by Rome Jorge

MANILA – The medium is the message.

The poignant scenes of life by the river today—innocent and expressive children frolicking in waterways fringed by their own shanty homes and playing with floating plastic debris, river folk scavenging the waters for what they can find, and fantastic scenes of gigantic janitor fish, the infamous invasive specie, being hugged by youth—were depicted with a palette of colors limited to burnt siena, sepia, umber, ochre, grey, and black.

The gorgeous and impressive artworks, painted on pristine watercolor papers and neatly framed and encased in glass, give no hint that the pigments were derived from the extremely polluted and biologically dead urban estuaries and tributaries that they depicted—paint so toxic that it had to be decontaminated by autoclave and so filthy that the artists had to wear medical-grade masks to protect them from the stench while the concentrated pollution-derived paint was still wet. This was all for a cause that seeks to one day make this very same painting exhibit impossible, as clean and clear waters of living rivers leave no trace on paper.

Veteran painter Toti Cerda, the nation’s preeminent watercolorist, together with John Carlo Vargas, Kean Barrameda, Fred Failano, Allan Clerigo, Van Isunza, Luigi Almuena, Renee Ysabelle Jose, and John Ed De Vera, this generation’s most promising water color artists, came together for the “Dirty Water” exhibition at Kirov, The Rockwell Center, Makati City, that ran from May 24 to 26, 2016. The exhibit was made possible by the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, Inc., its Kapit Bisig Para sa Ilog Pasig being the exhibit’s prime beneficiary, and the TBWA\Santiago Mangada Puno advertising agency, which conceptualized the exhibit. Curating the exhibit was acclaimed art critic, author, and former ad man Cid Reyes.

Heeding the call

“The concept was from TBWA\Santiago Mangada Puno and they called me because I used to be in advertising. They worked in partnership with the Lingkod Kapamilya because the ABS-CBN Foundation is the organization that is spearheading the rehabilitation of the Pasig. They got several young artists who have not yet done solo shows. They brought me in as the curator. And then I brought in a master watercolorist because the others were so young, to communicate that this is an important thing. So I got in touch with Toti Cerda,” Reyes recounted.

He revealed, “We did not tell the artists what to paint. We felt that was the best way. And then produce some really great pieces. You see the face of innocence and imagine that being endangered. Filipinos don’t care what is dirty or not. I mean the kids, when its summer they all jump in and these are polluted. In the midst of all the garbage, they are swimming. We have to save our kids from that kind of danger.”

“This show has a lot of poignancy, urgency, sadness, and celebration that we all need to work together to save the Pasig,” he noted. He noted that the prices for which these striking yet gorgeous painting were sold were an absolute bargain, given that these young artists have yet to have a solo exhibit that would increase their value.

The curator noted that exhibit was unique both for its medium and its message. Reyes declared, “For as long as the rivers are dirty, we should have an exhibit like this every year.”

Different strokes

JC Vargas, whose portrait of a child was the centerpiece of the exhibit, explained that the pigments were derived from the Cainta, Tulyahan, Marikina, Taguig, and Pasig rivers, each producing different shades and colors. “It was autoclaved [sterilized using heat and pressure], decontaminated, and concentrated. After that process, we mixed it with gum arabic [acacia tree sap traditionally used in art paints] to use it as a watercolor. The gum arabic fixes it as binder.”

He confessed that, despite the medical masks they wore, “The smell is not good. Although it was processed and decontaminated, the smell still stays.” The stench only helped the artists bring to life the scenes of the rivers as they painted.

Besides the stink of the pigments, Vargas revealed that the pollution-derived paint had properties that were different from professional water colors and necessitated a different set of techniques. “I brush less. Because the more you brush, the more the paper will be damaged. Just one brush stroke was used.”

Part of the whole

Jen Santos, Program Director of the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation’s Bantay Kalikasan, stated, “The Pasig River is 27 kilometers and passes through five cities. So when we do work in the Pasig River it means having to coordinate with the cities of Taguig, Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasig, and Manila. Just like our own circulatory system, any clogs, hindrance from any artery or vein will cause great harm. So what we do is we focus first on the esteros [estuaries].”

At the Philippine International Rivers Summit in 2012, all rivers within Metro Manila were declared biologically dead by scientists. Silt, crude oil, heavy metals, algae and biological wastes were the chief contaminants.

“Informal settlers who were living by the esteros and under the bridges have to relocate because it’s not safe for them to live there. We wanted to give them more decent life. So Bayan ni Juan, which is also a project of ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, was one of the relocation sites. There we have livelihood, they have housing. They have a playground, they have a clinic. It’s a whole area for their needs. We have to change mindsets. We are talking about values formation which cannot be done overnight. So we have formulated a special program where each individual can be empowered to be a river warrior. So we have done River Warriors on different sites,” she revealed during an audiovisual presentation that documented how school children from communities near waterways were motivated and educated.

Santos showed photos that documented the dramatic transformation already instituted at various sites rehabilitated by Bantay Kalikasan, most notably the Paco Market estuary. Waterways once clogged with trash and hemmed by shanties became beautiful riverside gardens and parks where local children could safely play.

Perfect chemistry

Melvin Mangada, multi-awarded and internationally acclaimed Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of TBWA\Santiago Mangada Puno, revealed that it was Bryan Siy, Creative Director at TBWA\SMP and a graduate of Chemistry, who spearheaded the exhibit, using both his creativity and knowledge of chemistry to make painting art with pollution a reality.

“The Dirty Watercolor Project is just one of the projects we have out in the agency which is part of the philosophy of the agency which is creativity for humanity. Creativity for humanity is beyond selling donuts or fried chicken, which is really exciting for us. Creativity for humanity encourages thoughtful solutions for pressing issues involving the environment and of course the future of our children and a better Philippines,” declared Mangada.