While out exploring 14th Street one day I caught a glimpse of brilliant color out of the corner of my eye. What was most intriguing on this card displayed on the counter of a shop was what appeared to be a Venn diagram of overlapping color, accompanied by a line of text. The lighthearted text appeared below a structured color graphic that dominated the minimal presentation and now my curiosity.
The card was for an upcoming exhibition titled HALO-HALO at Metro Micro Gallery that featured a series of prints by Nico Fertakis. Metro Micro Gallery is a new space in Arlington, VA founded by Barbara Januszkiewicz with a pay-it-forward approach to promote local artists and curators. The two can be interchangeable as some of the artists who exhibit at Metro Micro Gallery in turn are invited to curate an exhibition at a later date.
As part of my initial research, I set up a meeting to find out more about Nico’s multicultural background and interest in color as a means to describe the flavors of Filipino food. I found out that the text at the bottom of each print is almost like a puzzle or a play on words that connect American, often slang terms, to the curious names and flavors of Filipino cuisine. Nico explained in detail the various, foods, flavors, cultural history and special occasions from her childhood that helped to shape this dynamic body of work.
Here are some parts of our conversation around this topic that took place at her favorite cafe on U Street NW in Washington D.C.
JW: I was initially drawn to the visual concept behind using color form and text in your work to convey important information. Could you explain a little about your process in making this series?
NF: I think the first thing someone likely notices about my prints are the colors and the Venn diagram. But what drives the image and the colors are the text at the bottom of the print. I take American expressions that include food – such as drop it like a hot potato – and replace the food/dish with one that is popular in the Philippines. I then reconfigure the expression into a Filipino version so it then becomes – drop it like a hot ube. Ube (pronounced oo-bé) is a yam that is popular in the Philippines, used in some Filipino desserts, similarly to how sweet potatoes are made into sweet potato pie. Ube is this naturally beautiful vivid violet and bright lavender in color. That is why my print, Drop It Like A Hot Ube, features these two colors. As with all of my prints, the two main colors I choose for the Venn diagram are inspired from the colors of the Filipino fruit/dish I describe on the print.
I think the Venn diagram is a great way to show the relationship of having a multicultural background. Being Filipino and American are different, but are not mutually exclusive. The Venn diagram illustrates this overlap and unifies what may appear to be different. By integrating Filipino foods into American expressions, I am conveying that these two distinct cultures can also intersect and become its own identity.
The text also plays with the concept that to make something feel more familiar you have to frame it into a context of what people already know. I create a context for a dish/food/fruit you may have not eaten before, but you know the expression and can then likely guess, oh, that must be a dessert. For instance, a lot of people are familiar with the expression have your cake and eat it, too. So when you see my print – Have Your Halo-Halo And Eat It, Too – you may likely deduce that halo-halo is also a dessert.
JW: Your work is a product of colorful, multicultural background. How does this relate to the work that you are making and what inspired you to use food as a means of expression?
NF: I grew up in U.S. with a mother who was from the Philippines and a father who was from Greece. As with many cultures, food is a very meaningful part of these two backgrounds. Having never been to the Philippines, Filipino food was a main way I was exposed to this culture. Growing up, I ate foods that were different from my friends and did not realize it was not common for a long time. Foods familiar to them were not very familiar to me. Because of that difference, I didn’t understand the meaning of many American food expressions. I ate and enjoyed papayas more than apples so it seemed natural to me to change the expression, the apple of my eye to the papaya of my eye.
JW: There seems to be a new interest in Filipino food as it has become more mainstream and accessible. What qualities / flavors are unique in this cuisine? Why do you think it has suddenly become popular? How did some of these flavors translate in your household with your father being Greek and your mother Filipino?
NF: That’s a great question and I’m not completely sure of the answer. I think it helps that the world is becoming more connected through technology and that there are now TV shows that feature eating the cuisine in other countries. This exposure seems to help increase awareness and interest of other foods and cultures.
Filipino food can have some sour and bitter flavors that offer new tastes. Not to say that those flavors don’t already exist in some shape or form, but the way they are presented using fruits and vegetables popular in the Philippines and in Filipino dishes is likely new to many.
Growing up with parents from these two different countries, we would have a Greek salad and a Filipino dish for a meal. While that would seem odd to eat a couple of decades ago, I think it would be seen as “cool” and “creative” now with how popular fusion cuisine has become. It’s interesting to think that what is “trendy” now is common-place for me and others who grew up eating Filipino food. I think that many of us have that story of bringing a family dish to school and being embarrassed because classmates thought it looked, sounded and smelled “weird.” I appreciate that Filipino food is becoming increasingly valued. It feels good to know that people enjoy the food that I grew up eating, especially when it wasn’t always seen as such.
JW: During our interview you told a story about something that happened on your 5th birthday. Could you relay this story again for us? What was the outcome of this event?
NF: When I turned 5, I expected my mom to make Filipino-style fruit ambrosia salad for my birthday party like it was done for my sister’s birthday a few weeks earlier. I know it doesn’t sound like a special dish, but in my 5-year-old mind, it was the equivalent of the best birthday cake. I did have a birthday cake that my neighbor made special for me that year, but when I scoured the party food table for the ambrosia salad, I was crestfallen when it was nowhere to be found. My mom thought the cake would be more meaningful to me – it was after all, a cake of my favorite doll, Strawberry Shortcake. But I didn’t grow up eating cake and didn’t appreciate it as much as I did for the Filipino-style ambrosia salad. Fast forward to a couple of years ago, my mom made a point to make a huge bowl of this childhood favorite dessert when my husband and I went home for the holidays. It was a very sweet gesture. One of my prints includes this dessert, ambrosia, as a touch point.
JW: You have noted that you do not have any formal training in art but studied sociology and have a master’s degree in strategic management. Do you see the prints included in Halo-Halo, as relevant in the broader concept of today’s society? How can the audience benefit from the exhibition?
NF: While I have enjoyed painting and making jewelry since I was 11 or 12, I’ve only taken one painting class and that was in high school. A common thread in both of my degrees is diversity and inclusion. I see the sociology one as the theoretical framework and the strategic management piece as the practical approach. My prints play with these concepts and the Venn diagram gives a visual analogy of how two different cultures can overlap and be the same. My prints reflect this concept – I am Filipino, I am American, and I am also Filipino-American. They are unique cultures, but not mutually exclusive.
JW: The title of this exhibition is “HALO-HALO”. How did you arrive at this name and how does it relate to the work?
NF: Halo-Halo is the name of a popular dessert in the Philippines. When translated in Tagalog, the dialect my mother grew up speaking, it means “mix mix” or “mixed together.” While this dessert is comprised of several distinct ingredients – sweetened beans, various fruits, milk, shaved ice and ube (bright violet/purple yam) – they are not blended together. Each ingredient maintains its integrity in this dessert. When put together in a dish, they create a colorful combination of flavors. This dessert and its translation can be seen a simile for my multicultural backgrounds.
JW: Tell us about the content of the prints in Halo-Halo. Some of the elements that come into play are color, humor, text, unique flavors and overlapping shapes. Explain how these components are important in understanding the “bigger picture” of our lives on this planet in relation to diversity, inclusion, community and cultural awareness?
NF: By swapping out the food with one popular in the Philippines in an American idiom, I’m offering a Filipino-American version of the expression. The colors I choose for the Venn diagram are based on the colors of this fruit/vegetable/dish popular in the Philippines. If someone knows the food, they likely smile when they read the text. If they don’t, then maybe they will become curious about it. It’s fun to engage people through this work and share aspects of my Filipino culture. This engagement can raise cultural awareness and is a potential space for valuing diversity, which in turn can promote inclusion.
JW: Something that struck me in our interview is how naturally you are able to let your creative path reveal itself as you move through life. It will be exciting to see what will follow. Halo-Halo has received a strong response during the course of the exhibition. The work is visually powerful and ignites curiosity and humor. Has this process inspired any thoughts of future creative projects?
NF: Thank you. I am really humbled by the interest that my work has received. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the most creative and interesting way to recreate a life-sized version of one of my prints. I ended up using transparent plexiglass to showcase the mixing of colors. Going from prints to sculpture was a big shift, but one that I felt comfortable doing. I’ve thought about writing a children’s book so perhaps my prints will be a foundation for that potential project. I’m open to seeing how the artwork evolves, but not wedded to any one idea just yet.
I will be showing my prints next month at the SAMASAMA Art Show and Gathering in Washington D.C. The first time I showed my prints was for their show last year. It was a really fun event to honor Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and I appreciate their approach that includes giving a portion of sales towards a nonprofit organization. Moving forward, I would like to only participate in similar events that help support community organizations through donations from art sales.