Story by Christina Quiambao
“Bakit mo siningil?”
Despite being delighted to receive a measly P50 payment for an art commission, Dindin heard this question straight from her mother who disapproved of the paid transaction. Her mother thought that Dindin shouldn’t have asked money from her client because they happened to be their neighbor.
This blatant downplay of art’s value is not new in the Philippines. Although social media groups and pages have been established to spotlight young artists, many are still underappreciated and underpaid – especially being part of an industry where they are often compensated with mere ‘exposure’ and ‘experience.’
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the employment of millions of Filipinos with work suspensions and mass layoffs, some artists started accepting art commissions online – which is their attempt to survive the increasing financial strain their families are currently facing.
Art as a means of survival
Bernadean “Dindin” Rabaja is a Journalism major who accepts art commissions online under the username @dindinmakesart on Twitter and Instagram. Her art account has garnered over 500 followers through joining art community group chats and marketing herself on Twitter threads that were looking for artists.
Being a “no work, no pay” employee, Dindin’s father had no income during the onset of COVID-19 and community quarantines in the country. Meanwhile, the school where her mother works was already on the verge of closure even before the pandemic struck.
“Na-escalate ng pandemic ‘yung pag-decline ng [school] to the point na halos wala na silang mapasweldo kay Mama,” she said.
Dindin initially started her commission work on Fiverr – an online marketplace for freelance services – before joining Ko-Fi, an online donation and subscription website, and more popular social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram when their family income dwindled as costs of living skyrocketed.
Dindin, who has been a graduating student for two years already, was left worrying about the future of her education after the announcement that classes were going to be held online.
“I was supposed to be graduating na pero nahirapan din ako sa pandemic noong hindi ako makapag-communicate nang maayos sa prof ko,” she said.
The online learning setup was not Dindin’s only concern; she also struggled to deal with the pressure from her parents to finish college, which gravely affected her mental health.
“‘Yung mental health ko nag-decline kasi nasa bahay lang ako tapos iniisip ko madalas, kasi hindi kami magkasundo nila Mama, … [na] gusto nila Mama gumraduate ako para maganda [ang magiging] trabaho [ko] pero at the same time I don’t like feeling na wala akong nako-contribute sa kanilang lahat,” she added.
Grade 11 student Jaylyn “Corrine” Tagabcab also found artwork commissions to be an effective solution to meet the growing demands of the online learning setup.
“Meron po akong fino-follow na artist and na-inspire po ako sa mga ginawa niya [na art commissions],” Corrine said.
With that, she decided to open an art account named @artbycorrine on Twitter. Now with over 900 followers, her art commission sheets – a poster presenting an artist’s sample pieces and prices – spotlighted her art style which are what she describes as “simple and cartoonish.”
Just like Dindin, Corrine’s father was also a “no work, no pay” employee. In her case, however, a close family member was able to sponsor her tuition fee and other school expenses. Despite being able to continue her studies, Corrine still accepted commissions online to chip in to their monthly bills.
Using the digital space to widen the reach of their online commissions, these artists proved how helpful a simple hashtag can be.
The use of #EmergencyCommissions emerged on social media platforms as a way to raise funds for artists in need of financial assistance. Users of this hashtag are primarily artists who are in dire need to pay household bills, medical costs or school expenses.
“Meron akong kailangan [na] book para sa class and wala talaga akong pera at that time, [at] ayokong humingi kina Mama,” Dindin recalled.
By using #EmergencyCommissions, she successfully purchased the required book after accomplishing two commissioned artworks. “I think that’s something,” she said as she reflected on how helpful the hashtag had been in supporting her personal needs.
Corrine also went through a similar situation. “Nagsimula ako mag-open ng commissions para sa weekly load ng online class. Mga 200 pesos every week [kasi] ang nagagastos ko,” she said.
She also uses the hashtag #EmergencyCommissions to earn and help lighten the financial burden the pandemic brought to her family. “Ginamit po [namin para] sa weekly load at [mga] kailangang bayaran tulad po ng monthly bill ng water,” she added.
Other artists, on the other hand, see art commissions as a way to contribute to a greater cause.
Kahlil “Churro” Olandez, an Architecture major, opened a public Twitter account under the username @TheLilChurro to earn money and help out Typhoon victims in November 2020.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Churro’s family experienced financial problems due to decreasing customers of their metal fabrication company. Consequently, she and her brother were on the verge of putting their education on pause for a year.
Fortunately, this crisis was averted when her father found an alternative way to gain more customers. Seeing the opportunity to earn extra income, she continued selling her artworks online — not anticipating how this would change the way she sees her art.
This led Churro to use #EmergencyCommissions as a means to help victims of Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses in November. The call was proven to be a success as she raised an estimated P4,000 as part of her donation to the affected families.
Behind the digital space
Despite the wonders that the hashtag has done so far, it also comes with a terrible burden.
While trying to market their art in order to gain more clients, these young artists also have to juggle their responsibilities both at home and in school.
“I also want to note that my working period would be three weeks because I have classes, so please be patient with me,” said Dindin in a tweet.
Corrine also illustrates that two of the biggest challenges in working on artwork commissions are avoiding burnouts and managing her clients’ expectations.
“Minsan nape-pressure ako, iniisip ko kung magugustuhan ba ng mga clients,” she said. “Meron po kasing masusungit [na kliyente] tapos hindi clear magbigay ng distinction kung ano gusto nilang hair color [ng artwork at] nagbabago [rin] ng isip.”
These artists are also cautious about which platforms to use, fearing that their need to commission their artworks might become the object of criticism.
“Merong mga art Facebook groups na you just get praised for realistic art,” Dindin said.
Dindin, who had more of a “cartoonish” and “fantasy-like element” in her art style, sometimes feared engaging with unsupportive art communities. “Nakikita ko [‘yung mga harsh comments] so natatakot ako magpost sa Facebook,” she said.
For Corrine and Churro, however, it isn’t all bad. “Mas natutuwa po ako kapag nakukuha na nila ‘yung art ko at na-a-appreciate nila,” Corrine said.
With almost a thousand followers, Churro shared that she never really thought about how her art made an impact on others. From being concerned with people’s criticism, she believed that her commissioned works helped her gain more confidence toward her art.
“As I started doing commissions, I started to talk to people a lot more. They gave me comments saying they looked up to me,” she said. “That made me more confident in my art.”
Still, the work was not all sunshine and rainbows for the young artists. Sometimes, Churro even encounters clients who haggle for a lower price than what her art is worth, leading her to lose opportunities to earn.
“It was disheartening because what [clients] suggested was half the price of what I usually offer,” Churro said.
Through #EmergencyCommissions, more young artists have found an avenue to ease the financial burden their families carry — especially with the demands of an online learning setup. But, along with it are the perils they are compelled to endure to do so.
The pandemic has forced many individuals to find other sources of income as prices of basic needs and services increased — with inflation currently logging in at 4.2%, the highest inflation registered since February 2019. The breadwinners of their families were also affected as job opportunities greatly decreased — with 3.8 million Filipinos still unemployed in October 2020.
As millions of Filipinos continue to suffer amid the COVID-19 pandemic due to negligent governance, these young artists can only do so much to find different ways to help sustain their families and afford the demands of their education.
Despite the little living that commissioning provided the young artists, their resilience is still not the solution it seems to be. Supporting artists by acknowledging that an art’s worth is a combination of their time, effort and expenses is the first step.
However, the much needed solution is providing these young artists better living conditions so they don’t have to juggle multiple things at once to survive the wrath of the pandemic – often done at the expense of their mental and physical well-being.