Women Embodying Foreignhood: Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Georgette Chen and Beatriz Milhazes

Women Embodying Foreignhood: Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Georgette Chen and Beatriz Milhazes

Ahead of Modern & Contemporary Art on 9 June, we explore the artistic practices of three women artists represented in the 2024 La Biennale di Venezia.
Ahead of Modern & Contemporary Art on 9 June, we explore the artistic practices of three women artists represented in the 2024 La Biennale di Venezia.

T he expression Stranieri Ovunque, explained the 2024 La Biennale di Venezia’s Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, has several meanings. “First of all, that wherever you go and wherever you are you will always encounter foreigners – they/we are everywhere. Secondly, that no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.”

The International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, now its 60th edition, takes the title “Stranieri Ovunque - Foreigners Everywhere” and is helmed by a Latin American curator for the first time in its 129-year history. On this momentous occasion, we spotlight three remarkable female artists featured in one of the world’s oldest and most important celebrations of contemporary art. The lives and artistic practices of these three exceptional women embody the extraordinary and challenging state of “foreignhood” within the Western-dominated narrative of modernism. Works by the pioneering Filipina painter Anita Magsaysay-Ho and Singaporean modernist Georgette Chen grace the Nucleo Storico (“Historical Core”) of the Biennale’s Central Pavilion, which expands upon the Western-centric history of modernism by gathering stories from the Global South. Magsaysay-Ho and Chen, whose peripatetic lives took them across continents over the tumultuous course of the 20th century, produced work that responded to a reality in constant flux by celebrating the quiet moments of the everyday. Meanwhile Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes is the featured artist of the Special Project of Biennale’s Pavilion of Applied Arts, now in its eighth year of collaboration with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition marks a significant milestone for the artist whose first visit to the V&A in 1985 inspired her artistic practice. Especially developed for the Biennale’s Pavilion of Applied Arts, Milhazes’ five monumental abstract collage paintings inspired by traditional woven textiles in the collection of the V&A establishes a rich alternative narrative that plunders European modernism and fuses it with Brazilian culture to create something entirely new.

Below we take a closer look at three masterpieces by these women artists coming under the hammer in Modern & Contemporary Art on 9 June in Singapore.


Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Paghuhuli Ng Mga Manok (Catching Chickens), 1962

One of Southeast Asia’s most distinguished artists who was nicknamed the “Female Amorsolo”, Anita Magsaysay-Ho was the only female artist amongst the famed “Thirteen Moderns”, who transformed Filipino modern art in the second half of the 20th century.

Famous for her tableaux of women at labour and everyday domestic activities, Magsaysay-Ho offered a window into the real world of women – one that observes their strength, dignity and camaraderie as well as their grace. Attempting to herd chickens into their baskets, the women of Paghuhuli Ng Mga Manok (Catching Chickens) (1962) espouse the mature signature style of Magsaysay-Ho, their angular rhythmic forms echoing Cubist and Neo-Realist principles whilst dramatic chiaroscuro lends a powerful gravitas to their presence. Trained at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts and School of Design under the legendary Filipino artists Fernando Amorsolo and Victorio Edades, it was ironically an encounter with a painting of women in the fields by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder whilst studying in the United States that led Magsaysay-Ho to finally discover for herself “a subject that I could feel for, something that I could really paint”. This outsider vision prompted Magsaysay-Ho’s artistic rapprochement with her homeland. Bathed in warm golden light with jewel-like tones of emerald and turquoise studded throughout her compositions, Magsaysay-Ho’s bucolic portraits became a paean to the femininity and endurance of Filipina women, telling the story of women’s abiding role in her country’s progress.

In my work I always celebrate the women of the Philippines. I regard them with deep admiration and they too continue to inspire me – their movements and gestures, their expressions of happiness and frustration; their diligence and shortcomings; their joy of living. I know very well the strength, hard work and quiet dignity [they possess], for I am one of them
- Anita Magsaysay-Ho

It is rare for a work of this impressive scale to appear on the market, let alone from the artist’s acclaimed 1960s period. Paghuhuli Ng Mga Manok (Catching Chickens) was exhibited in "Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Isang Pag-Alaala" at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila from 15 December 1988 to 15 January 1989 and is a landmark work in the artist’s oeuvre. Magsaysay-Ho went on to commission a series of 100 serigraphs based on this painting.

Georgette Chen, White Orchids (Phalenopsis), c. 1965 | Estimate: 500,000 - 850,000 SGD

Georgette Chen, White Orchids (Phalenopsis), 1963-65

The exceptional life of the pioneering modernist Georgette Chen unfolded in two distinct acts. Firstly, an early life spent between China, the United States and France, with her rising profile in the art world enmeshed in the turmoil of two World Wars and the Sino-Japanese War, the latter of which claimed the life of her first husband. Then came a “simple, useful, and creative existence”, which Chen reclaimed for herself after leaving her second husband and moving to Singapore in June 1953. Likening herself to a “real tropical fruit” in this “multiracial paradise of perpetual sunshine”, Chen tirelessly documented the everyday beauty and bounty of the tropics. Trained at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris, Chen was influenced by the Post-Impressionists and their use of still life painting as a means of capturing the quiet poetry of everyday modern life. “Whether I paint a face or a bean, a mountain or a lily, the principle is the same and I could not resist painting all these things of beauty”, she remarked.

The orchid – the “flower of the noble-minded” – quickly became Chen’s favourite flower to paint. White Orchids (Phalenopsis) (c.1965) is elegantly and expressionistically rendered, swaying in the gentle breeze with its delicate white and yellow heads tilted towards the sun. With its floating leaves and delicate roots untethered from the soil, White Orchids (Phalenopsis) is also an uncanny portrait of the foreigner’s dreamy yet dislocated experience in new lands. Chen’s self-possessed vision became a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures, laying the foundations for the artistic identity of a new nation. In an art community dominated by men, Chen was recognised as one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style, alongside fellow Chinese emigrants Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng.

Fresh to market, White Orchids (Phalenopsis) was exhibited at the artist 's largest retrospective staged during her lifetime in Singapore, at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1985. Chen’s works are incredibly rare and only a handful of her oil paintings remain in private hands. Similar works, including White Orchids (Phalenopsis) (c.1965-68) and A Pot of Orchids (Dendrobium Bigibbum) (c.1963-65), form part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery Singapore, which in 2020 mounted “Georgette Chen: At Home In The World”, the first major museum retrospective of the artist in more than two decades and which focused on Chen’s lasting legacy in the development of Singapore’s artistic landscape. Notably, eight out of the top ten auction records achieved for Chen were for her 1960s works.

Beatriz Milhazes, Maracaiola, 2015 | Estimate: 260,000 - 480,000 SGD

Beatriz Milhazes, Maracaiola, 2015

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Beatriz Milhazes’ self-described “chromatic free geometry” abounds with the vitality of the botanical gardens and the Tijuca forest near her studio, the surrounding city and oceanfront, Brazilian folk art as well as her own memories. One of the most lauded contemporary artists in Brazil, Milhazes headed the Geração 80 (80s Generation) that backed painting over the austerity of 1970s conceptualism. These artists praised the freedom found in process, hailed the studio as a space for action, and created a rich and stunning form of Brazilian art that borrowed from European Modernism as well as the Baroque. The “cannibalising” of European “high” traditions became an ironic retort against its postcolonial cultural domination.

A kaleidoscopic vortex of arabesques and oscillating molecules that mimic the pulsating rhythms and ripples following a large wave, Maracaiola (2015) is part of Milhazes’ “Marola” (“rippling waves” in Portuguese) series that was first exhibited at James Cohan Gallery in 2015. Milhazes developed a unique collage technique responding to Henri Matisse's use of paper cut-outs, whereby each layer of the composition is carefully painted in acrylic onto individual plastic sheets and then transferred to canvas once dry. Transforming the once-familiar into the realm of the unfamiliar and back, layers of clashing saturated hues shimmy across the canvas, fragmenting seconds before coalescing into a harmonious whole. Flowers bloom and pinwheels spin, nodding to the British Op artist Bridget Riley as well as Tropicália (Tropicalismo), the 1960s artistic movement that embraced Brazil’s image as a "tropical paradise".

My challenge has always been the same. I’m interested in life and my surroundings, but to make it work as a painting, I do need to think as a geometric and conceptual artist in my studio practice.
- Beatriz Milhazes

Her works form part of major public collections including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Fondation Beyeler, and the Museo Reina Sofía. Milhazes also represented Brazil at the 2003 La Biennale di Venezia.

Modern Art | Asia

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