A look at the collective that makes protest art and the government that inspires it.
O n July 22, at Commonwealth Avenue, a bulky work of art that took about a month to make will get destroyed in a matter of minutes—and its creators wouldn’t have it any other way.
That, at least, was what I’ve been told on Wednesday afternoon in Quezon City.
I was at an apartment complex in Diliman. I was sitting at an open-air lounge where words came at me challenged by the sounds of car horns, carpentry, and mosh-worthy rock music. Before me, an ashtray was slowly being filled by the crushed remains of cigarettes and around it were a group of people dressed for manual labor. A lot of them looked exhausted; some of them had hands dirtied with paint.
These are the members of the UGATLahi Artist Collective and when I met them for the first time, they were in the middle of a project. At a garage a room away from where we were, members of the group were working on a protest piece called “Duter-syokoy,” a somewhat 13 x 20 effigy which will depict the incumbent Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as a malevolent creature of the sea. It will have four limbs, or so its concept photo suggests, and its hands will be holding items that the group deemed symbolic of all the controversial aspects of his presidency: from a gun to a bag of cash.
When I saw it that day, it was still in the early stages of construction. Only time will tell if all the plans for it will push through. The group assured me, however, that they will be spending much of the succeeding days to complete it. And come the 22nd, at an expectedly massive protest coinciding with Mr. Duterte’s 4th State of the Nation Address (SONA,) this piece will be presented to the public, paraded at Commonwealth Avenue and ultimately burned.
“Dapat talaga sunugin ito, [It really needs to get burned]” said Ides Macapanpan, one of the senior members of the group. It’s a necessary gesture, she explained, an act meant to express their anger towards the current administration. And to this, I remember asking: “wouldn’t you feel bad for destroying something that will take a lot of effort to make?”
Her answer, mirrored by other members of the group, was a simple “no.” But when they expounded on it, the result was much more complex—an unintended profile of an organization that’s been around for about 27 years.
S ince its foundation, UGATLahi has made a name for itself as a creator of “art for the masses;” this includes effigies prominently burned at major protest rallies in Metro Manila.
It was formed in 1992, said one of its senior members, Max Santiago, and since then, it has made caricatures of national leaders. When former President Gloria Arroyo was accused of corruption, UGATLahi made an effigy that portrayed her as a manananggal (a vampire-like creature in local folklore.) When former President Benigno Aquino III promised to improve the country after he got elected, the group, through its art, challenged him to keep his word; they created a large sculpture of him as a magician, one that asked whether he’ll be a Harry Potter or a Lord Voldemort. Last year, UGATLahi made international news because of the highly divisive United States President Donald Trump. When the US head-of-state came to the country, the art collective and other rights groups met his visit with an aggressive rally and giant fidget spinner with his face on it.
“Nakilala kami sa paggawa ng protest art [We were known for making protest art,]” said Santiago and it retains this identity to this day even as its members continue to change.
During the early years of the organization, a great number of its members came from the University of Santo Tomas. These days, however, Macapanpan clarified that it is now composed mostly of students from the University of the Philippines Diliman.
This change notwithstanding, its mandate remains the same: to use art as a way to reflect the national situation and point out the shortcomings of the Philippine government. Equally unchanged is its identity as an operation powered by volunteerism: its materials, donations from students and working artists; its manpower, a group of unpaid workers composed of undergrads, professionals, and longtime activists.
“Walang bayad to eh [We don’t get paid,]” said Macapanpan. And as a result, it inadvertently developed a community that requires its members to have certain virtues.
I may have caught a glimpse of what she meant while she was talking. Across the hall, I saw man wiping the sweat off his brow while working on a piece of wood during that warm July afternoon. Beside him, another man was carrying visibly worn-out tools looking tired before resuming work. If there is truth to what Macapanpan said about the absence of compensation, then it could be said that a measure of selflessness exists within this artist community.
“Kailangan ‘yon eh, [That’s needed,]” said Luigi Almuena, another artist of the group. Each member of the collective, after all, must be willing to work on projects that don’t provide much in terms of pay or even personal glory. Products of their efforts, after all, rarely get preserved; some get recycled while most are destroyed for the sake of making a statement. This surrenders the group to a sense of impermanence that inspires humility; a way of things which supposes that the products of their hard labor—no matter how good—can not be too precious to be sacrificed for the community’s goal of sending a message. The effigies also don’t get paraded to the public while explicitly crediting every single artist who has worked on it. It’s not much of an ego boost. And most importantly, these effigies tend to summarize the views of the collective as a whole—not the views of an individual.
According to Macapanpan, that’s the reason why it normally takes a month for them to finalize a concept for an effigy. They have to spend a significant amount of time aligning their ideas into one solid statement.
Humility; this is a lesson UGATLahi teaches its members (especially the younger ones who are currently still in school.) “Bine-break namin yung kaisipan ng mga artist na panay sarili ang iniisip (We break the mentality of artists who think only about themselves,)” Almuena told me. “Mawawala yung pagiging makasarili mo [You will lose your tendency to be self-centered.]”
But this, they said, is just one of the lessons people learn in UGATLAhi. Aside from espousing the virtue of selflessness, the collective also instills upon its members the importance of art in the subject of nation-building, practical skills like carpentry, and how to work efficiently with other artists.
“Madami silang matututunan dito na practical [They’ll learn a lot of practical things here,]” said Macapanpan. “Materials, techniques…” and that’s partly the reason why the group continues to gain volunteers every year. But even if these educational perks are hidden from outsiders, she believed that people will continue to join them—and it’s mostly due to the current administration.
S ince stepping into power back in June 2016, Mr. Duterte has been one of the most controversial presidents the Philippines has ever had.
For starters, his campaign to supposedly curb the problem of illegal drugs in the country by ordering the police to take a more aggressive stance on the matter has led to a sizeable number of deaths; among the slain include children caught in the crossfire between law enforcers and drug suspects as well as people that human rights activists say were killed via extrajudicial means. Advocates also criticized the measure for targeting poor communities and failing to bring down major illegal drug operations in the country despite its staggering death toll.
According to government bodies, around 5,500 have already been killed since the so-called war on drugs started. Human rights groups in and out of the Philippines, however, believe that the body count is already at around 27,000.
“Sabihin nating hindi martial law pero ang daming aktebistang dinudukot, pinapatay [Let’s say we’re not under martial law but there are still a lot of activists who are getting kidnapped and killed,]” Macapanpan shared. “Negros palang, diba? Mga karaniwang tao ‘to na hindi naman armado [At Negros alone, right? These are ordinary citizens who aren’t armed.]”
Meanwhile, economic and diplomatic policies supported by the Duterte government have also been criticized. For example, the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law has been heavily lambasted since its enactment for hiking the prices of basic goods. The policy has been called anti-poor by the law’s opponents including a number of senators and economists.
Aside from that, the Duterte camp has also been accused of spreading misleading information over the years. In 2017, a study from the University of Oxford said that team Duterte spent about 10 million php to fund troll armies designated to spread propaganda in favor of the President. Several bloggers supporting him were also accused of sharing propaganda in order to safeguard Mr. Duterte’s image.
And then there’s the issue of political harassment. Not long since Mr. Duterte assumed power, critics of his administration—from politicians to media outlets to activists—have accused the current regime of political persecution after its vocal supporters have filed cases and issued threats toward them. Mr. Duterte himself has dispensed threats of his own. For instance, in one of his speeches, he threatened to jail people who would opt to lobby for his impeachment.
“Patindi ng patindi ‘tong administration na ‘to, [This administration is getting worse,]” said Macapanpan. And now that it’s on its 3rd year, controversies continue to hound it.
Just recently, the head-of-state’s alliance with the Chinese government has been heavily questioned as the Philippines continues to have a territorial dispute with China. This issue was further aggravated last June when a Chinese-owned trawler reportedly rammed and sank a Philippine fishing vessel leaving the latter’s crew at the mercy of the sea. The current administration responded to the incident by downplaying the event as a mere “maritime incident.” It also refused to demand accountability for it leading netizens to call Mr. Duterte a coward and a traitor for allegedly failing to protect the country’s sovereignty in favor of his Chinese allies. At the wake of this incident, the hashtag “Duterte Duwag” became a trending topic on Twitter.
All things considered, there’s much to talk about as far as the Duterte administration is concerned and among those most vocal about it are the country’s artists.
“Sa mga panahong ginigipit yung mga mamamayan, yung soberanya, [In times when the public and the nation’s sovereignty are being threatened,]” Macapanpan said, “yung mga artist talaga ang nakakalikha ng bagong magpapakita ng kalagayan ng bansa [the artists tends to come up with something new to express the state of the nation.]” And a number of developments in the local art scene validate that statement.
In November 2018, for example, the Cultural Center of the Philippines chose the winners of its 13 Artists Awards for that year and a number of them featured works reflecting the supposedly grim reality of the Duterte administration. Carlos Gabuco, for starters, used archival pigment ink on photo paper to discuss the violence brought on by Mr. Duterte’s supposed war on drugs. Meanwhile, street artist, Archie Oclos, also won for using rice sacks as canvases to depict students, activists, and farmers. Outside the 13 Artists Awards, Oclos is also known for making murals championing local farmers while criticizing the amount of violence prevalent in the Duterte administration. Among them was a mural which featured Duterte wearing a crown of guns.
This combative stance, however, goes beyond the visual arts scene. While reading about Oclos’ works, I remember receiving a text message from a local publication inviting me to do an interview of BLKD and Calix, two rappers who are members of the group Sandata (a Filipino word for “weapon.”) I had to turn it down in lieu of previously set engagements but I was nevertheless told what the interview was for.
Just recently, Sandata released an album criticizing the violence of the Duterte administration. Backed by two years of research, the group created a twelve-track collection that features verses examining the grim effects of the bloody crackdown on illegal drugs.
This is what has become of the local art scene. The current administration is such that people are finding it hard to be ambivalent towards local politics. And it is a shift that Almuena understood.
“Sa tindi din ng pasismo ngayon, wala ka ng oras para gumawa ng art para sa sarili mo eh [Because of the intensity of fascism these days, you no longer have the time to make art for yourself.]” he told me. “Kailangan mong gumawa ng para sa masa talaga eh. [You really have to make art for the masses.] And so he and his group will continue to do just that.
A fter their work on this year’s SONA effigy, members of UGATLahi intend to assess the effectiveness of their work and come up with ways to improve their operation in the future. They also plan to release zines about fascism in the country and put up an exhibit featuring the politically-fueled works of their artists. Furthermore, they plan to continue making effigies for other mass demonstrations.
“Dapat talaga tatlong beses sa isang taon lang kami gumagawa ng effigy [We should only be making effigies three times a year,]” said Almuena. “Pero minsan may sumisingit [But sometimes, the demand for work increases.]” This includes additional effigies made for special occasions. If a major national issue comes up, for example, and mobilization happens because of it, the group, will most likely try to make something for it.
“Hindi mo naman pwedeng pabayaan ‘yon [You can’t just ignore that,]” Almuena said in a world-weary but resolute tone.
In other words, UGATLahi can get quite busy beyond the SONA season. And this is a reality that some of its artists have to live with.
“Hindi na nga kami maka raket eh, [We can’t even take paying jobs,]” Macapanpan quipped; in her case, this meant she can barely take on art projects that pay her bills. This includes the likes of murals which she makes for a living. But this is just one of the challenges faced by its members.
Security concerns are also an issue for them. As mentioned earlier, people opposing Mr. Duterte have accused the President and his allies of harassment. And, as people who tend to be at the frontline of rallies, members of UGATLahi refuse to brush off the possibility of them becoming targets in the future.
“May buddy system kami [We have a buddy system,]” Macapanpan revealed. “Pag gabi na, sabay kayo dapat ng buddy mong umuwi [At night, you and your buddy have to go home together.]”
Meanwhile, the group’s status as Mr. Duterte’s critic has also drawn the attention of the man’s online supporters. Oftentimes, the group’s Facebook page would receive comments dismissing its sincerity. They do so with the usual reproach reserved for activists: statements that dub them as malcontents who do nothing but complain; accusations that seem to imply that they’re unreasonable, unable to be happy no matter who gets elected.
Whether or not this is true, the group has shown in the past that it can be hopeful enough to keep its cool. Back in 2010, for example, the Harry Potter-inspired effigy of Mr. Aquino did not get burned since his administration was barely a month old and it was too early for them to judge his work. Mr. Duterte’s SONA in 2016, meanwhile, didn’t get an effigy; instead, UGATLahi took part in the creation of a six-panel mural entitled “Portraits of Peace,” a visual representation that they were willing to give the president a chance.
“Nung una promising yung mga promises niya eh [At first, his promises were promising,]” said Macapanpan, but not without adding that it didn’t take more than a year for him to fail at keeping his word. This included vows to end illegal drug operations in the Philippines (as well as the violence that goes with it) within three to six months. And so, the group began to criticize him–a move that caused Mr. Duterte’s supporters to start dubbing them as paid protesters among other things.
In response, UGATLahi merely shrugged. “Ang labnaw na nga ng batikos nila sa aktebista eh, [Their criticism towards activists have become shallow,] said Macapanpan. “Wala ng lalim [no more depth.]”
But in the midst of criticisms the group has been getting, they’ve also been receiving support, direct or otherwise, for their work and their cause. They see this in the form of materials donated for their projects, the volunteers who choose to work with them, and, more importantly, the warm bodies that give weight to the demonstrations they make their effigies for.
Just last year, at a rally billed as the United People’s SONA (where one of the group’s effigies of Mr. Duterte was presented and burned,) a massive number of people came. According to police estimates, the crowd peaked at around 15,000. However, the estimates of activist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) contradicted this by saying that around 40,000 people were actually present at the rally, a significant increase from its pre-event estimate of around 20,000.
This year, another rally will coincide with Mr. Duterte’s SONA. Bayan estimates that around 35,000 people will there. And with torches held by members of UGATLahi as well as other factions, the effigy which they spend several days to build (and a month to conceptualize) will get burned.
“‘Yon naman talaga ang purpose niya [That really is its purpose,] Macapanpan told me with a cigarette on her hand; it needs to get burned to express their feelings towards the current administration. In other words, the flames set to undo the physical evidence of their work will also, ironically, complete it.