Essay: Annie Brockenhuus-Schackon Kapwa

Kapwa: A Three Card Spread

Mum has been gardening, a hobby since her teaching days in Atimonan. She stops at my window, peering up from beneath the wide brim of dad’s Akubra hat, to ask if I can help her log onto a Zoom meeting with her fellow sisters from Handmaids of the Lord. She spots a tarot deck on my bed.

‘Aba! What is that?’


‘Ay nako. You don’t depend on them. Don’t forget to pray. Do you pray?’

This is the extent of my conversations with my mum concerning tarot. My mum shirks any suggestions that she is superstitious. She has faith in God, so what is the point of indulging unknown fears? She goes on about how I had a good Catholic upbringing. Church every weekend, regular prayer meetings, and attending a Catholic high school – at least until Year 10, when I transferred to a performing arts high school.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in this iteration of lockdown, I’m at home at my parents’ place in Campbelltown and I’m shuffling cards. I spend time each year looking through old journal entries, which lead me to realise how much stays the same: negative self-talk and overall frustration with navigating the world. The narratives and experiences that have framed my sense of self growing up, the way I treated myself when I started becoming chronically sick and ‘unproductive’, these left me looking elsewhere to rewire thought patterns.

Tarot is a tool that I have been using on a daily basis for a few years now. Each card drawn is a bridge to universal archetypes and begins an intuitive conversation between the universe and myself. These are gentle reminders that I am connected to ancestors and guides. To me, tarot isn’t necessarily predicting futures. Rather, to draw cards is to perform acts of care, acts that let me explore forms of nourishment.

Jana Lynne Umipig-Lawag Nakem’s Kapwa Tarot arrived in my hands during the beginning of lockdown in 2020. Umipig-Lawag Nakem is an Ilocano-born American artist, educator, and activist whose intention is to connect the human experience and spirit between all communities. Kapwa Tarot draws from her process of incorporating pre-colonial Filipinx myth and symbolism into a tarot deck. The appearance of the cards in my life coincided with the launch of a writers’ room I helped set up, a room that started with five female and non-binary Filipinx Australian creatives and is slowly expanding. We now call ourselves Ka-llective.

This deck of cards has contributed a pathway to my understanding of the Filipino social value of kapwa (shared self) and Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino Psychology) more broadly. It has helped me consider and articulate my practice with tarot as one that emphasises bahala na (whatever happens, happens), a way to value determination and risk-taking in facing and overcoming the situations of the day ahead. The cards have brought to Ka-llective sessions an openness to interpretation. I’ve been drawing cards as I write this essay, the cards introducing contingency, as I map fragments of a much larger and exposed process. Three cards are my guideposts along a journey.

Image from Jana Lynne Umipig-Lawag Nakem’s Kapwa Tarot. Used with permission.


The Bathala card depicts a creation story from Philippine mythology. A battle of who would rule the universe in which the ancient Tagalog god, Bathala, wins a fight with the serpent god of the clouds, Ulilang Kaluluwa (Orphaned Spirit). Its equivalent in the traditional Smith-Rider Waite decks is The Emperor, and depictions and interpretations are largely centred around cis-gendered masculinity and its toxicity in contemporary culture. This, however, is part of a larger debate of how we construct meaning from signifiers that have a history of heteronormativity. The cards can be representative of any gender and carry energies that exist within all of us to varying degrees. Instead, Bathala is an invitation to look into how we can take up space as ourselves in ways that are sustainable.

Growing up, I would misinterpret bahala na when I heard phrases like bahala ka na (it’s up to you) carried in tones of anger and annoyance, often followed by the feeling of my stomach dropping, realising you’re in shit if you don’t follow the rules. Bathala, the creator of all things, is considered to have extensive kindness and a compassionate nature that encouraged humans to act with courage. From this stemmed the bahala na outlook of ‘let the future care’ or ‘leave everything up to God’. Some see this unwavering resignation or faith as bad for the mental health of Filipinos but this perspective is likely skewed by an ingrained colonial mentality due to harmful stereotypes. And yet, to leave things to God requires a level of faith, acceptance and courage to inherently trust and hand over control that was never ours to begin with.

Sikolohiyang Pilipino was developed by Dr Virigilio Enriquez in the 1960s. It recentres the Filipino perspective on Filipino thought and experience, instead of interpretations filtered through the lens of Western theories. It includes Indigenous Filipino concepts which can be useful in addressing and healing historical trauma and colonial mentality. A core concept of Sikolohiyang Pilipino is kapwa which is imperfectly expressed in English as a ‘recognition of shared identity, an inner self shared with others’. Enriquez suggested that Filipinos are not as concerned with pakikisama, which is maintaining smooth interpersonal relationships, than they are with pakikipagkapwa and treating the other person as kapwa. Here the ako (ego) and iba-sa-akin (others) are one and the same: hindi ako iba sa aking kapwa (I am no different from others). Kapwa represents an ideal of collectivism and group welfare. Once ako starts thinking of themselves outside or separate from kapwa, individualism starts to occur with the self and denies the status of kapwa to the other, and by extension, kapwa is denied to the self.

Having Bathala as the first card drawn is an invitation to recognise the foundations in which we interact with, and move through the world. What is our relationship to masculine energy? Are the structures we have built over time still solid? How are you finding a sense of compassion and flexibility in your lived experiences? Are there particular power struggles that keep coming up? Do we need to reassess our boundaries and/or hold people accountable?

The Philippines has endured colonisation by multiple countries since the sixteenth century, resulting in the internalisation of Western beliefs and values, poverty and exploitation of land and non-human resources. The United States’ involvement in the Philippines began in 1898, a foundation of colonisation followed by militarism. While discourse emerging from the Fil-Am community is useful in starting to unpack diasporic identity, aspects of it feel a little intense in comparison to the Filipino-Australian experience. Conversations about so-called ‘SCF Syndrome’ in people who distance themselves from their Filipino heritage by prioritising being Spanish, Chinese or Hawaiian identity are hard to relate to in an Australian diasporic context, and so too are the ones about relationships to First Nations cultures in America.

Umipig-Lawag Nakem’s deck raises more questions than answers, including how the context of interpretation changes when being part of a diaspora. As a second generation Filipina-Dane, living on unceded Dharawal land and in a process of unlearning colonial mentality, I grapple with the ethical, epistemological, methodological and communicative challenges of interpreting cards from a global diaspora. Or at least, I feel hypersensitive about it.

There are days where it feels like none of the cards resonate. Pre-colonial Pilipinx knowledge wasn’t really passed down to me through my mum or extended family. Rather, it has been sought out through friends, artists, and connections to the Fil-Am diaspora. Umipig-Lawag Nakem’s artwork and booklet are full of decolonial imagery and language specific to the Filipinx experience – but they don’t speak to the continued fight of First Nations folks in this country. It’s been baby steps taking time to learn more about my heritage and process how I feel about things. Drawing Bathala first up feels like a reminder that it’s ok to accept where I’m at. That I’m not supposed to have all the answers. But maybe I can add nuance to a pre-existing conversation, and that’s ok.

Image from Jana Lynne Umipig-Lawag Nakem’s Kapwa Tarot. Used with permission.


Dalawa ng Rattan is the Two of Wands equivalent in tarot and has been a recurring card in other decks I use. It shows the divine touching the eyes of a human being opening them to see beyond the horizon. A rattan stick in each hand, gayaman (centipedes) and snakes suggest the path forward is protected and supported. For a card that resembles forward movement and momentum, it feels counterintuitive to conceptualise because at the time of writing, New South Wales has been in lockdown for a couple of months, daylight savings has just started and time feels relative and jarring. Perhaps time can be reframed with tarot. The cards let me recognise a non-linear, process-based and spirallic nature, as well as myths, and memories. Kapwa too, encourages process-driven and activist work at its core, although progress will often look slower to outcome-driven eyes.

I hear the question thrown around a lot in the arts: do we work within the system to dismantle and change it or do we create our own? Poet and organiser Eunice Andrada’s 4A Paper, ‘Community as a space beyond struggle’, notes that institutional spaces are not reliable because those in power of key decision-making do not understand what we need—only we do. It is through the coming together of people, often from situations born of struggle, that we have the opportunity to create a space beyond that struggle.

Coloniality: a matrix of power producing hierarchies; capital; maintains a regime of exploitation and domination; exclusionary in nature creating dichotomous logic and binary perception of the world without the consideration of nuance; stems from the boundaries of privilege and perception to create a shifting context of the Other; values easily legible narratives of non-white artists; control is maintained through narrowing narratives and imbuing with racial stereotypes; or perhaps more insidiously, these narratives speak to the desire to seek authenticity over multiplicity, which in turn holds non-white artists to Western markers of what ‘authenticity’ means. Any challenge to the broader framework is thus met with the insinuation of equality through the celebration of a select few of Other artists as token achievers.

Terms such as ‘diversity’ are considered white concepts and maintain hegemonic structures because they make sense of difference through a white lens. Moving towards kapwa is a recognition that we can no longer tolerate spaces that do not accept our whole selves, and that the presence of such spaces are rare. In conversations with artists within the Filipinx diaspora, and in the essays we write, I encounter frustration about misrepresentation, fatigue with negotiating spaces, with having to justify ourselves and our existence in space. Dalawa Ng Rattan invites us to step outside of our comfort zones, to utilise our passion and ready ourselves for risk and newness. Kapwa opens the possibility of a social order that emphasises participation, challenges power, and spans disciplines. The creation of self-determined spaces such as Ka-llective become acts of resistance.

Ka-llective is a theatre production company seeking to connect, empower and cultivate awareness around the rich experiences of what it means to be Asian-Australian. The Baybayin letter Ka means ‘kinship we seek’ and so our practice involves cultivating collaborative spaces for creatives of colour to tell stories that reclaim our agency within the cultural landscape. We’re invested in continual learning around non-Western processes of artistic production and story making, and through that we develop our own unique methodologies.

We’re in development for a new theatre work called Salt Baby, a story rooted in the exploration of emotional labour, a story that questions the implications of capitalising on relationships. Each of us have varied multidisciplinary creative backgrounds, and when we started off our sessions were based on a television writers’ room structure. Traditionally, those writers’ rooms are hierarchical. We quickly realised if we wanted to use the space as a means of learning from one another, having a hierarchy wasn’t going to cut it.

I drew cards from the Kapwa Tarot deck and read their meanings over Zoom to centre the group and to start Ka-llective sessions. Together we witnessed the alignment or synchronicities that come through collaborative work. Often the cards reflect our current state or the overall mood of the work we were working towards. Kapwa is a means of deepening our connections with one another, which in turn provides the foundation for processing and healing trauma in our lives and history. At its fullest, it can be likened to a closeness so tight that members of the community are able to sense each other’s emotions and thoughts by feeling and reading non-verbal cues. With Ka-llective, kapwa came to signify the bond we share as creative practitioners and friends. The concept captures the way we hold space for one another and the deep listening and acceptance that follows. This experience made me wonder in what ways the concept of kapwa could inform curatorial practice and became the basis of my Master’s thesis last year.

Kapwa sometimes sounds too good to be true. A state of flow that suggests everyone functions as one akin to wholeness as synergistic relationality, in which ontologically the relationship among entities is more fundamental than the parts themselves. You’ve only got to remember that one group assignment from high school or undergrad where it felt too chaotic and divisions of labour were unequal to doubt the possibility of kapwa. To sustain the notion of kapwa in practice, at least in an Australian context that models itself on Western values of individualism, is hard. It takes concerted effort, patience, and asks us to explore the effects of our colonial mentality relationally.

Kapwa is a concept attuned to tending to space and creating the conditions for cohabitation. Invoking kapwa serves as a reprieve when attempting the balancing act of curating and dealing with chaos and ambiguity. Perhaps the benefit of kapwa comes from shifting the perspective of a performance as the final result, towards a process that mutually sustains artists. Yet, the emphasis on community and responsibility to one another does not mean that herd mentality prevails.

In the writers’ room, as we developed a space that was open and supportive, we sought to feel whole within ourselves and our connections, and empowered to disagree with one another, and ask more questions to seek resolutions that benefited the project. There was an understanding that we were all striving towards a common goal of creating a story together, and therefore criticisms and questions emerged as a means to develop the work and encourage a reflexivity about our own processes. It became a shared imperative to listen, acknowledge, and call each other in for our perspectives to grow.

I think about the halfway-point of the project. We had decided on a concept but the direction brought up some trepidation within me. I reflected on my own biases, on the patterns influencing my feelings and wondered if it was worth shaking the boat. Similar thoughts were emerging from individual discussions and I realised that if we do not speak up, we are only hurting ourselves which would consequently reflect in how we show up in tending to the space.

As Ka-llective’s residencies transitioned online and our creative team started growing, discussions around how we operate are brought up and worked through. Who gets to make final decisions? Could we start to let go of roles we’re so used to embodying in group dynamics? In what ways can we pace ourselves with development and also prioritise tending to ourselves and each other? We’re still learning what kapwa in practice feels like to make theatre.

All this said, I am wary of essentialism. I do share the concerns that some have voiced about kapwa posing as an idealistic solution to systemic issues and collaboration. There is no easy resolution, particularly when there are continued struggles between Philippine national interests and neo-liberal globalising forces.

I’m not an authority on kapwa and am comparatively quite early in my research journey around it, but I get suspicious over cure-all claims particularly when it comes to people and collaboration. Cults and MLM schemes are too real.

Image from Jana Lynne Umipig-Lawag Nakem’s Kapwa Tarot. Used with permission.


A reminder of everything we need to co-create: kapwa tao (person as kin); multiple outstretched hands from spirit hold the individuals in support; the four Earthly elements are in the arms, balahibo ng ibon (the feather) representing air and thought patterns, balat (the shells) representing water and emotions, binhi (the seeds) representing earth and materiality, rattan (the rattan plant/kali stick) representing fire and driving motivation. Kapwa is depicted as The World, the final card in the Major Arcana: the completion of cycles and celebration of achievement; a celebration in the recognition of wholeness within ourselves; an understanding that separation is an illusion concealing the truth of interconnectedness. By being centred in ourselves, we are able to move through the world in a way that supports the people and communities around us.

The Kapwa card bookends this reading by inviting us to acknowledge where kapwa exists in our lives and the possibilities of how and where it could be cultivated. If in kapwa, we are all parts that create a whole, then we can come to understand maintenance and growth are in support of careful tending. Attributed to kapwa is the responsibility of looking after one another. Everywhere we look we are entangled in and with materialities. They have constituted reciprocal relationships between humans and non-humans. Global crises such as climate change have forced us to notice the rapid changes taking place, making it more difficult to discern boundaries between humans and non-humans. In her interview with The Australian Filipina, writer and educator Merlinda Bobis notes that the planet is our shared home and our survival depends on recognising kapwa underpinned by care and kindness with non-humans. Kapwa includes both the human and non-human, and works recognising itself as the antithesis of Western individualism and dichotomous logic. If we are to embrace kapwa, we must understand that to decolonise is to decolonise knowledge.

Kapwa is a decolonial framework in that it aligns with pre-colonial Pilipinx knowledge. It’s a concept that suggests a re-centring of relations among humans with non-humans to include connections to land and to further acknowledge that our ancestors are included within the relational network. It suggests an embodiment that involves becoming whole within oneself and further extending that wholeness outwards. Scholar Dr Leny Strobel recognises the process of decolonising as a spiritual one, through a ‘cultural revalidation’ of re-discovering and reclaiming pre-colonial Pilipinx identity and narratives. By incorporating a criticality with kapwa, the individual is empowered to operate outside of hegemonic structures that perpetuate colonial domination. It is also a process of cultivating connections between people, cultures, places, environments, history, and spirituality.

Umipig-Lawag Nakem refers to her process of creating Kapwa Tarot in its corresponding booklet as re-membering of knowledge with her whole self. It implicates conceptualisations that allow us to re-think knowledge production, not as artist or author as sole genius, but rather acknowledges an entangled process with ancestors and heritage. This idea is not new either, anyone who has read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic can probably grasp the idea of creativity as co-creating with forces bigger than us. To me, it makes sense to use tarot as a medium to draw attention to the continual and ever-evolving interchange of energy between humans and non-humans, a circulation of the energies of the cards and attempt to integrate the process in my writing.

Do I pray? Maybe not necessarily in the ways that Catholicism has taught me. Tarot happens to be a medium in which to think about concepts like kapwa and Sikolohiyang Pilipino more broadly. To attempt to map energies, patterns and engage with ancestors, with spirits, with the universe at large. They are tools and resources to approach myself and my creative practice reflexively. Processes to show up as my full self. Invitations to encourage human interaction and reconnection in the world and the universe. To collaborate in ways that are sustainable to each participant’s growth. Perhaps it is the desire to dig a little deeper in thought, questioning and progressively embodying elements of myself, once or twice discarded so I can show up in ways that are kinder to myself and the world around me. The more I worked with the cards, the more I noticed a shift in the way I talked to myself, temperance in reactivity to my healing body, to the way my body carried itself through the world, to start letting go of expectations. Kapwa underpins sustained care to one another and encourages that we recognise sharing this world beyond just human folks and to make space and meet each other where we’re at. As we start moving towards a post-pandemic world, maybe we start noticing that we are not separate from one another and start listening.

Note on Terminology

At the time of writing, ‘P/Filipino/a/x’ is a preferred term and in the essay, these terms are used interchangeably.

Works Cited

Andrada, E., 2020, ‘Community as a space beyond struggle’, 4A Papers, vol. 9.

Calvert, V., 2021, ‘Focus: The Kindness of Birds, book by Dr Merlinda Bobis’, The Australian Filipina.

David, E. J. R., 2013, Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino-/American Postcolonial Psychology, Information Age Publishing Incorporated, North Carolina.

Desai, M., 2016, ‘Critical Kapwa: Possibilities of Collective Healing from Colonial Trauma’. Educational Perspectives, vol. 48, no. 1-2, pp. 34-40

Pe-Pua, R. & Protacio-Marcelino, E., 2000, ‘Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez’’, Asian Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 3, pp. 47-71.

Sousa, L. P. Q. & Pessoa, R. R., 2019, ‘Humans, Nonhuman Others, Matter and Language: A Discussion From Posthumanist and Decolonial Perspectives’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada, vol. 58, no. 2.

Strobel, L. M., 2005, A book of her own: Words and images to honor the babaylan, Tiboli Publishing, California.

Umipig-Lawag Nakem, J. L., 2017, Kapwa Tarot series, inkjet print on card, 10×15.3cm, courtesy of the artist.