Kularts & Alleluia Panis: Setting the Stage for Filipinx Diaspora Narratives

By Alyssa Manansala

September 24, 2021, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Filipino woman rides a carabao through a cornfield.
Film image courtesy of Kularts. [ID: Still image from “Queen of the Carabao.” Filipino Australian artist Caroline Garcia rides a carabao through a cornfield in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, the birthplace of her father.]

I first encountered Kularts, the premier presenter of contemporary and tribal Filipinx arts in the United States, during a homecoming in the summer of 2019. I’d been living in Los Angeles where I was working as an adjunct professor, teaching courses in Asian American literature and media. At that early stage in my academic career, I’d already begun to feel jaded about the fields of Asian American and Filipinx studies—as a second-generation Filipino American, I struggled with the ways postcoloniality and decolonization had become trendy vernacular, easily thrown around and lauded, but much less easily enacted. For those of us in the Filipinx diaspora who wish to dismantle structures of neocolonialism, globalization, capitalism, and racism, decolonization at individual and community levels is a necessary procedure. But, jargon and theory aside, where do we begin?

Mixed group of dancers around a piano.
Photo courtesy of Kularts. [ID: Still from “Man@ng Is Deity” 2021 re-imagination of SF’s dance halls on Kearny Street/Manilatown. Mixed group of Filipinx dancers around and on top of a piano.]

I grew up in Daly City, just a 15-minute BART ride from Kularts’ homebase in the SoMa neighborhood, which was once a hub for Filipino working-class migrants and activists, and is now perhaps more readily associated with high-rise lofts and tech startups. As a creative writing student invested in POC literary and arts communities, I had been involved with different projects led by Kearny Street Workshop, a frequent collaborator of Kularts. In fact, it was poet and Kearny Street director, Jason Bayani, who had led me to the exhibit entitled PostColonial Survival Kit, curated by Kularts at the Luggage Store Gallery (also SoMa-based). Kularts’ press release stated that the exhibit “addresses the ways Pilipinxs have coped, survived, and adapted to the diasporic life that includes the challenges of racism, marginalization, and the ways that colonization has affected the interpersonal, the familial, and intra-communal relationships.”[1] Bayani, whose poetry collection, Locus, had been published earlier that year, joined a lineup of other Filipinx poets, musicians, and dancers for an event entitled “Hip Hop as Survival Kit,” which was part of a series staged over the course of the exhibit’s run. Hoping to hear some of Bayani’s new poems and purchase his book, I arrived at the gallery early and walked through the collection of artworks, including video installations, sculptures, and paintings by artists from the US, Australia, and the Philippines.

I was immediately taken by the work of Caroline Garcia, a Filipino Australian artist based in New York. Her piece, Queen of the Carabao, is composed of two videos projected side by side against adjacent walls of the gallery. Each projection shows Garcia mounted atop a carabao (a species of water buffalo native to the Philippines) at different angles, switching between passive aerial views of the back of her head and direct, face-to-face confrontation in the wide. She is clad in a traditional baro at saya top and high-waisted jeans, her long, black hair gracing her exposed neck and shoulders, her bare feet dangling on either side of the carabao’s ribs. She rides the beast in slow motion through her father’s ancestral lands in Pampanga (the same province from which my parents hail). Volcanoes and gray skies in the distant landscape frame her homecoming, past rows of corn stalks, dried husks gently swaying. She holds a rope in her palm that passes through the animal’s snout and toward the camera’s lens. Garcia describes the piece as a confrontation with “homecoming and cultural memory.”[2] As beholder and object of the artist’s gaze, witness and somehow also participant to her mythic homecoming, I felt the pull of kinship and a ruthless untethering, as if I as audience were engaged in a slow, painful, interconnected dance with the work. The figure I saw was like me and unlike me, our separate bloodlines intersecting in the same ancestral land of our fathers. While our diasporic trajectories had flung us to opposite plots of the world, her work became integral to my research and questions around decoloniality and postcoloniality.

When I began working with Alleluia Panis as an intern in the summer of 2021 (thanks again to Bayani who had kindly put me in contact with her), I quickly learned that with every event or performance it facilitates, every artist or group it spotlights, and every film, dance, or visual art project it helms, Kularts is always creating opportunities for individuals of the Filipino diaspora to find each other, and in doing so, find agency and power through our shared histories. Founded in 1985 by Panis and two other artists as a dance and music performance ensemble formerly known as Kulintang Arts Ensemble, in honor of the traditional musical style, Kularts has evolved over the years to become a community-oriented organization whose work in arts programming and curation has facilitated Filipinx diasporic communities across geographic and generational divides to come together to produce art, convene, and dialogue. Panis’ ever-evolving vision for the future of creative work produced within and for the Filipinx diaspora has included curating art by local, regional, and international artists, bringing indigenous Filipino artists to the Bay Area to showcase their work and educate US-born artists, and hosting a tribal tour to the Mindanao region to further expose diasporic Filipino artists to the work and tutelage of indigenous practitioners. By fostering these collaborations and conversations, Kularts has been a key player in steering and defining Filipinx diasporic art, intellectual, and cultural production. In a press release for PostColonial Survival Kit, Wilfred Galila, Kularts’ media director and featured artist, writes, “Our power lies in our various ways of being, and our embrace of our hybridity. By reconciling the postcolonial with our indigenous selves, we go beyond mere survival and towards a healing process and the manifestation of our utmost potential that lies dormant within all of us.”[3]

Kularts puts Filipinx diasporic creative and intellectual producers in conversation largely through its live dance performances and film projects. For example, Man@ng Is Deity, which was first staged in 2019, centers around the character Valentino Pablo, one of the manong generation of Filipino men who first arrived in the US as farmworkers after the US occupation of the Philippines. While the manongs provided essential cheap labor to the US, they were time and again denied both citizenship and humanity. By staging historically-based narratives inspired by real-life accounts from Filipinos living in San Francisco from the 1920s through 1960s, and using both contemporary and indigenous dance forms, Kularts educates younger generations of Filipino Americans about the struggles and victories of their migrant predecessors. Further, Kularts’ curated exhibits like PostColonial Survival Kit bring together artists and performers, exposing local and global audiences to their work. The organization regularly hosts panel series, which in the online format during the Covid-19 pandemic have become essential to maintaining community and collaborative thinking during quarantine. Kularts’ most recent series, Nursing These Wounds, put artists, poets, scholars, activists, and nurses in dialogue to investigate the colonial underpinnings of Filipinx nurses in the US, to mourn the staggering loss of life that the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought upon Filipino communities nation-wide, and to demonstrate how art and performance allow Filipino nurses to have their humanity recognized. While these women are often relegated to media statistics or footnotes to a larger field, Kularts has allowed them to share personal narratives in complex, formally experimental ways.

While Kularts’ roots lie in indigenous Filipino dance and traditions, Panis is aware of the complexities that differentiate a Filipino American migrant/diasporic experience from an indigenous Filipino one. In a conversation about how she classifies her artistic practice, she told me that she does not consider her work to be “Philippine” dance, as that would be disrespectful to regional practitioners who undergo rigorous study, practice, and discipline that she as a choreographer and dancer who has lived most of her life in the US has not undergone: “Their work is not my work, and I don’t want to steal that fire because I am an American artist. But at the same time, Philippine dance, particularly indigenous forms, informs my work. It’s really from the diasporic experience that it is anchored on. I have to push the distinction because I think it’s important.” Panis also expressed anxiety about how artists of color in the United States receive an automatic assignation of ethnic or indigenous aesthetic or cultural form, which she views as an affront to the practitioners of Philippine dance. Of the diasporic distinction she makes in her own work, she said, “What I’m trying to do is express my own personhood, meaning I do have deep connections in Philippine culture, but most definitely I’m American.”

Further, while Panis does not claim indigenous Philippine artistic practice, she does claim indigeneity at the personal level: “You and I cannot claim our indigeneity. But you can’t take it away from me.” This comes as a response to recent debates over what constitutes authentic or original indigeneity, as Filipinos of the indigenous ethnic majority have come under fire for appropriating or erasing Katutubo and Lumad indigenous cultural practices. Panis points to how the Philippines’ roughly 200 different ethnolinguistic groups have been homogenized not only by the Western imagination, but also by the Filipino diaspora. She continues: “I am indigenous. My people are not  settlers, nor of Spanish or Castillian heritage.” In her claim to indigeneity at the personal level and simultaneous refusal of indigeneity at the level of craft, Panis points to a tension that persists for the Filipino diaspora: we must at once recognize the Philippines’ vast diversity of indigenous groups, and remain vigilant of how our own claims to that indigenous diversity might commit a type of erasure.

Panis’ remarks surprised me. I felt conflicted, particularly as I was trying to align my own definitions of postcoloniality at the individual, creative, and academic levels with my attempts to decolonize the structures I inhabit as a scholar, artist, and diasporic subject. Panis destabilizes notions of postcoloniality, decoloniality, and indigeneity, challenging theories in Filipinx studies that center authenticity and originality. For example, Leny Mendoza Strobel’s Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans describes the process of decolonization as a Filipino American’s return to indigeneity after a period, perhaps a lifetime, of internalized colonialism. Characterizing this colonial mentality as a state of schizophrenia, Strobel highlights a common saying among Filipino Americans—that they are “lost within themselves” (Ang Pilipinong nawawala sa sarili) as a result of colonial domination, debasement, and erasure of indigenous culture. The call to decolonize suggests finding oneself by undoing the psychological and social effects of Spanish and American colonization, and forging a strong Filipino identity. Strobel defines this process as crossing both time—“a process that makes the mythical and historical past available to the present”—and geographical space—“to develop the ability to become a border crosser.”[4] She presents an actionable maxim for decolonization that emphasizes its temporal and spatial dimensions: “To decolonize is to ask: Where do I go from here?”[5]

Panis rejects indigeneity as a classification for her creative practice; at the same time, she refuses to relinquish indigeneity as a personal or communal identifier, in the attempt to combat homogenization of the Philippines’ ethnic and indigenous diversity. In doing so, Panis complicates Strobel’s assertion of “finding oneself,” or a return to an authentic indigeneity, as a means to decolonization. For Panis, “finding oneself” means to locate oneself within many divergent histories and geographies, to understand an “authentic self” as constantly negotiated along varying politics and personal narratives. The dance and performance that Kularts curates and choreographs indeed intermingle past and present, the here and over there of the Filipinx diaspora and of Philippine indigeneity. While Strobel’s study might simplify the process of decolonizing the diasporic self as finding oneself within an authentic indigeneity, Kularts’ and Panis’ overarching strategies complicate Coming Full Circle as a decolonizing guide—in all their projects, they aim to retell history through complex personal narrative and bring together indigenous and diasporic cultural producers to learn from each other. Kularts’ and Panis’ projects never minimize the differences between a diasporic and an indigenous experience, particularly in the context of dance practice, and always emphasize the need for those of the Filipinx diaspora to observe indigenous cultural practices, in order to understand our histories and our decolonial futures. At the same time, the work allows for diasporic traditions and aesthetic forms to stand on their own, albeit informed by indigenous practices, while still honoring their own geographic and temporal contexts located within second-generation experiences.

She Who Can See, Panis’ first dance film under the New American Dance Theater Series first released in 2018, is based on true accounts of second-generation Filipino Americans who claimed to have the ability to communicate with spirits, a tradition carried over from indigenous practice after several generations of migration and resettling in the US. The film is told through dance and is meant as a commentary on the ways Western contemporary society pathologizes such abilities, despite aboriginal cultures’ reverence toward them as sacred ancestral gifts. In her directorial statement, Panis writes, “On the larger perspective, this piece is a metaphor for our search of the authentic self. I hope to honor and reflect our experiences as contemporary people, who are navigating and searching for the right balance between our ancestral ways of knowing and the modern world.”[6]

The search for one’s authentic self is not achieved by simply discovering an authentic indigenous past—that past in fact contains multitudes, and to reduce it to one discoverable entity replicates the very structures that decolonization aims to deconstruct. Kularts’ projects fold the temporal and spatial dimensions of history and identity through dance, performance, visual media, and curation, complicating the relationship between the Filipinx diaspora and Philippine indigeneity. In these works, decolonization might be better understood not only as practice and enactment, but a willingness to sit with the complexities of diasporic vs. indigenous embodiment, which also means understanding the past to understand our present and future, and locating those histories across geographic borders such that indigenous practice can inform the diasporic. By providing opportunities for Filipinos across spatial and temporal locations to find ourselves and each other in dialogue and collaboration without simplifying indigeneity as a means toward self- and communal-discovery, Kularts’ programs also demonstrate how dance and performance in particular provide a unique creative and intellectual venue to explore the spatial and temporal dimensions of decolonization, while also enacting structural change through community-oriented projects.

Group of dancers inside a living room.
Film image courtesy of Kularts. [ID: Still from “She, Who Can See,” Diaz De Fato, dressed in a gray dress, is surrounded by the other dancers who appear as spirits dressed in white with face paint.]

As Strobel writes, decolonization, as an expressive or reflective process, should ultimately have action as its goal—the enactment of a material deconstruction of neocolonial structures for marginalized communities. Kularts as a creatively, politically, and community-oriented organization has not only produced and curated visual/performance projects and intellectual/community events that examine such issues, but it is also actively engaged in the material redistribution of the SoMa neighborhood, which has seen the demolition and reselling of many historic sites central to Filipinx migrant and community activism, including the famous I-Hotel. In collaboration with other community activism organizations, Kularts will participate in the planning of the 5M Project, a 10-year phased proposal that will transition the current four-acre site at 5th, Mission, and Howard Streets into a mix of office, residential, retail, and cultural spaces.[7] Panis has already begun planning fundraising efforts to establish Kularts’ first permanent performance venue at the site (previous programs were staged in other cultural and community venues around SoMa; Panis estimates a total of $1.5 million in funding will be needed). Panis views this transition as an opportunity for the Filipinx community to claim its own cultural district, elevated to the same level as such venues as the San Francisco Ballet and Opera House. Further, a permanent venue also strengthens Kularts’ ability to maintain the SoMa district as a foothold for Filipinx community activism and cultural production, while continuing to bring in indigenous practitioners from the Philippines to educate US-born artists.

Kularts’ upcoming performance and dance projects include a refilming of Man@ng Is Deity, to be screened in December 2021 with excerpts of the original 2019 version, and another screening of She Who Can See at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from August to October 2021 as part of the SF Urban Film Fest. The restaging of these projects alludes to a temporal and geographic cyclicity in all of Kularts’ endeavors—there is a haunting quality to the stories they have already told and will tell again. That audiences might [re]discover these works suggests not exactly a timelessness, but a continual process of beginning again, a process of locating an authentic diasporic or indigenous self, starting at the personal level, expanding into the communal, and finding not one, but multiple selves. The split-level consciousness that Strobel describes as schizophrenic might not be a pathology that decolonization destroys or heals; rather, it might be the very method for recognizing and honoring differences between diasporic and indigenous experience. Kularts’ and Panis’ methodologies for dance, performance, visual media, and curation not only embrace the spatial and temporal dimensions of diaspora, indigeneity, and decoloniality, but repeat them—here and there, again and again.

[1] https://www.kularts-sf.org/postcolonial

[2] https://carolinegarcia.com.au/Queen-of-the-Carabao


[4] Strobel, 144–148

[5] Ibid, 150

[6] https://www.kularts-sf.org/she-who-can-see1

[7] https://sfplanning.org/5m-project

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of In Dance.

Alyssa Manansala is an essayist, poet, educator, and PhD student in the department of American Studies at Brown University. Her interests include Asian American poetry and hybrid literary forms, Filipinx studies, postcolonial theory, performance theory, and visual/media culture. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts, where she was awarded the 2018/2019 Teaching Fellowship and the 2019 REEF Artist Residency. Her writing can be found in Nat. Brut, Hyphen Magazine, TAYO Literary Magazine, and Agape: A Journal of Literary Good Will, among others.