When the elevator doors open to the third floor of the Yuchengco Museum, the tableau that greets you is startling enough to cast an immediate hush over the room: arranged in a semicircle, nine black-and-white photographs of Filipina housemaids. This is Chicken Hands, a project that Paris-based Filipino photographer Ryan Arbilo has been working on since 2009. Inspired by his own mother, herself an OFW, Arbilo began creating these portraits as a tribute to the unconditional sacrifices of migrant workers, as well as a call to action, in the hopes that OFWs will one day be treated with more dignity.
The simplicity of Chicken Hands is what makes the exhibit powerful but also newbie-friendly. If you’re anything like me and aren’t as well-versed in appreciating visual art as you’d like to be, you might find going to a museum or gallery intimidating; most exhibit first-timers don’t know where to begin looking, and some feel the pressure to linger at one challenging piece to make it seem like “they get it” (speaking from experience). Luckily, Arbilo’s photo series is straightforward but loaded with detail.
If you need a recommendation on how to view Chicken Hands, start by taking in the whole tableau. By being arranged in a semicircle, the women seem to be gathered around a table, waiting for you to join them. But as you move closer, as you take note of their posture and their facial expressions, it becomes unclear if you’re joining them in solidarity or if they’re there to serve you as simply another guest.
Next, you’ll want to begin having individual encounters with each of the portraits. Start with the leftmost (Rosenda Arbilo, the artist’s mother, who’s a little awkwardly positioned away from the rest) and work your way clockwise. You’ll notice that so much of why the exhibit works is in the angle that Ryan Arbilo chose to shoot his subjects. Low angles are traditionally meant to connote a position of power or authority, but one look at these women — wrapped up in thick clothing for the French climate, with their wrinkles and veins left out on display — tells you that this is not Arbilo’s intent. Instead, the low angle distorts them, making their hands look swollen and too big for their knees. These “chicken hands” draw you in, but make sure to let your eyes travel up to the women’s faces — mostly indifferent, but with traces of scorn or embarrassment.
The most striking moment while viewing Chicken Hands comes at the end, with the ninth portrait. As you step in front of Mila, the spots —possibly bruises — on her hands traveling up her forearms make for a sudden shock. What makes this particular photo even more disruptive is the fact that Mila looks the youngest out of the nine; there’s no telling what she’s gone through.
But don’t be mistaken: Chicken Hands isn’t a frightening or depressing experience. The context of Arbilo’s project is definitely rooted in hardship but there’s also warmth to just being with these women. Like those moments when you suddenly hear a Filipino voice in a foreign country (read: all the time), there’s still a familiarity that persists. More seasoned exhibit-goers may be left wanting, given Arbilo’s limited scope, but those looking for something more accessible will find that the love of these women outshines the monochrome.
CHICKEN HANDS IS ON VIEW UNTIL JUNE 17 AT THE YUCHENGCO MUSEUM IN MAKATI CITY. FOR MORE INFORMATON VISIT YUCHENGCOMUSEUM.ORG.