Spotlight: Cian Dayrit

‘More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colours,’ Elizabeth Bishop concluded in her poem ‘The Map’.

Cian Dayrit might well beg to differ. Both history and map-making have been central features of his artistic practice for more than a decade, and more often than not, they are intertwined.

When Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery put on ‘The Accursed Share’, a thematic exhibition concerned with debt and exchange last year, Dayrit’s ‘counter-cartography’ was a natural fit. Across large tapestries – some offering geographical maps, others diagrams or text-infused narrative images – the Filipino artist chronicles the development of economic and social oppression and resistance, in his native country and further afield.

‘Tree of life in a state of decay and rebirth’ (2019) is one such work, showing ‘imperialism’, ‘bureaucrat-capitalism’ and ‘feudalism’ at the roots, with issues such as ‘landlessness’ and ‘weak social services’ on the branches. ‘It’s my way of trying to diagram the issues and how they manifest within the everyday life-roles of the people,’ Dayrit says as we wander around the show. ‘So for example, how would the urban poor or a landless farmer actually feel a global policy? I’m trying to make that sort of connection.’

Born in the Manila metropolitan area in 1989, Dayrit graduated from art school in 2011 and had his first solo show two years later. Described by artnet as ‘one of the stars of the biennial circuit’, his work spans textiles, painting and installation. He is also a prominent political activist and was arrested for taking part in a demonstration for farmers’ rights in 2022.

If you look at cupboards and refrigerators, you can also view them as shrines, because the ritual of having to sustain yourself with nourishment, that’s also like a faith

It was activism, Dayrit says, that first propelled him towards art. ‘It was just natural to want to respond to different issues within local worldviews. At the time it was student activism, but that expanded outside of the university, finding different solidarities with different sectors, from farmers to Indigenous people.’

This has also shaped how he relates to art itself, seeing his works not as a ‘finished thesis’ but a means of understanding the world around him. ‘Their existence is also my way of digesting and processing it for myself.’

It’s been a busy year for Dayrit: since Edinburgh, his work has been displayed at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. ‘Schemes of Belligerence’, his third exhibition with Berlin’s NOME gallery, was on until 4 November. This year, his tapestries will be featured in ‘Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art’, which shows at the Barbican Gallery in London before moving to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Dayrit is often concerned with the materiality of modern civilization, and how small objects can signify whole histories and belief systems. At the Talbot Rice, he has displayed curiosity cabinets of domestic items such as toys, tins of food and religious icons, offering a hint of pop art within a tradition going back centuries. ‘These are very domestic things that can also be viewed through an overtly political lens as well,’ he says. ‘So if you look at cupboards and refrigerators, you can also view them as shrines, because the ritual of having to sustain yourself with nourishment, that’s also like a faith.’

He continues: ‘I welcome these little opportunities to speak through metaphors of the Bible, and the Passion of Christ. Actually I like the socialist reading of it, that Christ is like a revolutionary. So there is that perspective into viewing that rather dominant narrative in a more democratic sense.’

That yearning for democracy seems to pervade not just the content of Dayrit’s work, but the way he does it, too. When I note the similarity of his tapestries to the banners you’d see at the Durham Miners’ Gala – an annual celebration in northeast England – he ponders how ‘these protest ephemera can figure’ within the ‘institutional spaces’ of art galleries.

There is a refreshing element of practicality about Dayrit too. ‘I work with a lot of textiles for various reasons, one of which is they’re easy to move around,’ he says. ‘Also I think it’s very visceral, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily work as documentation.

‘I can repurpose the images into a more reproducible form. Maybe this tree could work better as a sticker for giving away or as a T-shirt. Sometimes that’s how I view some of the objects that I make, because this is a map, but it doesn’t really work as well as a map as it does as a banner.’ Sometimes, the ability to let go is the greatest art of all.