Meet Precious Isaac-Rivera, the Woman Artist Behind 'Pakbet'

Artist Spotlight: Precious Isaac-Rivera, the Woman Artist Behind ‘Pakbet’

Precious Isaac-Rivera finds herself in the intersection of art and advocacy, and there lies the challenge to the artist, if not the responsibility, to create art for more than art's sake. It's a stance she strongly holds, one that at once informs her art's intentionality as well as her own positionality and privilege as a Filipina artist.

Going by "Pakbet" for her art brand, Precious owes her formal training in the arts to industrial design. Eventually, she pursued a Master's degree in Fine Arts, which helped give her the clarity to determine what kind of artist she wanted to be. While art is personal, allowing Precious to tap into her own experiences and principles, its creation is also political, which compels her to find attunement in her art with her research on Filipina farmers and her passion for being an educator.

The Beat Asia recently chatted with Precious to talk about art and advocacy, including her beginnings and own struggles as a Pinay artist, the artists who changed her life, her work as an artist-advocate-educator, and, ultimately, how she imagined an unshackled Filipino artist would look like: empathic, free and empowered to create without persecution, and in solidarity with the marginalized.

Hi, Precious! First off, what's the story behind your artist name and art page, Pakbet?

Pakbet or Pinakbet is an Ilokano dish comprised of vegetables, meat, and bagoong. When I was still starting the brand, I had a hard time pinpointing my art style and the main theme of my works because I drew anything that popped into my head, with different styles and media I’d like to try. This caused me to doubt my abilities as an artist, thinking I should have a distinct art style and a defined art practice.

As I continued to make art, I realized how I should learn how to embrace the mishmash of creative output I produce. Pakbet (also one of my Ilokano lola [grandmother]’s go-to dishes that I also used to dislike) has become my identity as an artist and an individual — halu-halo (mishmash), may appear unorganized, but full of substance.

What's your background as an artist and how did you start out?

I started sketching for leisure when I was a senior in high school. It was already towards the end of the school year when I decided to pursue a creative path in college. Fate led me to Industrial Design, which helped me gain the technical skills that I use up to now (graphic design, 3D modeling, product styling, etc.).

However, after graduating, I felt the urge to further expand my creativity. I wanted to know why I wanted to create art and what kind of art I enjoy making. This led me to pursue a Master’s degree in Fine Arts, which I am still completing. This is helping me establish a deep grounding in theory and advocacy, helping me develop a clearer vision of my identity as an artist (still a jack of all trades) and what I want to do until I leave the earth (I want to create art and educate people about it).

How would you describe your art style?

Vibrant, assertive, humorous — as of now. It’s because I can still enjoy the privilege of speaking my mind through my art while exploring different art styles. I am aware, however, that one day, these qualities will change, and I am okay with that.

A lot of your artwork revolves around women-centered and feminist themes, as well as witty sayings we encounter in everyday life. How do these inclinations inform your sensibilities and philosophy as a local artist?

I believe art is personal. For me, all my work is rooted in my thoughts, learning, and experiences, thus involving my own values and principles. As a Pinay artist, I believe that there is a struggle specific to Filipino women. No one can represent it best other than those who belong to this circle. This is what makes Pakbet personal, sensitive, and existing.

Please share with us your creative process in coming up with your design ideas and where you turn for inspiration.

An artist’s mind is like a river with running water. Doing mundane things like walking alone, commuting, washing dishes, and even taking a bath keeps the waters flowing, with concepts and ideas perpetually presenting themselves. Naturally, not all of them are usable — some do not fit my advocacy, some may be beyond my capacity as an artist, and some simply need a lot of work to develop.

After coming up with a workable concept, I try sketching it (usually on my tablet). Sometimes, I go straight to the canvas for traditional work and Adobe Illustrator for digital art. I print it or have it cut if it’s a sticker or art print. After this, I sometimes read scholarly works (if it’s a complex subject), interact with other artists, and consult people with the same opinions or struggles. Sometimes, however, having a chat with my husband (or my konsensya [conscience] when I’m alone) is enough. Haha.

What are some of the challenges you've faced as a Filipina artist?

Being subject to gender stereotypes and cultural norms sometimes limits me as an artist. It’s always myself or people that I care about that keep me leaning on the safer side. As culture progresses, however, I gain more confidence to speak about more complex topics like feminism, social justice, body positivity, and equality.

Another thing is the economic status of Filipinos in the country. Art is not cheap, and, understandably, some may see it as a luxury, whether you are an artist or a patron. To earn a living and continuously educate myself, I must look for other ways to support myself financially other than being an art fairy who speaks her mind by drawing on her iPad.

Who is an artist, local or foreign, that has had a huge impact on your life?

I’ve been a fan of Tokwa Peñaflorida’s work since I learned how to use Instagram. I am an avid fan of their work as previously hard-to-digest topics like gender identity and owning one’s body are featured, aside, of course, from their outstanding skill in painting.

Another artist who inspired me is Pacita Abad. Her vibrant artwork first captured my eyes, then my heart. Her carefree but intricate painting style, as well as her exploration of various media, inspired me. This means a lot to an artist who is confused about her medium and art style. The vibrant color palettes I use today are inspired by her art. More importantly, her involvement with the community and representation of Filipino women motivated me to pursue lifelong learning in the arts.

In one of your artworks, 'Babae: Lalaban at Aani,' you integrated your artistic expression with your own research and engagement with Filipina farmers. How does your advocacy and research inform your art?

This artwork is an offshoot of my working thesis proposal that is rooted in my own identity — from being raised by my parents who sold rice for a living, to moving into the agricultural municipality of Los Baños, Laguna as I got married. By embracing my roots while simultaneously adapting to my current home, I felt the need to be a part of a larger cause within agriculture and the arts.

In this artwork, I try to tell the story of the double burden of women who till our soils while also being mothers, wives, and Pinays. This is an example of involving my advocacy and research in my art practice — aside from being able to bridge the gaps in the academic world through studying, I am also able to narrate the story of those who are underrepresented beyond the boundaries of words.

What is your opinion on art's role as a social practice?

Being able to create art will always be a privilege. Once you have this privilege, you are also given the social responsibility to use it for a good cause. Anyone can create art without the intention of having a meaning behind it. However, for me, creating art will always be political — always carrying a call for change or lack thereof.

How important is it for you to share and put your artworks out in public?

It is not always easy to put your art out there. Still, in order to communicate a message, be appreciated, and be a professional artist, we have to step out of our shells and be exposed to the uncomfortable. While this will make you vulnerable to criticism, it will also allow you to grow and improve your abilities as a creative. You will also learn how to weed out baseless and unnecessary doubts that hinder you from creating.

However, I also believe that being able to keep some of your work to yourself is equally important. You should also value yourself as the creator of your art to maintain the connection with your practice and to avoid being alienated from your craft.

You use the hashtag #unshacklefilipinoart in your artworks on Instagram. To you, what does unshackling Filipino art mean?

Looking back, I used to think of this hashtag as my protest to being confined within certain design canons (how to draw, how to use software, what medium to use, etc.) that I learned in university. Today, I look at it with a wider perspective. Filipino artists should be able to create art without the risk of being red-tagged, persecuted, or discriminated against. Budding artists deserve a high-quality education and equitable access to art. Learning and practicing arts should not be exclusive to some. In short, unshackling Filipino art means inclusion and support on an institutional level.

How do you imagine an unshackled Filipino artist would look like?

I imagine this artist as an empathic and nurturing individual. Since she is a product of inclusivity, she, in return, creates art to tell the story of the marginalized, creating ripples toward social transformation and pushing forward their rights. She is kind — to herself and other people. She is not afraid of being critical or being the subject of criticism because she grew up in a space where artists are safe, protected, and treated with respect.

What are your hopes and goals for Pakbet this 2024?

I want to be fully immersed in my fields of interest (women empowerment, agriculture, and ecology) this year. Since I also teach arts and design to young people, I want to dedicate my life to being a well-rounded artist and more importantly, a compassionate educator, because that’s what they deserve. I also wish to have the courage and means to hold solo shows this 2024. Being able to bridge traditional and graphic design — two of my most-loved practices — is something that I want to embrace fully.

Lastly, how can we better support Pakbet and other local artists?

There are a lot of simple (and free) ways to do so! Follow their social media accounts, tell them how much you like their art, ask questions, like and share their posts, and of course, purchase their art if you can! I always post my upcoming events (exhibits, pop-ups, and bazaars) with other local artists on my page, so you can drop by as well.

To know more about Precious and her works, follow Pakbet’s Instagram here!

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