Between Ocean and Sky: Jerome Reyes’s Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas)

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Between Ocean and Sky: Jerome Reyes’s Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas)

By Yinshi Lerman-Tan October 2, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Jerome Reyes’s public billboard artwork, Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas) (2017), hangs on the north façade of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in downtown San Francisco. To see it is to read it:

BAKA MALAMIG DOON
WERE AMONG THE FEW 
WORDS SHE SAID
 
AS THE FOG
SQUEEZED IN WAILING
SOUNDS ECHOED
 
I PRAYED A LOT 
I WAS
AFRAID OF THE WATER
 
Jerome Reyes. Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas), 2017; vinyl billboard; 30 x 30 ft. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

The billboard—part found poem, part landscape—physically mimics the architecture of YBCA and looms large above the door below it. Despite its size, the billboard has a lightness of presence (in profile, it’s so thin it might disappear). The text is sourced from the writings and words of three Bay Area Filipino American icons from three generations: Jose Antonio Vargas (b. 1981), journalist, filmmaker, and immigrant rights advocate; Al Robles (1930–2009), poet and activist; and Victoria Manalo Draves (1924–2010), Olympic diver and gold medalist. In Reyes’s piece, their words are decontextualized and laid over a photograph taken by Reyes at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.1 The thin, white vinyl of the billboard—printed with an image of a blue ocean, stretched over a metal armature, and hoisted above our heads—mimics the sail of an ocean vessel, rippling in the wind.

The first words of Abeyance come from Vargas, recounting his mother speaking to him as a child: “BAKA MALAMIG DOON / WERE AMONG THE FEW WORDS / SHE SAID.” The words are drawn from his 2011 essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” for the New York Times Magazine

One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab. She handed me a jacket. “Baka malamig doon” were among the few words she said. (“It might be cold there.”) When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.2

The site of this painful mother-son parting—an airport—is present in the aeronautical silver bars of the billboard’s armature and the cold, industrial lights that illuminate it from overhead.

Vargas’s ten words, lifted by Reyes, speak about a mother’s love and mother tongues, which often go together. “Baka malamig doon” (“It might be cold there”) expresses the desire of a mother to keep her son physically warm, even when they are apart. It is a metaphor, too, for the icy chill of foreignness and indefinite separation and the hope that a mother’s love might continue to offer protection across distance. In addition to the mother herself, the Tagalog language gets left behind, too. A reader textually experiences that act of leaving behind, moving from the first line in Tagalog to the remaining two lines, which are in English. In the New York Times Magazine essay, Vargas recounts his own memory, but on the billboard, his words speak for all the children and all of the mothers who have been left behind across borders.

Jerome Reyes. Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas), 2017; vinyl billboard; 30 x 30 ft.Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jeremy Keith Villaluz.

After this fragment of Vargas’s primal, childhood experience of leaving the home country, the second stanza of Abeyance lands us squarely in San Francisco, marked by the word "fog": “AS THE FOG / SQUEEZED IN WAILING / SOUNDS ECHOED.” The lines are from a 1996 poem titled “Jazz of My Youth” by Robles. The quoted section reads, “laying down in the back room / horns blowing to stars fell on alabama / as the night fog squeezed in / wailing sounds echoed in the air / the streets sparkled like stars.”3 Laden with nostalgia, “Jazz of my Youth” is a lamentation for a bygone San Francisco, once alive with sound and feeling, now only scattered with fragments of sensory memories. Robles saw San Francisco, and its historically Filipino neighborhoods, change dramatically. He was an organizer in the near decade-long fight to prevent the eviction of elderly Asian American tenants from their longtime homes in the residential International Hotel in Manilatown—less than a mile from YBCA. “SQUEEZED IN WAILING” conjures photographs of the hotel on August 4, 1977, when protestors and activists created a human barrier against mounted police in riot gear to protect the remaining elderly residents from eviction; ultimately, the aged tenants were forcibly removed from their homes by police. By erecting these words on valuable urban space in the swiftly gentrifying SoMa neighborhood, adjacent to downtown San Francisco, Reyes makes a pointed comment on the histories of eviction and displacement in San Francisco’s historic Manilatown.4   

The final words of Abeyance, “I PRAYED A LOT / I WAS / AFRAID OF THE WATER,” come from a 1991 interview with Victoria Manalo Draves, the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in diving. Like Vargas’s childhood memory and Robles’s youthful recollections, Draves, too, recounts her childhood in San Francisco, before her Olympic success. She explains that she didn’t learn to swim until “she was 9 or 10” because she was “really kind of afraid of the water.”5 When asked about her memory of the night before the Olympic qualifying trials, Draves responded, “I prayed a lot.” These recollections of fear and prayer read through a photograph of Draves diving, printed in the May 16, 1949 issue of LIFE magazine. In the largest photograph, Draves levitates almost divinely above the diving board, the curls of her hair unrestricted by a cap and her eyes cast downwards. Mid-dive, she is held in abeyance—literally a temporary cessation or suspension (as in, to keep at bay). Like Draves, Reyes’s billboard is gracefully suspended, but here Draves’s words, and not her body, float against the backdrop of the sky.

Part poem, part landscape, Abeyance is like writing in the sand. It inscribes words onto a photograph of the ocean and the face of the cityscape, words that might be washed away at any moment by the pixelated froth at the bottom of the billboard. (The installation, fittingly, is temporary: installed in 2017, it will be removed in the spring of 2019.) Reyes positions us on a precipice, like Draves over the diving board, praying and afraid, and watching the fog roll in. The words—of mother’s love in the mother tongue, of activist and athlete—appear almost immaculately in a space carved out by Reyes that hovers between the ocean and sky, above our heads and below our feet, whispering to us the words she said that we can’t quite remember alone. 

Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas) is on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through April 28, 2019.

Notes

  1. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, "Abeyance (Draves Y Robles Y Vargas)," accessed September 26, 2018. https://www.ybca.org/abeyance-public-art.
  2. Jose Antonio Vargas, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” The New York Times Magazine, June 22, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/magazine/my-life-as-an-undocumented-immigrant.html.
  3. Al Robles, Rappin’ Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996), 88. 
  4. The history of the hotel is a theme across works in Reyes’s oeuvre, many of which are installed in the SoMA district and deal directly with the archives and memory of the anti-eviction movement.
  5. Vicki Draves, An Olympian’s Oral History: Vicki Draves, 1948 Olympic Games, Diving (Los Angeles: Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, 1999), 2, 13. 

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