Art beyond the halls: Outside the galleries and into the streets

Story by Jandale D. Jimenez

Art for art’s sake is a myth. 

For a protest artist like Nicca Escario, making art is more than the aesthetics of the craft. She believes that every artwork should resonate a higher sense of purpose than mere eye candy.

Para kanino mo ba ginagawa ang art mo?” she often asks herself. “Para ba sa oppressing class o para ba sa mga na-o-oppress?

Nicca is an artist by nature, as many of her friends and family would describe her. Aside from being a visual artist in  De La Salle University – College of Saint Benilde, she is also an activist — aware of the systemic injustices and impunity that put the masses in tight fetters.

Bilang isang miyembro ng Panday Sining, isa sa driving forces mo talaga ay ang masa,” she says, putting faces to the struggles of ordinary people entrapped in social inequality through her art.

Panday Sining, a youth cultural mass organization, is a collective of artists that aims to make art a medium for progressive expressions of national democracy. 

Like Nicca, member-artists of Panday Sining use various art forms to dissent, protest and reflect the grim realities of society and the masses’ constant struggle in dismantling the systems of oppression.

Ang usual na ginagawa namin ay murals [at] mga effigies kapag may mga rally,” she explains. “Nandiyan pa rin ‘yung role ng Panday Sining na mag-arouse, mag-organize at magmobilize pero in our way naman ay gamit ang sining.

Far from the silence of museums’ cavernous halls, Nicca and other members of Panday Sining take their art pieces to the busy streets of Manila during rallies. The streets have become their collective gallery to showcase their calls in each artwork they carry, closer to their intended audience. 

Ang mga protest art talaga ay mayroong binibitbit na panawagan,” Nicca says. “Dahil sa palala nang palala na political situation, nandiyan tayo para gumawa ng sari-sariling ways natin [katulad ng sining] para [mas] mapalakas ang panawagan ng masa.”

In essence, effigies that are maimed and burned during mobilizations, placards raised up in synch with protest chants, and graffiti painted on walls are all artistic expressions of the cumulative rage and resistance of the protesters. They are merely holding up a mirror to the plight of the masses through art.

Every art is political

Ever since naman na bata ako, dama [ko] rin naman na may injustices na nangyayari,” Nicca recounts. 

Growing up in a family of farmers and fisherfolks in Pangasinan, Nicca’s art has been primarily influenced by their struggles. In fact, their humble life in the province has become her distinct theme in most, if not all, of her illustrations.

Digital illustrations by Nicca Escario depicting the struggles of the masses.

“Very grounded talaga ‘yung themes ng art ko sa pamumuhay ng masa kasi personally ‘yung pamumuhay ng pamilya ko ay hindi rin naman privileged ‘yung upbringing nila,” she shares.

Other than reflecting the realities of society, protest art is also one way of reclaiming the narrowing democratic spaces we have like the walls of parks and the streets, the spaces that ‘primarily belong to the people’, according to Nicca.

“Kung ang pagpapasya [ng masa] ay lagyan [ang public spaces] ng mga panawagan para sa mga pinaglalaban natin, bakit hindi kasing bigat ng tingin sa [protest art kumpara sa] mga art na ginawa lamang para sa ka-burgisan?” Nicca adds.

Unlike the commodification of other art forms, protest art is not dictated by any market force. It is the art’s intent to empower the artist and its audience in pursuit of securing cultural power over the ruling elites. 

Magandang way talaga ang pag-utilize nitong mga smaller [at limited] spaces para at least kung hindi man lang mamulat agad [ang mga tao], nandoon na ‘yung first step na pag-inform sa kanila na mayroong ganitong mga nangyayari na paghihirap at pagsasamantala,” she elaborates.

Artists fight back

In 2019, four Panday Sining members were arrested by the police while attending the Bonifacio Day mobilization due to the “vandalism” that sprawled all across Manila City, which called for ending political repression against activists. 

Defending its members against the arrest, Panday Sining said in a statement that “protest art in the time of narrowing space for free and critical thinking is not only just but necessary.” The progressive calls painted directly on walls, dubbed as “vandalism” by a government that enjoys the absence of dissent, are expressions of stifled voices of the people. 

Gabriel “Gab” Cruz, a Panday Sining artist-activist from UP Baguio, says that the current political climate urges everyone, especially artists, to be as militant as ever.

UP Baguio Fine Arts student Gabriel Cruz’ protest art entitled “Barong-barong” (left) and “Rosas ng Digmaan” (Right) made from mixed materials. Photos by Gabriel Cruz

With the current administration attempting to curtail its citizens’ freedom through moves such as the formation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and the Anti-Terrorism Law, artists are called to step up and further amplify the demand for freedom.

“As artists, we must create art that will not only reflect the status quo, but also challenge it and be a catalyst for more people to be organized,” Gab declares his challenge to fellow artists.

In line with the commemoration of the 50th year of the 1971 Diliman Commune, Filipino multimedia artist and UP Professor Toym Imao Jr. designed “Barikada,” an art installation at UP Diliman made of repurposed materials from past installations and condemned university furniture.

Toym Imao’s art installation “Barikada” on display at UP Diliman. Photo by Sofia Abrogar

According to Imao Jr., his protest art signifies the people standing up and fighting against oppression, especially with the current attacks against the university after the unilateral abrogation of the UP-Department of National Defense accord

In a Facebook post, he pointed out, “Hindi po siya 50 million peso na kaldero, 389 million na dolomite, o mula sa 15 billion na pondo ng Philhealth,” referring to the alleged corruption cases that the government has been involved and criticized for.

Protest art in a pandemic

Creating protest art has become more difficult because of the pandemic. The stringent health protocols and the challenge of physical distancing prevent artists from gathering and finishing effigies to be maimed and burned during mobilizations. Rarely are there any of them parading the streets these days.

Artists like Nicca and Gab echo this difficulty. With heightened health protocols imposed because of COVID-19, supplies to create art have been limited. Art becomes even more inaccessible to the public because of these restrictions. 

“It has become harder to create art as our resources are more limited, but at the same time, I think it also pushed us to further create more protest art that demands the government to act on the pandemic more seriously,” Gab says.

Nicca observes a shift to create and share protest art online. More artists are usingsocial media to make their artworks still accessible to the public. 

Ngayon namang nasa pandemya tayo, nagkaroon ng panahon na na-cripple ‘yung pagkilos kasi  nag-a-adjust tayo sa paano nga ba itutuloy ang pagkilos kasi halos [lahat] lumipat na online,” she says.

While sharing art online is better than nothing, Nicca pointed out that it should not remain that way. She says that it is crucial to bring protest art on the streets together, where the masses and elites alike can see it.

“‘Yung mga katulad ko, lumayo sa mga collective nila. Na-move na everything online, [pero] hindi naman dapat lahat manatiling online.” she says.

Far from the smiting bolos in yesteryear’s revolutions, protest art is really not a primary armament to win justice and equality so easily. However, it is still relevant to the collective struggle of the masses. 

Nicca believes that although art in itself cannot save the world, it can still spark a little change for the common fight.

Hindi naman makaka-save ng world ang art kasi parang isang medium lang din naman [ito] para mag-express ng sarili katulad siguro ng writing at ng ibang mga bagay. Pero hindi siya isang bagay na messianic,” she adds.

Community-oriented public artist Eva Cockroft also notes that art is nonetheless necessary to fortify the spirit of those who are committed to the struggle and educate those who are unaware.

Similarly, Gab says that art should still be understood beyond its physical appeal to understand the underlying message it conveys. 

“Every art is political. We must view art beyond just the aesthetics and understand the message it conveys,” he says.

Art for art’s sake is nothing but a myth of commodifying art to prevent people from creating something that is truly theirs. Protest art veers away from the norm of what valuable art should be. It is bare, unpretentious and reflective of the reality of its audience — the masses.

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