Incoming President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement about freeing political detainees spurs optimism inside detention cells, and at an art show.
By GINO ESTELLA
MANILA – A day before Philippine Independence Day, the Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda) launched on June 11 an art exhibit showcasing the creations of current and former political detainees around the Philippines.
Confined in cells miles away from the venue at the Bulwagan ng Dangal at the University of the Philippines Diliman, political prisoners got an opportunity to show the public what they have been doing behind bars, through art that displays their thoughts about society. Artworks included portraits of relatives and fellow political prisoners, as well as various depiction of life inside and outside prison.
“For the longest time, (political prisoners) have been creating art,” Selda Vice Chairperson and former political detainee Bonifacio Ilagan in Filipino told Bulatlat. “They were able to create over two-hundred artworks…but only about a hundred were displayed here,” he said.
Showcasing the works of 15 various political prisoners around the country, the small exhibit could not accommodate all of their artworks. For the remaining hundred, it is up to exhibit curator Lisa Ito to make use of their creations.
Titled “Sa Timyas ng Paglaya” as a play on the word timyas, meaning sweet or comfort, it aims to challenge incoming President Rodrigo Duterte to live up to his promise to free those detained for their political stand.
Life in prison
Mildred Abiva travelled all the way from Cagayan to see the artwork created by her husband political detainee, Rene Boy Abiva. Glancing at her husband’s works, she held a phone to her ear, glad to hear that he was happy about the exhibit being launched.
Rene Boy has been detained for over three years in Ifugao. While he organized teachers in Cagayan, he was also a municipal link for the Aquino administration’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program. Upon his detention, he was charged with 12 counts of murder, in a court six hours away from their residence.
Three years after, his case remains at a standstill. The case is expected to last a few more years, his wife said.
“He said he was happy his paintings were displayed on the exhibit,” the wife said in Filipino, chuckling to herself. “He has made over a hundred poems in prison, as well as other paintings and woodcarvings he learned from the province.”
For her, the exhibit was a great way for political detainees to show their creativity, through works such as poems, paintings and woodcarvings. It was a way for them to show that they still have their fighting spirit in prison.
In exhibiting their works of art, the notion that they are recluses of society is destroyed, she said. “The struggle of the political prisoner still continues even if they are locked behind bars.”
For Nikki Gamara, the exhibit was the largest display of political detainees’ art she has ever seen. Her father, political detainee Renante Gamara created portraits of her, as well as of his parents.
Detained for more than four years, Renante Gamara is a consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) protected under the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (Jasig) between the front and the Government of the Philippines.
“It was only inside the prison did he discover his hobby (of making art),” she said. “He always saw me, so I was the one he used to always practice his drawings on.”
He also drew a depiction of the cell of Eduardo Serrano, his once co-consultant and co-political prisoner who died in prison earlier this year due to cardiac arrest.
The daughter usually tells her father about life outside. “He is more interested about that,” she said in Filipino. “Inside, life is all routine, so they look for ways to pass the days. They look for news, especially good news,” she said.
Away from her father, she sees much more about his prison life through the works displayed around the room.
“I am usually seen talking about my father, but they do not know what my father even looks like,” she said in Filipino. “I believe the exhibit embodies the political prisoners. It embodies their ideals for the sectors they are fighting for.”
The exhibit, running until June 25, is part of a renewed campaign to free all the country’s political prisoners. Ylagan said the exhibit revitalized the spirits of everyone involved in the campaign.
“In the past, when we held activities to free political prisoners, our hearts were heavy and we were belligerent.” He said in Filipino. “Now, it is with excitement we do these things. Our optimism has something to hold on to.”
Selda said there are a total of 543 political prisoners in the Philippines to date, with 292 captured during the Aquino administration. For the campaign and its supporting organizations, the incoming administration prompts them to be hopeful, yet watchful throughout the reign.
“(Duterte’s) pronouncements are good, especially for the peace talks and the freedom of political prisoners,” Gamara said in Filipino.
The incoming president is the first to make a statement acknowledging political prisoners, Ylagan said. They are keeping a “guarded optimism” as the start of the Duterte administration inches closer and closer.
“Even if the president-elect said that, it does not mean that it will be done,” he said in Filipino. “If he decides for a general amnesty kind of thing, he needs to encourage congress…there is also a separation between the branches of government, such as the executive and judicial,” he said.
Justice for political prisoners will not come from just one person, Abiva said. She is hopeful the president follows through with his promise to release political detainees, including her husband.
“I hope Duterte keeps his promise to free political prisoners, because there is no reason for them to be detained,” she said in Filipino. “It is so unfair to wait for justice on something they should not even be a part of,” she said.
“Surely, we will be keeping a close eye on the President. As they said, ‘guarded optimism’—but we will not rely on just him to free all the political prisoners,” she said.