Papo De Asis: Expatriate Artist, Social Activist

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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