The role of artists in uncertain times

When you find yourself scrolling through your feed, it’s hard not to come across what’s horribly happening in the world or right here in our own backyard. From the growing tensions in the West Philippine Sea to the genocide happening in Gaza (or in Myanmar, Sudan, China, Syria and more), the world beyond our own little bubble is in chaos and suffering. It’s easy to either get desensitized or to just click on ‘hide’ from your feed. 

But it is during these times of unrest and uncertainties when we need to feel and connect even more. Art plays a big part in this. Art in its many different forms can make us feel, it can make sense of what’s happening or what needs to be done. Through art, change can happen. 

We talked to Ian and Ara* of Mako Micro-press and Elly Ang of Danger in Design on their role as artists and what art brings us, especially during these times. How do they find that spark of creativity even through the darkest of times? How do they help connect all of us even when we think we’re disconnected from the suffering of others? 

Art and activism

Throughout history, art has played a significant role in activism. From Pablo Picasso painting the suffering of civilians caught in a civil war with Guernica (which many consider one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history) to the Umbrella Man statue during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, which became a political symbol of resistance, art becomes an instrument of protest.  

Mako Micro-press, which has been creating protest art since 2017, shares why they believe that art is primarily about sense-making and making sense. “Sense-making because it must be able to bring our senses back into life. It must remind us that we must feel—or feel again, for those who are already desensitized,” explains Ian and Ara. Art also helps us make sense of what’s happening. “If it follows that art is communication—which we deeply believe that it is—then art must be able to help each and everyone of us comprehend the worlds and realities we inhabit and navigate through.”

When the government started pushing for the Jeepney Modernization Program, we saw Mako Micro-press create illustrations and informative social media posts on how the program was unjust and anti-poor. Hence, the ‘No to Jeepney Phaseout’ campaign. In our stores, we see their stickers and art prints for their advocacies on taking a stand and having zero tolerance for injustice.

Art can speak to our frustration and outrage. Elly adds, “I believe that art is one of the biggest tools for change. Art when it comes to activism is a call to action.”

The role of artists as citizens

Mako Micro-press, in a previous interview has stated that it’s important for artists to exercise all the rights that they can exercise, to be able to go beyond “being just a simple artist and to see themselves as fellow countrymen.” It ties in with what they recently shared with us that all artists are citizens. And as citizens, we have inalienable rights and we’re a part of nation-states that govern us. This means, it is also the state’s “inalienable duty to respect, protect, and fulfill those rights. If they cannot do these things, then they must be held accountable by us citizens.”

But we know this isn’t always the case—whether governments are always held accountable or how artists see themselves. “In an ideal world, I would love it if artists saw their roles as people who would make waves and changes in the political and environmental issues that's plaguing the country and the world, but that's not the case for a multitude of reasons,” says Elly. “Some people find it easier to compartmentalize issues and categorize them as ‘My problems I need to focus on now’ and ‘It's not my problem because it doesn't affect me’, it's kind of jaded to think that way, but it does happen.”

So what can you do? 

While Elly doesn’t create activism art (she’s more known for her lovely and well-made enamel pins, stickers, and even keychains with clever and cute themes), she believes she can at least be “a platform for other creatives who do.” For her, speaking about issues she cares about can be done through art or through one’s voice. 

“The war in Gaza and Sudan has been in the forefront of my mind, it makes you feel helpless when you see people suffering and all you can do is raise awareness and donate, but that doesn't stop the violence.” While she’s working on different things, Elly admits she finds it hard to see her art as important. “But I've been told that adding happiness into the world isn't useless or less important, even just a little bit. So I'm gonna keep trying. And I do see it making its way into my art, even in the subtle ways, maybe to just spread a little joy if I could.”

Ian and Ara are also not immune to questioning their reason for making protest art and starting Mako Micro-press. They recall, “When we started, I remember one of our conversations going like, ‘What if we find out that there is no light at the end of the tunnel after all? What of it? What’s important is that we are walking in the dark—together.’” So they both remain optimistic. “Of course, there is light at the end of the tunnel. They are a constellation of torches held by our farmers, our fishermen, our mothers, our outspoken youth, our indigenous peoples, our workers, our ancestors, and by everyone who asserts and affirms that our lives shouldn’t have to be this way and this way alone.”

We’ve seen it from the No to Jeepney Phaseout campaign where several creatives not just Mako Micro-press, brought to light what was wrong with the proposed modernization (it was at the cost of the drivers’ meager livelihood, for one); or how vegans, animal activists, climate justice activists, lecturers and other groups have denounced the land-grabbing and violence done against the farmers of San Jose Del Monte Bulacan

Seeing the connections

As Ian and Ara see it, art shows us how our lives—that of the jeepney driver’s who stopped to pick up passengers in front of your car, the 20,000 children lost, detained, buried under rubble in Gaza, the farmers tilling the land for the organic produce you got in the Sunday market—are all interconnected with each other. Seeing this interconnectedness is not easy for everyone, which is why the two artists behind Mako-Micro-press hope that they’re able to communicate it with their work. “All our struggles, aspirations, hopes, and fears are interconnected.”

With this POV, it’s easy to see how artists like Elly believe in the power of the collective. “Art is part of the engine that makes a revolution, no matter how big or small the change is. But I don't think it's up to just one art/artist to make that call to action, we need to be a collective, there's always strength in numbers, especially when we want to enact change.”

Mako Micro-press credits the focus they have on what they do “because of each other, because of others, because of the communities and friends who are still persisting, resisting, and keeping the necessary conversations and efforts alive.” 

For both Ian and Ara, the spark to create or to find hope amidst all the darkness is because of everyone who finds meaning in their work. “We are immensely grateful for [them]. We always tell them, ‘Nandito kami dahil nandiyan kayo,’ or ‘Nakakapagpatuloy kami dahil nagpapatuloy kayo.’ The spark is always there because of them.” 

Relying on this connection doesn’t mean passing the responsibility to be concerned about genocide, land-grabbing, the climate crisis, etc. to others. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? Sure, our history as humanity may be grim and full of violence and oppression [that] are on-repeat to this day,” says Ian and Ara. “But our history is also full [of] people who chose not to be silent, who chose to fight where they stood, who chose to write and create for a life that is genuinely free and abundant. We just have to choose.”

*not their real names

Mabel David-Pilar is a writer, editor, and mom to one energetic boy. She has worked for local and international publications, including fashion, shelter, travel, and food titles. She spends most of her time writing, illustrating, stalking Common Room’s online shop, and making ferments. Together with her sisters, she co-created to celebrate fermenting in the Philippines.