Review of Maid in Mayfair (2017)
By Glo Orpilla
Vanessa Scully, Maid in Mayfair (2017), still from video. Image (c) Vanessa Scully
Growing up, the message of fairytale happy endings have been embedded in the psyche of many. However, there is a deal of hardship in everyday life to which no solution is ever handed on a silver platter. In her two-part series of experimental videos titled Maid in Mayfair (2017), Philippine-Australian artist Vanessa Scully explores "the role of the fantasy, and the boundary between projected reality and actual reality for the diaspora”, with a “historical link with USA pop culture”. These videos are dedicated to a largely female group of Philippine overseas workers employed as domestic helpers across Europe, Asia and the United States of America, who find themselves in a disposition of a continuous struggle to sustain their determination and support their families. Informed by the situation faced by many Philippine domestic workers in the United Kingdom, the piece becomes a personal response from both the artist and members of the public who are in a similar situation as Maid in Mayfair’s characters.
Scully uses the term ‘docu-fiction’ to describe her work, which she explains as “marrying two types of film-making” in order to create “a hybrid art form”. The documentary part of her work comes from conversations with domestic workers in the UK, the artist’s own experience of growing up with a mother who was an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in Australia, and statistics drawn from OFW databases. The fictional element of her piece is based on the popular film Maid in Manhattan (2002), which sees a working class girl played by Jennifer Lopez, 'J-Lo', marry her way to a ‘happy ever after’. The importance of this film was stressed by Scully during a Q&A after premiering her work as part of the festival SEA Currents 2017 (18 November 2017, SOAS), describing it not only as a box office seller in the Philippines, but also as a work which sold a dream to Filipino women in search of a better life.
The first video sees the main character clutching onto a bottle of Jennifer Lopez's perfume whilst reciting a prayer, as if it were a holy relic and J-Lo a deity of sorts. As the character prays and looks up into empty space, we begin to sense that Scully seeks to portray a feeling felt by many workers, namely, the longing for home and the energy to persevere. The piece then manifests itself into a badly lip-synced video, satirising music videos through a series of choppy shots of the characters as they visit tourist sights, chasing the buzz of excitement in a new place. Once the song finishes, the audience is brought back to the scene of the character praying besides a bed while clutching onto the bottle, thus drawing attention back to her reality.
Vanessa Scully, Maid in Mayfair (2017), still from video.
Image (c) Vanessa Scully
In the second video, Scully once again intertwines romantic fantasy and reality. This piece sees the character wandering the grounds of a country home in a dream-like romantic scene. She holds a monologue, telling the audience of her husband losing his job and her becoming the main source of income for her family. She is dressed in an elaborate costume while she dances with a white man, presumably the owner of the country estate that looms in the background as a sharp contrast to her monologue’s emphasis on suffering and salvation. Through these juxtapositions, Scully explores the ever-present theme of the ‘White Saviour Complex’ – the idea that marrying into a Caucasian family offers instant salvation – which has been a negative idea embedded in the psyche of Filipinos since colonial times. She explores the falsity of this belief, not necessarily in a satirical manner, but as a caution for both the characters and the public to be weary of fairytale endings.
Whereas in most films, the audience seeks for a protagonist in search of some sort of redemption, whether it be for themselves or for the greater good of mankind, in Scully’s work there is a sense of bitter reality; the romantic notion of the foreign lifestyle becomes the framework of asking - where is the redemption in labour? Can there ever be a happy ending in light of modern day systems of exploitation? A central theme emerging from Scully’s videos is religion and its interface with fiction. Scully collaborated with Manila-based Jesuit priest and artist Father Jason Dy who composed a prayer for domestic workers which Scully incorporated as the script for her character’s monologue. The artist also intended to show these videos on a continuous loop in order to allude to the cyclical nature of prayer and the continuous cycle of struggle. The introduction of this prayer alongside what Scully describes as the “sugary imagery we see throughout the film” serves as a means of disruption by creating a “layer of social realism but using the visual imagery of a romantic comedy”. Another prominent theme, which Scully brings to light, is the issue of the maternal role and how it has evolved given that most domestic workers who migrate abroad are women. Here, Scully aims to emphasise the women’s subjectivity and voice, giving them the opportunity to recount how their roles as nurturers extend into their professional lives as domestic help to other families, all the meanwhile remaining breadwinners for their own families back home in the Philippines.
Despite Scully’s emphasis on imagination and subjectivity, the idea of the using the domestic worker’s point of view is not something new, and has appeared in problematic ways in a number of recent films and exhibitions. Isaac Julien’s PLAYTIME (2014) portrays a Filipina serving as a domestic worker in Dubai, thus reaffirming the trope of Filipinos as ‘exports’ in the public service sector. Another recent exhibition titled Beyond Myself (2017) at Goldsmiths University London, also centres on the Philippine domestic worker, however, it engages with the audience differently. This exhibition aims to present an archival collection that revolves around works contributed by the workers. Seen alongside such works, Scully’s use of the term ‘docu-fiction’ has a somewhat unclear relationship to the notion of authenticity, begging the question to what extent does the piece represent and reflect the life of a migrant worker?
Beyond Myself, 2017, organised by Nathalie Dagmang, Members of the Migrant Domestic Workers Organisation in London and Guhit Kulay in Hong Kong.
Image by Glo Orpilla.
I would argue that Maid in Mayfair does not intend to represent an authentic scenario. Yet, there is a certain confusion as we, the audience, are led to expect a certain level of 'truth’ through the docu-fiction’s use of original stories collected from workers, along with the facts listed in the postscript after each video. Simultaneously, one element that questions this authenticity is the absence of the Tagalog language. Language, especially for Filipinos, provides a sense of communication for those in the same situation: it is a way to escape and have a reminder of home. Usually friendships are formed with the nostalgic thought of home, and for Scully to avoid using this important tool shifts the dynamic of the piece more towards fiction. This leads to a further question - being a first generation child of a migrant, does this mean her piece cannot be a voice for the diaspora? If one has not gone through the experience of another, can the work be legitimate? Though this question lingers, it is important to note that her piece is legitimate as any other. There is a visible sense of wanting to preserve the notion of hardship and perseverance in her work, an image most Filipinos are familiar with. Her piece becomes mutually inclusive for the audience to relate to, both Filipino and non-Filipino, allowing both to empathise with the character. Though the series is not from firsthand experience, it allows the audience to be part of it, rather than exclude the work from them.
In toeing the line between fantasy and reality, Scully's use of the term ‘docu-fiction' is best understood as a loose term within the spectrum of artistic practices, allowing her to explore truth within story-telling. As stated by the artist, this series is not complete, so it will be interesting to see how she will develop her future pieces having already set the tone of awareness and exposing truth. Scully points out that she hopes to continue work with Father Jason Dy, a collaboration that will hopefully allow her to explore the element of religion further. In all of this, Scully’s work seeks out to be a platform to raise awareness for domestic workers, a voice for these modern day Cinderellas. It sets itself up as a conversation between fact and fiction, faith and reality: the romantic idea of working abroad is not as glamorous as the silver screen makes it out to be. Though it is incomplete, it adheres to what is sets out to do; a woke tale of the everyday Filipino just wanting to be able to provide for their families and themselves, but also to bring to light the fictional notions of a fantasied reality.
London, February 2018
Glo Orpilla is a multimedia artist who graduated from Central Saint Martins, London. Her work focuses on the oscillation between the role of insiders and outsiders of cultures, reflecting the diasporic nature of her upbringing.