Creator to Creator: Althea Balmes

In our collaborative podcast with Makeshift Collective called “Redefining Value in Labour” for LooseLeaf’s digital magazine, Althea, one of the three featuring creatives, talks about how important it is for her to work at the intersection of storytelling and art, as well as community building and education. These intersections are necessary in nurturing community, building allyship, and sharing the narratives we have yet to hear.

My first encounter with Althea’s work was through Cup Doodle Project. I love the idea of creating a community for Asian youth dedicated to sharing lived experiences through comics. Its characteristics of having multiple scenes and openness to possibilities of various artistic mediums allow expressive freedom for the storyteller to tell the story in the way they feel right. Learning more about Althea’s practice in this interview, I can see how perfect comics is as a creative form and a storytelling tool for her work. Read below as she shares insights about her work with comic-making and community engagement, and as part of Kwentong Bayan Collective, plus her doodling thought process on why she can’t pick a “favourite” performance artist. – Mirae.

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Mirae: Can you tell us briefly about your creative practice? How did you start creating comics?

Althea: My creative process is really a series of explorations and questions I have around cultural knowledge and our role as cultural bearers in the diaspora. I’m really interested in the idea of intangible culture and I think about this in the context of migration, the political reality that I live in and recently climate change. It usually begins with a story or a memory, remembering and reflections.

Comics for me is really the most straightforward and accessible way to document our realities and to tell any stories. Yet it is actually a very complex visual communication tool that transcends past, present and multidimensional visioning. And I love that!

I started making comics in 2013 when I started Kwentong Bayan with Jo Alcampo. Neither of us really knew what that meant (because we’ve never made comics or really worked together before), but at that time I was really impressed by the Filipino komik masters of the golden and silver age. They made a strong impact on Filipino identity, folklore and culture among other things. Komikeros also have a long tradition of using the medium to shed light on the political climate of their time.

So for me, comics, storytelling and my art practice, though I didn’t know it at that time but as I understand it now, are a part of my decolonization process.

Tell us about Kwentong Bayan Collective. What do you believe is the main responsibility that the Collective holds, and what is the importance of a community like Kwentong Bayan?

I think our main responsibility is in holding spaces (both on paper and in real life) and to give the right energy so that the stories can be told and be honoured. These aren’t just stories but people’s living experiences including our own.

Our art practice is really built on relationships with our community, each other and the careworkers. It would look and feel so different otherwise if we didn’t take time to build this relationship.

Excerpt from “Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle”

How do you ensure the stories of Filipinx migrant caregivers are translated through comics by you and Jo Alcampo in a genuine manner? Why do you think comics are a suitable storytelling method to talk about and share these often silenced or hidden stories?

Very early on, we had to basically build a protocol on how we tell stories that aren’t our own. A kind of accountability measure. This includes asking for feedback from the careworkers and advocates on our work; including our voice in the narrative, sharing our own growth, assumptions and lessons. We build characters based on amalgamated personalities we’ve met as a way to protect the identity of the caregivers and their family.

We also recognize that some personal stories aren’t for us to tell. As much as possible, we bring people in as collaborators and give them the space and support they need to be able to tell their own stories.

I think comics has the potential to tell any stories well but in any kind of storytelling craft, it’s a question of what is your responsibility, relationship and connection to the story you’re telling?

The Cup Doodle Project Fam

I remember looking through every single zine at the table of Cup Doodle Project at the Asian Zine Fair, and delighted about the idea of a comic-making residency where folks have the freedom to explore and delve deep into the complexities of navigating Canada. How did the project emerge, and how did you, as the facilitator/educator, ensure the participants felt safe in the spaces, as well as safe to share their stories to the public?

Thank you Mirae! I’m so happy the project resonated with you! Before the residency, I was already facilitating comic and art workshop around the city. These would usually be a one-time session. In some way, I was frustrated that participants never had enough time to build a relationship with their story, much less draw the story. When SKETCH invited me to do a program in their space, I wanted to build on this dream of emerging creatives coming together, supporting each other’s process and building a unit that functions together but also independently – thus Cup Doodle emerged.

Safety is an important thing to bring up! For me it’s really a question of, “first do I feel safe?” because I can’t build good relationship with people if I feel threatened and insecure. I had to break down my needs first and built a support system around that. Then it was about sharing with each other the things that help us feel like we can be ourselves. In the beginning we had a dialogue, setting some ground rules, breaking down what anti-oppression means and understanding that this is a place of experimenting and learning. I needed it to be okay for us to make mistakes and to learn from them. Mostly I wanted the group to feel like they were taken care of and that they have to take care of each other.

As for the stories, in general, people are not going to share stories that they are not ready to tell. I trust in our ability to protect ourselves and to be open to be vulnerable when it’s time. I don’t push people in the direction they don’t want to go. My rule is to always give people the space to process and trust whatever comes out of it.

Eat. Donate. poster for Filipino breakfast fundraising for Yolanda Survivors

What memorable responses have you received to your work, and have they changed the way you think about making art?

I think the most memorable response is when people take ownership of the art. I love that they can see part of themselves in the work. Whether it is because the drawings look like them or because they helped me paint drawings on the wall or when they can relate to the stories or they want to be part of my workshop. Art doesn’t have to be this isolating, individualist mental exercise. Art making is one way I can connect to other people.

Recently, what themes or questions are you interested in further exploring?

These days I’ve been thinking about form and the various ways I can push a form or medium in the ways I collaborate with people. Filipino culture and knowledge is always in my mind. I am continuously exploring, going deeper into certain art forms and playing around with the intangibility of it. I’m also thinking of ancient and future technologies and the ways it can be given space to work in the present. Decolonized design has also been in my radar and thinking about that as a trained UX designer.

What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?

I helped draw a chapter of Graphic History Collective’s book, “Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of Strike”. It’s been out since Feb. 8!

Kwentong Bayan is part of a group exposition Take Care in France March 3- July 21. If you happened to be in Paris/ Noisiel!

We will also be in Montreal as part of the Pinay Power Conference. We’ll be doing a talk with Trinidad Escobar April 18 at Drawn and Quarterly.

Cup Doodle Project is working on a new collection of comic zines for Spring 2019.

Kwentong Bayan is also prepping for a solo show in the summer in Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga.

Lastly, what does being a “Canadian” artist mean to you?

Loaded. That is to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been identified solely as a “Canadian” artist and when I do I sit in the discomfort of what that carries for me as a diasporic non-Indigenous person. I’m at a point in my life where I’m really unlearning and unpacking everything that’s been taught to me and becoming more mindful with what I’m learning. This includes understanding what being “Canadian” means through a decolonized lens.

One way I am able to take ownership of that is recontextualizing “Canadianness” as a Filipino-Canadian artist. To me this means being able to exercise my power to question, explore, create alternatives, to heal and make sense of my lived experience through art making and make meaningful connections.

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To view more work by Althea, visit her website.

To learn more about Kwentong Bayan, visit here.

New Creator to Creator II every other Wednesday!

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