Different strokes

Michelline and Maxine Syjuco. Sisters, artists.


PHOTOGRAPHY  JONATHAN BALDONADO

Michelline and Maxine Syjuco grew up in a house where it was normal to have furniture hanging upside down from the ceiling. When your parents are Cesare and Jean Marie Syjuco, avant-garde artists, your definition of “normal” expands. Growing up, the sisters were taunted and looked upon with suspicion. “You know how other kids can be really mean when you’re different,” said Michelline, who remembers being called everything from “weird” to a “devil worshipper” by other neighborhood kids. She is sitting with her younger sister Maxine in Art Lab, an experimental art facility in Ayala Alabang opened by her parents.

Inside the three-floor space are curiosities such as Maxine’s pouting bust covered in rose petals; neon typography installations with messages on God, love, and death; and Michelline’s skull-shaped handbags. Of the five Syjuco siblings (three girls and two boys), it is these two sisters who have followed in their parents’ footsteps the most closely: Michelline, as a jewelry designer and maker of wearable art; and Maxine, as a mixed-media artist and poet. “My mom would always tell us: dare to be different,” said Michelline. “As artists, my parents raised us to be proud of being different.”

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Maxine Syjuco is a mixed-media artist inspired by the human condition. A work in progress — a portrait of a sitting girl, her face swept by paper— is about a writer ’s struggle with her craft.

Dressed in a flowery mid-length dress and a pastel pink blouse paired with a sleek white pair of jeans, respectively, Michelline and Maxine look nothing like their goth-inspired creations. “I don’t feel like we need to be in ratty jeans — although I do have a lot of ratty jeans and Doc Martens,” Michelline said. “We want to remain true to ourselves.” People ask “artist ba ‘yan, o artista?” [Are they artists or actresses]. The silent accusation is that they’re too pretty to be taken seriously. “We learned to deal with it and we’ve been able to — over the last couple of years, especially — prove ourselves, both in the art scene and in the design community, and really solidify our positions and our niches.”

Michelline was recently chosen to be part of the Philippine contingent to Paris Design Week. This September, 40 pieces of three-dimensional jewelry and five sculptures, two of which are large scale, went to France for Maison et Objet. Possessed of crude, weathered beauty, her collection of hand-torched pieces made from brass, silver, and baroque pearls, titled “In Chasms Deep,” was inspired by coral reefs and imagined relics from Atlantis.

“The Parisians are looking for one-­of-­a-­kind pieces — handmade stuff that you don’t just see anywhere,” she said. Insiders from Chanel, Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier all showed interest in her work, praising her pieces as “magnifique” and “very high-fashion.”

“Of all the things that happened at the show, this excited me most because it gave me validation and showed me that I am on the right track,” said the jewelry designer, post-Paris. Maison et Objet was fruitful: seven boutiques in Europe placed orders for her wearable art, while her sculptures attracted interest from galleries in Paris and Dubai. This recent success follows last year’s outing at London Fashion Week and making it to shortlist for Vogue Italia Talent.

Michelline is no jeweller, however, having no formal training in what she does. “Everything I do, I learn through trial and error. It gives me an edge because it makes my stuff look different from anyone else’s. Everyone else has a formula. Mine is outside the box.”

EASELS AND CIGARETTES

Throughout her adventures in Paris (and life, really), Michelline had Maxine with her. A mixed-media artist, a poet, a band vocalist, a teacher, and, most of all, a storyteller, the youngest Syjuco sister knew from an early age what she wanted to be. “I was the only one who really said ‘I’m going to be an artist,’” said Maxine, who remembers sitting alongside her father while he painted and copying what he did on her baby easel. “He always had cigarettes and I used to think that it was the only thing that I was lacking to look like a real artist.”

Aside from being a visual artist, Maxine is a published poet, having released her first collection of verse, A Secret Life, in 2008. A few of her poems were included in international anthologies such as the Asia Literary Review, The Poets Guild Quarterly, Chopin with Cherries: A Tribute in Verse, The Best of Southeast Asian Poetry, and the Rhino International Poetry Anthology. Categorized by critics under confessional poetry, veering away from the traditional rhyme and meter, A Secret Life was translated into Polish and French. “I don’t like filtering my thoughts and my feelings. It’s an outpouring of emotions and, of course, some of it is exaggerated — but it comes from the heart.” The common thread between her art and her poetry, she continued, is story. 

“Whenever I’m asked by people about inspiration, I always say it’s mainly from the human condition,” Maxine said. “I get inspiration from pain, struggle, emotion — things that society tries to hide, truths that they try to hide. I look within. My main source of inspiration from within.” A work in progress — a portrait of a sitting girl, her face swept by paper — is about a writer’s struggle with her craft.

Another work by Maxine, a little girl whose head has been replaced by an exploding rose, serves as the cover art of Who’s Listening to Van Gogh’s Ear, the debut album of Jack of None, an experimental art rock band she formed with her brothers AG and Julian. Consisting of spoken word tracks against heavy guitars, the album includes “Mrs. Stitcher,” which tells the story of a mother who uses the “gigantic eyes” of her daughter to replace the buttons on her husband’s shirt.

Michelline provides harmonizing vocals on “On the Streets,” where “a thousand other people will gather like cattle.” It’s all very dark, which, again, throws you for a loop when the Syjuco sisters are all smiles. Maxine, who wrote about a man bludgeoning a woman “with an ax first, and then with a scalpel, and then with a toothpick,” also runs an art school for children called Little Picasso. “I don’t like living in a fantasy life, so my work tends to expose things that seek to find the beauty even in the ugliest of things,” she said of her poetry.

UPS AND DOWNS

The life of an artist is paved with tears. Both sisters were witness to their parents’ struggle. Having the Syjuco name, they insist, doesn’t mean they were born with silver spoons in their mouths.

“My dad’s father was a tycoon — a very wealthy man — and when my dad said he wanted to be an artist, my lolo was heartbroken because he wanted my dad to be a businessman. And he said, ‘You’re going to be a poor man if you’ll be an artist.’ My dad said, ‘I don’t care.’ My dad became an artist and had nothing left because my lolo stopped supporting him,” Michelline remembered. “We were taught to work — you don’t just sit back and be a spoiled brat. As an artist, you should know that there are ups and downs.”

The bohemian existence of their parents broadened their horizons “The options were limitless,” said Michelline. “If you want a 9-to-­5 job, that’s great. If we wanted to become a lawyer or doctor, my parents said they would be more than happy. All the options were open to us to do whatever we wanted. And they were always 100% supportive.”

Support today can come in the form of criticism, which has steeled the sisters against whatever the outside world can throw at them. “If you do one thing and it doesn’t work out, then move on to the next. Opinions from our parents affect us greatly when we do our own work. We try to get feedback from them. It matters to us,” Michelline said. Maxine added: “It’s like having an expert panel of judges there all the time who are ready to score you. And sometimes it can be harsh, but nonetheless they respect our different unique styles.”

“We are very different, personality-­wise. But we get along. That’s the family love. Family bond. It works. It’s like yin and yang that works together and forms one home,” said Michelline. CAMA