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Baesianz Meets:
Karen Bolilia


Karen Bolilia is the Creative Director and co-founder of Jos Mundo, a Filipino craft studio inspired by space, storytelling, and multi-generational practice that creates footwear and objects from her hometown of Batangas. Through Karen’s direction it has become a portal into Filipino nature and culture, celebrating the beauty of the country in a plethora of ways. We caught up with Karen to discuss her love of the Philippines, her connection to nature, and how the two intertwine with narratives around colonialism and growth—all of which inform her creative practice every day.

Growing up, Karen's relationship with nature and her hometown morphed continuously—like many, she replaced slowness with pace, opting for cities, exploring the West, and dreaming of a life in one of the world's capitals. Coming from a family scarce of artistry, she worked hard to find outlets for her innate creativity while studying at Ateneo de Manila University and continued to nurture this through a myriad of impressive projects afterwards. It wasn't until her mid-twenties that the allure of nature started to creep back in, filling her home in Manila with house-plants and starting the Instagram, @whorticulture, which was dedicated to plant-related indulgence to match her growing need for greenery.

But in more recent years the incredibly well named 'whorticulture' became obsolete as Karen took more and more trips back to Batangas in search of IRL nature fixes. It was during the pandemic that she made the big transition to reside there permanently, finding inspiration in the colours and textures of the natural landscape and using the slowness intertwined with out-of-city-living to explore her Filipino heritage in entirely new ways.

Let’s start with an easy one. Tell us what makes the Philippines so special to you?
It’s almost always sunny in the Philippines, which I love. The sun shines harshly around these parts. It’s an archipelago with thousands of islands, and because of geography, natural separations, and limited infrastructure, getting around can be challenging and tedious. But worth it. You can be in a tropical rainforest, hike through a river lined with boulder-sized marbles and see some of the most beautiful reefs in the world - if you’re patient. Also the beaches, I’m biased obviously, but to be a tropical girl is to be ruined for any other beach elsewhere.

What’s your favourite thing about your Filipino heritage?  
Realising that what’s been seeded in me as a kid would become so meaningful and powerful to me as an adult. I have grown a pretty intense curiosity about our heritage, country, people, etc. Show me everything, I live to connect the dots. Since moving back to Batangas and being pretty far away from my friends most of the time, I’ve found connection and ease in talking to fellow locals that are outside of my family unit/circle. Farmers, fishermen, boatmen, divemasters. It’s a gift to be able to get to know my hometown this way. That my life force stems from here, and I’m grounding grounding grounding.

What impact does nature have on you in terms of your creativity and beyond?
It really feeds into every aspect of my life. It’s where my sense of beauty comes from. My sense of colour, adventure, openness. My smile. When I leave, I’m always tethered home. I think the older you get the more sentimental you get about that stuff, and I just look at my country and it’s crazy but, I’m never not in awe. Truly, I feel so grateful and proud not only to be living in the Philippines but to be incredibly privileged to experience its layers. So many islands. So much more to see.

In terms of my creative practice, I absorb the colours from outside a lot, as well as the landscape. I try to pay attention to how the terrain changes depending on where I am, the feel of the ground beneath me. And I find it just seeps out of the work naturally, maybe in a literal way, maybe more as a connection I made in my mind. For the shoes specifically, we currently work exclusively with custom-made heels out of local wood. The pace in which I put work out as well. I am slow to roll and like to take my time.

It sounds like nature is deeply intertwined with Filipino heritage.
Something I’ve observed with the pandemic and all travel restrictions is that it’s triggered somewhat of a wave remembering for a lot of people here. On the surface, there’s been a re-imagining of material and craft traditionally made from readily available natural resources. People either began moving back to their hometowns or establishing new communities in other provinces. Seeing, really seeing, and then embracing what we have here. It’s been lovely watching that silver lining unfold and kind of untangling all the city-centric migrations and modes of living. Because actually, being in and drawing from nature is literally second nature to many of us.

One of the most telling Filipino superstitions for me is the concept of 'tabi tabi po' - whenever you are walking through a dense area of nature, unfamiliar territory, or a really old tree, you say 'tabi tabi po, makikiraan.' It’s a way of respectfully asking permission to pass through, a recognition of the invisible guardians of that space. I think it’s beautiful that that practice has persisted to this day.

The moment you step out of the city, it’s green. It’s blue. It’s primary-coloured sunset mirages. But we forget, and I think we all ought to forgive ourselves when we forget, because of inherited and generational trauma, information blindspots, centuries of colonisation, etc. All of that unmoors you so that you may separate your body from the space you inhabit and know. There’s this thing called Filipino time, which is a shorthand for tardiness. I don’t have an academic framework for this so this is just speculative—and not to glorify tardiness—but I sometimes think Filipino time is really just island time, place dictating pace. Our bodies are being called to slowness.

We’re still unlearning here. To reconcile with that disconnect and also accommodate the pressures of an economy wanting to scale. We’re all still in the process of mentally or maybe even spiritually repatriating to our own country; identifying, owning what’s ours. Mutual recognition down the line, I hope.

Has the way you feel about Filipino culture changed as you've grown up?
So much! I got caught up in the West of it all and dreamed of a life in one of the world "centres" once upon a time. But I’m grateful for the exposure to that too because it gives me a point of reference and clarity. If I put my critical hat on, I’d remember that all these beautiful grand buildings and these sophisticated, fleshed out cultures would have not been possible without colonial harm. That’s not really the energy I bring when I find myself in the global north, but it’s good to keep in your back pocket when you start comparing a place with your country’s progress, resources, etc. It would be too simplistic to go there because we have centuries to unpack.

I’m more respectful and balanced in assessing what we have here. Hopeful about our potential. I feel a lot of gratitude for surfacing from this corner of the world, with the privilege and access that I have. Humbled by what’s been made available to me, and hope to do right by it. The more I get to know our country, the more at peace with myself I become.

What would you say to young Filipinos out there wanting to express themselves creatively?
There is no one way of doing things. No one place to do it from. And honour your own pace <3

See Karen’s majestic Dear Diary entry from the Philippines here.

@karenbolilia / @jos.mundo

Words by Sami Kimberley
Imagery courtesy of Jos Mundo