Art – triangle on poverty and hope: Pinggot Zulueta’s mixed-media paintings and Virgilio S. Almario’s poetry
In an art exhibit entitled “How Will You Sleep Tonight?” at Crucible Gallery in SM Mandaluyong last November, photographer and painter Jose “Pinggot” Zulueta fused for the first time photos and paintings to depict homelessness, poverty, and hope. He has been separately working with the two mediums with great skill in the last three decades.
Zulueta’s artworks included photos of families who lost their shanties in a demolition that he covered in a slum area near a railroad track in suburban Taguig in 2008. “That was after my arrival from Sydney where I stayed with my family for two years. We were in New Zealand earlier for four years. In Taguig, I encountered the same images of poverty that I left behind in Manila in 2002,” he recalls. One of his “demolition photos” received a special award in the Rotterdam Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies’ photo competition in 2008.
Last August, when he went back to his family in Sydney, he brought the colored photos with him to prepare an art exhibit. He printed them in black and white and transferred them on canvas through a process called emulsion transfer. He dissected the middle part of his canvases using a network of colorful lines. Then he added abstract forms of houses, stilts and scaffoldings, including geometrical forms: squares, rectangles and trapezoids – within which the poor and the homeless could be viewed as if they were no longer sheltered by a wide sky above and an empty railroad track around them.
Zulueta’s profuse overlay of abstract elements on his photos creates a meditative texture and an external scar. It is a willful “inward” navigation toward understanding the heart and predicament of the poor and the oppressed, he says. His abstract overlay of scaffoldings over the photos initially look like barricades (or scars) that also symbolize his wish: “I want them to have their own homes where they can eat, live, love, pray, and sleep.”
Critics usually presume that photographic images of poverty should be projected to prick the conscience of the viewing public. But for Zulueta, the concern is, first, to reveal his conscience (his understanding and relationship with the poverty he has captured in photos) and not to project poor people as poverty object. For him, understanding and relating with the images — not projecting poverty per se as art — is the more important thing.
He thus creates a moral universe for the poor – aided by photos – in his artworks. “I want to enhance the soul of the images by showing my stand (or how I feel) with the poor people I have encountered,” Zulueta says. It took years for him to dare transform his photos into artworks that reflect a photographer and an artist’s life-changing encounter with poverty.
“Pure photographic forms of poverty benumb and create reality-fatigue. To hide the starkness of poverty and oppression a little bit can entice viewers to a closer look so that they meditate on what they see. This way, they will not take for granted what they encounter. Through my artistic embellishments, I think they can experience my own encounter with the subjects in my photos.” he adds.
Justified and ethical style
Zulueta’s aim in creating tight and contrasting layers of reality and possibilities justifies his method of blending photos and paintings.
As a photojournalist who peripatetically takes photos of rich and poor people alike, Zulueta has enough stock to fuel his artworks towards an attitude of class struggle. His use of photos that are patently his intellectual property – in his artworks, is more ethical than the habit of other modern artists who rampantly source from everywhere the “found objects” that they use for artistic projects.
Almario’s poems on Zulueta’s artworks
Poet Virgilio S. Almario, also known as Rio Alma, National Artist for literature in 2003, has added to Zulueta’s artworks lines from his own poetry.
“When I made poems for the exhibit, I sought the meaning of his photographic images underneath the layers of colorful lines,” Almario says. The poet’s words therefore do not become mere captions for Zulueta’s photos-cum-paintings. They appear in Almario’s handwriting — permanent and autonomous calligraphic art at the borders of Zulueta’s canvases. The jamming of Zulueta’s art works and Almario’s poems has interesting results.
Zulueta’s images of two men staring straight across the canvas, entitled “Titig sa Kawalan (Staring at Nothing),” for example, makes Almario despair about the predicament of poor people: “Wala. Walang kabilang buhay para sa daga, maliban kung nakatakdang angel ang pusa (No. There is no after life for rats. Unless cats are destined to be angels),” he says in his poem.
Zulueta’s image of a sleeping man, in “Humahabi ng Panaginip (Weaving Dreams),” is accompanied by Almario’s sarcastic lines on inequity: “Pag nawala ang pobre, sino pa ang kliyente ng mayamang teknokrat at manedyer ng World Bank? (If the poor disappear, who will be the clients of the rich technocrat and the World Bank manager?”
What about revolution, the staple of conscientious art? Zulueta’s image of a poor couple entitled, “Naghihintay ng Himala (Waiting for Miracle), triggers Almario’s impatience and he writes about a sense of possibilities and defiance of one’s mortality: “Di naghihintay ang oras. Humihinto lang sa wakas (Times does not wait, but only stops in the end),” is his comment.
Zulueta’s inscrutable faces of father and child, entitled “Kapalaran (Chance),” become a platform for Almario’s prediction that poor people’s outrage has only one logical and bloody end. “Sampisik lang kalawang kakain balang araw sa sambundok mang bakal (The tiniest bit of rust will eat a whole mountain of scrap),” the poet blathers.
Life versus revolution
But Almario also opposes rage and revolution when writing lines inspired by Zulueta’s images of innocent, poor, and young children.
Zulueta’s photo-portrait of a wide-eyed young girl, in “Tadhana (Fate),” makes Almario caution against violence: “Kung may mata, magmasid, kung may taynga, makinig, bago sundin ang bibig (If you have eyes, see. If you have ears, listen. Before doing what you say).”
The image of a young girl entitled “Liwanag (Light,” causes Almario to plead for peace over war, forgivenes against hatred: “Ano ba ang dahas? Isang bisig ng poot, kapanalig ng lakas, at kabiyak ng lungkot. (And what is violence? An arm of rage, a co-believer of force, a spouse of sorrow).”
A powerful close-up shot of a young boy, in “Musmos,” prompts Almario to compare youthful “rain-dreams” with elders’ sun-drenched labor.
Zulueta’s photo of a young girl carrying a school bag bearing a picture of Snow White, in “Kinabukasan puno ng alinlangan (A future full of doubts),” makes Almario quip, “Ito’y museo ng mundo sa bulag at pusong bato (This is the world’s museum for the stone-heart and the blind).” It sounds like an ironic description of art with conscience, which is Zulueta’s advocacy in this art exhibit.
Another photo-portrait of mother and child in “Pighati (Lament) provokes Almario to wonder: “Hindi kaya Diyos mismo ay nabagot sa ganito (na imahen ng kalungkutan)? (Didn’t God himself tire of this daily labor?).” The poet’s reaction suggests revolutionary fatigue. This nails an argument for life and sheltering, just like Zulueta’s need for nests for the homeless.
A kind of art-triangle
The show’s multi-media presentation of poverty – a kind of art triangle – brings back to life a fascination that once challenged young social realist artists to flirt dangerously with class struggle in the ‘70s.
Marne Kilates’ English translation of Almario’s poems was in the exhibit’s catalogue. Social realist artist Renato Habulan was the exhibit’s curator.
As a political cartoonist in the ‘80s, Zulueta also identified with the social realist artists. In recent exhibits, he has depicted migration issues, based on his experience as a Filipino immigrant in New Zealand and Australia.