Meet Our May Artist - Francine Besas

This month Wellington artist Francine Besas is designing our weekly posters plus a run of limited edition Neck of the Woods stickers. Besas is a self-described “analogue” artist now stretching her considerable talents into the digital world. We talk with the self-taught artist about her work with Shakti, the musical inspiration in her illustrations (Besas is also in Wellington band Sangria Nights), rediscovering a love for art via dropping out of design school and that age old fight for financial reparations for your work.

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Welcome to the Woods Francine! Give us the scoop on your home town. What's your perfect night out and what would you like to see more of in the nightlife culture of Wellington?

I’ve had a couple of really fun nights out recently. One night was cocktails and a gig with friends, another night was a movie date (Avengers: Endgame- it was amazing) then casual drinks over a game of pool. I think Wellington pretty much has it all, but I’d love to see even more Asian vegetarian cuisine. Something like Aunty Mena’s but BYO.

From Francine Besas’ collection of Neck of the Woods stickers

From Francine Besas’ collection of Neck of the Woods stickers

You've created artwork for Wellington band Hex, made art directly inspired by songs and drawn some really cool pictures of musicians for your Shakti fundraiser. Can we look forward to seeing you working with more musicians in the future?

I really hope so! Music is a part of everything I do. I am moving to Melbourne in a few months and getting to know a whole new city’s worth of local bands will be a treat. And it’s MELBOURNE. I’d love to do more gig posters. Maybe for Courtney Barnett one day, hopefully. All of her posters are so cool and colourful and done by an incredible range of illustrators.


What shows or exhibitions have you been part of so far?

I have only been in one exhibition – a group show called Pigment in 2017 at Matchbox Studios on Cuba Street back when they had a gallery space at the back of the retail store. It called for paintings of any medium and I submitted watercolour series which celebrated the unique animals, plants, and cuisine of The Philippines, where I am from.

Unfortunately, my one & only press mention was being on the front page of Stuff News/Dom Post in April 2018 because I wanted to speak up against Matchbox and its owner, Cherry Holahan, for failing to pay artists who have exhibited works there. I am one of many artists whom they still owe money to, to this day.

 A year on, I am still looking into the situation. The latest update is that Matchbox Studios Ltd. is in process of being removed from the NZ Companies Office, and with its removal will go their liability to pay their debts to artists… That’s all dreary stuff (not to mention terribly discouraging for artists who were young, students, or new to exhibiting like me), but I would say the experience was a huge turning point for how my art developed in 2018.

 Aside from that, I had a drawing featured in Monster Valley’s December 2018 issue of their magazine Black Lagoon. And while I did not submit for it, I created promotional works for Shakti’s first ever fundraising art auction/exhibition also in December - it raised about $3000 which was put towards their services helping migrant and refugee women.


We really love your watercolours based on life in The Philippines. Has that combo of coming from The Philippines, but living ages away in New Zealand helped to develop your style? Also, do you have plans for more Filipino food related content cos some of us would be really into that.

Thank you! Yes, my relationship with my cultural identity weighs into all areas of my life, including my art and the subjects I choose to depict. I have nearly always been away from The Philippines- my family immigrated to America when I was 3, then to New Zealand when I was 11 and we’ve been here ever since. Apart from one holiday to The Philippines when I was a teenager, I haven’t truly experienced life there. Like many children of immigrants, I’m disconnected from my roots and am trying to reconcile.

The watercolour series was me exploring unique things from my country as a means to reconnect. Even with food- I’m vegetarian. That’s pretty un-Filipino. Actually, the balut (fertilised duck egg, which I would never dare eat) was the most fun thing to paint. I’m very open to painting more Filipino food! It’s always delightful to see the reactions of people who are familiar it.


Which of your projects have helped to develop your style or focus?

Last year I had done some commissions here and there, some of which were tattoos. I really aspire to be a tattoo artist so at the time I was very concentrated on making flash-style work and it was amazing to see some on skin. I also got to make a tour poster for Hex’s American tour which was awesome.

I wouldn’t quite call them a client but things changed when I had begun making work to fundraise for Shakti. I will always continue to promote them. I’m dreaming & scheming collabs, though nothing is set in stone except for the fact that the work I want to make will continue to help and support minorities.


What did working with Shakti mean for you on a personal level?

The other year I was invited to a hui for Shakti where they discussed why they need funding. There were speakers who themselves were survivors of domestic abuse; Shakti helps victims who are trapped by old-fashioned social constructs of their cultures and in a country completely foreign to them.

As with trying to reconnect to my Filipino heritage, one day I began to think about what it means to be a woman of colour altogether. In all my life I never felt like I had been ‘owning it’, so to say. Though there are confusing identity crises that come with being an Asian who has integrated into white/Western culture very early in life, it is a privilege to be able to navigate that culture with ease and share my voice. It’s important to me to be proud of being a woman of colour in that landscape and to help women of colour to the best of my ability.


What advice would you have for anyone else who's struggling with navigating that tertiary art education space - as so many of us do!

This topic is pretty close to my heart. Full disclosure: I studied a year of Graphic Design at Massey University and I failed and it was soul-crushing. Never mind the pressure of making your immigrant parents’ sacrifices so that you could have a better future worth it. And also having racked up a student loan for nothing! It was jarring at the time to have to accept that formal study wasn’t for me, when I had been so studious growing up. But it has shaped my outlook for the better on making art for pleasure and kept me responsible for my own growth.

I would want to tell my younger self and anyone struggling in a tertiary environment that failure is not the end of the world and that formal education isn’t the only pathway in life. By all means, keep pushing yourself if you want those qualifications but also make things that you love and make you feel good, and people will see that in your work.


So with that in mind, what have you been working on most recently?

 My most recent drawings have mostly been for leisure; I’m just trying to explore colour and animation at the moment, and hopefully developing my style and skills along the way for bigger and better things to come. Almost all of my work is musically-inspired and/or directly correlates to songs I’ve been listening to on repeat. Usually I’m trying to convey a feeling that a lyric has given me. 


And lastly, what's on your drawing/painting/art creating playlist right now?

“Be Here Soon” - Imugi 이무기

“Everybody Here Hates You” - Courtney Barnett

“11th Dimension” - Julian Casablancas

“Television Man” - Talking Heads

“Internal Affairs” - The Night Flight Orchestra

Follow Francine Besas on Instagram and check out her website