Art as a stimulus in community building
Amid conflict and chaos, art lights a path toward peace and hope
“Art has a unique way of inspiring people and giving them life, not just through how they look at and appreciate it, but also by their involvement in the process of creation,” says mural artist and environmental and peace advocate AG Saño.
Back in 2013, Saño and a group of volunteers spent hours up on ladders painting dolphins, sea turtles, and other forms of marine life on the walls of the Aurora Boulevard tunnel. While the mural evoked optimism, in truth, it was a cry for help to stop dolphin killings.
It all started with the heartbreaking documentary The Cove, which affected Saño so much he took it upon himself to raise awareness on marine life conservation through art. His initiative started with just him and a few other experienced artists drawing outlines on public walls. Then in a matter of days, more and more volunteers filled in the huge murals with colors.
Prior to this, Saño had also been conducting workshops in conflict areas in Southern Philippines since 2010, when he was invited by Conservation International to take part in a series of environmental education activities. It was on the remote Turtle Island Group of Tawi-Tawi where he gave his very first basic art workshop to the locals, who in turn participated in painting a mural on the walls of a local elementary school. During the activity, one image remained in Saño’s mind and heart: “Kids in hijab were painting side by side with Christian soldiers who were there to defend and serve them.” Down there in the south, where conflict is already thought of as a permanent state, that magical moment made the artist realize the probability of peace.
School buildings riddled with bullet and RPG holes and children continuously striving hard to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their daily lives were what greeted Saño on another one of his art missions, this time in Patikul, Sulu. One elder even mentioned that the last time anybody had taught art in the community was after World War II, back in the ’40s.
Art is known to have recreational benefits, but Saño also uses it to heal communities. “As far as mural art is concerned, the participants become part of the message that is conveyed on the wall art, making them part of the advocacy itself.” While arts and culture remain low priorities in national development, he says that Filipinos are generally open to different art forms. Many of those he has taught hadn’t held a brush before but were very much open to give it a try. As the French artist Henri Lamy, cofounder of the art center Taverne Gutenberg in Lyon, France, said, “You don’t have to be an artist to become creative.”
In Poblacion, there is a studio that is home to five international artists yet is also open to the public. The Ruins, the current headquarters of the first residency program organized by Taverne Gutenberg, is a stone’s throw away from popular food places Bucky’s and Alamat, and colorful murals and canvases cover its walls. While resident artists experiment and churn out art every day, everyone is welcome to observe and even collaborate. The goal is for different people to connect within one space; even the floor of the studio wasn’t spared. To date, it has already been painted on by 30 kids who have dropped by.
Apart from the studio’s international residency program, its artists are dedicated to opening its doors to anyone willing to give art a chance; they even hold art workshops for kids in Tondo, Manila. “You just understand that they need it more than anyone else,” Lamy says.
“Throughout history, art has been proven to be a great force for changing society,” notes Saño. Art brings about something that reason and logic alone cannot reach: a sense of positivity and unity that gets strengthened with each brush stroke.