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Remy "Mima" Cabacungan:
After Postmodernism Comes Post-Buttonism

Save for a comment along the lines of “How lovely!”—whether said sincerely or politely—I probably wouldn’t spend much time dwelling on the output of women (or men or trans) hand-making pretty cushions.   What’s impressive about Remy "Mima" Cabacungan’s cushion-art is how they so elevate the results beyond this predictable, albeit charming, genre.

The success of Mima's journey can be rooted in what is clearly a discerning eye as a colorist—obvious in these works below:

mima's button art

Mima also shows the skill in matching patterns and harmonizing disparate surfaces (that one associates with great quilt-making):

mima's button art

What the above two works show, as well, is the presence of buttons which will come to play a significant role in other works that will show a maturation of Mima’s style.

mima's button art

The style becomes more sophisticated in these buttons set against pinstripes,

mima's button art

Thus, while the first two images depict works with deft craftsmanship, the more effective works for me would be the third and fourth works which offer cleaner, more modern lines.   Indeed, when you take a look at the artist at work and note the colors and patterns that abound in her environment (in a photo below), the ability to distillate the riot of colors and patterns into something like the third and fourth works above is  impressive.  Mima’s eye sees, then focuses, then alchemizes!  To achieve this outcome, evoking Op Art, from sewing—sewing  buttons!—is both an extension of art history as well as a mischievous feminist intervention.  It’s an achievement like the works of the celebrated quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama (http://www.quiltsofgeesbend.com/quilts/index_quilts_exhibitions.shtml), whose quilting masterpieces would be taken down to be shown in some of the world’s most important museums.

Once Mima found her voice and started to blossom, she then showed the breadth of her expanse—e.g., joyful wit as in “Dalmatian”.  Looking at “Dalmatian” the first time, I was reminded of how some people have abused, in poetry, Ezra Pound's statement of "Make it New".  The point in Art is not necessarily making something "new" but making it "fresh".  “Dalmatian” is cheerfully fresh!

mima's button art

Mima can also be ethereal, as in “Enroute” below.  Indeed, in this work, you see what seems to be a fabric laid over another fabric, with the top layer transparent enough to give hints of the imagery in the bottom fabric.  This reminds me of some of the drawings of New York-based Theresa Chong accomplished by two or three layers of rice paper, or the ironed wax paintings of London-based Andrew Bick.

mima's button art

Basically, I think Mima’s work can be situated in what the poet and art-lover Ron Silliman once said (while he wrote about Tucson-based artist Cynthia Miller), “Blending so-called high and low genre, the Arts & Crafts Movement anticipated much that we now think of as postmodern.”

Congratulations then to Mima who will be 101 in January 2009.

Here she is BEFORE:

mima's button art

And to our eyes’ delight, here she is AFTER:

mima's button art


It’s worth, I believe, sharing some more personal background as to how Mima, in her later years, came to create her lovely masterpieces.  Here is a press release from her 2005 exhibition:

BUTTON VISION: Art In Lieu of Palette & Canvas
By Remé Grefalda

Traveling Group Exhibit
September through October 2005, Mon thru Sat 9 - 5
The University of Phoenix, Plaza America, Reston VA.
Curators: Julian Oteyza &  Linda Pirrone, 703/969-5469

Remy "Mima" Cabacungan will be 98 in January 2006. Don't call her Grandma Moses because it doesn't mean beans to her. She has been preoccupied, (ultra–focused to the point of eyestrain) as she stitches and designs her "button art". Her "canvas": a variety-sizes of cushions which she creates from scratch. Pillows within reach have been converted into square / rectangular cushions. She "cannibalizes" them from bedrooms, and steals their cotton padding ("just a few clumps"), but anyone resting their weary head on the pillow will feel how lopsided one side is for lack of "innards".

One late winter, she found a jar of buttons among her things and decided she would use them to liven up her old sofa cushions. What was then a harmless hobby craft has ballooned into an obsessive art form. Since her experimental décor, she has completed more than 100 button art on cushions: mixing, matching, stacking colored buttons like dabs of paints from a palette, creating art pieces from retazos or cuttings from past sewing projects. Her button art cushions are signed and titled: Zarzuela in Pink, When Papa Made The Violin Cry, Avocado Ripening, Nathan Road, Hues & Ashes, etc.

Her debut exhibition is in the group exhibit, BROWN STROKES ON WHITE CANVAS, 2005, a traveling art show of works by more than 20 professional and emerging artists and photographers. BROWN STROKES' curators are Julian Oteyza & Linda Pirrone, both artists from Virginia. A wall of Mima's button art is on exhibit at The University of Phoenix in Reston, Virginia, where BROWN STROKES will be on display (Sept - October, 2005).

In Hongkong during the 1930s, Mima was a designer of hats, competing with milliners from Europe and America. Her dress shoppe, Remé, located on Nathan Road in Kowloon and later at the Hongkong Hotel on Pedder Street, was a leading fashion stop.  Through the early 50s it was the home of American & European fashion apparel and high-end women's hats.

Mima Cabacungan was, in her hey-days, Remedios G. Grefalda, Technical Assistant on Cottage Industries during the administration of former President Carlos P. Garcia. For three years (1956-1959), she monitored and supervised the standardization of exported Philippine Handicrafts and led the Philippine Exhibit at the Chicago International Exhibition in 1960. She met and married Pat Cabacungan and began her love affair with the Filipino American community, founding the Filipino Ladies Circle in New Jersey, the Bicolandia Association and the community theater group, QBd Ink. She makes her home in Arlington, Virginia.

© Eileen R. Tabios

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