Stories of ‘lumad’ evacuees in Surigao inspire street artist
MANILA, Philippines — Street artist Archie Oclos found his subject when he was conducting an art workshop for students of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development Inc. (Alcadev) in Surigao del Sur province in August 2018.
He instructed the “lumad” students to draw their environment as they saw it.
One student drew the lush trees and mountains that surrounded the lumad homes, with the sun shining and birds flying in the background.
But in the foreground is a scene in red, in sharp contrast to the greens and blues that symbolize a peaceful, beautiful community.
Deaths in September
It is a representation of the violence of invasion: the lumad look on as government soldiers shoot the community leaders who send the children to school and protect their environment.
“After they were shot, we were told that we did not have a right to be there. That there was someone else who owned the land,” the student said, referring to the killing of Dionel Campos, Datu Bello Sinzo and Alcadev director Emerito Samarca in September 2015.
Right there and then, Oclos, 28, promised the children he’d tell their story.
In April, he worked for almost 12 hours a day for 24 days on “Bakwit,” a mural on a wall of a 14-story building along Dominga Street in Malate, Manila.
The once gray, windowless wall in a parking lot beside De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts building now shows a picture of the plight of “bakwit” children as they focus on survival rather than education.
“This is important for me because I really felt the hardship of [the] bakwit. They are voiceless … I need to tell [their story] and send the message to a lot of people, especially the youth,” said Oclos, a fine arts graduate from the University of the Philippines.
The sun shines on a painting showing a barefoot lumad girl carrying a baby while balancing a sack of rice on her head—school books tied to it—and carrying a bag of clothes on her back.
Clouds shaped like a house, a dove and a graduation cap float over the girl. She is in flight toward a dream—of education and better life—defying danger represented by military camouflage under her feet.
Why the children?
Below the mural is a poem in Bisaya, riddled with questions about why the children have become displaced instead of students in their own land and why they are exposed to the dangers of war when they are so young.
“Bakwit,” from the English word “evacuee,” is a Filipino term used to describe people displaced by conflict between government forces and militant groups.
“I tried to discuss visually our indigenous peoples’ struggles, especially in the perspective of the youth during the times [they fled] their ancestral lands because of militarization … aerial bombing, harassment and killings in their community,” Oclos said.
“The image of the mural is [in] contrast to the location itself, wherein a lot of youth [have] access to education,” he said.
Lucky city kids
“[Archie] is hoping that students here in the city, with this mural, will be able to think about how lucky they are … There is no threat to their education. It’s an invitation to reflect on what you have,” said Gerry Torres, director of Benilde’s Center for Campus Art.
The campus art center will collaborate with the Benilde Center for Social Action, which works with the marginalized, on events and programs for awareness and action on the plight of the lumad.
“The launch of the mural on June 5 is not the end of the project, but rather the start of engagements that Benilde will have with the lumad community through Archie,” Torres told the Inquirer.
Oclos’ mural is part of Benilde’s partnership with the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and is one of the first three artworks to be finished under the 13 Artists in Benilde project.
Torres said he and cocurator Karen Flores, a professor on the multimedia arts program, gave the artists free rein to interact with the architecture of the campus.
Oclos, he said, wanted to paint on a wall.
“It’s free, it’s for everybody to see, [and] you don’t have to go to a mall or gallery to see it. It’s public art,” Torres said.
Together with Oclos, Rasel Trinidad, a.k.a. Doktor Karayom, and Zeus Bascon were the first artists to exhibit their work in Benilde.
In October 2018, they received the 2018 CCP 13 Artists Awards, a recognition given every three years to artists under 40 who respond to contemporary concerns of the country through art.
But fulfilling his promise to the lumad children did not come easy for Oclos. He chose a huge wall of the design and arts building, and Torres himself sought permission from Benilde president Dennis Magbanua to use the wall for a mural.
University Pad Residences, an adjacent dormitory, was another problem: Benilde did not own the property, and the school had to secure a permit through manager Adrian Villaluna Español.
After working for weeks, Oclos didn’t just have a completed mural, he also had new friends.
The building painters he would see as he worked would smile and wave at him, and he’d sometimes chat with Elmer Resabal, the parking lot caretaker, as he assisted him up and down on a motorized gondola.
To combat his constant fear of falling, he would step back with Resabal and take a look at his progress during his three-hour breaks at the hottest time of the day.
“Archie feels happy when he sees his work slowly coming to life … I think it’s beautiful,” Resabal said.
Oclos hopes he has kept his promise to the lumad children.
“Their community is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. All the Manobo children knew how to plant, they were diligent in their studies. It was their way of fighting back,” he said.
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