Breaking boundaries with Artwork in a Box: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan

By Aaron Butt/ Visual Arts
Artwork in a Box is a portable program whereby an artwork is taken out of the gallery environment and brought into classrooms. Developed by QUT Art Museum staff and sparked by QUT’s commitment to Widening Participation, the program breaks down the cultural accessibility barriers for low socioeconomic school students, making meaningful connections.

A sealed wooden crate stands in the centre of a classroom surrounded by high school students waiting in anticipation to find out exactly what’s inside. Pia Robinson, Widening Participation Programs Officer at QUT Art Museum and the William Robinson Gallery, asks “what do you think is in this box?”. “An animal!” is one of the common speculations. Two student volunteers open the crate with Allen keys and white gloves while their peers wait in excitement. Removing the vacuum sealed lid reveals a perspex box containing an unexpected object.

The artwork waiting to be discovered is Lodge: Another Country, created by international artists Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. It is a small ship made entirely from cardboard, stacked precariously with shanty dwellings and painted to appear rusty and perched on its side as if ‘lodged’.  The ‘artwork’ aspect of the Artwork in a box series links to QUT Art Museum’s vast art collection. Lodge Another Country is a commissioned sculpture inspired by QUT Art Collection work Refuge: Project: Another Country (2012), also by the Aquilizans.

Pictured: Artwork in a box: Aquilizan, Aviation High, 2017; and Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Refuge: Project: Another Country, 2012, wood and cardboard transport boxes. QUT Art Collection, purchased 2013. Image: Carl Warner. 

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan are married and work as a collaborative team. Originally from the Philippines, they moved to Australia in 2006 with their five children. However, their involvement in biennales, triennials and other art events around the globe have led to them being thought of and discussed as “true global citizens”1. Their work is predominantly project-based, ephemeral and participatory.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan at Woodford State High School, 2017

The Aquilizans engage with a diverse range of fabricators, installers, communities and young children. Having been teachers for 12 years, the Aquilizans have a strong interest in education and participation. Unlike more traditional art practices, the objects that result from the Aquilizans projects are not ‘precious’ or even central to their practice; in their own words, “[t]he most essential part of the project is working with the communities and the installers”2.

The Artwork in a box program is therefore a unique and valuable opportunity for students from regional and low socio-economic schools to experience meaningful cultural engagement activities in their classroom. Due to the nature of the Aquilizans’ work, it is rarely collected by any national or international public art institutions, making Artwork in a box a rare opportunity not only to see the Aquilizans’ work here in Australia, but to experience it intimately and in-depth. This partnership has a positive effect on the artists’ lives and the visual art industry on a local and national level.

Artwork in a box extends beyond a workshop centred around these successful artists due to the importance of the contributions from its participants. The students’ creations and their stories are not only valued but central to the Aquilizans’ life and work.  The focus on the artists’ own migration reminds students that their own journeys, no matter how big or small, are valuable and can inspire their own artworks.

Objects created by participants in these workshops often go on to form the Aquilizans’ forthcoming projects. For example, selected boats made by Widening Participation students in Artwork in a box formed a new work entitled Bagahe (baggage): Project Another Country in their recent exhibition Passing Through: Project Another Country at Caloundra Regional Gallery. In this work, creations made by Widening Participation students were suspended from a suitcase lodged in the rafters of the space, with narratives relating to the students’ personal journeys spilling out of an object designed for travel.

Pictured: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Bagahe (baggage): Project Another Country, 2017, handcrafted cardboard, packing tapes, Images: Carl Warner.

During the exhibition at Caloundra Regional Gallery, the Artwork in a box: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan program was incorporated into the exhibition in the gallery space, which was visited by over 3200 visitors who were able to engage with the program, make a boat and see the artwork. This partnership between Caloundra Regional Gallery and QUT Art Museum opened up the opportunity for the general public to participate in this program which is usually only experienced by Widening Participation schools.

Artwork in a box also provides the opportunity for students to role-play in jobs within the visual arts and cultural sectors, highlighting the different careers that students can aspire to. Prior to opening the crate, a range of career options such as curating, installing, education and art-making are discussed, with the workshop coordinator also sharing personal experiences of working in the visual art industry. Many students are surprised by the number of career choices in the visual arts. Following the discussion, students are invited to make their own boat from cardboard, adhesive and string, inspired by their own personal stories of journeys that they may have taken in their lives.

Artwork in a box: Aquilizan, Woodford State High School, 2017.
“Camera on the boat because I travelled to Papua New Guinea and took many pictures of everything”

As an assistant to Artwork in a box, I have enjoyed the anticipation of opening the box, the way that the program expands and challenges presumptions of working in the visual arts and, as a regional low-income student myself, sharing my experiences in the visual art industry.

Feedback from students reflects the multitude of levels on which the program operates. Responses range from a delight in the materials, such as “there are lots of different ways we can work with our materials”, to inspiration gained; “to be creative, to see art and interpret it my own way and to have fun”; to revelatory responses such as “if you think your dream is impossible, you can make it” and “you can make good out of bad if you know the right places to look.” Aspirations for tertiary education can be identified in comments such as “QUT can take my dreams anywhere” and “I want to go to QUT after school”3.

QUT Art Museum also offers the program Artwork in a box: William Robinson, based on William Robinson’s extensive sketchbooks combined with a farm animal, multi-point perspective life drawing exercise. Schools can visit the University and take a tour of the William Robinson Gallery at Old Government House, the only public gallery in Australia dedicated to a single living artist’s work. QUT Precincts has recently acquired the artwork Lodge: Another Country, securing Artwork in a box: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan for future students to experience.

QUT’s Widening Participation Programs are funded by the Australia Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP).

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Lodge: Another Country 2014, cardboard, wood, paint. Courtesy the artists and Fruitjuice Factory Studio.


Article by Aaron Butt

1 Van Ooyen, Vanessa 2013. Introduction in FRAGMENTS ANOTHER COUNTRY: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, edited by QUT Art Museum, 3-5. Brisbane: QUT Art Museum

2  Artwork in a box: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan Survey Comments, 2017 (unpublished). Hoffie, Pat. 2013. “THE FRUIT JUICE FACTORY STUDIO: Mixing, re-combining, getting to the essence” in FRAGMENTS ANOTHER COUNTRY: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, edited by QUT Art Museum, 3-5. Brisbane: QUT Art Museum.

3  Artwork in a box: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan Survey Comments, 2017 (unpublished).