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Filipino Fetish

[whitespace] Mail Order Brides Mail Order Madness: Filipina-American artists Eliza Barrios, Jenifer Wofford and Reanne Estrada, a.k.a. the Mail Order Brides, dress up and act out campy send-ups of Filipino-American life.

Mail Order Brides engage SF with their unusual brand of campy, goofy fun

By Christine Brenneman

If you share the common idea that there are no original creative ideas left, the work of the Mail Order Brides (M.O.B.) might cause you to reconsider. The local collective approaches art with a unique brand of humor, camp and high drama. Making art intended to unveil and investigate Filipino culture, Filipina-American artists Reanne Estrada, Eliza Barrios and Jenifer Wofford thrive on dressing up and acting out campy send-ups of Filipino-American life. Currently, the Mail Order Brides have a series of vividly colored, beautifully executed posters on display on kiosks on Market Street titled "Home Is Where the Heart Is ..." Part of the SF Art Commission's Art in Transit Program, these posters will be up until Nov. 19 and feature the women of Mail Order Brides involved in various domestic Filipino scenes. Think of their work as a day in the life of a wacky Filipino family in a parallel universe where giant paper flowers, wigs and sexy shoes reign supreme.

How did you come up with the name Mail Order Brides?

Estrada: There was a Frasier episode where they referred to Filipino women being mail order brides. You know, it's a serious situation--the economic conditions in the Philippines dictate these drastic measures for these women. Along with the whole women-in-distress persona, we all kind of looked at each other and said, well, we're all Filipino women and all the Filipino women we know aren't subservient, they're not submissive, they're kind of kick-ass! And Filipinos are very fond of acronyms, so we thought Mail Order Brides, M.O.B., turning the idea of a mail order bride on its head.

Can you talk a bit about how your Filipino heritage informs your art?

Estrada: We take on various characteristics of Filipino culture. Apart from the obvious "drag" clothes that we put on--because we are basically American--when we're doing that sort of stuff it's a very conscious thing to put on the dress and be like, OK, we're playing at being Filipino. A lot of our early work revolved around food and hospitality.

Barrios: There's a lot of domestic stuff going on, and also the characters and personae we've created remind me of the stories my Mom used to tell me about her family. In terms of the aesthetics too, it reminds me of my upbringing and my mother, who is first-generation Filipina-American.

When you're working on a Mail Order Brides project, how do you reconcile the artistic sensibilities of three people?

Wofford: Rochambeau. The three of us are just so close at this point that there's none of that power-tripping of collaboration where someone's sort of puffing their chest out. That's never occurred with us, that's why the three of us love each other and hang out socially. We're close friends; it's a fluid thing.

Barrios: It's the faith in the work rather than the faith in our individual names. The fact that we're three people; three's a really good number, it balances out.

Right now you have this series of posters on Market Street. Do you consider yourselves "public artists"?

Wofford: I think part of the thing with our work is that it is so collaborative and inherently social; we've always got our friends or victims involved with our photo shoots. And we've done some karaoke videos--those are definitely intended for public viewing. And our photos are so ridiculously campy and they exist on a level where it's meant to be fun for everybody.

Estrada: We try to make the work accessible through fun.

Barrios: I don't think that was our goal to become "public artists," it just happened to evolve that way.

What about the prominence of shoes in your work?

Wofford: Shoes are very important to us!

Estrada: I know Imelda [Marcos] was the one that illuminated the pathway for Filipinos with shoes.

Wofford: I think all of us are these urban, Westernized, feminist kind of chicks. The whole ritual of playing dress-up and getting super femme is very much like getting into drag. It's a very ritualistic sort of role-playing, and we're just a little bit more into it than we thought we'd be.

The men in your poster series, "Home is Where the Heart Is ...," are set off to the side or totally uninvolved in the action. How are you commenting on the role of men in the traditional Filipino household?

Estrada: Filipino men are smart enough to know when to let the women do the thinking and the talking. Over time, the generations have made it so that men understand that it's OK for women to be very strong and to be very vocal and to take center stage.

What do you think is the ideal venue for your art?

Wofford: Filipino restaurants and karaoke bars.

Estrada: At this point, we're still experimenting with different forms. We want to cast a wider audience net, to get people involved, provide them with the opportunity to have a good time with art or our form of art.

What do you hope people get out of your work?

Estrada: A good time! For any piece of art, it is effective if it's able to snap someone out of their everyday reality even for just a little bit.

Barrios: Or make them realize their reality ...

Estrada: Take them out of their reality so that maybe they can better reflect on it or look at it from a different point of view.

Are there any particular artists or people that you count as influences?

Wofford: Vermeer (lots of laughter). If you're familiar with the work of Vermeer, he does these lovely little Dutch interior scenes with soft, still, pale light. We thought, yeah, we want to do that because we were dealing with domestic scenes too. Even though it (our art) is a sort of goofy, publicly oriented kind of work, it does have very much of a root in the art historical tradition.

Estrada: That's it! Mail Order Brides: new Renaissance masters!

What do you bond over the most?

All Three: Food!

Barrios: Gossip.

Estrada: Shoes. Oh yeah, I guess art too.

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From the October 19-November 1, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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