form are the characteristics that are fibre’s strength. The tension also creates a level of form to it. Especially in large scale forms, there are no set boundaries with endless possibilities."

Salvador has been an indomitable figure in her personal journey as an artist. Ong is impressed by his resourcefulness, unpredictable creative process, and pursuit of innovation. On the other hand, the artist identifies Kemang Wa Lehulere, an interdisciplinary artist that he saw perform in New York while she was in the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) fellowship. "He creates installations and sculptures he uses for his performances. There was a very distinct characteristic of his material and construction that I very much connect with," Ong comments.

Creating 'Transendence'

One of the major creative fuels for her in creating Transcendence was the spiritual group Love, Peace and Harmony Philippines. It combines Chinese teachings, meditation, chanting, trance states, and modalities to promote calmness and soul healing. It promotes forgiveness and mindfulness.

Even prior to that, Ong has discovered this spiritual connection of weaving with the Talaandig some years back. She had a ritual for the guidance of the gods and goddesses or spirits toward her co-teacher in crafting a traditional Talaandig clothing for her.

"The yarns I used are mostly silk-blend yarns donated by Ms Evelyn Forbes in 2016," she shares. "I use stainless wires to give it some form and for it to be reinforced especially for the installation."

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Before starting the work, Ong explains that she had to arrange the yarn cones on one side of the wall, straighten out the knots, and wind them back to the cones. Thereafter, she starts crocheting the small pieces first then the medium ones, and finally the large pieces. "I then sew them together," says Ong.

"Every morning at around 5 a.m., I light a candle and incense and then begin my chanting. I chant while washing the dishes, cleaning up, watering and checking on my plants. Then I start working. Every day is almost the same and it makes my heart at peace, my mind in silence. I trust the universe and the souls that guide me with my work. We all just flow together," Ong continues.

Promoting local heritage

When she was in New York, she befriended another Japanese conceptual artist, Fuyuka Shindo, who is also an ACC grantee. Shindo said to her that her works do not have context but are process-oriented. "She made a very good statement though," Ong says. "She said that our cultural traditions should be written in a book or books so we do not forget, and we can always go back and research."

For Ong, preserving heritage by continuing what may be applicable from the past and adjusting it for the purpose of development is necessary for protecting our weaving traditions. "Our Indigenous Peoples' weaving are the stories of our ancestors. It may be passed on to generations, but there may be problems with the next generation. [Hence] it would be ideal to learn the skills and knowledge of the past and recreate it connected to the current times. The next generations should be able to tell their own stories and experiences connected to the present," Ong advises.

Another point she raises is the expensive price of local fibres and inaccessibility to the public. "If we are able to use our woven works in our everyday life, [perhaps] everything will follow," she says.

Besides being today's premier contemporary weaver artist, Ong still continues making wearable art. "Boundaries are blurred most of the time," she says. "When I make wearable art, I do not measure them, no patterns too. Yet, I am able to wear them. That’s probably the magical surprise that excites me every time."

Today, Ong continues to weave the constant artwork of her life, Liwanag ng Karanasan, a massive tapestry that she adds fabrics into each day and will be complete when she finally passes into the spiritual plane. 

"I believe art healed and saved me," she says. "The repetitive motions bring you to a calm state almost in trance. The physical motions quiet the mind and preoccupy your state of mind. I seem to enjoy that immensely. Liwanag ng Karanasan is a constant reminder of why I do what I do and stay true to my purpose. There are no goals or ideas as to how it will be in its final form. We just flow," she concludes.


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