In the wake of the Philippines’ second deadliest typhoon, the nation’s artistic community is using creativity to counter devastation.
Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, was a powerful tropical cyclone that hit parts of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, in early November 2013. The super typhoon caused more than six thousand deaths and left millions homeless and internally displaced. Now the country’s artists are using art to alleviate people’s suffering.
Artists lead philanthropic initiatives
Art for fundraising
Following the disaster wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, Filipino artists and the wider creative community have come out in large numbers to support relief efforts by organising fundraising drives, auctioning artworks, donating proceeds from exhibitions and a variety of other events.
98B, an alternative art group in Manila headed by artist Mark Salvatus, organised a donation drive during the collective’s monthly market in November. Participants donated 10-100 percent of their proceeds to reliable agencies and all donors received a sticker designed by Anjo Bolarda depicting the resilience of the Filipino community amidst disaster. Mark Salvatus told Art Radar that “this is a small way in which artists can share whatever they have, to uplift Filipino spirits, even if it’s not monetary in value.”
Bookshop Fully Booked co-ordinated the Art with Heart silent auction, wherein over sixty artists gathered to draw and paint live, raising nearly PHP300,000 in one afternoon. Seventh Films organised a weekend film festival, Rescue Cinema, with free admission but encouraging donations of any amount. Habitat Youth Council teamed up with Filipino designer Kenneth Cobonpue, who created a series of limited edition centrepiece lamps called First Light to help raise funds for Habitat for Humanity Philippines. Habitat Youth Council’s Vice President, Simon Tantoco, told The Philippine Star:
The Habitat Youth Council has built over 500 houses to date. With Kenneth Cobonpue’s aid, we are able to build more, at a time where the people of Visayas need us the most.
Mobilising artists through the internet
Geographic barriers were set aside as the virtual world came together for a common cause. For those in other parts of the Philippines who could not go to the affected areas to directly offer assistance, the internet provided a way to contribute. Artist and designer Robert Alejandro offered to do portraits for the highest bidders anywhere in the world, with all proceeds going towards relief efforts. Photographer Geloy Concepcion spearheaded Art Para sa Lahat (Art for All) from his Facebook account, inviting artists to donate works for sale. Similar endeavours were made by The Philippine Star newspaper, non-profit organisation Art Works: Para sa Bisayas, and Silverlens Gallery’s Art Flood 2013, which also organised online art sales. Other Facebook pages and blogs such as Art for Haiyan collated various artist efforts to help Haiyan victims as a single list for potential donors and buyers to know the options they could get involved with.
Internet-based or publicised drives also provided a way for Filipino artists in the diaspora as well as international artists to get involved. Artists such as Hannah Reyes, Sandra Dans and Regine David contributed works for auction or sale.
California-based internet company Design by Humans collaborated with local Filipino artists like Catherine Jose (Pinkstorm), Anthony Brian Villafuerte (Zerobriant) and Jerry Maninang (dzeri29) to create t-shirts for fundraising. Managing partner of Design by Humans, Jeff Sierra, said in the press release that “despite the geographic space that separates us all, now is the time to come together.”
Art as therapy
With many measures in place to raise funds for relief operations, another aspect that required attention was the psychological rehabilitation of survivors, to enable them to deal with the traumatic events. Radel Paredes, artist and professor at University of San Carlos in Cebu, organised debriefings on using art as therapy with guidance from Manila-based clinical psychologist Peachy Gonzales-Fernando. Through this, the survivors, especially children, can use drawing and artistic expression as a way to come to terms with and understand their emotional distress. Working in a group helps combat feelings of isolation. Such endeavours also aim to involve the local artistic community, which may not be able to afford monetary assistance, in relief and rehabilitation efforts.
Culinary arts: What better way to exhibit?
Veteran photographer Alejandro ‘Alex’ Baluyut chose a less conventional way of assisting the survivors. He set up at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, where survivors were being flown to, and has been cooking a variety of homely comfort food for them, as well as for other volunteers and military servicemen. He calls this the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, which has been open around-the-clock to provide free meals.
Baluyut told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the Kitchen was born of an idea to provide photographers access to a disaster zone, which many otherwise find difficult unless they are commissioned as volunteers by an organisation such as the Red Cross. Often, photographers covering these areas end up among those looking for food. His project involves “voluntary cooks who are also photographers” setting up base in a disaster area. From there they can create a self-sustaining environment that helps the survivors, as well as provides an opportunity for photographers to document the calamity. The response to the project was enthusiastic, with fellow artists pitching in with money, equipment and their services. Students from culinary schools also joined in.
Balayut hoped for the project to serve as a platform for the exchange of ideas, leading to new ideas and paradigms from a simple thing like cooking. He was quoted on the Interaksyon Lifestyle website as saying:
I have noticed that there [are] a lot of [people] who want to cook. Not just the artists but also Filipino men and women who are cooks and are always looking for a place where they can cook. Since culinary arts is also an art, what better way to exhibit, right?
After three weeks at Villamor, the Kitchen is moving to Tacloban in Leyte province, one of the worst affected areas, where aid is badly needed.
Artistic responses and art practice
Art as reflection
Art is a way to think through the events and changes in the world. Contemporary artists often use their work to comment on socio-cultural and political issues. A disaster of the magnitude of Typhoon Haiyan, therefore, has resonated with Filipino artists – even those who live abroad – at a personal level.
Mark Salvatus and San Francisco-based artist Stephanie Syjuco were prepared to present a project and workshops in Manila with Media/Art Kitchen, but their plans were disrupted by the typhoon. In a response to this, they altered their plan and instead presented a project titled Re-mediation Lab. Mark Salvatus told Art Radar:
Together with young artists and designers, we collaborated on a laboratory responding to the current catastrophe within the idea of re-examination of our surroundings, and the use of ingenuity in the use and design of available materials for survival constructions and emergency solutions.
Goldie Poblador, a Filipino installation artist currently residing in Rhode Island, USA, was also deeply affected and created several pieces dealing with the concept of death. In an email to Art Radar, she said:
I was working around the concept of lament poetry, and the difference of the lament over mass death compared to the personal. I created several pieces that reacted to different varieties of death, narrative and faith in the context of the personal, and the historical.
Poblador stages her own funeral as an installation after seeing hundreds of body bags on television, in an attempt to portray the struggle of surviving while others back home were dying. Another self-portrait depicts her drowning, which is considered the most painful death, in commemoration of those who died by drowning on the day of the storm.
La Paloma, a performance piece, is a visual depiction of the song with the same name by Sebastian Yradier. Passed on from generation to generation in Poblador’s family, the song is about love and hope in the face of tribulation. Poblador sings the Filipino version accompanied by a musician. She said of the performance:
The tableau involves artefacts from family history, sculpted glass jewellery and materials used to build shanties. (…) The female figure in the background is the Goddess of Love, dressed in traditional Filipino clothing. The song is about a lover who would tie messages to her loved one onto a dove in order to find out if he is alive. I was inspired to stage this performance after watching several stories on the news about families awaiting news about the survival of their loved ones in the storm.
Will the Filipino art scene change?
The Philippines is, because of its geographical location, vulnerable to natural calamities and faces many typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters each year. However, super typhoon Haiyan has been the most devastating typhoon since 1881, directly affecting thousands of people and also indirectly influencing others. The uniting of the art community is a reminder of this. As New York-based Filipino photographer Regine David said:
The idea that the art community can get together to benefit others – that art isn’t necessarily lofty or out of touch with reality – should have a positive effect on our community and the general public. (…) If donating our artwork encourages others to donate more than we can afford to give, then that’s something, right?
Mark Salvatus acknowledges the vulnerability of his country, but he believes in the strength and resilience of Filipinos in the eye of a storm.
We have to admit that we live in one of the most dangerous places in terms of natural disasters – third, to be exact, after Tonga and Vanuatu. We will continue to survive and adapt – and that is also for the art scene in the Philippines, in my opinion.
For Goldie Poblador, the calamity was a reminder of the arbitrariness of such a tragedy, and the role of art in making sense of it. She said:
I think any event as big as this disaster not only changes the art world, but the entire society [is] affected. If nothing is changed, that would be disappointing. Art sometimes is the most fitting way that cultures can deal with the unexplainable and unfortunate circumstances of life. Personally, my practice has shifted a lot and it has become important for me to process this and portray my culture in ways that are free from the common portrayals that people experience through the media.
- Ateneo Art Awards: Reflecting on 10 years of Filipino contemporary art – December 2013 – organisers of the Ateneo Art Awards discuss the vibrant art scene and promising artists in the Philippines
- 10 Filipino artists you need to know now – The Spot – July 2013 – young and talented, but are they truly Filipino?
- Re-imagining the future with Filipino artist Mark Salvatus – interview – July 2013 – former Ateneo Award winner Salvatus keeps his feet firmly on the ground
- Seattle-based Japanese artist Yuri Kinoshita commemorates Tohoku disaster with Woven Tea House – January 2013 – the artist’s portable tea house installation honours her home country
- Horrific events in Japan and how art helps – ART IT columnist Kyoichi Tsuzuki – June 2011 – the artist reflects on the 2011 earthquake in Japan and discusses the role of art in the face of disaster
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