An image of hope: the Philippine art community in the time of COVID-19

Words by Anna Nicola Blanco | Art provided by Jill arteche, shelterfund, and gianne encarnacion

We checked in on various members of the local art community to see how they’re doing and how they see their industry moving forward. 

As of writing, Metro Manila, as well as other parts of the Philippines, have been in varying stages of community quarantine for 170 days, what is now considered to be one of the longest in the world. Nearly five months in, individuals and communities find themselves still scrambling to adjust to a “new normal” that seems to shift day in and day out. It’s a confusing time for everyone, but a zoom in on particular communities shows that adjustment and adaptation varies, and efforts to keep each other afloat seem boundless. For Filipino artists, illustrators, and photographers, the reality is just that.

Full-time freelance visual artist and illustrator Jill Arteche says that the first few months of the quarantine, in particular, were difficult. “In terms of projects, kumonti. (There were less.) Some were cancelled. It was very, very draining, even if I wasn’t doing anything. It was the feeling that you don’t know [what’s going to happen to you] when you wake up. Anong gagawin mo? (What are you going to do?)”

“It was hard to imagine,” says designer and illustrator Mika Bacani, who works for Lowbrow, a group that puts up restaurants around Metro Manila, “[that people would continue to] commission creative work. My day job is in [the restaurant business], one of the hardest hit industries by the pandemic… so it got me scrambling for other means of income.”

A resounding call

But amidst the tumult of layoffs and decreased incomes came a resounding call to help those in need, something which is not unfamiliar to many Filipinos. The image of a town or group of people carrying a nipa hut comes to mind, an image often associated with bayanihan, a term that describes the local tradition of mutual assistance often called upon in times of crisis.

“In a time when income is hard to generate, you see artists raising money for others… and people who support [donation] drives and small businesses. You really see the lengths people will go to to take care of each other,” says illustrator and graphic designer, Gianne Encarnacion. 

“My [group of friends] has participated too; we have an art for a cause drive, called Kabibe Helps, [that raises money] for various beneficiaries and groups. We intend to keep at it and help more people out.” Gianne’s is just one of many initiatives that popped up during the quarantine to raise funds for various groups that have been struggling to make ends meet.

But with the scramble of many artists to secure funds and equipment for frontliners, local farmers, jeepney drivers, and other workers who live on a “no work, no pay” basis, another question began to take shape: Who, then, would support the artists?

A time to help each other

Freelance photographer and Shutterspace Studios owner Jason Quibilan weighs in: “You come to realize that the artists themselves, the photographers themselves, who were contributing work for free also needed support.” From this realization came Shelter Fund, an initiative from Shutterspace Studios’ offshoot printing business, Silver. “[It] started from that [idea]. We thought ‘Okay, now it’s time to help each other—help the photographers, the artists,’” explains Jason. 

Shelter Fund is an online platform where photographers and artists are given a space to promote and sell their work. Seeing as how galleries and studios had been forced to shut down during the quarantine, Jason and his team immediately identified printing as a service they could continue to provide given the newly imposed hurdles to running an on-site business. “But printing is a big investment, with no real sure return. You don’t know if [your prints] will sell.” 

Jason explains that their initial goal was “to assure photographers and artists that [my team would] do the marketing for the work. Allow your images to be sold by us, and if people buy, that’s the only time we’ll print.” This is called Print on Demand, which allows for individuals to profit from their original, and sometimes personal, works with little to no cost involved. “It was a good way to endeavour to make some money out of your prints without investing.” 

He goes on to say that it’s surprising “how few of us have actually ever sold a print that way. It was really something different even for [the seasoned artists].” Not only have initiatives like Shelter Fund provided a means for creatives to make a living in such uncertain times, but it may have also provided them with a new avenue to expand their possibilities. “It’s a good thing, [because they saw] that they can actually support themselves [by doing] this.”

Aside from setting up an online space for artists, Jason and his team also came up with the idea of a communal fund where “10 to 20 percent goes from [the sale of the work] into a fund,” the accumulation of which would then be divided among the participants. “Over a hundred artists and photographers got a considerable sum, but there were also those that decided [to leave their share in the fund].”

“It’s so important,” says Mika Bacani, who also participated in Shelter Fund, “[that the community] look out for each other now.

Moving forward

With the sudden shift brought down upon everyone’s lives, it seems only natural that many are asking what’s next. What happens if COVID-19 and the community quarantine are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future?

Shelter Fund recently concluded its sale, but the website will remain for interested individuals who wish to contact the artists directly. “We’re not stopping,” says Jason. “We’ll continue finding ways for artists and photographers to sell their work through the website,” a sentiment which seems to signal that many of the initiatives that were started during the pandemic may continue well after we leave the confines of our houses. 

When asked about the sustainability of their current situation—remote work, online galleries and exhibitions, fund drives, etc.—the opinions vary. Jill Arteche explains that “maybe now, in the short term, kaya (we can do it). But in the long run, I think exhibits need to be in spaces, in galleries. That’s why galleries [and museums] are there.” 

But if there is anything that the creatives community has proven over the last five months, it’s that they are capable—of adapting, of changing, of working with what they have and making it work for them. Jason explains that what he used to see as a niched and individualized community has been turned on its head.

Lahat nagutom. (Everyone experienced hunger.) It’s the first time that there’s a problem that everyone has to deal with. So [if you have problems] it’s not just something that affects you or your clients. Feeling ko magandang wake up call for everyone [ang nangyayari]. (I think that what’s happening now is a good wake up call for everyone.)”