Martha Atienza: The Protectors

September 8, 2022 – November 5, 2022

505 W 24th St
New York, NY

‘On the first Bantayan Fisherfolks’ Day, we were all crying. It was raining heavily. They said it was a blessing. Almost fifty boats with fisherfolk organizations and leaders coming together on water. How could they ignore us now?’

– Martha Atienza

In this new body of work for Silverlens New York, Martha Atienza asks, ‘Who owns the land? Who owns the sea?’. These are questions that persistently come to her mind when working with her home community across the Bantayan group of islands, north of Cebu in the Visayas, the Philippines’ central island group.

Under the guise of promised economic prosperity, Bantayan has been subjected to the interests of the tourism industry—sitting in stark contrast to idyllic imaginations of island life portrayed in the media, and the arts. Whether it is a bill removing Bantayan’s wilderness area, making available privatization of land and the push to allow foreigners to have 100% ownership of this land, or the North Cebu Economic Zone—a neoliberal agenda continues in its coercive ways of dispossession.

Atienza focuses on the island of Mambacayao Dako, one of the Bantayan group of islands, which has been home to fisherfolk for generations. But as tourism is pushed forth, these fisherfolk are forcibly relocated to public and private housing projects by landed elites and the government, thereby losing access to their coastal homes. This rise in tourism and process of dispossession turns the fisherfolk into workers left with little to no choice other than to work for resort owners. Atienza’s work challenges this process of imposition on these island communities and the imaginations that foster it.

Alongside a community of fisherfolk, youth, artists, non- government workers, engineers, and artists, Martha Atienza established GOODLand* in order to engage with these issues. GOODLand is creating an alternative plan that has been proposed to the mayor: that the people stay, but under an organized body; that tourism will enter, but for the support of the island and its people, for conservation purposes, and alternative livelihood.

The tourists will be able to see the marine protected areas and learn from the locals about island life and traditions. It will become a mutual relationship where visitors exchange knowledge and the locals gain livelihood. Only day trips, and a very limited number of visitors may enter, ensuring that the communities personal space and intimate relationship with nature is respected. The locals do not become the animals in a zoo. They will simply remain the protectors of the area, as they are fighting to be.

GOODLand worked with the local government for several years to establish May 31 as the annual Bantayan Fisherfolks’ Day/Adlaw sa Mga Mananagat. This ordinance was finally passed in September of 2022, as Atienza opens her show in New York.

Bantayan is a coastal community which relies on fishing as one of its major sources of living, and this annual celebration is meant to be a platform where everyone connected to the sea comes together to share knowledge, concerns, and ways to work better for a productive future. This will probably create a better connection and network to strengthen relations, an opportunity for the local government, non-government organizations, and the small fisherfolks to meet for these relevant purposes: the preservation, the protection and the eventual augmentation of marine supply and food source. Ultimately, the short term goal is food security and the long term goal is eradicating poverty.

Atienza’s work calls on the viewer to participate in the act of remembering. Places such as Bantayan remind us that this is imperative to the continuation of cultural knowledge and being. Our connections to places retain memories, they are repositories of knowledge. Remembering in itself is a way to challenge a system designed to suppress.

– Isa Lorenzo, Jake Atienza, and Martha Atienza

*GOODLand Association was founded by me together with my friend and collaborator Ramon Alontaga and fisherfolk leader and community organizer, John Ortega. We are a few Bantayan islanders that came together through collaborating on past art projects and continued collaborating on local innovative solutions. We formalized the group in 2020 knowing that this platform would be powerful tool to not only push for projects for island solutions but so that it could become a platform for the voices that are never heard. GOODLand works in preserving the marine and terrestrial protected areas, resolving waste management issues, and preventing the removal of the Bantayan Island Wilderness Area. – Martha Atienza

In the event of this exhibition, on Tuesday, September 27, 2022, Martha Atienza will join artist Yee I-Lann and Brooklyn Rail contributor Jessamine Batario for a conversation. The conversation will conclude with a poetry reading by KT Pe Benito.

About the artist

Born to a Dutch mother and Filipino father, Martha Atienza (b. 1981, Manila, Philippines; lives and works in Bantayan Island, Philippines) has moved between the Netherlands and the Philippines throughout her life. Constantly oscillating between these two cultures has had a profound influence on Atienza’s focus as an artist.

Atienza’s practice explores installation and video as a way of documenting and questioning issues around environment, community and development. Her work is mostly constructed in video, of an almost sociological nature, that studies her direct environment. Often utilizing technology in the form of mechanical systems, Atienza explores the immersive capacity of installation in generating critical discourse. Her work tends to be collaborative in nature, working with people from different backgrounds and expertise as well as residents of Bantayan Island, where her family is from, whose narratives are intricately woven into issues such as environmental change, displacement, cultural loss, governance and socioeconomic disparities.

Atienza’s practice explores installation and video as a way of documenting and questioning issues around the environment, community, and development. Her work is mostly constructed in video, of an almost sociological nature, that studies her direct environment.