Arts & Culture

On the Genius of David Medalla and How Manila Wasn't Ready for His Greatness

He was a child prodigy, who translated Shakespeare to Tagalog at eight and studied at Columbia University at 12.
IMAGE PAU GUEVARRA
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Some may say stitching is a lost art in our selfie-obsessed digital culture, a medium that once brought mother and child together through the simple act of threading a needle.


The legendary artist David Medalla at his A Stitch in Time exhibit at Art Fair Philippines 2019

For Manila-born artist David Medalla, there is an immeasurable beauty in such an activity that can be both solitary and communal, a way to bring people together, yet allow them to be individuals, drawing from their own experiences at a specific moment in time. 

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He was a child prodigy, who translated Shakespeare to Tagalog at eight and studied at Columbia University at 12. He spent most of his young adulthood squatting in art communes in London, continental Europe and America, as other fringe artists of the time did.

That is the essence of his iconic interactive art installation A Stitch in Time, which asks spectators to sew whatever they likewords, trinkets, even random items like cigarette buttsonto several meters of hung white cloth using needles and colored thread.



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David Medalla preparing for A Stitch in Time in Berlin, 2013

Born out of his own intimate attempt to preserve and share memories, Medalla estimates that at least 100 “stitches of time” exist across the world, ranging from personal mementos to commissioned works in London, New York, Berlin, Paris, Kassel, Johannesburg, Venice, and Singapore. Each final piece is unique because each participant, location and moment is unique.

“Once or twice each decade, David would come back to the Philippines and shake up the art community,” says art scholar Purissima Benitez-Johannot, who has studied and documented Medalla’s life and work. “Manila was not ready for it. Few could relate to what he was doing.”

He hasn’t done one in the Philippines… until now. Which is why I’m sewing my initials onto a piece of jusi fabric hung on a frame of local piña and twine at the Art Fair Philippines in Makati. I struggle to stitch a “B” using blue thread made of Filipino cotton, while a woman next to me, the wife of an art collector, is sewing the shape of a heart using red thread. We laugh about our poor sewing skills and what brought us there. And it strikes me: This is Medalla’s artcollaborative, experiential, evolving, transcendent yet fundamentally human.

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A Stitch in Time at Art Fair Philippines, where guests can add and stitch on their own touches.

The aim is “to discover the new ways Filipinos can involve themselves with one another. It’s very important because our history is one of the most difficult,” Medalla explains to me during an interview at his studio apartment in Quezon City. “Once you’re stitching, you’re inside your own self. The world is outside you. In stitching, you have to concentrate. Very simple concentration is just very beautiful. No more memories. Because when you’re stitching, you have to concentrate or otherwise, you’ll break your finger.”


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David Medalla, photographed at his home in Quezon City, February 2019

Medalla is recognized in Europe and the United States for his pioneering contributions to 20th-century art, in particular kinetic, performance and participation art. His signature Cloud Canyons or Bubble Machines series, first created in 1963, is touted by art scholars as the first work of auto-creative art and earned him a nomination for the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Contemporary British Sculpture in 2016the first for a Filipino artist. 


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David Medalla and Cloud Canyons, 1997

But no matter his breadth of achievement in London and across continents, Medalla is undeniably Filipino and is quick to speak both admiringly and critically of his native country, in the way one in the diaspora can, removed yet connected to the Philippines’ complex history and frustrating contradictions.

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The joyous academic convocation ceremony; Medalla flanked by William Burroughs and Francis Bacon.

While he’s lived overseas for more than 60 years, Medalla never gave up his Philippine passport, choosing instead to live a life of constant migration in and out of countries. This fluidity of lifestyle not only affected his sense of Filipino-ness, but also shaped his role in important artistic movements and diverse body of work, whether it be through poetry, newsletters, bubbles, sand, masks, music, basking or political activism. 

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“Once or twice each decade, David would come back to the Philippines and shake up the art community,” says art scholar Purissima Benitez-Johannot, who has studied and documented Medalla’s life and work. “Manila was not ready for it. Few could relate to what he was doing.”

The Artists' Artist

Born on March 23, 1938, Medalla, like his art, is never static. He was a child prodigy, who translated Shakespeare to Tagalog at eight and studied at Columbia University at 12. He spent most of his young adulthood squatting in art communes in London, continental Europe and America, as other fringe artists of the time did.


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A 15-year-old Medalla


Homage to Darwin, 2011

In the 1960s, he founded a newsletter and gallery called Signals London, which encouraged artists to experiment with science and technology in their work, providing a platform to exchange ideas and voice their new way thinking. This led to Cloud Canyons, inspired largely by his memories of the Philippines, from clouds in Manila’s sunsets, ginataan cooked by his mother, and blood bubbles around the mouth of a Japanese soldier who had been shot near his home during the World War II.

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“He didn’t support the CCP. He felt it was a smokescreen. He didn’t feel it was right, with all the poverty in the Philippines,” Benitez-Johannot explained. “He felt it was not for the glory of art, but for the glory of the Marcoses.”

Medalla went on to create Exploding Galaxy, an artists’ collective that supported young performers and produced shows in the London underground at a time when they weren’t marketable. The most powerful gift he’s given to other artists is validation, says fellow artist Adam Nankervis, Medalla’s life partner and collaborator for more than 30 years.


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Mondrian Fan Club, David Medalla and Adam Nankervis at MayFlower Barn England, 1994, photo by Guy Brett

“I think every artist needs their validation and also a platform for that validation, through Dave’s coming together of Artists for Democracy or Exploding Galaxy. So if you wanted to perform with Jimi Hendrix, you join the Exploding Galaxy. I think it’s validation, that’s the most important gift.” 

A Stitch in Time was conceptualized shortly after, in 1968, when he gave a handkerchief to each of his two lovers as they were leaving London Heathrow Airport with a message to stitch their own memories onto them. Years later, Medalla saw a backpacker with one of the handkerchiefs at an Amsterdam airport, who told him he had gotten it from another person in Bali. 

“What unifies his art is the belief that you can bring out the creativity in people by empowering them,” Benitez-Johannot says. She notes how impressive Medalla’s contributions are when you put into context just how revolutionary his ideas were at the time, especially with regards to the relationship between artist, material, and spectator.

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In the 1970s, Medalla chaired the Artists for Democracy, supporting liberation movements across the world, amid conflicts across Africa, South America and in Vietnam. Especially in his own native Philippines, Medalla believes “democracy should be supported by artists.” In 1969, he and other notable artists famously staged a protest during the inauguration of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, with posters and cries of “Down with the philistines!”

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“He didn’t support the CCP. He felt it was a smokescreen. He didn’t feel it was right, with all the poverty in the Philippines,” Benitez-Johannot explained. “He felt it was not for the glory of art, but for the glory of the Marcoses.”

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Medalla being arrested in London; protesting at the CCP in 1969.

That protest, Medalla says, made him an enemy of the state and a target of Marcos. He says fellow artists saved him from being killed, but it meant a life of hiding. “They even announced that I was dead,” he recounted. “I did come back [to Manila]. So many times. But without telling them. I was flying back and forth because the Marcos regime wanted to destroy me. So I’d come in in secret.”

Behind the Mask


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Medalla reads books on poetry and art at his apartment in Quezon City

Considered a genius by those who know him, Medalla is described as a rebel who challenges conventional thinking and a socialist revolutionary fighting for humanity. Back in his apartment, Medalla shows me pages from Jaime Gil de Biedma in the Philippines, the anthology/diary of a 20th-century Spanish poet who wrote about his experiences in the Philippines. It’s one of Medalla’s favorite books of the moment.


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Being in his Quezon City studio is like stepping into his artist journal: an assortment of sketches and drawings lay scattered on his desk, a framed self-portrait sits on a side table surrounded by knick-knacks, and dozens of masks made out of magazine pages hang on the walls. 

Now at 80 and a survivor of a stroke last year that paralyzed the left side of his body, Medalla continues to rebel, refusing to accept the limitations placed on him. Despite bouts of physical pain, his mind and spirit continue to be sharp, and Medalla says he’s eager to get back to exhibiting in London, as soon as his health and finances will allow him to travel. Recently, Benitez-Johannot says Medalla’s work fetched as much as $35,000 for a drawing at Sotheby’s. Nankervis says they are working on a clothing line with Selfridges, a high-end department store chain in the U.K.

Now at 80 and a survivor of a stroke last year that paralyzed the left side of his body, Medalla continues to rebel, refusing to accept the limitations placed on him.  

For now, Medalla is settling into Metro Manila, a city he left years ago but kept in his heart. Being in his Quezon City studio is like stepping into his artist journal: an assortment of sketches and drawings lay scattered on his desk, a framed self-portrait sits on a side table surrounded by knick-knacks, and dozens of masks made out of magazine pages hang on the walls. The masks themselves hold special significancepart a homage to the practice of cutting up magazines and making collages, part a form of therapy for the left-handed Medalla to use scissors, and part testament to the times he had to use masks to hide from U.K. immigration authorities for visa violations.

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Now at 80 and a survivor of a stroke last year that paralyzed the left side of his body, Medalla continues to rebel, refusing to accept the limitations placed on him.

“I wanted him to feel like he was at his home in London,” Nankervis says.

Nankervis, for his part, is busy archiving Medalla’s work, including the Stitch in Time projects from across the world. The to-do list is never-ending. At one point, Medalla asks Nankervis why they aren’t able to show a Cloud Canyons piece at the ArtFair. Logistically difficult is the answer. As far as they know, only two bubble machines exist in the Philippines, both in private collections, including one at Kim and Lito Camacho’s home.

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Some drawings he had been doing at his home recently

Adding one to the public collection is tantamount, Nankervis says. For now, Medalla continues to offer critical commentary on Philippine society. We discuss Duterte’s drug war, negative effects of Philippine media and how Filipino parents treat their children. On the surface, you might think Medalla is being too harsh or overly negative, but listen longer and you'll hear that familiar tone many in the diaspora have when they speaknostalgic, brooding, slightly wishful, all born out of true love of country.

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David Medalla’s work, including “A Stitch in Time,” are on display at Art Fair Philippines through Sunday at The Link Carpark, Ayala Center Makati. “A Conversation on David Medalla” with Adam Nankervis, Purissima Benitez-Johannot and Daniel Kupferberg takes place on Sunday at 5 to 7 p.m. on the 5th floor. 

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Annalisa Burgos
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