When Bhen Alan embarked on his journey to America to pursue his BFA at UMassD's College of Visual & Performing Arts (CVPA), little did he know his passion for painting, love for his country, and academic coursework would intersect.
Through a generous stipend from the Office of Undergraduate Research and inspiration from his faculty mentor, Bhen returned to the Philippines to offer those who appreciate art a glimpse of one sector of family and community life in his country. And, to teach elementary students the value of reflecting life through art.
Responding to artistic inspiration
I was born and raised in the Philippines for 17 years before moving to Canada and then settling here in the U.S. I see the journey back home as fortunate because it gave me the opportunity to escape from the economic crisis that was happening in my hometown. Nevertheless, the culture, tradition, practices, and heritage is something I respected deeply and uniquely miss. Many changes happened in my hometown when I left eight years ago.
Some of these changes are highlighted in my research project, which is titled “Picturing the Defiance of Street Vendors Against the Rise of Industrialization and Corporatization in the Philippines.” The research focuses on the battle between culture maintenance versus the modern world.
Historical influence on my work
Big corporations are rising, the western culture is slowly taking over the millennial people in “Tuguegarao City,” and the practices are slowly fading because of modernization and lack of appreciation. Street vending was huge in the Tuguegarao – they are considered as the informal sector of the society because they were not monitored by the government.
Local vendors find a spot in the market or anywhere downtown to sell their locally grown goods; this has been the practice in the province for many years. In fact, my family is built because of street vending. Up to this date, my grandmother, 78, still sells produce in the market. She leaves the house at two o’clock in the morning and comes back at seven o’clock at night, seven days a week, no day off. She has been vending for more than 40 years. This is a practice and tradition that makes the lives of “Tuguegaraoenos” easy and accessible, but because big corporations are rising, the practice of street vending has been threatened.
Creating balance with my paintings
I romanticize this tension and I wanted to capture it through my paintings. I did not want the artworks to be politically controversial that is why I decided to capture the street vendor’s perspective and how they are trying to maintain the practice and the sense of continuity while the city is advancing with the modern age.
I use my artworks as a platform to promote the “Ibanag” culture and fortunately, it was received very well in my hometown. A pop-exhibition, a cultural forum, artist talks, and a published book about my artworks were done to reach millennial people not only in the province but throughout the archipelago.
Collaborating with faculty
Working with the faculty on my research really gave me the motivation to push myself towards achieving success. Suzanne Schireson, my painting professor at the CVPA, is the reason why I have done my research.
She told me the Office of Undergraduate Research might help me expand my art field and academic field for my future career. Without her, my research may not have been possible. She has been very supportive. Even getting an email from her to simply check up on me was a motivating reminder to work harder and persevere.
Giving back to my community
The research project affected my educational experience by giving me the opportunity to excel beyond my department and beyond the university. UMassD gave me the chance to not only go back to my country but to also learn deeply about my heritage and culture. To access this kind of privilege is gratifying and is giving me a positive look at my future plans after graduation.
It also gave me the chance to reach out to children and to people who want to learn art but are unable to because of poverty and lack of resources. I brought my educational and professional experiences that I learn from faculty at UMassD and taught to three local schools in the Philippines. Teaching them how to paint and how to look at art like how we do it here in the U.S., seeing the children happy and learning was very rewarding and worthwhile.
Plans after graduation
My future plan is to attend graduate school. My experience during my research and workshops will help me apply to the “Fullbright Scholarship” when I am enrolled in an MFA program. My Office of Undergraduate Research stipend is similar to a more accessible version of “Fullbright Scholarship: where a specific school abroad will house someone from the United States to become a cultural ambassador and teach or research in the school.
My research will also give me a jumpstart to continue tackling a socio-political event after graduation. I want to make artworks that deals with social issues and I believe that my experience in my research will help me start and finish a body of work.