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Virginia Beach artist brings Filipino quiltmaking to the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art

Artist Rowena Finn is working on a quilt made of capiz shells during her artist residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Photo by Kate Nowak
Artist Rowena Finn is working on a quilt made of capiz shells during her artist residency at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.

Filipino artist Rowena Finn will be making a quilt reflecting her culture as part of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art’s Artist in Residency program.

Virginia Beach artist Rowena Finn is the latest to take residency in the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art’s Artist in Residence program to show off a new blend of traditional American and Filipino art mediums—Filipino quiltmaking.

“There’s a huge history of the importance of quilting, the family stories passed down,” Finn said. Although there is a huge cultural significance of quiltmaking in many white and Black cultures, the concept doesn’t really exist in Filipino culture.

Virginia MOCA’s Artist in Residency program invites local artists to create works in real-time that complement current exhibits. Finn’s residency runs alongsideMark Dion’s and Alexis Rockman’s “Journey to Nature’s Underworld” exhibit.

In creating what she calls “Filipino futurism,” Finn said she’s “trying to imagine what we could have been and where we’re headed next.”

She’s re-imagining what it means to quilt. Instead of traditional cloth fabric, Finn is using sea shells. While shells are often a staple in Virginia Beach art, hers are capiz shells imported from the shores of the Philippines.

The capiz shells are woven together in quilt-like fashion using sinamay, a material traditionally used in the Philippines for making hats. On the shells, Finn paints images from her own life.

As a first-generation Filipino immigrant, Finn struggled to find her belonging between two identities that didn’t fully fit.

Although Filipinos have been in the U.S since the 1400s, “by and large we’re still not really recognized because the immigrant mentality is to keep your head down, do your job, don’t complain, don’t speak up, just survive,” Finn said.

Growing up she distanced herself from the Filipino community. Especially as a Filipino woman, Finn said, “you’re not supposed to be outspoken, you're not supposed to be too smart … the focus is on being pretty and talented.”

Instead, she said, “I let myself be assimilated.”

As she got older, however, she realized she was missing something.

“I didn’t really know what being Filippino was…so I thought maybe if I dig further back then I can start to find what I’m interested in,” Finn said.

What she discovered was a very different idea of Filipino culture than the one she’d struggled with in her life.

“There are so many strong Filipino women who were leaders in the community, who were considered holy, revered and respected,” Finn said.

Today, her identity is not a matter of choosing, it’s a matter of weaving.

“I’m not Filipino, and I’m not American, but I’m both, so identity has really become a huge part of my work,” she said.

“I have focused on making my artwork distinctly Filipino-American, because that’s what I am,” Finn said, but in terms of these themes, “belonging and rejection is a very human condition.”

Now she helps others to dig a little deeper too.

As a teacher, Finn began to have discussions about identity and heritage with her students, many of whom had experienced similar tension, especially where cultural ties have been severed and are now untraceable.

This is not only prominent among people of color, but white Americans too.

“A lot of the white kids would feel like ‘I don’t have a heritage…I don’t have tribal roots,’ and I say, ’No you do, they're just maybe buried a little bit deeper, but everybody does,’” Finn said.

Rowena Finn will be at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday May 18, May 25, June 1 and June 8 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. More information is available from the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.

Corrected: May 15, 2024 at 1:29 PM EDT
This story was updated to reflect Rowena Finn is a first-generation immigrant.

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