“We don’t do interviews.”
Seated around a shady, cutty picnic table on the southern edge of Lake Merritt in their hometown of Oakland, Aaron Jurell Sarmiento and Joe Aquilizan of Bayani Art — the East Bay collective that exclusively produces and promotes work documenting Filipino resistance — discuss why it’s so difficult to find media coverage of their project, which has grown into a relative phenomenon in Filipino communities across the globe, from Daly City to Saudi Arabia to Canada. They feel that every articulation and movement of Bayani Art should be intentional and purposeful, like a warrior in battle, and Joe and Aaron Jurell don’t see interviews — or recognition of any kind, for that matter — as a functional part of their work.
“I see us as ghostwriters. We're not concerned with image. We only care about creating a vehicle that takes people to a different awareness about themselves and their history. And the people that see the work, it's up to them to decide what direction they pilot that vehicle. We don't want to force anything on anyone. We're just sharing these histories and artworks because of the liberation and sense of self they’ve given us,” Aaron Jurell says.
Joe nods in agreement, then segues into a brief anecdote about their latest design featuring Rajah Sulayman, who led a revolt against Spanish invaders in 1574. For Joe and Aaron Jurell, Bayani Art should always reflect a secure and empowered sense of Filipino identity, based around a vast store of knowledge of the history of the islands that the pair have cultivated through serious study. Their proficiency in the narrative of the Filipino people has been strengthened over seven intensive years at Bayani Art, but for both Joe and Aaron Jurell — like many Filipino-Americans — the search for identity has certainly been much longer.
“Before we started Bayani Art, someone asked me about Filipino history, and I couldn't answer. I was so embarrassed that I could recite the history of another country, but I didn't know my own country's history. I felt like, “I need to know who I am.” And I realized it was almost impossible to find any accurate histories of our people — and that I wanted to find them. I think it's time for our people to realize that we have made major contributions to world history, and I feel like it's partly our responsibility to bring those stories to light. We need to know the stories of our warriors, the Bayanis who defended our people. Just the opportunity itself to learn about our true history is a huge motivator for why we do what we do,” Joe says.
Aaron Jurell continues, explaining how the pain and struggle associated with much of Filipino history requires him to constantly let down his guard in order for the lessons of history to be fully expressed in the work.
“We are just two brown men trying to do the right thing. What makes Bayani Art special is that we use our people’s history, our struggle, our flaws, to our advantage. Everything that has ‘Bad,’ written all over it, we’ve learned to use that to our advantage. Learning to be vulnerable and explore the struggle and resistance of our people, and sharing what that did for us, is what makes the project meaningful. The simple exchange of giving someone a shirt, you don't know how much joy that gives me to share our history. All people deserve to feel that joy,” he says.
And as pupils of history, Bayani Art’s major preoccupation is to properly honor the stories of the heroes and heroines of the Philippines. Each design is essentially an academic exercise, requiring exhaustive research and dialogue with the artists as well as expert historians and elders, ensuring that each piece produced by Bayani Art is an artifact consistent with the long legacy of Filipino power.
“The Katipunan hat -- which is sold out already -- took half a year to create. That's a long damn time. Designs like that don’t just come out of thin air. We meet with the artists, discuss what’s possible. And once it's completed and approved from a visual standpoint, we send it to the historians and my historian friends will look at it and tell me, "No, fix this, this isn't accurate," so it goes back and forth, back and forth. That's how a design can take six months,” Joe says.
“And sometimes, six months might not even be enough time. There are designs we've released that we could have spent 10 years refining and perfecting. When you're dealing with the material we are dealing with, taking that time and being delicate with the histories is absolutely necessary. Absolutely,” Aaron Jurell says.
Both Joe and Aaron Jurell understand the stories that Bayani Art tells as part of a lineage of Filipino resistance that extends to the present day — the ongoing legacy of a warrior people, expressed through art that preserves the beauty and honor of their struggle.
“Doing this project has helped me understand myself more. I've become a better human being because of Bayani Art. I’ve become a better father. Bayani Art has taught me so much about who I am and where I come from. We're just trying to communicate with our people, and inspire our people. That's what our people need, from generation to generation. Our children need to always learn more about who they are,” Joe says.
And they feel that Undiscovered SF is a perfect platform for that learning to continue growing and flourishing in the Filipino community.
“Our people need to find a way back to ourselves, and knowing our true history is a big first step to getting to where we need to be. The new generation is really doing it. Doing Undiscovered SF, it's something amazing and different, where you’re seeing such an emphasis and pride around the simple fact of being Filipino — just being Filipino. We're honored to be a part of it. Seven years is a long time to be doing this, and we've never seen an event like Undiscovered SF,” Aaron Jurell says.