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Survival Mode: Three Artists on Rebuilding the Philippine Art Scene

The local art scene is set to rise from the ashes, but artists Alfredo Esquillo, Wesley Valenzuela, and Distort Monsters are riding the wave of its return

Art, many will agree, feeds the soul. Few, however, will argue that art is a profession that can reliably feed you. 

But for years, many artists were living proof that one could actually make a living out of giving thought and emotion physical form. How the Philippine art scene used to operate is proof of it: countless galleries held new exhibits every three to four weeks, while auctions for works by the masters turned out crowds of competitive collectors. And who could forget the scale of art fairs that gathered thousands of connoisseurs and clout-chasers alike in one space?

Enter 2020. Nothing like a pandemic to drag collective society down the rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — and to toss art onto the back burner.

From the bottom of the pyramid

“All the galleries were closed,” artist and graphic designer Wesley Valenzuela says succinctly. 

For many artists, no galleries often mean little to no income. However, the uncertainty extends beyond this and would lead him to even lose interest in producing art. He explains, “Before the pandemic, there was a lot of pride to be had in your art, that you could broaden people’s perspectives. But during the pandemic, that was put into question. Somehow, you’re so helpless. You can’t do anything, because everything is beyond your control.”

Uninspired, Valenzuela instead focused on completing commissioned works that carried over and picking up freelance graphic design gigs. It would be months later before he would create art again, and it would be for an online exhibition by Art+ Magazine called Brave New World, which invited artists to depict life during the pandemic as they saw it.

For this, Valenzuela returned to the heart of his work: paying tribute to the lives of those around him in his home of downtown Manila. “The Paradox of Distance” explores not only what he observed, but his own doubts on social distancing in the midst of crowded districts and close family ties. “Despite all the questions about art that the pandemic raised, I later realized just how important it can be when it comes to well-being, calming yourself,” he explains.

But beyond its importance for the self, the crux of art in a time of crisis is its way of giving people new ways to comprehend the world. Today, it comes with more responsibility. 

“As we saw in the pandemic, you cannot be apolitical,” says Valenzuela. “You can’t ignore politics, or believe your art is for art’s sake. Somehow, we need to help enlighten people with regards to their stands on different things. Not just their political support, but their stand on what’s right and what’s good.”

From undiscovered lands

Street artist Distort Monsters also found himself initially unable to produce art; to roam and stick his signature monsters everywhere. While some street artists took advantage of the empty streets, he found himself doing the opposite: “I became really paranoid about the COVID-19 situation, so I locked myself up in my studio,” he explains. “I stocked up on everything so I wouldn’t even need to open my front door.”

The longer the pandemic went, the more uncertainty there was, causing him to disconnect. It was a period that recalled how Distort Monsters got his name: dispelling his anxiety, the monsters in his head, through drawing. “As soon as I started making stuff for myself again inside the studio, I started to recover,” he says. “And if I couldn’t paint on the streets, then I would put extra effort in my other work.”

Like Valenzuela, Distort Monsters would focus on commissions and find himself contributing his own view of the pandemic to the Brave New World online exhibition. “The Spaces Between Us” was painted out of frustration with whatever remaining paint he had left, expressing the literal and figurative distances the lockdown brought about. His monsters, typically clumped together, are separated.

The uncertainty Distort Monsters was confronted with would lead him to realize that art needs to evolve. Thus began the street artist’s foray into the world of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens – which are more than just the overpriced JPEGs that many claim they are, but a way to bridge physical art to the digital space. 

Since launching his first collection entitled Monster Mayhem, Distort Monsters stresses the importance of art being a space without any boundaries. In a crisis, it offers a way to evolve. “[The NFT space] is like the Wild West,” he describes. “There are no boundaries right now for what we can or can’t do.”

From the peripheries

Stories of doubt color the beginning of the pandemic, but there are outliers. Alfredo Esquillo occupies the interesting position of being both artist and gallerist. He was also nowhere near Metro Manila at the time, but in Tanauan, Batangas constructing Eskinita Art Farm, an extension of his Eskinita Art Gallery in Makati.

“When the pandemic hit, I did not stop,” Esquillo says. Like many, he focused on commissions, but never abandoned the experimental, politically-charged work he is known for – especially when participating in online exhibitions with fellow artists. There were fundraisers for the Philippine General Hospital, and also Art+ Magazine’s Brave New World show. With the craziness of the times, there were many things to express about life during the pandemic.

China’s continued activity in the West Philippine Sea despite the crisis, for example, alarmed him – and it would inspire his first pieces, all connected by the motif of a dragon. One of them is “Darna at Ang Kanyang Potensya,” where the weak Narda transforms into the powerful superhero Darna and fights a sea serpent. “I wanted to reinforce this idea that we can fight back,” Esquillo explains. “Even if we’re not militarily prepared, there are other ways, like with the UN arbitration. We did that, and we won.”

These are important messages, ways of viewing the world that only art can convey – and so, it is something to be shared with people beyond the usual city crowd. “One thing I appreciated [in the province] is the idea of decentralization – we need to develop the peripheries,” says Esquillo. 

Since its opening, exhibits at Eskinita Art Farm have grown from audiences of 30 to about 500. He adds, “We’re proving that it is possible to contribute art activities and art education outside Metro Manila. You can really feel that art is becoming more of a part of the community.”

From the new world

The Philippine art scene is, to say the least, not what it once was. But from what was once a crawl, a stagger, things are picking up as Valenzuela, Esquillo, and Distort Monsters all find themselves faced with a familiar friend: deadlines. Galleries are quietly opening shows online and offline. Physical art fairs are making their return.

The scene is eager to leave the pandemic behind – but it is a time that has shaped the perspectives of artists everywhere in the Philippines, and one that none of them will forget. It is for this reason that Art+ Magazine has transformed its Brave New World exhibition into a coffee table book. Gathering more than 400 works from over 300 local artists, Brave New World: Art and the Pandemic documents the perspectives, emotions, hopes, and frustrations during this historic time. 

Beyond artworks, Brave New World tells the story of this turning point in Philippine history through images from the pandemic and essays by formidable contributors such as Rick Francisco of Fundacion Sanso, poet Jose F. Lacaba, art history lecturer Petty Benitez-Johannot, celebrated artist Jose Terence Ruiz, and more. 

“Looking through the book, you’ll definitely see things that mirror our own experiences,” says Art+ Managing Editor Jewel Chuaunsu. “You’ll see things like face masks, contact tracing, social distance, financial assistance –  but there is also a lot of strength, courage, and optimism in facing the challenges.”

“Brave New World: Art and the Pandemic” may be ordered online at Works featured in the book will be on display until March 26, 2022 at Art Lounge Manila at The Podium.