Unlike the Space Race of the 20th Century, which was largely viewed with amazement, the ventures into space were frequently seen with skepticism. As billionaires Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk took privately chartered trips beyond the atmosphere, these ventures garnered a lot of public backlash against these displays of extravagance. Especially following a year where a pandemic and numerous social tensions exacerbated inequalities among people around the world.
That same summer, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest and most comprehensive report on climate change, a report that could be best summarized in the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierres as a “code red for humanity.” The report emphasized how climate change was rapidly intensifying as a result of human activities, how it will affect every region of the world, and how we were on pace to almost certainly exceed the 1.5º C threshold of global warming wherein many damages would be irreversible.
Much of these space ventures at least gave lip service to climate change as a motivator. “It's this tiny little fragile thing,” Bezos said about the Earth upon his return, “and as we move about the planet, we're damaging it.” Elon Musk has long talked about the colonization and terraformation of Mars as a goal, in anticipation of an uninhabitable Earth.
These ambitions often take for granted the value of the Earth we have, and overlook the potential of numerous available climate solutions, from ecosystem restoration to reimagining infrastructure. While these solutions may not have the extravagance of forming settlements on Mars, they do not come from the perspective of our planet being disposable. Even space enthusiasts like British astronaut Tim Peak expressed disappointment around space tourism turning space travel into a luxury. “I personally am a fan of using space for science and for the benefit of everybody back on Earth,” he commented.
To me, the thought of terraforming Mars, and the language we often use around it, carries strong notes of colonialism. Often we literally talk about colonizing Mars, in spite of all the damage colonization has created throughout our current world. In fact, it has very likely created the crisis we now seek an escape from.
All this made me think more deeply about space, space travel, and even our imagination around space. So many epic works of art and pop culture have been created around space and the future, and a future that involves humans in space. However, almost all of these works have been created by imagining human behavior, and historical things like colonization and imperialism and transposing them into space. Even works that critique these systems still do so through worlds built on those systems.
What would a decolonized vision of space and the future even look like? We have more limited examples of this.
This all reminds me of this James Baldwin quote, “some people wish to colonize the moon and others dance before it as an ancient friend.”
Perhaps there are other imaginations around space and the future that aren’t all about conquest. In fact, when I think through my shallow knowledge of Chinese scholarship and Islamic contributions to the world of math and astronomy I know there are other imaginations around space. It’s present in both myth and science. You just need to know where to look.
I decided to look back at something I’m more familiar with, my Filipino ancestry, in order to draw out a new imagination for the future. A decolonized vision for space.
This project is playfully titled, Filipinos in Space.
This is the leadoff piece of this series, and so it most directly illustrates the James Baldwin quote, not to mention Baldwin himself.
Given that this series partially carries a theme of exploration, it naturally encouraged me to explore an artistic style quite different than what I would consider my home base. First of all, I did more work that resembles a layered collage, relying on sharper cutouts and shadows, but using rougher drawn lines to loop in some of my usual style. I also experimented much more with color, particularly with color gradients and more fluorescent colors to lean into the space and futurism theme.
The quote from James Baldwin is sourced from his essay No Name in the Streets, an essay so long it was published as his fourth nonfiction book in 1972. It was highly reflective on current events of the time, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to the Algerian War. It was also written shortly following a time of rapid decolonization in Africa. He contrasts the desire to conquer with the desire to dance to challenge an American perception of Africa as a dark continent, and to critique traditional notions of civilization.
I layered the ode to Baldwin with two images of dance significant to Filipinos.
The first is the tinikling. This one’s from near my ancestral lands of Visayas, and dancers move their feet to the rhythm to avoid the snaps of large bamboo poles. The dance is supposed to mimic the movement of tikling rail birds dodging the traps rice farmers would set for them.
Breakdance is also a big deal in Filipino circles, and Filipinos have been involved in shaping the hip hop scene going back to some of its earliest days. In the LA and Bay Areas especially, you would have seen a number of young Filipinos in the 1980s find their way through BBoy-ing and DJing. The Philippines also appears to be the earliest point of arrival for breakdance in Asia.
For bonus points, check out what happens when young Filipinos mash up the traditional and the modern.
I was listening to a podcast interview with Brandi Miller, when she highlighted to indigenous communities how their people have known God and have reached out and found ways to connect with the divine ages before colonization. While Catholicism has made an extremely strong imprint on the Philippines, efforts to connect with the divine reverberate throughout precolonial Philippine mythology.
In Kampampangan mythology, the creator of the world, Bathala, left the world without a will, leaving his two children to fight for control. One was Apolaki, the god of the sun, and the other, Mayari- goddess of the moon. As they fought with bamboo clubs, Mayari was hit in the eye and became blind. Apolaki became remorseful and they agreed to share rule of the earth, but at different times.
In a Tagalog myth, Bathala appointed three goddesses to be members of the court. Hanan, goddess of morning, Tala, goddess of the stars, and Mayari.
It’s worth noting that these legends weren’t only for the purpose of entertainment, but they also had a practical role. The depicted constellation is a star formation called balatik, because of its resemblance to a traditional pig trap. In certain areas, the arrival of these stars would signal the start of the planting season.
Note: the script labeling each of the stars is in baybayin, an ancient writing script of the Philippines that is undergoing a revival of interest.
This piece is entirely future focused. While the Philippines still sees a number of problems, from political corruption to environmental exploitation, the fact remains that the standard of living for most Filipinos has significantly been improved throughout my lifetime. What does further advancement look like in the future?
National hero Jose Rizal famously described youth as the hope for the future. It makes sense that a young person should be at the forefront of any depiction of the future. However, any young person living in today’s world will be confronted with the reality of the climate crisis as it unfolds throughout their lifetime. No vision for progress is complete without thinking in terms of sustainability.
Sustainability tends to be a conversation dominated by white, western images, whether that be nations like the United States setting the stage at intergovernmental discussions, or the traditional branding of “sustainable products” being geared towards white American suburbia. So often this results in us thinking of the Western World as the starting point for deploying sustainable innovations like expanded solar fields and electric vehicles. However, as lower-income countries are the ones experiencing the fastest rates of population growth and urbanization, those are perhaps the more vital areas to ensure renewable energy options to keep global emissions low. And there have been some successes. See Kenya, which has expanded electricity access from 25%-70% of its population in just ten years. The electrified jeepney and plethoras of solar panels are just two renderings of what this sustainable infrastructure could look like in a Filipino context.
It’s important to note that sustainability wouldn’t be a novel concept for the Philippines. For generations, simple ways of living in harmony with the Earth are scattered throughout the culture. From the use of banana leaf in everything from rice wraps to kamayan spreads, finding ways to use natural materials has been a longstanding custom. The virtue of reusing goods is also recurring. If you have a Filipino grandma, you know those aren’t crackers in the Skyflakes tin.
One characteristic of the billionaire space race of 2021 was the fact that it was largely an individualistic endeavor by wealthy white men. While celebrity isn’t a new concept to the field of space exploration, Glenn, Aldrin, and Armstrong being household names, the privatization of these activities seems to have taken individualism and egocentrism to new heights, literally.
So much of that contains echoes of how colonial exploration has always been. Expeditions led by a known personality, done in pursuit of some idealized glory. It contrasts with an idea you see throughout Filipino culture: when we move, we move together.
One of the clearest ways you can see this visually play out is in bahay kubo- a traditional style of Filipino housing, especially in fishing communities. The design of the house on stilts gave it versatility as water levels changed, and it also invited community participation into a family’s activity. When it became time to move, an entire community helped move a house along with a family, carrying the structure by its stilts.
The bahay kubo is just one physical manifestation of the concept of bayanihan: a spirit of civic unity and cooperation among Filipinos.
Even in times when people are separated, there is still an element of togetherness. Overseas foreign workers play a major role in both the Philippine economy and individual Filipino families. However, while a single member of the family may have moved to Canada, the UAE, or the US to seek out further resources, the consideration of how to extend that opportunity to family is almost always carried along. This is compellingly portrayed in the Manila episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
When envisioning a decolonized version of the future, without colonial conquest, that doesn’t have to mean omitting travel. Filipinos have been travelers for as long as anyone has recorded history. I have been to nearly fifty countries around the world, and it’s a rare exception where I don’t run into another Filipino.
There’s a popular saying in Pacific Island cultures about how the ocean might separate us, but it simultaneously connects us. One can look between the Philippines, but also places like Taiwan, all the way to Indonesia, Malaysia, and India to see how some cultural elements bear a strong resemblance. From the styles of clothing you’ll see in mainland Southeast Asia, to non-Spanish words in Filipino languages that bear a close resemblance to other tongues like Indonesian. Trade has historically motivated the cross-oceanic journeys in the region, a reminder that there is travel and cultural exchange apart from a colonial approach.
The shell is a fantastic symbol of this interconnectedness. The capiz in particular is no mere souvenir, but a material used in popular mosaic art and religious construction throughout the region. As art and religion across the Malay lands are some of our strongest indicators of how art, beliefs, and customs spread, it’s an ideal representation of connection.
The Sierra Madre mountain range of the Philippines inspires the landscape of the backdrop. All throughout this series, wherever land is featured, it will be drawn based on Philippine terrain.
A Filipino vision of the future would simply be incomplete if it did not contain a lot of space reserved for joy.
One thing about colonial conquest is that joy rarely plays a role in the process. Smiles are only earned through the finished work, but a non-Western notion of history (and thus, the future) wouldn’t be linear. Recognizing the seasonality of time frees us to experience joy in the present, joy in the process, rather than reserving celebration for a complete arrival we will never see. In this sense, it allows us to access joy and live into the future already, even as it is being written.
Filipino joy cannot be missed by anyone who observes it, but it can be misunderstood. So often it is mistaken for naivete, passivity, or even acceptance of one’s circumstances, even though they may be the product of injustice. Joy in the face of injustice may be one of the truest forms of resistance.
This image is replete with things that are frequent expressions of joy throughout Filipino culture. Basketball, for starters, alongside a night of karaoke and performance. At the center is a Lolo, a household elder. Reimagining the future would be incomplete without carrying the respect for previous generations ingrained in the culture.
This project would risk appropriation without proper homage to the other people groups who inspired some of this thought. This exploration was catalyzed by a James Baldwin quote, and it’s important to note how artistic representations of Black futures released from current oppressions played a role in shaping my train of thought. In particular, Afrofuturism, from the writing of Octavia Butler to the artistry of Janele Monae and Kamasi Washington.
This design is an unsubtle tribute to one of the most prominent examples of afrofuturism in hip hop, OutKast’s ATLiens. A lot of the album’s theme spent time focused on being an outsider, and in a way, two ecclectic rappers from Atlanta very much had outsider status in the 1990s as hip hop grew polarized between the two coasts.
Much of this design is focused on solidarity, and it made the most sense to merge a message on solidarity with a piece paying homage to afrofuturism. On the ATLiens cover, Big Boi and Andre3000 are posed back-to-back, surrounded by ominous, threatening anime figures. In my MNLiens rendition, they aren’t so much threatened by the figures surrounding them as they are supported by them. Bottom right, you have Ida B. Wells, a prominent voice in her time against the Filipino American War. Above her is a Buffalo soldier, the one commonly misidentified as David Fagan. These Black American soldiers famously deflected in support of the Filipino opposition.
On the upper left is an Aeta girl, a member of the Philippines’ darker skinned indigenous people group, and a reminder of why Black-and-Brown solidarity matters worldwide. Finally, below her is Larry Itliong, whose work alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the Delano Grape Workers Strike often gets overshadowed, but his legacy is a bold example of cross-diaspora solidarity with the Latine community.
Finally, the term Kapwa is plainly written, one of the few examples of text used in this project. Unpacking its definition, with no direct translation, can be a bit difficult, but it speaks to the sense of self that is found among others. At times, the collective good can be so emphasized to the peril of individual wellbeing, but when healthily expressed, it shows us how we find our identity by losing our sense of separateness.
Philippe Lazaro is a climate communicator, a storyteller, and a visual artist. His work strives to promote justice, presence, and hope through a global perspective. As the Communications Manager for the nonprofit Plant With Purpose, he aims to promote rural community development through ecological and spiritual lenses. He also hosts the Grassroots Podcast where he seeks to refocus the climate conversation on the people and communities who are most affected by the crisis at hand. Philippe’s visual art is inspired by lessons from nature, travel, and human resilience. His multidisciplinary approach to storytelling has uncovered a broad array of subjects ranging from the proliferation of Thai cuisine internationally to the false promises of recycling programs. He lives in Southern California with his wife and kids.