How do we connect the community through the arts?

The event: SangDiwa 2015.  SangDiwa 2015 is a day-long Filipino cultural exposition with artists, performers, textiles, fashion, art exhibits, and other creative happenings. The date: June 20, 2015, Saturday. The venue: Kalayaan Hall on the first floor of the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco. The prime organizers: Global Filipino Network (GFN) – “Stronger Together.” The verdict: breathtakingly relevant and wildly triumphant!

The GFN’s mission is “to create a venue or platform where Filipinos all over the world can connect, collaborate, and be educated, through outreach, media, and online portal.” In his welcome remarks, GFN’s founder and president, Mr. Arnold Pedrigal, talked about the importance of collaboration, in the light of SangDiwa, which literally means “one voice” and figuratively, “one spirit.” After all, the GFN’s vision is “to see a stronger and a more united Filipino community worldwide.” Furthermore, Honorable Consul General (“ConGen”) Henry S. Bensurto, Jr. talked about the timeliness of this event vis-à-vis the 117th Philippine Independence Day month-long celebration that we as Filipino-Americans are having in the Bay Area. ConGen Bensurto said that nowadays, the most relevant meaning of the word “kalayaan” is the “freedom from being embarrassed of who you are.” He hopes that through SangDiwa and similar events, thrusting Filipino culture into the limelight, the next generations will be able to appreciate and value these traditions until it’s their turn to hand over the cultural legacy of what it truly means to be Filipino, sure and unashamed of their identity.

Among the many scheduled presentations on the program, what piqued my interest the most was the first afternoon panel, “Connecting the Community Through the Arts.” Starting from the moderator to the four panelists, all are distinguished achievers in their respective artistic fields. Ms. Geraldine Solon, the moderator, is a bestselling and award-winning author. The four panelists were: Eliza Barrios, an multidisciplinary artist, with works ranging from installation to performance art to new media art, all of which is informed by her experiences as a queer American Filipina; Peggy Peralta, an award-winning cinematographer, and if you’ve watched the documentary, “Harana” (Florante C. Aguilar/Fides Enriquez), you’ve just sampled one of over 20 films where she was at the camera’s helm; Kristian Kabuay, a self-taught artist influenced by Asian writing systems, calligraphy, abstract art, graffiti, indigenous culture, and technology, and the pioneer in the propagation and instruction of Baybayin, the ancient prehistoric Filipino system of writing; and Marconi Calindas, an award-winning visual artist with a unique rendering style, invited to display his works in public art projects and exhibits both local and abroad.

Geraldine addressed the very first question to the panelists: “What message do you want to deliver through your art?” Marconi began to share about his grand prize win in 2012 at the New Era Introducing Global Creative Project North America. His winning piece portrayed teen bullying and suicide. It was eventually exhibited in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and Toronto, Canada. Now promoting a book about bullying which he co-wrote and illustrated, Marconi said that his advocacy is through his art.

Kristian, riffing off from his morning Baybayin art demonstration and talk, reiterated his point about the intersection of identity, promotion, and preservation. If something indigenous is deemed of cultural value, then this leads to its preservation. He is now the leading authority and proponent of Baybayin, first learning its stringent rules and then eventually making it his own. He developed a modern performance style of the writing system called “Tulang Kalis” (Poetry of the Sword), demonstrating the art and lecturing in prestigious academic and cultural venues in his tireless advocacy for reawakening the indigenous spirit through decolonization and Baybayin.    For Peggy, her visual work is an expression of her soul and her identity as a Filipina. She recalls the ConGen’s earlier remark about when you’re in the Philippines you just take it for granted; it’s when you leave the Philippines that you begin to appreciate it. That was surely her experience when she was filming “Harana,” for instance. After going through the ropes as a beginner, armed with her talent and passion, she now has her own creative shop, Head of the Dog Pictures, established in San Francisco in 2008. Later in the forum, she was to remark, “At this point, I’m being paid to play.” What a wonderful state to be in, being paid for what you love to do! On the question of is art still relevant, yay or nay, Peggy says that survival is insufficient so we will find that we express ourselves through the arts.

According to Eliza, art was not even discussed in their own Navy-oriented family. However, through her own background experiences with race, identity, political activism, and systems of belief, she is now concerned more than ever with the analysis of the post-colonial mind. Right now, she does admit that she tends to compartmentalize between her personal and collaborative art. Through her collaboration with their group, the Mail Order Brides/M.O.B., there is dynamism in their thought-provoking video, performance, and public art for more than a decade now.

Among the important questions raised during the panel discussion was that of the role of the arts in building community. Marconi said that the children in his workshops have been very responsive to his efforts. With the advent of digital art and its attraction factor with the youth, he says that art will always be relevant. Kristian opined that seminars and workshops are very good venues to develop connections with fellow artists and the community in general.

A parent raised an interesting hypothetical question: “What shall I say to my child who says that he doesn’t want to go to school and just wants to do art all day?” Eliza told the parent to tell his kid to still go to art school anyway so that he can establish potentially lifelong connections with his classmates while they grow as artists together. Kristian said that one should get ahold of one’s finances and not to fall into the illusion of being a “starving artist.” Architect Mr. Norman Leoncio, among the audience, asked the panelists: “What kind of inspiration can you give to young people?” Peggy said, “Anything is possible.” Marconi advised, “Don’t stop – create something every day.” Eliza made a point about the youth being change agents while Kristian quipped that it may be better to have worked in a cubicle for a few years first to test one’s artistic vision. Now comes this question: “When can you tell if it’s a hobby that’s now turning into a career?” Kristian gave a pragmatic reply, “If you can make 60% of your day job salary doing art, only then should you consider maybe going full-time as an artist.” Peggy reflected that, after you have gone through the various stages of being an artist, turning professional depends on your confidence and self-respect. If you feel that all the signs are pointing to a life lived for art, then go for it!

With such talented, media-savvy, and plainspoken artists among us, I am confident that the present and future of Filipino arts and culture are in good hands!

Mabuhay kayo, mga alagad ng sining!

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