Notes on Notes on Navigation (and Other Oscillations)

The artist in her studio

Forth and back, perhaps that is a good way to describe Jem Magbanua’s artistic journey so far. 

I say this as a counterpoint to the normal “back and forth” used in the English language, as Magbanua’s body of work is anything but normal. Square one: Manila. Her memory of art as child was what could be seen at the National Museum of the Philippines; while at school, drawing a cube was peak art class. She described it as a sort of bubble, and it’s not hard to disagree.

During her early high school years, she was able to leave that bubble and find herself in an amazing alien environment: her family had moved to Singapore. Now, our small but formidable South East Asian neighbor is famous in many ways, most notably its strict laws and many penalties when caught, earning the nickname as “A Fine City.” As rigid as the general atmosphere sounded, Magbanua encountered a much different country when it came to her art education. She found herself surrounded by easily accessible art fairs, theatre shows, ballets, exhibitions, museum shows and many other events that highlighted various cultures. Thinkers and makers from various industries and backgrounds shared their learnings freely, their output in an array of mediums, and this was the norm. Indispensable and valuable, she describes the impact of these events in her life. 

Would you believe that was even before she entered university? Taking up BA Fine Arts at LASALLE College of Arts, where the curriculum was more conceptual and experimental — things were far from the traditional training that many art schools in the Philippines, and perhaps elsewhere, can’t seem to get past. As she recounts, one of her freshman classes was a two-hour discussion aiming to define what “sublime” means in contemporary art. It wasn’t a walk in the park though, as one lecturer had ventured to say that they “couldn’t imagine it in a gallery setting,” referring to Magbanua’s work in the style she had been developing. 

Speaking of developing, Singapore is a country somewhat obsessed with development. “The urban landscape steadily shifted through the years. A mall would pop up in a corner. A condo would be built in an area where heritage buildings once stood. A subway would pop up in another area,” the artist recounts. Contrary to this image of roadblocks and construction projects, it is actually quite a walkable place. In fact, a group of friends made news for walking from the west coast to the east coast of Singapore in just 15 hours. Magbanua herself is no stranger to this activity, as walking is an integral part of life on the island, apart from the efficient commute systems. 

During annual family trips back to the Philippines, Magbanua noticed that the art scene was becoming more and more vibrant, and experimentation was slowly finding ground. Graduating in 2015, the go-to route as an inhouse illustrator/agency designer was out of the question, as she valued the space needed to cultivate her personal practice. Sadly, Singapore was also too expensive, as even studio rent was unbelievable. That same year, she visited Art Fair Philippines, and what she saw gave her the final nudge. She was moving back to square one. 

Rebecca Solnit, in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” talked about walking as taking “the scenic route through a half-abandoned landscape of ideas and experiences.” In walking, we also navigate. Magbanua relates to this as she says: “To be human is to navigate, to make sense of one's place in the world. Out of the string of information generated by our movements, we create sequences, routes, and paths that help us create narratives with beginnings, middles, and destinations. These discoveries mold our insights and knowledge of the world and ultimately, of ourselves.” At the same time, she acknowledges the cycles that we walk in each day: the back and forth of seasons, the flow of the crowd or traffic, the evolution of the urban landscape, our routinary commute. In walking, we oscillate.

Her exhibition “Notes on Navigation and other Oscillations,” held at Galerie Stephanie, distills the things she had learned along the way, things that let her think deeply and analytically about the world from which she aims to thoughtfully infuse observations into her work. In a post-pandemic world, we find ourselves once again familiar with what Solnit called “a series of interiors—home, car, gym, office, shops,” and Magbanua agrees that this exhibition is a kind of response to that, with the need to refamiliarize, to re-navigate. 

Installation shot of the artist's recent solo exhibition with Galerie Stephanie

Navigation is a natural state of the human experience; oscillations are the cyclic rhythms that affect our day-to-day lives. These are the movements that confront us with the fact of being in the world, requiring us to pause and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings. In Magbanua’s forth and back, Singapore to Philippines, her navigations showed what it means to put down roots, to rediscover roots, to carve out a place that you can call yours; to build, to plant, to feel like you completely belong in a place.


Francisco Lee is a visual artist, art writer, and independent curator, and is currently based in Manila.