Artist Matt Manalo has made his mark on the Alief community – literally – through his passion for art and inclusion.
In 2019, he bought a shipping container and set it up at the corner of Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center, next to the Alief Community Garden, at Beechnut and Dairy View Lane.
He named it Alief Art House — his vehicle for immersing art into the neighborhood and providing an outlet for Alief artists to show and explore their work. He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with the International Management District (IMD). Here’s what he had to say:
IMD: Tell us a little about yourself, Matt.
Matt: I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines in September 1984. I have three siblings, two brothers and a sister. My mom works as a teacher and my dad works at the Methodist Hospital. We arrived here in 2004 and settled in Alief. I graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in painting at the University of Houston, which is where I met my wife, and we have two children.
IMD: What is your current occupation? Are you a full-time artist? Do you have another job as well?
Matt: I work as a full-time artist, a community organizer for Filipinx Artists of Houston, and I’m the founder/head curator of the Alief Art House. I am also a full-time husband and dad to two children, three turtles, and a dog. Being a full-time artist means you have to wear many hats. There are times where you’re working on your own work in the studio, or you could be giving artist talks or taking part of a discussion panel regarding your practice or social issues. I am also part of the Artist Advisory Board with the Art League of Houston.
IMD: How and when did your interest in art begin?
Matt: I have always been interested in art. I remember drawing a lot as a child and my parents would bring home old school printer paper – the ones with the holes on the side – and make them into a sketchbook.
My earliest influences were comic books and Saturday morning cartoons. I always found myself poking around the garden at home just being curious about rocks and insects. Then in middle school, we had shop and I was introduced to wood and metal working. I realized I wanted to work with my hands and be creative, except being an artist was not really a degree most Filipino parents approve of. It wasn’t until I took three years of computer engineering and two years of nursing classes that I realized that being an artist was really my calling.
IMD: How would you describe your form of art?
Matt: The easiest way to describe my work is that it is sculptural with multiple layers and made with reclaimed materials. They are mostly abstract with moments of texts, and historical imagery. A good number of my works use the grid format, and it discusses borders and how maps were used as a tool for imperialism and erasure.
IMD: What is your personal philosophy on art?
Matt: My personal philosophy on art involves a lot of experimentations, failures, play. I see my work as these abstracted self-portraits which talks about my personal experiences as an immigrant. I also try to promote sustainability with the materials I use. I use various raw materials like sand, wood and concrete because I am constantly redefining what “home” means.
IMD: What is the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome in your art career?
Matt: The biggest obstacle I have overcome is being able to create a community of Filipinx artists and create an art space in Alief. Being an immigrant, I quickly realized how the art world can be very intimidating and inaccessible. By creating these spaces, I am able to discuss the difficulties so we can all progress with our art careers as a community.
IMD: Why is art so important for the Alief community?
Matt: Because it is imperative that we are able to tell our stories and be able to document it. Being considered as the most diverse neighborhood in Houston, we are rich in culture and histories. As the famous Filipino artist Carlos Villa said, “Documentation is representation.” There needs to be a space for these stories to be told or shared where it is presented in a way like galleries inside the Loop.
There is still a lack of representation in the Houston art scene, especially from Alief, but the mission of the Alief Art House is to highlight their talents in a space that is accessible to the community. I wanted to bring a fresh experience by having an art space surrounded by a community garden.
IMD: How did the idea for the mural wall come about?
Matt: From the idea of visibility. Almost everyone drives a car around the neighborhood because of necessity and the lack of walkable spaces. Hopefully, people will be enticed by it and visit. We also have a graffiti wall which was inspired by a graffiti artist who tagged the shipping container within a week that it was delivered. I wanted to create a safe space for artists to let their creative expression out without getting in trouble.
IMD: Has a second shipping container been added to the site?
Matt: Yes. We are so grateful to the donors and for International Management District for allowing us to expand. It will be used as a gathering/working space while the original shipping container remains as the main art gallery.
IMD: Paint a picture of the Filipinx Artists Collective.
Matt: Filipinx Artists of Houston was conceived in 2019 through the guidance of Bridget Bray, former Nancy C. Allen Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the Asia Society of Texas.
I have always wanted to be part of a Filipino art community and could not find any that was local. We are composed of around 40 active members with art practices ranging from visual, performing, literary, culinary, and multidisciplinary. We also have artists who are self-taught, have different levels of degrees, from 18 to 70-plus years old, to different sexual preferences. So, when it was formed, I realized that it was a community everyone was also looking for.
IMD: What projects are underway or in the planning stages?
Matt: We are slowly starting to build the Alief Art Garden, which is a project supported by the Smithsonian Museum. We will be growing plants that are edible and we will be able to extract inks, dyes, and fibers at the same time.
I have collaborated with the WOW Project run by Jay and Vanessa Lipscomb; and Ceci Norman, a local Houston artist who involves sustainable and accessible art materials in her practice. It is expected to launch in October 2022. The Lipscombs started the WOW Project, a health and wellness nonprofit, as well as Alief Community Fridges.
IMD: How can people support the Alief Art House and its initiatives?
Matt: Right now, we are doing a fundraiser for our expansion, and it can be accessed by texting “aliefarthouse” to 44321, or people can visit the website: mattmanalo.com/aliefarthouse.