Located in Alief Spark Park and Nature Center are two shipping containers. They sit perpendicularly in a sprawling green field, one painted bold turmeric, the other a deep navy blue with two of its sides adorned by eye-catching murals. These containers make up Alief Art House, an artist-run space in Southwest Houston. At first glance, one might suspect that these fixtures are temporary, but they are slowly becoming a significant site in Houston’s International District.
Since opening in October 2019, AAH has hosted various art programs, including film screenings, performances, and rotating exhibitions. One side of the original navy container is open for graffiti artists to tag without repercussion, something visual artist and founder Matt Manalo saw as the perfect way to respond to the neighborhood’s creative spirit. “The whole idea is to make it safe and create a safe space where folks can come in and express themselves, no matter what time,” he says.
For Manalo, a Filipino immigrant whose family moved from Manila to the U.S. in 2004, building community has always been a priority. But being an artist wasn’t his first ambition. He started out on a path to pursue engineering but went on to get his BFA in painting from the University of Houston.
Manalo uses raw and repurposed materials to create abstract self-portraits in his multidisciplinary practice. Through these objects and artistic processes, he captures his experiences navigating the strangeness and trauma of immigration. The same year as building AAH, he cofounded the Filipinx Artists Collective, composed of several Houston-based contemporary artists who connect through Filipino culture and history. Manalo’s family has lived in Alief since relocating. Despite the community’s rich diversity (the area is a mixture of more than 130,000 residents of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin descent), living there as a teenager didn’t provide the artistic exposure that Manalo craved.
“I knew there were creative folks that lived here, but they always moved out. I felt alone because there wasn’t anything around,” Manalo says, standing inside AAH’s navy container. “Then I had the opportunity to propose that we bring the arts to Alief.”
With initial support from the Diverse Works Project Freeway Fellowship Program, AAH has seen steady expansion since its inception. From May 2020 through 2021, Manalo collaborated with Bronx-based artist Antonius-Tín Bui, who programmed many murals and exhibitions through INSTA11ATIONS — a citywide public art program facilitated by Art League Houston and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. In late 2021, AAH received its second container, which is under renovation to function as an office space.
“I think folks are still scared to learn about art and what it is,” Manalo says. “We put the Art House here to make it more accessible to the neighborhood. I think mixing art with wellness is what’s going to bring everyone together.”
The goal for Manalo is to make AAH as sustainable, hyperlocal, and eco-friendly as possible. He joined forces with Alief native Vanessa Lipscomb and her wellness-driven nonprofit, the WOW Project, in early 2021. More upgrades for the space will include a deck with seating and a community library and garden (nurtured by artist Ceci Norman) to produce art supplies such as inks, dyes, and beeswax crayons. The space will eventually be powered by solar panels and equipped with a rain barrel to collect water for the garden. And Manalo and his team look forward to finding new ways to enrich the area. “The people make Alief special. It’s known as the most diverse neighborhood in Houston. Everyone works together and are good neighbors,” he says. “In a way, it’s kind of the future of Houston.”
Not only does Alief Art House serve as a community art hub, but it offers evidence for the parents of young artists who need proof that a career in the arts is possible. The Art House encourages patrons from Houston’s famous art districts to expand their horizons and venture into less-frequented neighborhoods.
With more of Houston’s stars hailing from Alief, including pop sensation Lizzo and rising rapper Tobe Nwinge, the area is finally getting its due.