Immersed underwater, divers in strange garments move in a somewhat ceremonial manner through a lackluster coral reef. Slowly drifting through the foreground, puffing out bubbles of air which slowly roll towards the surface, this line of peculiar characters exude meditative and spectacular qualities. A man dressed in red holding a cross, a bare-chested individual in a golden skirt who carries a holy effigy, a ‘Yolanda’ storm survivor, a policeman pointing a gun at a drug criminal, a male cross-dresser, a traveller carrying a suitcase—each of these unique, autonomous performers is a resident of the Bantayan Island in the Philippines, where the artist lives. All of Atienza’s characters depend on the sea for survival, and their livelihoods are in crisis due to marine environmental damage caused by the global fishing industry.
The religious nature of this work is inspired by the Ati-Atihan Festival held every January in the Philippines: this ancient, joyous occasion commemorates Santo Niño (Jesus child) and sees people dress in exaggerated, imaginative costumes—as celebrities, cartoon characters, their idols—and mixing the holy with popular culture. As well as a fervent celebration, the festival is seen as an opportunity for people to voice their dismay about the environment, their society and country. Atienza is deeply fascinated by this overzealous phenomenon, and has been documenting the ritual since 2010.
Through transporting the activities of the festival beneath the sea for this film, Atienza not only exposes the very issue that is being contested, but also brings her neighbours and collaborators closer together through dive training, meditative practice, and an intense shared experience. In this underwater parade, the perceived constraints of reality appear to dissolve, opening up a space in which new possibilities can be collectively imagined. Although performed as a joyous and surreal event, Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E, remains a politically aware demonstration, which provides an international platform for the voices of Bantayan Island.
Martha Atienza, born 1981 in the Philippines, lives and works in Bantayan Island and Rotterdam.