For the People’s Artists

Ilena Saturay’s Contribution  to the New World Summit (Jan 29-31, 2016 in Utrecht)

“In a village where there was no theater auditoriums, nor cinemas, not even television and electricity – the New People’s Army, together with the masses, gathered and created a venue for a cultural event, making use of whatever they had. The stones and the grass became chairs and a big artwork on cheesecloth painted by the youth in the village served as the backdrop of the stage. The program lasted until night time, and with no electricity, the people used flashlights as spotlights for them to see the actors.

One of the performances was a musical play that told the story of a young peasant whose land was taken by the landlord. The play ended with the young peasant, frustrated from oppression and exploitation, decided to join the New People’s Army. During that scene, when he went and told the people’s army, “Comrades, I have decided to join you!” – a young man from the audience suddenly interrupted and ran to the stage. He, too, told them “Comrades, I have also decided to join!”. Then, one by one, people went running
towards the stage to declare their decision to join.

This was not part of the script of the musical play. The audience felt that it wasn’t merely a theater performance that they were meant to just watch and enjoy, nor were they mere spectators. They were not separated from the art piece. Instead, it was something that they were part of – it belonged to them.

When we look at the Filipino revolutionary movement from the outside, it is full of artistic works. At protests and mobilizations, you will big effigies and puppets, colorful banners and masks. There are street plays, songs of struggles, and books, paintings, and so much more. They expose the rottenness of the system, question and challenge it. They tell the stories and struggles of the people and incite them to take action. But it is not only about that.

The theme of this block is called future representation. But what is important is that it is not only about representation.The essential element is participation.

Art has bloomed excellently in the revolution. But not because we have excellent artists. It is because we have a revolution. People look at artists as creative people but their works do not come from mere individual creativity or pure imagination. It comes from the struggle of the people. And if I simply paint images of revolution from my room, isolated from the people’s movement, sign my name on the bottom and exhibit it, I wouldn’t say I or my art represent the people and the people’s movement.

In the experience of our movement, artists do what we call mass integrations. They go to the workers, to the peasants, the urban poor, and other oppressed sectors of the society. Not for an hour or a day to interview them, get their stories and make artworks from them. No – the artists live with them, work with them, they join them in their struggle. The greatest artworks are made in the streets, at the picket lines, mobilizations, barricades, in the villages and in the mountains by artists who hold a pencil with one hand and an AK47 with the other.

And the artistic skills that they have are not only of the artists themselves. They make it accessible to the masses. Theater plays and murals are made by people who before have never held a pencil or stepped in an art academy.

I remember the first time I gave a theater workshop. It was in a peasant community. I was still new in the organization. And I was teaching them movements that portrayed planting rice. They starting laughing and told me, “Comrade how come that looks like you are washing your clothes with your hands.” And I realized, I came there to their community thinking I knew better. There I was, a girl from the city who had never planted rice before, teaching the peasants movements how to do it. And they were the ones who were doing it everyday!

That is what happens when you think you represent the people you are supposed to represent, when in fact you remain in your ivory tower above them, not with and among them.

Art should also be where it belongs – to the masses. Show films in communities with no cinemas, theater plays where there are no theater houses, exhibitions where there are no museums, concerts where there are no arenas. It is supposed to be part of the people’s daily lives.

In the society that we have now, artists belong to this elite group who have acquired artistic skills and are supposed to make a career out of it. This is the mentality that this system breeds. But this is the system that we are fighting against. We are breaking away from this system.

And as we build our own model of society, which is radically different, we should also radically change how we see and create art. We create art not to become “artists”, not as individuals who want to make a name. We shouldn’t ask what it contributes to our CV, we should ask what it contributes to the world we are building.

So all of us, we should question ourselves and I am not excluding myself. What are we doing? What are we doing here in this Summit? We can talk and it’s wonderful. It is an artwork. But it is important, at the end of this weekend, when we get out of the door later today, if we are asked by the people who we are supposed to represent, who we have been talking about all weekend, ‘What have you done for us? What have you done while we are being oppressed?’ If the only answer I can give them as an artist is ‘I made paintings and theater plays that represent you’. Then I have to say, an ‘artist’ is the last thing I want to be.

So again, we can never create an effective representation of the people’s movement without direct participation. We as artists should not only seek to represent the new world that we are building, but participate in making it a reality.”

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