A Feminist Filipina Artist Takes Aim with a Powerful New Series of Gun-Shaped Sculptures
Fifteen is a significant number in cultures across the Americas. For many, it’s the age that marks a girl’s transition into womanhood. It’s also the central number in the latest body of work by Nikki Luna, who created 15 handgun-shaped sculptures for “Play Ground,” now on view at Owen James Gallery in Brooklyn.
“Womanhood is weapon,” Luna says. “With these 15, I lay bare the culture of rape and repression that has silenced every woman. Threatened and killed by patriarchy, gender prejudice and poverty, we must resist together.” Those are fighting words—and not just figuratively. “No one else can stop the bigot mob,” she says. “We should carry revolvers.”
Despite their shapes, Luna’s latest works aren’t actually guns. They are cast resin sculptures she has infused with lace, a material Luna associates with femininity and oppression. The delicate material is symbolic: It’s the fabric of lingerie, wedding gowns, and festive quinceañera dresses. It’s no coincidence that each sculpture is named Quince, as in Quince (1), Quince (2), and so on. Though Luna is Filipina, not Latina, she is drawing a parallel by turning a sharp, critical eye toward cultural traditions, forcing the viewer to consider context and the darker realities surrounding the milestones we celebrate.
Lace, in this case, refers to “the wedding dress she was made to wear by force,” Luna has said, “her blouse bloodied while embracing a loved one killed, her handkerchief soiled by the daily toil never compensated enough, her panties torn in violence.” In other words, Luna is an artist who thinks about what girls and women experience behind the scenes, when the party’s over.
The “she” in this narrative isn’t one specific woman. “Play Ground” features 15 sculptures, each one inspired by a different real-life horror story that the artist either experienced or read about. One is the story of a pregnant 15-year-old forced into prostitution. Another is about a 15-year-old girl forced into marriage. Another is the story of an Australian missionary gang-raped and killed in the Philippines on August 15, 1989.
The stories that inspired “Play Ground” come from all over the world, but the number 15 has particular significance in the artist’s native country. Since the declaration of Philippine independence, the country has produced 15 presidents—16, if you count the recent incumbent Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office in June. In national and foreign press, Duterte has been widely denounced as volatile and misogynistic. On November 9th, a headline in the Washington Post read: “Common ground for Trump and Duterte: ‘Jokes’ about sexually harassing or assaulting women.”
Luna is a vocal critic of her country’s leadership. “I know that in the parade of Philippine presidents, there was no deliverance on the 15th. Nor was it followed by peace, with the current 16th administration mandating the bloodshed on alleyways in the slums where the poor and desperate are persecuted nightly by the cops.”
No one, she says, can challenge those cops: They carry guns. But her searing new exhibition is a call to arms, with the artist packing her own heat.
“Nikki Luna: Play Ground” is on view at Owen James Gallery, Brooklyn, Oct. 28–Dec. 22, 2016.