Trigger Warning. Due to sensitive content with scenes of female nudity and portrayals of blood, “Tropical Gothic” is for viewers 18+ years of age and is password-protected. You can access the video here. The password is bloodandglitter. Running time is 7 minutes, 52 seconds. Showcased at the University of Illinois Chicago as part of Ashley Dequilla’s MFA candidacy in Studio Arts. Viewer discretion is advised.
Images below: Stills from Ashley Dequilla’s Performance Art Video, “Tropical Gothic”
When Ashley Dequilla reached out to me for a collaboration, my initial thought was “Do I have time?” but seeing the artistic collaborative utang (and a healthy utang) that had been created between us when I first reached out to her for a collaboration on Slicing Tomatoes for “When We Birth Demons,” I knew I couldn’t refuse. My sister was specifically requesting my help for an ekphrastic poem. Besides the issue of time, I was also concerned that I might not be able to deliver her much-needed request. To clarify, I’m not the kind of poet who delivers poetry on demand. The Muse must pay Her visit which is usually at a random hour of the day when I’m in the middle of walking down the street, washing dishes, or brushing my teeth, and I was concerned that I’d ultimately have nothing to give in the short timespan that Ashley needed the ekphrastic poem, but Ashley provided some amazing images that enticed the Muse to visit, and visit She did.
To give context, I was making the long drive from the Bay to LA to visit my folks on the day of my paternal grandfather’s 21st death anniversary, which was February 21st. When anyone would’ve thought I would’ve already been fast asleep after an exhausting six-hour drive, I instead spent the late hours of the 21st into the wee hours of the 22nd (3 AM-ish) drafting “Timeless Flight Across Fallopian Arms.” Ashley’s images sent to me a few days before had me mulling over an ekphrastic poem in my head during my six-hour drive. As I said, I’m not the kind of poet who delivers poetry on demand, but the ekphrastic poem to Ashley’s images flowed out effortlessly, which is a rare if not odd occurrence for me.
And coincidentally on the day that I was leaving LA to return to the Bay, which was March 5th, it was my maternal grandfather’s 77th death anniversary on which Ashley informed me of the release of her performance art video, beautifully comprised of ethereal choreography, thought-provoking imagery, an audio recording of my poem, accompanied by a dreamy musical soundtrack. I can truly say that collaborating with Ashley has been nothing short of magical—timing and all.
Besides being familiar with Marina Abramović who seems to hold the title of being “the grandmother of performance art,” it’s an honor to have contributed to the fresh-faced performance art of Ashley Dequilla, a much-needed artist of our time who embodies what our ancestral high priestesses may have been like long ago.
While I created the poem and provided the audio recording of “Timeless Flight Across Fallopian Arms,” it was Ashley alone who put together her grand multi-layered vision in the now stunning masterpiece you see as “Tropical Gothic.”
As a whole, Ashley draws on universal and historic symbols of fire, blood, flesh, horror, and beauty through her use of Philippine folkloric imagery, which while specific to Filipino culture, Ashley evolves the Manananggal in her piece and thus makes the Manananggal accessible and relatable across cultures.
For those unfamiliar with the Manananggal, in Philippine folklore, the Manananggal is an attractive woman by day who isolates from the townsfolk, residing on mountainsides or deep in the woods. During the day, she lives among people. At night, she applies a special oil on her body while chanting a prayer. Fangs, claws, and huge bat-like wings sprout. She has long, matted hair with big, wild eyes. The upper half of her body separates from the lower half at the waist. Her intestines drape from the bottom of her severed torso as she flies to the roof of her victim’s house and looks for any openings where she can insert her long, thin, proboscis-like tongue and pierce a pregnant woman’s belly to feed on the fetus.
Ashley reclaims and personifies our beloved Manananggal juxtaposing Herself between the childhood horror we have learned Her to be, while embracing the protective warning She historically and currently serves for women and girls against life’s real horrors such as war, sexual assault, miscarriage, and the medical experimentation and medical neglect over women’s bodies, especially BIPOC women. In this way, Ashley epitomizes the nuanced reverence, fear, and respect we have long held over this creature.
The vivid fire images that Ashley provides reveals an interesting commentary between the Manananggal and her global sisters that are found in other island cultures such as the Caribbean. I was overjoyed to see Ashley’s fire images as—whether she intended to or not—she seemed to pay homage to the Manananggal’s sister in the Caribbean called the Ol’Higue. For those unfamiliar with the Ol’Higue, in Caribbean folklore, the Ol’Higue is a woman who changes into a ball of fire at night, and flies around, seeking out babies and sucking their blood. As the Manananggal inspires poetry, so too does the Ol’Higue whom you can read about and listen to a clever and beautiful poem by Mark McWatt, an acclaimed Guyanese poet and professor of Caribbean Literature. It might be pure coincidence that Ashley pays homage to the Ol’Higue as I am not sure how much she may have been acquainted and familiarized herself with the Caribbean viscera-sucker of infants, but if it is pure unknowing coincidence, then this would be another example of how powerful Manananggal magic and coincidence can exist across indigenous cultures.
Through Ashley’s fire images, she also makes clear that we don’t burn our witches like a white western patriarchal culture has been historically known to do. Despite our archipelago and diaspora steeped in the Catholic faith, our culture continues to revere, fear, and respect ours. Witches do not exist on the fringes but are a way of life, where we blend ancestral practices with our own Catholic proselytization. One need not look further than Siquijor, a sacred haven for our archipelago’s witches.
I was also reminded of the Phoenix—what the ancient Greeks and Egyptians described as a magnificent mythical bird—a symbol of renewal and rebirth. According to legend, each Phoenix lived for five hundred years, and only one Phoenix lived at a time. Just before its death, the Phoenix would build a nest and set itself on fire. Its descendant would then rise from its ashes. Here the Manananggal embodies Phoenix qualities as well—She never dies but rises from Her own ashes where we are also reborn from Her ashes.
Through fire, Ashley evolves the Manananggal so that She transcends Philippine folklore into cross-cultural and universal themes. Fire itself symbolizes eternity and protects life. As long as the flame continues to burn, life will remain forever in the world, echoing the gift of fire from Prometheus.
A second image that struck me was Ashley’s placement of blood throughout her piece. She confronts society’s discomfort at seeing blood from a woman’s body, while violence inflicted on the human body outside of childbirth and menstruation are taken as nothing to bat an eyelash for. In her performance of explicit rawness, she forces the patriarchal structures to confront their own hypocrisy when it comes to how we perceive blood, as a hierarchy exists in the kind of blood perceived as repulsive versus the kind of blood perceived as run-of-the-mill.
And last, Ashley’s dance movements to me echo “Pandanggo Sa Ilaw,” our culture’s Candle Dance, where Ashley a demigoddess herself, moves beyond dancing with candles and dances with fire itself—the highest form of flame. It’s an ethereal, sinister, erotic, seductive, sensual, and painful dance which deep-dives into the magnificent power of the spiritual realm, of ultimately coming home, and I have to say, is brilliantly and breathtakingly done.
Between Ashley’s soundtrack and my audio recording of the poem, Ashley creates a spiritual microcosm that proves we are living ancestors and we are a living mythology and we are a timeless mythology, where any Babaylan hiding quietly among us would swoon: “I’m not in love, no no, it’s because . . . Ooh you’ll wait a long time for me.”
I feel incredibly honored to know Ashley Dequilla, and I cannot wait for future masterpieces following “Tropical Gothic.” Move over, Marina Abramović. We have a new Lola of performance art being born.
Text of the Ekphrastic Poem and Vocals by Elsa Valmidiano as heard in Ashley Dequilla’s “Tropical Gothic”:
Timeless Flight Across Fallopian Arms
for Ashley Dequilla
How do we make room for the mythology in our bodies
so that the wingspan of the Manananggal is our uterus
taking flight across fallopian arms undulating like
feathery petals, until time transforms these old fables into new stories,
so that the macabre truth of kidnappings by men with bayonets are
the Manananggal again, coming for our girls
so that our girls heed the dark, listen to its warnings,
and hide in safety? The Manananggal transforms again as
isn’t that what She’s supposed to do after millennia
of living among us as
our frightening friend,
our petrifying protector,
our malevolent messenger,
And all of this time, She takes the verbal lashing against
Her name to protect mothers and daughters, for things like
War and missing babies are out of our hands. Watch
as She shapeshifts
through you and me,
through stretch marks and sutured scars
cradling our bellies. There you will find Her,
against puting halimaw who want to burn us,
against puting halimaw who teach our
own Brown brothers to burn their Brown sisters,
forgetting that the wingspan of our Manananggal stretches
across time, and She is here once again to warn us, save us,
if we just look past Her most recent transformation.
She is not here to devour your children.
Won’t you at least look?
Won’t you at least listen to
the flapping of Her long black hair
in the midnight air
while She alights, a disguised angel,
on the wooden slats of your roof
as Her long thin proboscis tongue waves,
Ashley Dequilla is a Filipinx-American of Negrense, Ilongga, and Tagalog descent, and is a multi-hyphenate artist and activist who uses painting, performance, moving image and ritual. Her work addresses personal narrative, socio-cultural critique and healing. Outside of her practice she serves as an artist facilitator and propagandist for non-profit organizations that support survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as human rights in the Philippines. She is the 2021 recipient of the Pinay Risings scholarship. Ashley holds a BFA from the College of William and Mary and a Post-Bacc from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is currently obtaining her MFA in Studio Arts from the University of Illinois Chicago.