By Arielle Martinez and Kristy Gerlett
The flesh-colored pieces of unstretched canvas hung on the plain white walls of the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery — some of them flat, others coming off the walls like wrinkled, puckered skin. On them were painted intricate scripts from a centuries-old alphabet. Driplines from red paint stained the canvas like spilled blood. Words in gold and blue stuck out like tattoos:
These works of art are a part of a solo exhibition by Washington DC-based artist Isabel Manalo at the Zuccaire Gallery at Stony Brook University, which opened on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 7. The exhibition is called “Isabel Manalo: Skin Codes.”
“Each painting is an expression or idea of issues I’m interested in, such as Black Lives Matter,” Manalo said.
The artist was present for Saturday’s opening reception at the gallery, and dozens of people from the local area stopped by to marvel at her work.
Manalo, who is Filipino-American, used symbols inspired by indigenous Filipino tattoos and a pre-colonial Filipino script called the Baybayin, as well as symbols from contemporary social media such as hashtags and emojis, in her work to explore themes of race, ethnicity, war and the environment.
“I wanted to delve into this indigenous tattoo tradition free of any western reference,” Manalo said.
For the exhibition, Manalo created a new large textile piece specifically for the soffit of the Zuccaire Gallery’s ceiling. It is a canvas tapestry with hashtags of the names of unarmed black people who were killed by police — #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #TamirRice, and so on — painted in gold.
Once the tapestry was hung up on the ceiling, Manalo got onto a mechanical lift and sewed the finishing touches to the piece herself, Samantha Clink, the gallery’s community relations assistant, said.
Clink said she admires the fact that Manalo took the time reach out to art students at Stony Brook University and the way Manalo incorporates contemporary issues that young people can understand into her work.
“I’ve worked with various artists, and she is the one artist that stands out in my mind who’s taken the time,” Clink said. “She’s been here for a week doing installation she has taken time out off every day to talk to an entire class.”
Karen Levitov, the director of the Zuccaire Gallery, has known Manalo for years; they met while working at a contemporary art museum in Madison, Wisconsin before going to different graduate schools.
“It was nice because we had parallel careers: one in art curating and one in art making,” Levitov said.
When Levitov became the director of the 5,000 square-foot gallery a year and a half ago, Manalo was one of the first artists to whom she reached out.
“[Manalo] came and looked at the space and like most artists, they come and look at the space, and they’re just like ‘Wow, that’s such a huge wonderful fabulous space!’ And she was so excited,” Levitov said.
Manalo has had other solo exhibitions in the past including one at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida last year and at Addison Ripley Fine Art in Washington D.C. in 2009 and 2012. She will have another exhibition at Addison Ripley next year. Manalo recently returned to the states after living in Berlin for the last three years.
As the guests of the reception roamed around the Zuccaire Gallery looking at the artwork, a woman dressed in all black stood in the corner, playing the violin — the music sometimes vibrant and staccato, at other times smooth and mournful.
The violinist, as it turns out, was none other than the artist’s older sister, Anna Manalo. She played compositions that she wrote herself and were inspired by Filipino music to match the aesthetic of her sister’s artwork.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to collaborate with her,” Anna Manalo said.
The free exhibition will run through Dec. 12, and on Nov. 18, Manalo will have an artist talk at the gallery regarding her paintings. The gallery is on the first floor of the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University.