The current exhibit in the Palmer Gallery, “History in RGB,” presents intriguing and visually compelling artwork using archival photographs documenting colonization in the Philippines. At first glance, the images in “History in RGB” look fantastical—brightly colored, with low-resolution faces and words, cloudlike structures that are hard to decipher and intense shadows. But there’s more to them than meets the eye—the images have been meticulously altered so that each one looks different depending on whether it’s viewed through a red, green or blue lens.
For example, a cursory glance at the piece Pacific 1993 shows a boat atop an underwater landscape. But using the green lens to look at it, the underwater world sharpens into a teeming landscape of wildlife. Using the red lens, the towering presence of the boat, flying the American flag in colonized territory, becomes the clearest part of the image. In the piece Native children, Thomasites, Mayon Volcano, and Kapre, the sea of Filipino children’s faces becomes obscured when the viewer looks with the green lens, leaving only the white adults in clear view, as well as older children in suits. With the red lens, the reverse happens, and the young children’s faces are now the focus of the image.
Maria Dumlao, the artist who created “History in RGB,” started collecting the archival images that form the basis of the exhibit before she knew what she was going to do with them. She had been combing through history books, digital libraries, and archives, accumulating images from the United States’ colonization of the Philippines, where she grew up. The majority of the photos in the exhibit were donated to a local university by an American living in the Philippines. “I couldn’t find images of American atrocities, and of course, they were already edited,” Dumlao told me. The photos were not neutral documents—they were presenting history through the lens of the colonizers. “It was very much emphasizing and going with the narrative of Americans as the saviors,” Dumlao said.
She started playing with color in the images, inspired by Josef Albers’ book “Interaction of Color.” In particular, Albers’ emphasis on the subjectivity and relationality of color stuck with Dumlao. She used Photoshop to alter the original prints, obscuring certain elements of the photographs depending on the lens used to view them. The process of tweaking the colors to get the images just right took some time, but the result is incredibly impressive. And as I looked closer at the artwork and talked more to Dumlao, I learned about even more details that were not immediately apparent. For instance, the colors in “Tropical Series,” the earlier of the two projects that comprise the exhibit, all come from the “Tropical” Pantone palette, and Dumlao made this choice for a reason. “I started with selecting a palette that was American-defined,” she said. “So I started up with looking up certain colors that they associated with ‘Pacific’ or ‘tropical.’ I would find all these garish colors that I would not really associate with the Philippines, but they’re what the Americans would associate with the tropics.”
Along with suppressing and emphasizing parts of the existing images, Dumlao also made new additions to the photos. “I realized there’s a lot more in those images that’s not seen—especially stories of resistance, especially stories of mythologies or belief systems by indigenous people that were seen as savages,” she said. So she added some of those beliefs back in.
For instance, one viewing of “As the first of these men came up the Filipinos bolted” reveals three big crocodiles behind the American soldiers. The title, which is the original caption of the photo, reinforces colonial ideas by emphasizing the strength of the Americans. But Dumlao’s reimagining presents an alternative perspective. “It’s true, the Filipinos are not even in the picture because they ran away,” she said of her interpretation. “But what the Americans don’t realize is that the Filipinos actually ran because there’s these giant crocodiles behind the Americans that are about to devour them.”The idea came from traditional stories and rumors Dumlao heard in the Philippines about giant crocodiles terrorizing small villages. While it might seem fantastical, Dumlao came across news stories about the phenomenon suggesting that the folktales might not have been so far off. “It’s a spooky story, it’s folklore—but at the same time, there’s truth in it, because there’s some evidence of it as well,” she said.
The story of this particular piece gets at the central questions the viewer is left with after seeing “History in RGB”—what does truth mean when history is being told by oppressive powers? How can we complicate the narratives we’ve been given, and uncover the alternative views that were really there the whole time?
Flipping between the colored lenses to see each image in a multitude of ways is a powerful experience, and Dumlao intentionally designed it that way. “I wanted to evoke that whole new sense of physical and cognitive presence for the audience,” she explained. “To look at the color change, and have the agency to control that.” This element of the show serves several purposes—for one thing, it makes the experience of viewing the exhibit more tangible and accessible. But it also urges the audience to consider our own complicity in the narratives that constantly surround us. “Everything we see is mediated,” Dumlao remarked. “We’re constantly given things and we just accept it. Even this show. But you have the choice to walk in and do this, or not.”