Papo De Asis: Expatriate Artist, Social Activist

“My paintings,” Papo de Asis wrote in 1992, “yearn to be the anguished expression of a people long denied of justice and equality…The convoluted reality of my historical past wrote the scenario to my present sources of sorrow.”

By Bobby Tuazon

In the last analysis, what is the source of all literature and art? Works of literature and art, as ideological forms, are products of the reflection in the human brain of the life of a given society. Revolutionary literature and art are the products of the reflection of the life of the people in the brains of revolutionary writers and artists. The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source. They are the only source, for there can be no other.

— Mao Zedong, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942

Of all art forms, social realism is perhaps the most challenging – it is enlightened by objective truths and it agitates for social transformation. Dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, social realism focuses on social issues and the realities of everyday life. This artistic movement, that also inspired many American artists and painters during the Great Depression, expressed its presence among progressive artists and cultural activists at the height of the First Quarter Storm during the 1970s. The times would tell: The economy was in ruins, peasants were on the march crying for land and social justice, student activism was on the rise fueled by high tuition and police brutality, a new patriotic guerrilla army was in genesis and Ferdinand Marcos was secretly scheming to impose a dictatorship.

At the time, the cultural propaganda movement drew various types of people who would be politicized and transformed by the social, economic and political conditions and would carry on the struggle for social change to greater heights. One of them is Danilo Hubbero “Papo” de Asis.

Known to friends simply as Papo, de Asis was born in the small town of Dumangas, Iloilo on Dec. 16, 1949. He grew up poor from a broken family. According to Melissa Roxas, a close associate at Habi Arts – the cultural group he helped found in Los Angeles, California – the streets of his hometown gave him materials for his first art works.

“His canvas was the mud on the ground and his brush was either a stick or scraps of wood he found,” says Melissa. “ His first works of art were painted along the streets of the urban poor communities.”

In the late 1960s, de Asis gave up an engineering course in Iloilo and sneaked through a ship bound for Manila where he would work as an apprentice painter in Mabini Street. The political rage of the 1970s transformed him from a commercial painter to an activist artist and he soon found himself organizing the Mabini artists, Melissa says.

Martial law

The early years of martial law until the 1980s found him with a group of activists forming or reviving artist groups such as Sining Bayan (People’s Art), Kaisahan (Unity, a social realist circle) and the pre-ML NPAA or Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista-Arkitekto (United Progressive Artists-Architects). An alliance of students, individual artists and out-of-school youths from the University of the Philippines, UST and the University Belt which he was instrumental in forming produced muralists who painted streamers and banners popularized in the anti-dictatorship struggle. His circle of artists engaged in intensive studies about social movements and political and economic theories and exhibited social realist artworks in Metro Manila’s various art galleries, universities and cultural centers. He became known as Papo, a moniker coined perhaps in jest to reconcile contrasting descriptions of him: he was pangit (ugly) to some acquaintances, pogi (slang for handsome) to others.

“Until the day Marcos fled the country in 1986, Papo’s group painted murals protesting the dictatorship and helped strengthen the alliance with workers and peasants using creative efforts,” Melissa recalls. “All this transformed Papo to paint new subject matters, vividly portraying the ongoing injustices such as military atrocities, summary executions and other rampant human rights violations.”

Papo became an expatriate artist in the United States in 1990 at the age of 41 but this did not deter him from being active once more in the artist and activist community. Just like in the progressive art movement in the Philippines, he was widely known both in the Filipino community particularly in California – home to about one million Filipino immigrants – as well as among the Latino, Asian, African, American, and Persian community-based organizations and arts groups.

A true-blood social realist and proletarian artist, Papo also immersed himself in activities where he thought his experience mattered most – holding art workshops, organizing, advocating and mentoring a young generation of Filipino and other multicultural artists. Papo, Melissa says, was “famous for creating murals for community organizations and centers which he also helped establish” and until today his works are still shown in conferences, community events and rallies.

He participated at the first Annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) in 1992 as one of the original artists and, eight years later, was chosen by FilAm ARTS as the Visual Arts Facilitator of the California-wide Pilipino Artists Network. He played a key role in the formation of several art groups and collectives such as the Alliance of Filipino Artists in Visual Arts and Animation, People’s Artists, Sining Binhi L.A., and Habi Ng Kalinangan, a collective of artists in Los Angeles committed to political and artistic empowerment for progressive social change.

Habi Arts

Papo formed Habi ng Kalinangan (weaving together diverse cultures or Habi Arts) as a venue for the Filipinos’ artistic expressions, for using art in community activism and challenging the exploitation of art for corporate and elite interests. The emigre artist, Melissa says, saw that the problems Filipino immigrants face in the United States “are rooted in the conditions of Philippine society.” Habi Arts began to work alongside other artists and social justice organizations of diverse cultures to empower the culture of resistance and struggle against all oppression particularly in the Philippines.

Close friends and fellow artists remember the recent time they and Papo went to a retreat in Mexico. During breaks late at night they would all sit near the shores and collect rocks. It was so dark, Melissa recalls, that only a few waves would be illuminated by the moon – “it was as if the whole ocean racing toward us was on fire.”

“Papo told a story about how the rocks would move from the deepest parts of the ocean toward the shore, some that have existed longer than even man existed, the smoothest rocks being the oldest ones telling the oldest stories,” Melissa says. “I sat there for a long time moved by what he said. Thinking of the history of this place from the conquistadors all the way to the present time, and still the ocean continues to rage like it always has, like the people still waging their struggles for justice. Papo taught me the value to see things with this perspective. That what seems as simple as a small pebble from the ocean has a meaning. It is these small things that make a difference — we are like little pebbles in the ocean that rage toward the shore, everything in its way catching fire, the flames that move us to continue on with the struggle and keep fighting.”

People who met Papo also remember him for his warmth, great sense of humor, generosity and most especially humility. Some acquaintances who had known him for years are surprise to learn later of the awards Papo had received or that his art works were on the cover of famous books.

True sentiments

But, says Melissa, “none of these things mattered to Papo more than being able to express in his art the true sentiments of the people in the struggle for freedom and justice. Whatever fame or recognition came out of it, most important to him was that it helped popularize the struggle of the people. Always very humble, he was not wont to take the spotlight, but because of his immense talent for art, his conviction, and because of the person he was, he became well known anyway and loved amongst both artist and activist communities.”

Since the 1970s, Papo de Asis had held solo or joint exhibits as a visual, animation and multimedia artist at various galleries in the Philippines as well as in Japan, China, India, Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and in various cities in the United States – all making him one of the most-recognized and internationally-renowned Filipino artists in recent years. Some of his paintings are in the collections of the Philippine National Museum in Manila and in various private collections in the United States especially in California. Among the numerous international awards he received is the Cultural Treasurer Award by the Los Angeles mayor.

On Jan. 8 this year, Papo died of a massive stroke. In the United States, he is survived by his fiancée, his son and daughters. He would have turned 56 on Dec. 16.

“My paintings,” Papo wrote in 1992, “yearn to be the anguished expression of a people long denied of justice and equality…The convoluted reality of my historical past wrote the scenario to my present sources of sorrow.”

Ever a social realist, he also reflected much later in Los Angeles:

“Art is not a skill. This is an irrevocable fact. It is beyond form. It is the consciousness juxtaposed with feelings, thus become structured and created into form. These are the innate elements of art.

“Action, which is the process of painting, is an interplay of sorrow, pain, fear, and liberation from it which is joy, beauty and freedom. It has infinite doors in which these opposing forces interact.

“To me, my painting is a door to open. It is for the viewer to open and discover not the artist’s space but their own dimension…

“A dimension in which the element of art and the challenges of life confront us.” (

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