Tessellating Identities

UCSC alumna uses art to create space for intersectional identities

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MK Veniegas-Isip stands in front of her childhood home in the Philippines, wearing a “fearlessly queer” t-shirt, as a light smile dances across her face. Framed by Instagram’s borders, this self-portrait, titled “Bahay,” (left) is accompanied by a captioned description of a childhood in the Philippines and the emotions that come with a long-anticipated return home.

As she tells the story of her life and the essence of her being, she simultaneously carves out a space for herself in a realm of voices that excludes her own.

“I want people to hear my story,” Veniegas-Isip said. “If they’re not going to read it, I’m going to tell them my story.”

Veniegas-Isip portrays her intersectionality through snapped self-portraits accompanied by long, heartfelt captions or through videography. Her stories are poetically personal and each of her self-portraits is accompanied by an ongoing story of her identity.

Veniegas-Isip graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2018 and is now an activist in the Santa Cruz community with the Diversity Center, the Walnut Ave Women’s Center and the Monarch Center, among others. Her self-portrait, “Intersections of Affects,” was featured recently in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s “See, Be Seen” exhibition.

As a kid growing up in the Philippines, Veniegas-Isip didn’t have many art supplies, yet she always gravitated toward art. Paper and pencils were all she needed. Art is a part of her, she said, and she uses that to express the rest of her identity in hopes that other underrepresented voices will make their voices heard.

The way she portrays her identity is much more intimate than any lecture about intersectionality on campus.

“When I moved [to the U.S.], I was 11,” Veniegas-Isip said. “I was already old enough to grasp what I learned in the Philippines, the culture, the values, all that stuff, but still young enough to develop and learn the cultures here as well. I don’t think one replaced the other. They both sit next to each other and I’m always straddling that in-between line.”

Veniegas-Isip’s identity is not simply a collection of checked boxes. Instead, she said, it’s a tessellation, a collection of closely fitted shapes. All her identities touch each other in shapes that can never be separated into boxes.

“I feel like a lot of my intersectionality is pointed out from people othering me, but to me it’s always been a thing,” Veniegas-Isip said. “It’s normal for me, but the fact that it’s not normal for other people and they felt the need to constantly point it out to me, I just said, ‘Okay, if this is how you see me, I might as well uplift myself from that and uplift my communities.’”

But within a news and entertainment media landscape that consistently attacks and misrepresents her identity, doing so hasn’t always been easy for Veniegas-Isip. The election of President Donald Trump was the first time she felt her identity being attacked from all sides in the news, and entertainment media has its flaws as well.

In Veniegas-Isip’s experience, even though the film “Crazy Rich Asians” was celebrated for its inclusivity and all-Asian cast, she felt unrepresented and excluded by the film’s lack of brown and queer Asians. She said, every story can’t be represented by stereotypical narratives portrayed in mainstream media, which is why she creates her own media.

She’s now working on a documentary centering the identities and experiences of queer/trans people of color to capture the stories of those who aren’t given a voice in media, and to address the lack of representation of people of color in queer spaces she’s noticed in Santa Cruz. She’s also putting together a narrative of her own from footage she took in the Philippines this summer.

By sharing her stories, she hopes to increase understanding and communication surrounding intersectional identities.

“I know I’m just one person with my own very specific story,” Veniegas-Isip said. “But I’m hoping to be able to touch other people’s hearts in hopes that they will start talking about theirs as well.”

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Shinae Lee is Arts and Culture Editor for City on a Hill Press. She has reported for every desk at City on a Hill in her two years on the paper, but has focused most of her time until now as a campus reporter and editor. She describes her favorite reporting subject as, “in-depth stories about things that really matter to people.” Though she focuses much of her time on the newspaper, she is also a Feminist Studies major, vice president of the Korean American Student Association, print coordinator for Student Media and occasional babysitter. In her scarce and precious free time she can be found organizing her life artistically in her bullet journal, watching The Great British Baking Show or traveling on a budget.