Zoe Butt

‘kapwa’* is an indigenous Filipino (Tagalog) term of psychology whose root is anchored in prehispanic, pre-colonial thinking, a cultural ethnic attitude of ‘the self in the other’. This is a relational attitude between generations where each individual acknowledges their relevance and responsibility to carry forward their ancestral collective significance, in a particular respect to their local community and natural environment. The ‘self’ is an integral part of the ‘other’ and intertwined, thus, an action outside of the self is innately an action within. Such an attitude can be found in the diaspora of Asian psychologies, most coherently phrased by renown Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh ‘There is the collective consciousness and the individual consciousness. Our individual consciousness is made of our collective consciousness, and our collective consciousness is made of our individual consciousness. We reflect everything. And everything reflects us. And the process begins with yourself.’

In short, the ‘kapwa’ of an individual can be likened to a kind of ethical spirit of relational subjectivity (within Confucian thinking the concept is referred as ‘jen’) whereby the actions of one can be said to represent the actions of a collective and in turn, speak with respect to the order of the universe. Unlike concepts of ‘The Other’ that places the self as something that it is not, the relational concept of ‘kapwa’ understands that everything within and beyond is an extension of the self and ultimately representational of a harmonious community.

Such non-Western or indigenous forms of discourse on human subjectivities have been significantly eroded under the colonial project, whereby foreign economic and linguistic systems were imposed on communities thus inherently altering their relational concept of human sustainability. As Professor Paredes Canilao points out ‘… we find in Chinese and Filipino cultures discourses that are more ontologically, epistemologically and culturally empowering for the decolonization and cultural politics of colonized subjects. These discourses express and construct a notion of self-identity that is integrally connected to others and to the bigger cosmos. This is the moral force binding intercultural community that is found wanting in the postmodern desire for difference.’ ** Such moral force, a particular respect or belief in the need for balance and harmony between thought, action and impact on the animate and inanimate worlds, is a model also discussed by Professor Prasenjit Duara in his forthcoming book ‘Transcendence in the Secular World: Asian Traditions and Sustainability in Sustainable Modernity’, where he calls for a new ethic of human agency, highly critical of the neoliberal individual in its creation of nation states for their erosion of respect between man and its interconnectedness with the physical, spiritual and cosmological worlds.

In choosing to unpack the relevance of ‘kapwa’ as a basis for re-thinking aesthetic and artistic traditions of subjectivization, it is also a useful prism to challenge concepts of artistic labor within a practice, particularly challenging ideas of individual socio-political responsibility in artistic communities. I am struck by how many artists across the postcolonial world are responsible for initiating spaces/archives of cultural public relevance and in turn, directing, sustaining and ultimately informing their communities on the necessity of a historical consciousness that embraces ideas of ‘kapwa’ at its core (here I think particularly of the ‘Long March Project’ in China; ‘Lugar a dudas’ in Colombia; ‘Centre for Historical Reenactments’ in South Africa; ‘Bophana’ in Cambodia to name but a few).

While ‘kapwa’ may be linguistically located in the Filipino cultural psychology, its ethos can be located in a number of differing transnational artistic practices, with differing terms, across the field of contemporary art, particularly in the Asian region. Recalling aesthetic traditions intimately linked to spiritual values, artists refer to the interconnectedness of the animate and inanimate, perhaps framed between what is institutionalized and what is intuitively experienced – be it through the documentary retelling of religious discrimination in South Korea through shamanistic texts (Park Chan Kyong, South Korea); the willful investment of ‘belief’ in informal collectivized faith in the healing within the supernatural (Truong Cong Tung, Vietnam); most tellingly ‘kapwa’ is encompassed in the filmic works of Filipino artist Kidlat Tahimik, a member of the ‘Third Cinema’ Movement. His life’s work is committed to an awareness of how his moving image novellas, that span a 35 year period of production, present his ‘self’ anchored in the local traditions of time while simultaneously enduring colonial and capitalist dictations of class and representations of self-hood (ie. Economy). His filmic collages in essay form stunningly illustrate the resistance to, and embracement of, the flow of the dollar as a symbol of progress but at a great significant sacrifice of one’s ‘kapwa’ (see ‘Yellow’ and ‘Memories of Overdevelopment’ particularly).