Jay Yao may look more Harajuku hipster than struggling artist, but the Canadian-Filipino photographer which the shock of blond hair has had his moments of doubt.

“Coming straight out of college, I decided to move to New York,” he recalls, “and that was kind of an interesting process, knocking on doors, figuring out what I wanted to become… I was trying to be a fashion photographer back then.”

As a third-culture kid, his work is infused with explorations of cultural identity, be it North American or Asian.  His latest exhibition, Memory Stains, a stunning collaboration with Damien (Coco) Anne and Baby Imperial of b+c design, explores the relationship between taste – the flavors and spices that define a cuisine, and by extension a culture – and memory, and the indelible stains both imprint on the psyche.

Yao took the skyscapes – photographs of the sky taken from an airplane – which were reproduced in large format.

“Then Coco and I took the condiments and started to paint and scrape away from these images and as we were doing it, we were photographing it,” explains Imperial.  “So these images are in movement, just like the Filipino diaspora,” which both Imperial and Yao have at one point been part of.

Thus, the lowly staples of the Philippine kitchen – DatuPuti vinegar, Silver Swan soy sauce, UFC ketchup and Mang Tomas lechon sauce – are simultaneously artists’ tools and transmitters of memory, each glob and blob dripping, coloring, seeping, streaming and distinctly transforming each surface into a whole new image.

The images were then transferred onto leather, flanking one side of a limited edition of alligator bags fromCelestina, whose creative director is Tina Maristela-Ocampo, for whom high fashion and contemporary art remain enduring passions.

The exhibition, mounted for Art Fair Philippines, showcased the large-scale “worked” photographs – “nothing was digitally manipulated,” Imperial stresses, “the entire process was organic.” – as well as the bags.  Art as a canvas for fashion, and a backdrop for philanthropy: part of the proceeds from the exhibition will benefit Teach for the Philippines.

For Yao, the collaboration was in a way an extension of his much-lauded Homecoming series last year, which garnered a nomination for the Ateneo Art Awards.  His next show, slated for April at Artinformal, continues the exploration of this theme.

“I’m pretty much settled here,” he says. “I love the Philippines.  It’s good to come back home.”

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