Coffee Lab partners with local art organization Sinag to celebrate AAPI Month


Kunjal Bastola/The Daily Northwestern

These walls of Coffee Lab are decorated with art made by Sinag members to honor AAPI month.

Marissa Domantay has been an artist for as long as she can remember. 

“I’ve just always been drawing,” Domantay said. “My dad said I always drew on the walls, so I guess my art just started when I was a little baby.”

Domantay originally went to school as a math major, minoring in art, but switched to majoring in art and minoring in math by graduation. Domantay said she always had an interest in digital art and drawing, and started drawing on Nintendo 3DS.

Domantay’s skills have grown since her 3DS days. She now uses her iPad and Procreate to create her art, which ranges from Filipino-inspired graphic designs to digital drawings of mushroom forests. 

Now, her work is exhibited in the Sinag art exhibit at Evanston’s Coffee Lab. Sinag is a Filipino-American artists organization, and the shop will display the exhibit for all of May to celebrate Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.

Geraldine Martinez-Benz founded Sinag during the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2021 to foster community among Filipino artists in the U.S. Martinez-Benz herself is a painter and moved to Evanston from the Philippines 20 years ago. 

“Before (Sinag), I didn’t even know other Filipino artists personally,” Martinez-Benz said. “I just read about them.”

This is the first year Sinag has hosted an art exhibit in Coffee Lab. Martinez-Benz said she wanted to collaborate with Coffee Lab after learning its owner, Daniel Aquino, is Filipino. 

Martinez-Benz said she hopes the exhibit helps build awareness of the Filipino artist community in the Chicago area. 

“When (people) meet Filipinos, they always immediately assume we’re nurses,” Martinez-Benz said. “But there’s artists also. It’s a different look for Filipinos.”

Another artist featured in the exhibit is Jose Aggari, a Filipino-American artist who works with nature to inspire his artwork. 

Aggari said he uses a painting technique called Kut-Kut –– which he didn’t even know was a Philippine technique until recently.

For him, celebrating AAPI art is important because it’s a way to embrace a shared culture by providing a voice for the AAPI community. 

“There’s so much injustice, discrimination and violence going on against the AAPI community, and we do respond to that and we try to help each other out, one way or another, through art,” he said. “It’s very difficult, at times, to deal with, but at least we’re out there, and we’re making a voice within our community.” 

Through Sinag, Domantay and other members visited the Field Museum and learned about Filipino history by examining fabrics, pottery and other artifacts. Domantay said she and other Sinag members also volunteer with the Filipino American Historical Society of Chicago.

Martinez-Benz said she wanted to create a space to celebrate the art and contributions of Filipino Americans when she founded Sinag. She said –– in addition to the Coffee Lab exhibit –– Sinag is part of other AAPI month events including the Evanston Umbrella Arts Festival. 

Martinez-Benz said she’s noticed increasing awareness of Asian artists in the Chicago area, which she hopes will continue. In April 2024, Sinag will host a gallery at the Evanston Art Center. 

Domantay said she is grateful to be part of Sinag, which shows the depth of Filipino culture through art. 

“I feel like AAPI representation has only been more present in the more recent years,” Domantay said. “Showing we’re outside of stereotypes is very important.”

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