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.

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