Shifting Perspectives

Alfonso Ossorio. Empty Chair or The Last Colonial. 1969 493

Glass and plastic marbles, carved wood figures, painted skeletal foot and vertebra, tree fragments, pebbles, geode, iron nails, coral, seashells, wood shoe trees, lobster claws, machete, faux pearls, plastic and wooden letters, plastic sheets and scraps, wood scraps, painted wood, animal claws and bones, domino, glass eyes, bell, and other materials on plastic sheets mounted on wood, 46 3/8 x 39 1/4 x 15 7/8" (117.7 x 99.7 x 40.3 cm). Gift of the artist

Francis Estrada: My name is Francis Estrada. I’m a visual artist and I work in School and Teacher programs in Education here at MoMA. You're looking at an artwork by Alfonso Ossorio, called Empty Chair or The Last Colonial.

Ossorio was a Philippines-born artist. Throughout his career, he would change not just the style, he would change the process and the materials that he used in order to tell a story, but he would never give you the full story. He would give you parts to make you think and to make you try to understand and make meaning for yourself. Even the title itself, you have an "or" in there, you know, The Empty Chair or The Last Colonial. Take your pick.

This is a rectangular piece. In it are a lot of little objects. I'm drawn to different things every time I look at it. For example, today I'm more drawn to the lower right-hand corner. There’s something about the pose of the wooden figure. Sometimes it's imposing, but today it feels like it's encouraging. It looks like traditional Filipino carvings that you would see in the Northern part of the Philippines. Seeing that figure today reminds me of home.

I had moved from the Philippines to the US when I was thirteen in 1988. I finally came back about 2010. I went to this area called Mount Banahaw. It's known for what's called anting anting, or agamat, or amulets. Some of them are for protection. Some of them are for blessings and for wellbeing, some of them are for health. But when you get them, they don't have any energy. So then you have to hike down all these steps going into the river, and there are these two waterfalls—they call it the mother fall and the father fall—and you have to bless them to get them charged. Otherwise, they're just objects.

Ossorio says, "All serious art is a repository for the spirit." And I kind of feel that with this one, you know, I see this as a repository for the energy that I feel just by looking at it. And I think that's the point of the amulet or the charge, that there's something that ignites something in you, something that excites you every time. Just being able to see this piece in person, to be able to talk about it, to be able to relate it to my personal history, and relate it to the Philippines’s history, it's something that's really charging.

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