Artists against Assassination

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

Gabriela Krista Dalena sits on a painter’s stool, narrating a harrowing incident from a night in April 2003. A ray of late morning sunlight comes through the parted doors of the verandah across her. It illuminates the corners of oil paintings hanging on the room’s high walls and the delicate features of terracotta sculptures sitting on the tops of wooden cabinet and tables and lining the wooden floor. Dalena, an independent filmmaker, recalls how 20 men, armed and masked, abducted five of her colleagues, including her ex-boyfriend, a cameraman. The team had just finished a fact-finding mission investigating allegations that soldiers from the Philippine Army had beaten up leftist activists helping peasants in a town in Oriental Mindoro, an island province about four hours from Manila.

Human rights activist Eden Marcellana from Karapatan, a human rights group, and Eddie Gumanoy, a leader of a local peasant organization, were found dead the next day, with bullets wounds and signs of tortures on their bodies. Dalena’s ex-boyfriend survived, but only after being hogtied and threatened with death if he returned to Mindoro.

"He was able to live because Eden told the men, ‘Don’t touch him. He’s just a volunteer. His parents are prominent artists in Manila,’" says Dalena, 31, whose parents are also well-known artists. In the 1980s, her father, Danny Dalena, a painter, had worked as an editorial cartoonist for a newspaper critical of the dictatorial rule of then-president Ferdinand Marcos. Her mother, Julie Lluch, a terracotta sculptor, was a founding member of the feminist group, Kasibulan.

"He was told not to return and to change jobs," says Dalena, who also worked on the films Red Saga and Echoes of Bullets about peasantry and insurgency in the Philippines.

Mindoro’s mountainous terrain has long been a base for the communist rebels, the New People’s Army (NPA). Its jungles and coastal communities have been battlefields for insurgents and military troops. As the communist insurgency across the country rose and fell as a threat to national security, the mostly fishing and farming folks of Mindoro have lived in relative peace, occasionally interrupted by violent skirmishes between the military and rebels. The NPA’s popularity among the Filipino poor has been less due to its communist ideology than to their search for a better life. Its membership has dwindled from about 25,000 in the 1980s to about 7,000 today. With the political killings, however, the NPA has called Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo its "greatest recruiter."

Since 2001, Karapatan has recorded more than 800 extrajudicial murders in the Philippines. Among some of Manila’s intellectuals and artists, these killings have opened new discussions about old and interwoven woes such as peasant landlessness, the powerful oligarchy, and the legacy of colonialism. Following the country’s rich tradition of artistic dissent and nationalist struggle, rock musicians, painters, poets, and other artists have taken up their pens and brushes and video cameras to protest the latest in a long series of political outrages.

Insurgency, Counter-Insurgency

In the years following 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos was deposed and fresh optimism about the future of the country prevailed, the communist insurgency weakened. Seizing the opportunity, the government repealed the Anti-Subversion Act in 1992. It threw open the democratic space to all political actors and encouraged members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed rebels from the NPA, as well as Muslim insurgents in Mindanao, to return to the fold of the law. Intermittent peace talks began between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF), representing the Maoist communist movement of the CPP-NPA. Since 1998, former rebels and activists, including those who had been detained during Marcos’ rule, have run for seats in the House of Representatives under party-list groups for women, laborers, and farmers. Among the more popular groups has been Bayan Muna (People First), the political wing of Bayan, a broad coalition of mass organizations. Over the last six years, its members have been the most targeted in the spate of political killings.

In 2001, just months before Muslim terrorists attacked the United States, Gloria Arroyo swept to power through military-backed street protests. One year later, Arroyo launched a new five-year counter- insurgency plan called Oplan Bantay-Laya (Freedom Watch). When the United States listed the CPP-NPA as a terror organization the same year, the communist rebels were back in the spotlight. But instead of going after the rebels, government troops have been accused of targeting leftist activists, unarmed ideological opponents who appeared to have been gaining ground in the battle for the hearts and minds of the masses. In 2006, at the height of the crisis concerning extrajudicial executions, Arroyo announced fresh funds for the military’s anti-insurgency campaign.

In addition to Bayan Muna members, other victims of the death squads have included human rights workers, church people, militant students, and members of indigenous groups. Since Arroyo took office in 2001, at least 50 journalists have been killed. The mode of execution has often involved two men riding a motorcycle, shooting the victim at close range. The killings have taken place on the street, in broad daylight, or in the victims’ homes, in front of pleading family members. Most of the murdered journalists were radio personalities who had exposed the corruption and abuses of local politicians and other prominent figures on the air. In the provinces, radio is king. Over half of the Philippine population of almost 90 million people reside in the countryside. They are also among the poorest, particularly those employed in the agriculture sector. About 44% of Filipinos live on two dollars a day. Courageous journalists and activists have offered rural folk refuge, and defended them against local thugs and powerful personalities and officials. Some Filipino observers have said the killings are designed to stifle dissent and calls for genuine agrarian reform.

Witness accounts and news reports point to Major General Jovito Palparan as responsible for the killings. He has denied it. The military has also denied the existence of secret death squads and the use of hired killers. Arroyo twice promoted Palparan before he retired last year. The footage the filmmaker Dalena had been expecting from her murdered friends was to be part of a presentation at the government’s appointments commission in Manila to block Palparan’s promotion.

Creative Dissent

In 1896, the Spanish rulers of the Philippines executed Jose Rizal. An eye surgeon, linguist, and world traveler, Rizal was also a famous novelist, author of Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Subversive). His life, execution, and martyrdom established a pattern in the Philippines of art and politics going hand in hand.

In the years leading up to the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos, Filipino films about militancy in urban factories and moral decay of Manila, paintings about the plight of sugarcane farmers in Negros, and novels about the uprising of the Filipino masses all stirred and fed growing unrest. In 1986, during the four-day People Power Revolution, millions of Filipinos descended on Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue and sang patriotic songs mingled with Catholic prayers. In 2001, the demonstrations that led to the Arroyo presidency, and later those against her, were animated by huge, well-crafted propaganda effigies, constructed by professional and student artists, who then burned them in protest. Art, activism, freedom, and nationalist struggles have met in great confluences in Philippine history.

The extrajudicial killings have again set Filipino artists to work. They held concerts like Arrest the Killings at the Freedom Bar, a cramped alternative space in Metro Manila, and in the open fields of the University of the Philippines. Visual artists, including those who opposed the Marcos regime, joined younger painters and performance artists in the Tutok Karapatan (Focus on Rights) series of exhibitions of new paintings and art works held in private galleries and university halls. At the same time, independent films about the country’s colonial past and leftist movements like Indio Nacional (The Prolonged Suffering of Filipinos) and Juan Kaliwa (Left Turn) were screened at various film festivals in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The many recent Filipino art works have assessed the present-day Philippine situation through the colonial, strife-torn context of the past as well as perceptions of a seesawing, passive-aggressive, servile-heroic national identity.

F. Sionil Jose, a preeminent Filipino novelist twice nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, says the Philippines is a country yet to become a nation, and culture lies at the core of the task of nation-building. "The process of nation-building is a very slow process, and the intellectuals, the artists have a lot to contribute to it," says Jose. "But many people don’t understand the function of culture in the building of a nation."

He adds, "The intellectuals, the writers, the artists, they create consciousness of their own selves, their culture, and when they create this, (people) develop what is already called a national identity, and from there the nation develops, too."

The Resolve to Speak

"It was very traumatic," says Dalena of her colleagues’ murders in Mindoro, "but it helped us to see. The actual going to the field, it strengthened our resolve that we have to speak. Because we were now grounded in experience, and not just simple shouting of slogans to stop the killings."

Last year, Dalena worked with rock musician Dong Abay on the video of his song ww111 (as in World War III). The video fuses actual footage of street demonstrations and news clippings with staged performances and artworks. In it, Abay joins peasants marching in the streets of Metro Manila protesting the killings. Tight shots of the pallid faces of mock victims segue into actual peasants’ demonstrations. These are then contextualized with clippings of local news headlines about the killings superimposed on a video of Arroyo’s meeting with visiting President George W. Bush. Rolling tanks and bombs falling in the war in Iraq convey how the global war on terror has influenced the lives of peoples. Also included are cartoon drawings made by the Abay’s four-year-old son.

"It’s about war, the different faces of war," says Abay. "It could be in the form of physical slaughter or war in one’s consciousness. It could be war inside us or in the outside world." The musician is known for fusing social commentary and music, a genre that has roots in the 1970s when Filipino musicians popularized socially and politically conscious songs that touched on conflict-ravaged Mindanao, society’s moral decay, and the destruction of the environment.

"It makes a statement," Abay says of the ww111 video, "that there’s a pact between the United States and Gloria (Arroyo), which affects the security of the Philippines and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)." Abay refers to the joint anti-terror campaign of the United States and the Philippines that allows American troops to conduct military exercises in the Philippines and train its troops. The Visiting Forces Agreement has met with stiff resistance from some sectors in academe and civil society.

"It’s for Filipinos everywhere," says Abay of the video, which has been uploaded on Youtube. "What’s at stake here is your Filipino identity. Your country hasn’t learned its lesson. You thought it was going to bring good, but it only brought evil. But we are not stupid. We are not stupid to just keep accepting them here all the time."

The ww111 video is part of a long tradition of creative protest. From the late 1970s to the 1980s, the Philippine visual art scene captured the mood of a country about to explode. Cinematic giants like the filmmaker Lino Brocka sent powerful messages about freedom struggles and social justice.

"A cultural revolution began," filmmaker Paolo Villaluna writes of those decades in the program notes of Bagong Agos (New Wave), a film festival launched last January. Among the 20 films screened was Villaluna’s One Shot, which depicts the tragedy of a family affected by the country’s politics; Topel Lee’s Ang Manunulat (The Writer), portraying the deadly silencing of writers under Arroyo’s regime; and Rox Lee’s La Pula (The Red), recalling how the nation’s exploitation began with the coming of the Spanish conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan, almost 500 years ago.

Evolution, not revolution

Multi-media artist Jose Tence Ruiz recalls the "euphoric" days of the 1986 Revolution. Along with all 74 staff of Manila Times newspaper, he walked out of the office to join millions of Filipinos already in the streets.

But at 51, Ruiz says his protests have long ceased to be an "idea" from the hippie and communist movements of his youth. It’s a "practice" that has carried on to this day. His works were among those of social realist painters and performance artists like Antipas Delotavo, Emmanuel Garibay, and Mideo Cruz in the TutoK group’s exhibition called Perspektiba (perspective) and Dos Por Dos (two by two), denouncing the killings and the Philippine human rights situation.

"Everyday, I say to myself, ‘It isn’t worth a shit anymore,’" Ruiz relates. "And then the next day, I say, ‘Nah, you’ve got to give a shit.’ Everyday."

Ruiz, who worked in Singapore as an editorial cartoonist in the 1990s before coming back to the Philippines, sees how democracy has failed to lift the lives of Filipinos. Yet, he doesn’t think that revolution is the answer, because Filipinos are "evolving" and "not revolutionary" people. In contrast, in the TutoK exhibit at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila, Delotavo’s installation of huge, freestanding box-type letters that read REBOL, short for rebolusyon (revolution), was covered in stars and stripe and swathed in bloodstained gauze.

"Our hairs have grown whiter, that’s about it," Tence Ruiz sums up the history and struggles of artists like him since the revolution of 1986. He notes the country’s high population, with a growth rate at 2.36% yearly, or about 5,000 newborns daily. The national debt stands at four trillion pesos. And 8 million overseas Filipino workers form a diaspora that feeds the economy.

One of Ruiz’s more popular installations is a wooden pushcart, the type urban scavengers use for collecting rubbish during the day and sleeping in at night, mounted with a temple of gothic spires, a stab at a widely popular Christian church collecting tithes from its impoverished believers.

Art as Lived Experience

For Axel Pinpin, art is a lived experience. The 34-year-old poet, who had attended a University of the Philippines’ writers’ workshop and self-published a poetry book, has been languishing in jail since April last year. Also an agriculturist by training, Pinpin was arrested by the police along with a peasant organizer, a researcher, and two local residents. They are now known collectively as "Tagaytay 5," after the name of the city in Cavite where they were arrested. They are accused of being NPA rebels planning to destabilize the Arroyo government before the May 1 Labor Day celebration last year.

"When I became engaged full time in mass movement, I wrote less often," Pinpin, says in a text message sent from his prison cell in Camp Vicente Lim, in Laguna province. "But it gave life to my earlier writings," he continues. "Since I’ve been imprisoned, I again have the chance to write. This again will happen less often when I’m released and return to mass movement. That’s why I’m taking advantage of the (prison) hours."

In a poem dated last August and posted on the progressive website Bulatlat, he allusively warns Major General Palparan of his turn for the grave. The poem describes the torture of suspected rebels, and is replete with uncomfortable pairings of imagery: a wooden board and a human neck, hammers and pliers and fingers, boots and ribs.

Pinpin failed to attend a recent PEN conference at the University of Santo Tomas because he was in jail, where, he says via text messages, the Tagaytay 5 have been denied sunlight and any time to walk outside their cells.

Fight or Flight?

Manuel Ocampo, perhaps the most internationally recognized living Filipino painter today, was asked during an exhibit opening in a gallery mall in Metro Manila: what role does Filipino culture play in contemporary art?

"What culture?" says Ocampo, who has returned home after making a name in the United States then Europe. Some of his works’ ambiguity, violence, and beauty, with its swastikas and crosses, may well symbolize the huge gash in Filipino identity. The colonial masters were the parents Filipinos did not choose, and it’s been a fraught relationship to this day. The dominant Filipino culture today may very well be of dissent, of poverty, and of flight.

Dong Abay, one of the most gifted rock musicians in the Philippines today, is leaving. He is going to New Zealand, where he hopes to raise his young family in a life of "quality."

"Artists are not valued in our society. Art and culture are not given much importance in our society," says Abay, 35. He calls himself a third-world rock star, who still has to live and work within his country’s rather tragic and depressing social and political realities. Unlike his American counterparts, he says that he doesn’t have the luxury to just throw stuff at hotel television sets and get away with it. While his interest in music has no limit, and admires musician like Bob Dylan, his music is his own.

"We are so much like the Americans, while we are clearly not Americans. Brown Americans. Aside from political dependency, there’s also cultural dependency. We’re so Hollywood. We cannot seem to make anything without patterning it after Puff Daddy, " he says.

His music contains the powerful imagery of urban destitution and rapacious government officials, of national pride and shame. He was one of the performers at last year’s Arrest the Killings concert, which also called for Arroyo’s resignation.

"We create rebels," says Abay of the role of Filipino artists in uprisings in the past two decades. He refuses to endorse products in commercials. He rants about the country’s poverty, political killings, and corrupt government. From New Zealand, Abay hopes to broadcast his music to the world. In the end, he says, he just wants peace.

"You cannot plan art," in the Philippines anyway, says Abay. "You may be an artist today and not tomorrow."

To which artist Tence Ruiz can only agree. "Yes," he says, "You may be a corpse tomorrow."  

Carmela Cruz is a freelance journalist based in Manila and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (

Photo – Babaeng Nakaitim (Woman in Black) by Emmanuel Garibay