A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: The Democratization of Art

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 February) — Of the estimated 1,500,000  inhabitants who  now reside in the various buildings, houses,  shacks and streets  of Davao City, I wonder what percentage of this sizable population know of Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol who? Perhaps just over 1,500? Or even less?

If one goes around the city and do a random survey of people on the streets asking – have you heard of Susana B? – I am pretty sure only a very  tiny percent could give a correct positive response. For the great majority a counter question would arise: Susana B who?

By now the reader must wonder: who are Andy W and Susana B? And, pray tell, what is the connection of Andy Warhol and Susana B?

Students of the PWC art school know that Andy W is perhaps one of the most celebrated visual artists who arose in the American art scene – especially pop art – in the 1960s.  All museums and art galleries in the world would do everything to have a Warhol in their collection. His Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe art pieces if sold in the market today can raise enough money to provide the needed housing of the thousands of flood victims in the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.  Andy W is also known as the artist who intuited the coming of the age of electronic media when each  person can have his 15 minutes of fame!

But the students of the PWC art school – unless they are students of Mr. Abraham Garcia Jr., Abe to his friends – may not know Susana B. The few who do will tell you that Susana B is not a person like Andy W. Susana B is a building; more precisely, it used to be the name of a building which stood along J.P. Laurel, very near where the street intersects with Villa Abrille (you know that juncture very near that hospital where patients are allowed to disappear into the labyrinths of their minds!).

Susana Building in the 1970s-80s was perhaps THE cradle of Davao City’s civil society, and even for the rest of Mindanao. Although, of course, no  one during  that period knew about the theory of civil society.  But if one were to  write the social history of Mindanao’s civil society movement, that researcher-writer will have to dig into the memories of those who were at Susana B during this era which covered most of the martial law years under Marcos.

Susana B of that era housed the offices of what we now casually refer to as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of which were faith-based; specifically those whose Boards represented the Catholic bishops of the dioceses located in Mindanao-Sulu.  These included the Banana Growers Foundation (which was the first to  set up an office at Susana B), the Mindanao Regional office of the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), the Mindanao-Sulu Secretariat of Social Action (MISSSA) and the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat (MSPCS). Later MISSSA and MSPCS merged into  just one office.

The first two were the original NGOs operating in the city. As they were connected  to groups and agencies in the city with projects among the rural and urban poor – including feeding programs, housing, community organizing and the early income-generating projects – they, in turn, gave birth to groups shifting into associations like Konsumo Davao and much later on the TACDRUP.  Meanwhile between MSPCS and MISSSA, various other groups arose including the Citizen’s Council for Justice and Peace (CCJP),  the Task Force Political Detainees (TFD) – Mindanao, the Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao (AFRIM) and the Mindanao-Sulu Conference for Justice and Development (MSCJD).

As the merged MSPCS covered a vast network of ministries – from relief and rehabilitation to empowerment of the Lumad, from creative dramatics to human rights advocacy, from community-based health to the organizing of oppressed groups – there soon arose all kinds of legal institutions championing the rights of all basic sectors and  providing all kinds of support to the organized sectors.  Name any NGO in Davao/Mindanao these days and surely they can all  fit into civil society’s genealogical tree. That’s Susana B’s claim to a significant location in Mindanao’s history; Susana B certainly deserves more than a footnote.

As to  the connection between Andy W and Susana B, one finds it in this quote that recently appeared online. Andy W’s words: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else  decide if its good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

This quote is most appropriate as post-EDSA I Philippines celebrate the National Month for Culture and the Arts. After Cory was installed President by People Power, the country paid  tribute to artists who helped depose the Marcos dictatorship by passing a law making February the month when the arts could flourish!  But truth be told, it was  the group of nationalist artists who made a difference during those tumultuous martial rule years,  not the elite ones of Imelda’s CCP.  Unfortunately, the State’s culture/arts institutions today are once  again run mostly by those from the elite.

Susana B was one locus of an arts movement geared towards the emancipation of the oppressed masses suffering  under the yoke  of an oppressive State supported by the imperialist you-know-who. This arts movement championed the kind of art that would advance  the deepening struggle for liberation. This flowering of art was seen in the murals that accompanied the people’s marches (a pity, most have not been preserved for posterity), the songs sang at rallies,  the theatre pieces mounted to conscientize the people, the political cartoons that found their way into mimeographed newsletters and poetry that were choreographed in martial arts movements.

Because of the urgency of advancing the struggle (where art pieces needed to be finished in record time), the inadequate money that could be budgeted for these artistic endeavors and the necessity to work as collectives, there was no room for visual art that an individual could leisurely work on. Besides  there was no money to buy art materials. And everyone frowned on art that had “burgis” tendencies (read: those which do not contribute to the emancipation of the oppressed masses!).

And, yes, there was another factor: members of the Susana B crowd who had inclinations to visual  art had not internalized the post-modern dictum of Andy W. even if they were already post-modern in their perspective of what art is and could be. After all, they were of the generation that began to popularize Lumad art embodied in the malong, tubaw, indigenous jewelry and the vast array of folk art at a time when everyone else looked down of them as having no value at all. They were beginning to feel confident as artists  when engaged in collective art – especially theatre – but when it came to visual art, they still thought only Nonoy Rodriguez had the K to call  himself artist.

Not until Saturday, February 4, 2012.

PAGMUGNA: Nurturing our Memories of Love – the group art exhibit involving a few of those connected to Susana B –   opened at the Bahaghari Art Gallery of Museo Dabawenyo  last February 4 in the afternoon and finally opened up a whole new horizon in the continuing democratization of art in Davao City. And of all people, Andy W is the guru that affirms this movement which seems ironic because in the 1970s-80s, not one of the artists of PAGMUGNA  would touch Andy W with a ten-foot pole.

This because when one of them  suggested  that they should explore the possibility of a group exhibit, a number thought this was preposterous as  they were not “artists” even if – in secret, fearful that their works would be panned even by the best of friends – they were already doing art. However, thanks to the muses who got mobilized, they still collectively decided to give it a try.

And dear reader, you might like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Go see PAGMUGNA; it is on exhibit until February 25.  You might be in for a surprise and your visit to the gallery might turn out to be a pleasant experience. There are ten visual artists involved in this exhibit including Nonoy Rodriguez (naturally, he has to lead the pack if only to lift the aesthetics of this exhibit to a level that Museo Dabawenyo’s administration could be proud of), Agnes Miclat Cacayan, Remy Guillena, Leila Noel-Rispens, Vel Engen, Pangging Santos, Malou Tiangco, Bitoy Carillo, Abe Garcia and yours truly. (Melot Balisalisa Atillo, Norma Javellana and Arnold Vandenbroeck helped in various aspects of the exhibit with Richard Belar as co-curator with Abe).

The art pieces range from soft landscape pastel paintings  to African-influenced acrylic pieces, from watercolor representational art to social realist pieces. There are also all kinds of mixed media with faded photographs laced with roses, a cabinet box with cubicles of all kinds of stuff including plastic soldiers and Itok’s famous pen-and-ink drawings that now  burst with colors!

And true to Andy W’s admonition,  those who view PAGMUGNA will make their own decisions whether these art pieces are good or bad and they’ll respond by way of loving or hating these pieces.

But meanwhile, the  ten artists have now been joined by a few more and they are – most definitely – into doing more art. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, is author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul,” and the recently-launched“Manobo Dreams in Arakan.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)