Arts & Culture
These Sisters Are Making Waves in the Art and Fashion World
For Michelline, Beatrix, and Maxine Syjuco, the muses and makers of avant-garde expressions, no veil exists between art and life.

It is not art and life. There is no scrim between the two. There is no switch that transforms person into creator. There is no hat to wear when it is time to make. That thick black line that separates work and home—a shield people use to keep their lives tidy and keep themselves sane—is rubbed away into flecks. The Syjuco sisters, Michelline, Beatrix, and Maxine, are more than muses of sculpture, jewelry, painting, performance, poetry, and expression. They inhabit the interstices between the divide. They give themselves fully to the blur of creation.


It is Saturday afternoon. The sisters are making their way through the 400 square meters of Art Lab, the family's exhibition and work space. Outside, it is brick and glass. Inside, it is a symphony of space and craft. There are multiple levels, several rooms, and even more corners, all of which are built as backdrops for art, whether it is an installation of blank wood frames scattered on the floor, a series of Pop Art-style paintings on the wall, or a sand garden underneath the sink of a bathroom. On the upper floors, there is a full kitchen, a master bedroom, and a guest room for visiting artists. It is really a home for art and the Syjucos, the prolific creators of the diverse pieces on show.

On Trix: Tory Burch Brigitte blouse in poppy red, Tabby skinny in poppy red, Buddy long cluster, and Buddy charm bracelet, Greenbelt 5, 501.3690

The studios are found behind the main house. The women walk along a stone path toward Maxine's workshop. It is filled with light. The floor is polished cement. The walls and ceilings are a flat white. Across the nook, large-scale photographs and paintings are arranged on a wall. A narra bust of a woman rises above a pile of materials on the worktable. It is startling and beautiful. Rose petals have been affixed on its head. They cover it entirely except for pillow lips frozen in a fat circle (as if they are puffing out air). Michelline and Beatrix arrange themselves on a leather loveseat. Maxine chooses a spot near the window. Around the trio, there are books, pictures, and posters, including a framed cover of a A Secret Life, Maxine's collection of poems.

“I'm a poet,” declares Maxine in a crisp melodic voice. “My passion is really poetry. However, I feel that there are a lot of things that I say that could be easily misinterpreted through words, so I turn to all forms of visual arts—sculpture, painting, photography. As you can see, my work is a combination [of mediums]. And because my first love is poetry, my visual arts pieces always have a heavy background in poetry. There’s always a story to be told.”


“Twisted. Scary. We get that a lot,” reveals Trix. “But ugly things can be beautiful, too. And that has a lot to do with how we create art.”

The bust, A Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, began as a self-portrait, which was part of her first solo show in 2009. “I covered myself in a mask of rose petals for one whole week. Every day, I would photograph myself so I would see the process of deterioration,” she explains. The starting point of Maxine's work is always the woman, and this work “was about externals. How much do you love a person even when deterioration occurs? How much do you love the truth?” the portrait evolved into a painting, which was acquired by the gallerist Silvana Diaz, and, most recently, the sculpture, which was shown at the Asian International Art Exhibition in Korea.

In a closet-sized room in art lab, a small TV plays a video on a loop. The figure of a woman crawls on the floor, dragging her gossamer dress across the screen. Then, she holds her knees and rocks back and forth. Later, she appears in an empty pool. She rubs dirt all over her face before pouring water all over her body. The movement is sped up and slowed down, chopped and screwed. It is spooky.

“Performance art is very difficult to define. A lot of people confuse it with theater,” says Beatrix, or Trix, the freaky figure in the video. Whenever the artist shares what she does to people, they always ask if it involves acting, dancing, or interpretative movements. “But it's actually none of the above and all of the above. It's the space in between performance arts and visual arts,” she offers.

A performance artist first and foremost, Trix also dabbles in painting every now and then. Clockwise, from top: Stills from her performances Domino Nation, Nadia Quartet, and Denouement; and a recent abstract painting of hers still untitled.

“I don't do anything imagistic, realistic, or with obvious points of reference. It's abstract,” she continues. This undefinable quality is what attracts her to the medium. Trix brings up Domino Nation, a performance piece she executed spontaneously. “I didn’t think about it much,” she remembers. “There’s no choreography. It's not a narrative. There's no beginning or end.” The artist showed up at Mag:net Café in Bonifacio High Street with a bag of charcoal. She walked around, grabbed a knife from one of the tables, and began stabbing holes into the parcel. Chunks of black coal fell onto her white dress. Then, she stepped into a basin of water, slashed the bag open, and scrubbed her dress with the blackened water. “Of course, it got blacker and blacker. I had no idea what it was supposed to mean,” she confides. “But after that, I got so many responses, and they all had different interpretations. I'm proud of this performance because it allowed people to have a personal response to art.”


The younger sisters describe Michelline's work as “ornate and intricate” and “dreamlike.” The eldest Syjuco identifies herself as a sculptor and visual artist who “mostly makes things with my hands.” She's also bookworm who loves epic storytelling, and a film buff who grew up on sword-and-sorcery movies, and thus “a lot of my works have to do with fantasy.” Indeed, there is a mythic quality in her pieces, from the brass-and-silver Armadillo Cuff and other hammered jewelry that launched her into prominence to a life-size horse decked in an armament of pastel flowers and filigree.

“If you’re moved by a piece, then that’s a great work of art for you,” says Maxine. Clockwise, from top: Her works, Homage to the Queen of Hearts construction; A Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder sculpture; and Birth in Dead Language installation.

Among the three, Michelline's portfolio is what most people would characterize as beautiful, but this creator of fantasies points out that what is visually pleasing depends on each viewer. “I have some sculptures that people actually find scary. I posted pictures on Facebook, and they said, ‘I didn’t know that you could be so twisted.’ for me, it was pretty. For them, it was twisted,” she shares.

“Twisted. Scary. We get that a lot,” reveals Trix. “When I invite friends over to my performances, they get thrown off. They’d say, ‘she's so weird pala. I thought she was going to hurt me.’ But ugly things can be beautiful, too. And that has a lot to do with how we create art. It lies between the obvious.”


For those who find themselves scratching their heads over the plethora of strange or scary or new art pieces popping up in galleries today, the sisters offer this advice: do not over think art. Feel it. Which, for them, is also the litmus test of what makes true art.

On Maxine: Michael Kors dress in Watermelon, Greenbelt 5, 728.6132; and ring by Michelline Syjuco.

“Real art is something that moves you,” Maxine underlines. “The medium doesn't really matter. It's about how it affects you when you look at it.”

“It has to make you feel things that you wouldn’t otherwise feel—without the artist as a vessel pointing you toward [a particular] direction,” concurs Trix. “When people ask what my performance means, I always tell them that your need to know [what it is about] is getting in the way of your appreciation. You don’t necessarily have to understand it. You just have to be moved by it, and by being moved by it, you're actually appreciating it.”


The performance artist also brings up the difference between feeling and thinking. For her, people sometimes confuse art with the expression of skill. “You see a lot of new artists, and a lot of them have a lot of skill, but you don’t necessarily feel something,” she says. “You tend to think something—that it's very pretty or it's very skilled, but you're not encapsulated by it.”

In other words, art should transcend appeal. It should surround you like a vibrating wind. “Take it in as fully as you can,” advises Maxine. “If you're very moved by a piece, then that's a great work of art for you.”

The approach may take some practice (or not—don't over think it), but for these ladies, tuning their feelings toward art is as natural as breathing. “Art is ingrained in us,” reminds Maxine. “Ever since we were kids, we were surrounded by strange people coming in and out of our home.” The Syjuco children grew up in a Manila compound, where their neighbors were artists like the filmmaker Peque Gallaga and the actors Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro. “I remember, one late night, we were hanging out at home, and Tito Ronnie was jumping up and down the bed because my dad (Cesare Syjuco, the multi-awarded artist and feared art critic) was photographing him. We experienced a lot of unique things like that,” shares Maxine.

Jewelry designer and sculptor Michelline in a Raoul jeweled short top and floral maxi skirt.

Other nights involved strange sounds coming from their father’s studio. The whole family—dad, mom Jean Marie, Michelline, brother Julian, and Trix (Maxine and brother AG weren’t born yet)—would sleep on one giant mattress. Sometimes, Cesare would leave the door ajar, and Michelline would hear the busy notes of jazz mixed with the pounding of a hammer or the clacking of typewriter keys. 

Once, when Michelline, Julian, and Trix popped in the studio, their father invited the kids to be part of his project. “That was the cool part. He asked us to jump up and down on the bed and do whatever we wanted to—like make faces. He turned the lights off and flicked the switch of a lighter that was out of fluid. It made random sparks. He showed us the video after. That was the experience that motivated me to do film performances,” says Trix.


Their parents also took the kids to small bars to watch their live performances at night. “My mom had dramatic performances where she ended up cutting her hair with a pair of scissors. She’d cut it down to the scalp until there were wounds and scabs,” relates Trix. “I don’t remember being afraid. I would lose myself in her performances, but I would find myself at the same time.” While editing a documentary of Jean Marie’s performances, she watched that scene again and saw their reactions. Both she and Michelline looked so proud of their mother.


Maxine points to a clay sculpture on the table. She sees their childhood another way. “I made this when I was around five. This is how I saw my mom—as a multitasking superwoman. She's ironing clothes on this side and she's on the phone on this side. I saw her as always working,” she says. “What scared me was how my mom and dad didn't have an easy life. There were just so many of us, and they didn't always know how to put food on the table. But they [provided for us] all the time. They tried not to let us know when they were having a hard time.”

“The life of an artist is up and down. Sometimes you have money when you sell something. Sometimes, for years, you just have nothing,” she continues. “I thought they could easily get a nine-to-five job, and no more worries. But they choose to live this life—a life with uncertainty every day—because they love art so much. And art wasn’t just something that they love. It was who they were. Seeing how passionate they were about art was the most memorable thing about growing up.”

“We understand that now that we are older, but when we were kids we never felt that we were not secure,” clarifies Michelline. “Or vulnerable to the world,” says Trix. “or that there was any kind of lack,” continues Maxine. She remembers how, a week before Christmas, her mother would be “in a frenzy trying to collect checks because we had to have presents from Santa.” Trix adds how it was okay to save on food. The family would be happy with a meal of pork and beans plus scrambled eggs, but “it was never okay for a Christmas where the kids didn’t have presents.”


“It’s really incredible how they were amazing parents. We can't name one experience where we were wounded, literally or figuratively, as kids. We had the most amazing childhood,” attests Michelline.


Michelline says that, because she knew how difficult it was for her parents, “The last thing I wanted to be was an artist.” Before the cuffs and sculptures, she set her sights on a normal life, perhaps, in business or law. She chose Business Management, was named magna cum laude upon graduating from San Beda College Alabang, and became part of the Ayala Young Leaders Congress. “I saw how [the corporate world] worked and I realized it wasn't for me,” she says. That's when Michelline turned to her sculptures, which evolved from large works into smaller pieces and then into wearable jewelry.

The struggle of an artist was also a concern for Trix. When she was in college, she took on a job as a VJ for MTV Australia. Even if the family had surmounted the difficult climb of the early years, her parents instilled the importance of work by giving their daughters only what they needed. Trix augmented her allowance with that gig. After school, she joined advertising and public relations. “But that didn't work out because there was no artistic freedom,” she says.

“They learned the hard way,” interjects Maxine, the only daughter who had no doubts about taking up an artist's life. “I wanted to be just like my mom and dad because I admired their passion,” she says. Nevertheless, Maxine “admits it gets hard up to now. Which is why I have my art workshops for kids. That gives me a stable income. But knowing how difficult it is makes me love art even more.”

Daughters of multi-awarded artist and feared art critic Cesare Syjuco and multi-faceted artist Jean Marie Syjuco, Michelline, Maxine, and Trix only prove that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. All outfits by Hermès, prices upon request, Greenbelt 3, 757.8910; Escada sandals (on Michelline and Maxine), prices upon request, Greenbelt 5, 728.3741; and Jimmy Choo sandals, price upon request, Greenbelt 4, 728.2160.

The life of an artist is fraught with challenge, even more so for the Syjuco daughters, whose DNA is wired to follow the beat of the family's vanguard drum. “The way that we were taught to view things is to see if it is strong enough to stand by itself. It doesn’t always have to fit in with what the rest of the world thinks is beautiful,” reflects Maxine. “Because if you’re so caught up with what's traditionally and aesthetically beautiful, how can you be on the edge of things?”


“My mom always says, 'Dare to be different!' Whenever I told her that people called me weird, she would dare me to be different. You don't have to conform,” avers Michelline. Sometimes people don't get them. They’ve been marginalized for deviating from the norm. Their work has been judged as too dark or too eerie or both. But the sisters will do what they want. They refuse to bend to whims and whispers, because, as their mother advised, “there's no use looking left or right. It is always you and the road ahead. Go forward.”






This story was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Town&Country Philippines.

About The Author
Clifford Olanday
Senior Fashion Editor, Esquire Philippines
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