The art of dissent in the time of Duterte

Filipino artists have been busy these past couple of years.

After all, far from simply providing aesthetic value, art has historically been made to, at the very least, stir conversation – and in President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, there is a lot to talk about.

There’s the bloody war on drugs, alleged human rights violations, the attacks on the free press, corruption allegations, the threats to Philippine sovereignty, the rape jokes and misogynistic remarks – issues that, at one point or another, have found themselves the subject of some form of art.

Just this 2018, all kinds of art discussing various issues under the Duterte administration were created and shared with the public.

For instance, at the most recent Art Fair Philippines in March, an installation entitled “Ang Mga Walang Pangalan” (after a poem by Jose Lacaba) zeroed in on the lives that have been lost in the drug war.

ART AGAINST IMPUNITY. 'Ang Mga Walang Pangalan' provokes conversation on Duterte's drug war.

Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

The multimedia installation, set in a small, dim room, was a collaboration of several artists: former Esquire editor Erwin Romulo, photojournalist Carlo Gabuco, composer Juan Miguel Sobrepeña, lighting designer Lyle Sacris, and sound engineer Mark Laccay.

With photos of the drug killings and victims, flickering lights, grating music, a voice recording of a 12-year-old drug war orphan, and the actual chair where her father was shot in the center of the room, the installation was perhaps one of the most haunting pieces at the otherwise lighthearted Art Fair.

HAUNTING. Viewers are compelled to sit on a chair as a laser light marks the point where a bullet exited the drug war victim who died seated on the chair.

Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Later, at the end of May, Calix released a politically-charged mini-album, Ikugan, where he attacks various issues from the killings, to corruption, to social injustice, to apathy.

More recently, on June 25, RESBAK, an artists’ collective against the extrajudicial killings, launched Puyat at Iba Pang Tula sa Panahon ng Digma, a zine filled with poems by the likes of Lourd de Veyra, Jose Lacaba, Allan Popa, and Aida Santos.

A post shared by PUYATZINE (@puyatzine) on Jun 13, 2018 at 10:20pm PDT

Evidently, while political opposition may be weak, dissent is very much alive among artists, who continue to create and criticize.

Feminist art vs. misogynist culture

Among the crop of artist/dissenters is Nikki Luna.

As a feminist, Nikki has had much to say in an administration led by a President who repeatedly jokes about rape, and gives orders to shoot women in the vagina. It was to the latter remark that Nikki was responding when she created one of her more recent pieces, “Female Fighter”.

There is something striking about the piece’s starkness – perhaps because of the material used to create it: M4 bullet holes shot into a white aluminum panel to form the shape of a woman’s womb.

“It took me a few weeks to execute since I had to find a certain group that would fire bullets on the white aluminum panel, follow my linear drawing of a woman's womb and carefully execute my concept,” Nikki said of her artwork, in an email interview with Rappler.

FEMALE FIGHTER (2018) by Nikki Luna, M4 bullet holes on white aluminum panel. Made in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s order for state security forces to “shoot the vagina” of women revolutionaries #womensart #womensartph pic.twitter.com/HkKgpIKtpv — ArtengPinay (@artengpinay) April 10, 2018

“I also did not want any firing range or random shooters. I wanted to seek for state security forces. As Duterte's statement specifically ordered soldiers, the work would have a stronger message if it came from this group,” she added.

It was a strong message indeed – with the piece creating ripples of discussion among those who have seen it.

For Nikki, art has always been more than simply creating an aesthetic commodity. Even as a young girl and as an art student, she has been using her work to speak for the marginalized and shed light on neglected issues, in particular, the struggle of women in a patriarchal society.

She recounted her thesis, “Milk & Diapers”, an ode to her mother, and an exploration of the problems women face as they conform to societal standards.

“When I was younger like many artists, my work was a cathartic release. It was personal in the beginning, but it has always leaned towards my experiences as a woman/girl. It delves on women’s concerns which I wasn't fully aware of at that time, but it did speak of the silent struggle that many women go through,” she said.

While the origin of Nikki’s work is reactive, the execution of it is more studied, and involves a good amount of research.

“When I make my art, I do factual and accurate research. I am solely responsible for sourcing and researching facts, figures and information using actual interviews, internet, tape archives, public records, documentary footage,” Nikki said.

“I locate relevant interviewees, gather community responses, collaborate with journalists, local resource persons in communities and most importantly the public,” she added, saying that her art starts materializing in her mind after she completes her research. 

And while Nikki has always created critical art regardless of who is in power, she said that one difference under Duterte’s administration is the violence of the backlash that she gets for her work.

“I have been very outspoken through my art, from the Arroyo administration, Noynoy Aquino, to Duterte. But it is only during Duterte's time that I actually received rape threats. The worst part is not getting only rape threats directed at me but at my two-year-old daughter. I was bombarded by trolls on my Facebook inbox, sending me angry to disgusting messages whenever my work discussed the many layers and forms of violence against women,” she shared.

Nikki admitted that while she knows that the threats are empty, they still have their effects.

“I am no superwoman and even when you know these things are untrue, rape threats are scary,” she said, though ultimately, she remains unstoppable.

“It never crossed my mind not to speak of the injustice from the thousands of EJKS, rape culture, misogyny under this administration,” she said. “I will continue to use my art to show the lives of the people wronged by the system.”

Art, after all, can be one of the strongest forces of resistance.

“Art is a powerful tool,” Nikki said.

"Art can tell peoples’ stories, retell history, incorporating the voices from the margins and continue sharing art to engage, provoke action and to promote healing in communities,” she added.

Evidently, Nikki and other artists will continue to create – for as long as and especially when there continues to be something to call out, question, and criticize.

As the rest of Duterte’s term stretches out before them, more dissent in the form of art is to be expected. What remains to be seen is how the messages come across to the artists’ audience, if at all. – Rappler.com

Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.

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