The Art of Survival: Filipino Artists in the Midst of the Pandemic

Ever resilient, Filipino artists strive to survive and help others, amid a country grappling with a pandemic and changing government regulations.

“Pila sa Bigas” by Vicente Manansala (1910-1981) | Photo Courtesy of Leon Gallery

Everything Cancelled

Even early into the declared community quarantine in Luzon, Filipinos in the arts industry had begun feeling the economic effect of the pandemic. On June 5, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported its highest unemployment rate at 17.7 percent in April. According to National Statistician, Claire Dennis Mapa, the biggest drops in employment among the employment sub-sectors were posted in arts, entertainment and recreation at 54 percent.

While numbers give a bird’s eye view of the staggering effect of Covid-19 on the industry of the arts, the reality lies in the stories of artists living it.

When the decade began, artists eagerly looked forward to a year of projects. However, as news of the virus trickled into the country, those projects began to disappear. “In my case, I started losing work as early as January. When word of a virus started to spread, gigs and rackets started to drop like flies. By March, my entire 2020 calendar was devastated as I lost every single gig and show that I had booked,” Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, a theatre actress, revealed.

Gold Villar-Lim, a Senior Artist Teacher for Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), shared a similar story. “We cancelled all of our shows and workshops, that meant five workshops and an ongoing show (Peta’s Under My Skin). Double that, because my husband, Vince Lim, is also an artist and was supposed to do two MD (musical director) jobs for two different productions, and that of course got cancelled.”

“Fisherman” by Julius Legaspi

Artists in other fields also felt the blow. “Malaki talaga ang epekto sa visual artists. I used to teach in Gateway Gallery, ngayon, hindi ako makalabas ng Bulacan (The effect on visual artists is really huge. I used to teach in Gateway Gallery. Now I can’t get out of Bulacan),” said Julius Legaspi, a full-time visual artist residing in Marilao, Bulacan.

” Hillside Melody” by Julius Legaspi

“For paintings, lahat ng tao, kailangan i-save yung money nila. For three months, no sales. Hindi ‘yun ang priority nila. Priority – food, health, at shelter

Julius legaspi, visual artist

(For paintings, everyone now needs to save their money. So for three months, I had no sales. Paintings are not the priority. It’s food, health and shelter.)

For Jose Solon Perfecto, a pottery artist based in the surfing capital of the north, Surftown, San Juan, La Union, “The biggest hurdles currently are logistics and procurement of raw materials.” The transport ban has been detrimental to the his craft. “It has been difficult getting my items to my buyers and collectors in Manila and sometimes abroad,” he said.

Salt of the Earth Pottery | Photo by Summer Puertollano

As a pottery artist that focuses on the discipline of functional high fire stoneware under the brand, Salt of the Earth Pottery, sourcing from Manila and other parts of the country for local clays has also been challenging. However, according to Jose, Contemporary Philippine potters have added the aspect of having to make their own clays and glazes as part of their craft.

“The silver lining of this is that each of us have our own unique clay body that cannot be completely replicated… This actually makes our works more precious and rare.”

The Creative Hustle

As various groups came together to clamor for support and raise funds , the artists themselves began to ‘hustle’ — many inhabiting the online world to recoup months of lost income.

Pj Rebullida, Founder of Galaw.Co Dance Theatre Company| @pjrebullida

PJ Rebullida, a dancer/choreographer and founder of the Galaw.Co Dance Theater Company, said that they had to move their offers online. “Rates are not the same as pre-Covid, but it is a start. I am still wracking my brain on how to make shows online that break from the mold of home videos and monetize from them.”

While creativity is the life blood for artists, many have felt the need to push creative boundaries during the quarantine. “We, as a family, have really started to dig deep into our savings, and we’re looking into as many alternative forms of income that we can,” Mikkie Volante explained. “My husband (singer-songwriter Nyoy Volante) is writing jingles and demos. I’ve hosted a few Zoom events and I’m also teaching online Musical Theater classes for kids.”

The theatre actress also uses Kumu, a live streaming app where Filipinos all over the world can come together, make friends, share talent, and create content — as an alternative platform. “Through the app, I’ve met more people than I would have in the real world, made just enough money to keep food on the table and maintained a certain level of sanity,” Mikkie shared,  “Performing is my natural state—so now I do it from my living room in front of my phone!”

Mica Pineda, Head of Campaigns for Kumu and herself a freelance host and performer, believes that the app has not only provided a means for artists to sustain themselves but also a platform to share their artistry. “The pandemic has made Kumu grow. Everyone is live streaming, and there is so much activity in the app.”

Hustling for Others

As more artists resort to online platforms to earn, many becoming food entrepreneurs overnight — finding customers became a concern. This concern moved Gold Lim to partner with Gimbey de la Cruz, fellow theater actress and businesswoman, to put up the Pinoy Theater Cooperative on Facebook – a page that allows artists to post their products online and sell within a community. Gimbey hopes that the initiative has been helping people. “…Hirap na hirap ang theatre friends natin who post online. Sila yung may kailangan ng tulong… Marami sa kanila – no work, no pay. (Our theater friends who post online are really having a hard time. They are the ones who need help. Many of them — no work, no pay.)

The Growth of Gulayan Bayanihan | Photo courtesy of Julius Legaspi

In Marilao, visual artist Julius Legaspi, with the help of land owner, Mang Rene Mendoza, extended help to displaced construction workers in their vicinity.

Nakakakuha kami ng ayuda from government, yung canned goods. Tapos in Bulacan, meron kaming fresh chicken. Pero kung malaki ang pamilya mo, hindi kasya. Kailangan talaga makaisip ng paraan – hindi na magkapera, pero para maka survive.”

Julius legaspi, visual artist

(We were getting aid from the government in canned goods. In Bulacan, we also have fresh chicken. But if you have a big family, it’s really not enough. You have to think of another way, not to earn money, but to survive.)

Legaspi launched an initiative called ‘Gulayan Bayanihan’ together with Mendoza, who readily agreed to lend land they could farm on.

Kaswertehan, pinahiram almost 600 sq. meters… Lahat ng tumulong, napagkasunduan namin, lahat ng magtatrabaho dun, magiging member ng gulayan. Walang involved na pera, walang sweldo. Lahat ng maproproduce namin, iaani bilang pang kain sa pang araw-araw. Yung sobra pwedeng ibenta, pambili ng bigas at ulam.

(Luckily, we were lent land of almost 600 sq, meters. It was hard in the beginning… It was agreed upon that everyone who helped and worked, would become a member of the group. Money was not involved. There was no salary. Whatever we produced, we would harvest for our daily meals. We sold whatever was extra, to help buy rice and viands.)

The artist says he has accepted the presence of the virus, but will not allow the pandemic to get in the way of life and dreams. He stressed the need to adapt, “Makahanap ng way, hindi para yumaman, magkapera sa banko, pero para maka-survive as one healthy person, okay na yun. (To find a way, not to become rich, or have money in the bank. But to survive as one healthy person, that’s okay.)”

Rene Mendoza together with the displaced construction workers of Gulayan Bayanihan | Photo courtesy of Julius Legaspi

The Art of Survival

Mica admits, as Filipinos move toward the new normal, “It feels like Survivor Philippines. People are taking cautionary measures on their own.”

With this desire for survival high in the minds of Filipino artists, many of whom have turned to online platforms for income, concerns were raised as the Bureau of Internal Revenue, in its Revenue Memorandum Circular No. 60-2020, dated June 1, notified that “all persons doing business and earning income in any manner or form, specifically those who are into digital transactions through the use of any electronic platforms and media, and other digital means, to ensure that their businesses are registered pursuant to the provisions of Section 236 of the Tax Code, as amended, and that they are tax compliant.” Earlier, the Department of Finance (DOF), had also said that it was looking at how to impose taxes on digital activities such as online sales and streaming services.

“I do believe that online sellers should have some level of accountability,” Mikkie said. “So many people have to turn to selling online out of necessity and the time will come when we will need to assess how to tax them fairly, but now is not the time for that. I do appreciate the tax exemption for micro- businesses because let’s face it, I’m not going to be earning more than 250,000 this year,” she added, noting the tax exemption mentioned by the Palace for those earning less than 250,000 pesos within the year.

PJ enjoined, as their dance company slowly migrates online, “It is hard. The online medium has limited tactile and energy exchanges. We are still learning how best to use the medium… There is anxiety everywhere and we try to make the classes a safe space where there is no judgement regardless of level of technique and capacity.” He continues, commenting on the RMC 60-2020, “Right now, we are not even thinking about it. All we are thinking about is survival.”

Seeing the massive migration of Filipinos to earning online, Ginger Arboleda, Chief Operations Officer of Taxumo, a BIR-accredited Tax Service Provider (TSP), understood that the need to be educated has grown. “From our experience, a lot of the fear and apprehension comes simply from not understanding how taxes work. That is why a big part of what we do is education.” To help citizens understand how taxes work, Taxumo decided to conduct ‘Ask Me Anything’ Community Roadshows. “In these sessions, they are free to ask Team Taxumo Representatives and our partner CPAs any question that they’ve always been too afraid to ask.“ 

Arboleda continued, “I think I’m hopeful. I know that a lot of business owners and professionals will bounce back from this. We need to help each other so that we can all survive. Seeing posts of people supporting other local business owners is what we need at a time like this.”

Surviving the Pandemic

While learning to survive financially in the new normal is high on the mind of artists, they believe more firmly in the human need for Art. 

Pj Rebullida, Founder of Galaw.Co Dance Theatre Company| @pjrebullida

“This period is not a pause on Dance, Theater and Art. We have to keep sharing. We have to keep making. We have to keep creating,” PJ stressed while calling for a spotlight on the plight of artists, “I am also pushing my company to keep moving forward… I hope the government finds ways to invigorate the industry and support us.”

“There seems to be some global awakening regarding purpose and mindfulness, thus the “enjoy the little things” mantra people have been practicing in their lives. I guess our art, having all its practicalities, does add beauty and form to everyday life — whether that be drinking coffee, having breakfast, or making a pot of tea.” And seemingly, people want to enjoy these things in wares made with that same mindful intention,” said Jose Perfecto.

Mikkie remains hopeful saying, “It will be a while before we can come together in a room for big events and big flashy productions… so we’ll need to go back to the bones of what theater is—storytelling. And there will be so many stories to tell. ‘Til then, we’ll just need to tighten our belts.”

CCP Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo

As the country begins to adapt to the “new-normal” brought about by the global pandemic, Jose also makes a call for action.

“As a Filipino, the current pandemic has surely placed an even bigger magnifying glass on our government’s response… If I were to take a pragmatic approach to this situation, I would urge everyone to register to vote if you haven’t yet, so you can have a voice in choosing public servants that you think have the best bet in protecting us.”

Jose Solon perfecto, pottery artist at salt of the earth pottery

Written by: Pamela Imperial
Edited by: Kristine Rioflorido

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