ARTIST FEATURE: GICA TAM

When we think about care in our communities, it always comes back to gathering together over good food with good people. To celebrate API Heritage Month, we collaborated with artist Gica Tam on a limited-edition tote and designer Jennet Liaw on a limited-edition tee designed with this theme in mind.

And to keep the care going, 10% of revenue of sales will go towards sustaining the work of our friends FIG, a New York City based multi-racial grassroots coalition working to transform the food system.

Gica Tam is an illustrator, printmaker and graphic designer based between New York and Manila. Her vibrant work is both ornate and minimalist which explores themes of food, folktales and identity. She creates community-based, socially-engaged projects, and has exhibited and collaborated with numerous brands locally and internationally.

In a conversation on her design practice, hotpot traditions, and the artist community in the Philippines, Gica reminds us of the ways that care manifests all around us.

Could you talk a bit about your background as an artist?

I’m an illustrator and printmaker between Manila and the US trained in graphic design and product design, but illustrating is where I thrive.


What do you think draws you to illustrating?

I feel like in graphic design you have to know a bunch of things. Like everything has to be structured in some sort of way, which makes sense, because you're designing for people, for user experience and stuff like that. But with illustrating, there are rules, but you can break most of them, if not all of them. I don't find myself being boxed or limited in what I can do. There's always a way to push past boundaries and be able to present something that resonates with me and resonates with other people as well. Or at least I hope so.


For our collaboration together, we wanted to create something that would evoke feelings of caring for the people in our community – can you tell us a bit about your artistic process for your design?

Food is a really big part of myself, my identity, and the work I put out. Whenever I think back to my childhood, it’s always food related. Not all good memories of course, but there’s always food involved. I never intentionally put it in my illustrations – it just kind of shows up for some reason. It's a comfortable topic for me to explore and know that I’m doing it right, because it’s in my background.

I immediately thought of doing hotpot because whenever I think of hotpot, I always think of big gatherings, people coming together, family, friends, and that sort of thing you don't get with, for example, if I just do an illustration of ice cream, you don't immediately think of community. You don't think of people being together.

Also, hotpot is my favorite food to eat. The thing with hot pot too, is that everyone makes it differently. My family does it differently. I’ve had hotpot at friends’ houses and they also do it differently. It’s always a new experience, even if it’s just the same dish.


How does your family like to do hot pot?

We usually do a lot of veggies and a lot of meat. Seafood is a really big thing and we have our own favorite sauces. So sometimes we have two hot pots in one table because everyone likes it differently. And one of the things that I really like is how we infuse Filipino ingredients and also Chinese ingredients, because my mom’s side is Filipino and my dad’s side is Chinese. I didn’t realize it was weird growing up. I always thought it was normal to have these two different cuisines together.

I grew up with my cousins’ houses being like a two minute, three minute walk. We were neighbors when I was growing up. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Reply 1988–

That scene where they’re exchanging food!

That’s exactly how my childhood was. I really think that food is such a love language. I don't know if it's an Asian thing, but when you argue with your parents and then they come in with a plate of fruit and then they just quietly leave it on the table.

I think food is, has always been, at least for me, such a show of care. Whenever my friends send me food, I feel so much love from them that even though we don't get to see each other, even though we live five miles away. I know that they care about me because I would be able to try out the food they think I would like. My friends and I would have this thing where we would send each other what kind of food we were liking at that time, and then have them try it out and go on a call, eat together, and discover new things.

Part of being a creative is you want to make things that you enjoy and then also wrestle with the fact that it is something you have to make money from. How have you grappled with that and worked through that?

For my freelance career, I’ve always had to take on work that made money because I needed food, to pay rent, and stuff like that. But I always tried to balance it out with something else. And I think when I was first starting, it was harder to do that. I almost never said no to anything that came my way. Because I need it, and it’s also a way for me to help my family out.

But now it’s kind of better because I get to pick who I work with. And now I mostly work for nonprofits. I work for advocacy groups or businesses that give back to their community. One of the studios I collaborate with a lot is called Beginners; they’re an animation studio in the UK. I’m always happy working for them, because most of the projects we do always helps someone else. And I think that’s the kind of project that I want to see and work on in the future. Moving forward, that’s really where I want my career to be at.

And I didn’t realize that there was a term for it, up until recently – it’s called social design. It’s helping marginalized and underrepresented communities have a voice, whereas they would otherwise be historically marginalized by design itself.

Design is such a privileged study to be in. It’s always like when you follow a trend or when you follow the rules, it’s made by some old white man who’s long dead. And we still follow those rules, which is such a weird thing to me. So I think there has to be some way that we can make design for our communities and for ourselves, that makes sense for all the people involved.


How do you think your personal history and your cultural history influence your work, and how does that guide you to create the things that you do?

My parents both grew up very poor, and so they know what it’s like to struggle. And I grew up at food drives, and some of my relatives are in the medical field, so they would also do medical drives and I’d be there helping out. And it was always a question for me growing up, “What can I contribute?” because I don’t have money. So I think my skills as an illustrator helps in that way.

Right now, I’m a Public Access Design Fellow at the Center of Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn. And in meetings we discuss how [we can] help through the design.

I think one of the things that you have to wrestle with when you’re doing social design is that you’re not going to see the results immediately. It’s such a long process, and there’s also the thought that you’ll never see the results in your lifetime. Maybe you’re not gonna see it in your lifetime, but at least you’re doing the steps to at least push that goal. And maybe people in the future can enjoy it, and we can build a better community. That’s one of my motivations. Even if I don’t see the results now, the thought that it can happen and will happen is what keeps me going.


How do you feel your art practice empowers you to help others? And what kinds of themes are you drawn to in your work, to center these ideas of community and collective care? How do you see that manifest in your work?

I guess with the projects that I take on, I always make sure that it’s helping a group of people, or a lot of people hopefully. For my fellowship at CUP, the project I’m working on is about housing inequality. I was told that they took me for the project because they really liked how I drew people. They really wanted to represent different groups of people, and [for] someone looking at that to [be] able to see themselves in the cause we were doing.

One of the things that people say a lot about my work is that they like how I draw people and how I draw food and how I present my culture. It’s not even intentional. It just so happens. I guess that it’s what comes out.

I think what's great is that a lot of artists, at least in the Philippines, [are] very big on helping the community out. And I'm really grateful to be in that space because I know that the people are genuine with helping out. There's always like a call for zines or work that centers around helping the community.

In the Philippines right now, the government is and hasn't provided any aid while the whole pandemic is going on. And so people are starving. People have not had any work for the past year. And so what happened was that communities would put up pantries and they call it community pantries in each area.

So it could be like the city over, the municipality over and there would be a community pantry that's open to everyone. You give what you can and you take what you need. And I think that's really helpful at least, currently when the government isn't doing anything. And so a lot of my friends have started their own community pantries. Even my family started one in front of our house. Seeing that and being surrounded by a lot of people who care also manifests in the work that I do. I always try and do projects where the proceeds go [to a cause], or in a way features where I’m from and makes people interested to see more and to be able to learn more. And so I can push my advocacy forward and be like, “You like my art, now here is what I believe in.”

This one actually, I’ve been looking at it. I was asked to do a throw design, and I was super burned out last year. So for the longest time, I didn’t really try to do personal art. But there was one instance in the news where people were being killed just for fighting for their right to stay in a particular place. The Philippines is the most dangerous place to live if you’re a land activist – basically normal people who have been driven out of their homes, indigenous groups, farmers who are underpaid, who don’t even own part of the land that they work on. So I was really angry at that time. I was like, “What can I do to help? I can’t just give money. There has to be something else.” And so I designed that one with that particular advocacy in mind: that our farmers, our indigenous groups do so much for us. And we repay them with driving them out of their homes. For this one, the proceeds went to For Our Farmers, which is a nonprofit organization in the Philippines that helps farmers and displaced indigenous fruits.


I love your note on how you can’t divorce your art from the things that you care about.

It’s annoying, when you’re on social media and people are like, “you can’t have an opinion because you’re just an artist.” But these are the things that I believe in. And I can’t separate myself and my work from that. And if you don’t like it, then leave. I’m not forcing you.


From talking to you, what it sounds like you have a really powerful community backing you up. And it’s mutual – you’re providing care and they’re providing care.

I'm really thankful the design community in the Philippines is super close knit. It's not because social design is a trend that they're doing it. It's because that's who they are and who they want to be. And they don't talk about it. They don't brag about it. So you don't hear about it often. You just find out from just interacting with them on a regular basis and finding out that, Oh, they're doing that. And we're also doing this. How can we collaborate and make it better and make it have a wider reach? And I think that's really great.


It sounds really collaborative, like everybody is mutually uplifting each other.

Yeah, and I’d hope so. I hope that's the case for a lot of creative communities, because we only have each other and we're supposed to help ourselves. Let's not make it a competition because we have one goal and, or at least most of us have one goal, which is to have better communities, to have better public spaces, to have better access to education and building better communities for everyone.

As someone who works alone, most of the time, it's great to be in a community that constantly inspires you to do better and to collaborate. I have high hopes for our community.


What is your biggest dream for your art community?

I'd hope every studio, every artist, everyone's just working on things they love doing. Whenever someone does that, you can really see it. They don't have to explain it. They don't have to say things that justify it. You just know that they love the work that they did and it's their best work.


Is there any community work that you’d like to spotlight before we go?

I'd like to spotlight the community pantries happening in the Philippines right now. It's so frustrating because the government isn't helping and yet they're threatened by it. They feel like the community community pantries are a protest, which in a way it can be, but it's also just basically helping people survive. So there’s been a lot of red tagging going on – police showing up and asking people to sign their names and stuff like that. I just really want to put it at the front that there's a lot that can be done for community pantries. People can volunteer, people can donate, even for artists.

I feel like every pantry needs a spotlight, but if I had to highlight one, it would be the Community Pantry in Maginhawa. It’s the first one, which was organized by Ana Patricia Non!

I know some of my friends have been doing artwork for community pantries just to boost it. It’s definitely not a long-term solution, because the long-term solution should be aid from the government and actually caring about their people. But even in this short amount of time, I’d really want to see people help out and at least be aware of it. When I talk about it here, it’s not such common knowledge obviously for geographical reasons, but I think there’s so much work to be done and so many ways people can help out. I also don’t fault people who don’t have the time or energy for it. I’m at a very privileged position to be able to talk about it and be able to work on stuff that’s for the community.

I’m not very articulate when it comes to speaking, but I hope that whatever I do shows up in my work, like my intention, and I hope that intention passes onto the next person. ∎



You can find more of Gica's work on Instagram and her website.