Hukbong Mapagpalaya

Filipino artist Johnny Guarin stands in solidarity with workers everywhere celebrating Labor Day. His latest painting honors the valuable contributions of the frontliners and workers who are risking their lives the most in fighting the pandemic and in keeping society afloat in this time of crisis.

Since November last year until early March, we have been deeply involved with the “Alas ng Bayan”, a collaborative art project organized by the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, the Constantino Foundation, and 350 Pilipinas which seeks to introduce and inject history and feminism as fundamental elements in the way young people respond to the worsening state of national forgetting and the climate crisis.

In the middle of it all was one of 350 Pilipinas’ long-time volunteers, John Erhard Guarin, or Johnny to his fellow volunteers, who for the most part of the first quarter of this year spent his time balancing between his job cycling for a mobile food delivery service, and his passion as an artist raising awareness on the connections between women, history, and climate justice through his paintings which were featured in the Alas Ng Bayan exhibit.

“ECQ” by Johnny Guarin

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a big Women’s Month celebration of Alas ng Bayan in March came to a sudden halt with the government’s announcement imposing a lockdown (technically called an enhanced community quarantine or ECQ) as a drastic measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Reacting to the lockdown and the abrupt end of ‘normal life’’ as we know it, Johnny started making art. Among the first pieces he produced was a drawing aptly called ECQ which details a bird on a cage wearing a face mask, which for me highlights how the lockdown impacts our very nature as mobile, social, and communal creatures.

This was followed by a series of designs that he contributed to illustrate the #JustRecovery principles – a united global response to the COVID-19 pandemic ensuring a just recovery and transition to a better future for those most in need in the wake of this crisis.

In the past weeks, our collective of climate activists here in the Philippines established a virtual space to come together to reflect on the rapid changes happening around us in light of the pandemic. It’s a venue where we talk about our worries and how it impacts us so that we can identify pathways to navigate ourselves into an uncertain future.

It was in those conversations that Johnny reached out to me to pitch an idea to paint an artwork in time for Labor Day. The painting is meant to honor the valuable contributions of the frontliners and workers who are risking the most in fighting the pandemic and in keeping society afloat in this time of crisis.

As soon as I got a photo of his painting, I sent over some questions to understand more about his art and how it plays an important role in challenging us to hope and act in these challenging times.

“Esercito Liberato” by Johnny Guarin

Chuck (C): The COVID-19 outbreak has put an abrupt stop to many activities. What has been keeping you busy while we’re under quarantine?

Johnny (J): Since the ECQ has been implemented I’ve been spending most of my time writing and painting. Sometimes I cook food that won’t easily spoil to make the most of our budget.

C: What do you call your latest painting and would you mind sharing with us the materials you used?

J: I entitled the painting “esercito liberato” which is Italian that roughly translates to the Tagalog phrase I’ve painted at the lower part of the painting – ’hukbong mapagpalaya.’ A common chant that we hear during protests, that I think aptly captures the role played by workers in these challenging times as a productive force of society.

I used acrylic and ink for this artwork.

C: This painting uses a different style than the one that you used for the Alas Ng Bayan portraits. Could you share with us why you chose a different style?

J: I wanted to explore other styles to find out what would best suit me as an artist. With this Labor Day painting I tried a different take that resembles classic Filipino comics.

C: Could you tell us a bit about the people you featured in the painting?

J: If you’d look at the painting you will notice that, excluding the text at the bottom the artwork can be divided into 3 layers.

The first layer from the foreground featuring the frontliners like nurses, doctors who are taking care of the sick, alongside them are the people who work on sanitation like the janitors and garbage collectors, as well as those who deliver food at our doorsteps.

Behind them are those who we seldom value because we rarely thought about their vital importance before the pandemic. They are the farmers who plant our food, the vegetable vendors, and the workers who are among the most vulnerable people impacted by the lockdown.

At the top layer is the background of a raised fist that serves as a border to a juxtaposition of a collapsing coal plant with renewable energy.

C: Since we’re releasing this painting in time for Labor Day, could you tell us why it is important to recognize the role of workers?

J: It is always important to celebrate workers’ contributions, but more so now because of their courage and strength to do their duty despite the dangers they face. They are the ones paving the way to a better, safer future.

C: Is there a message that you’d like to share to those who might be reading this in this present crisis?

J: As we face the present crisis, it is now more important than ever that we help each other and prioritize each other’s safety. Together, let us help heal the planet and support workers on the frontlines so that hopefully we’ll all come out of this crisis better.

Interview by Chuck Baclagon

Labor Day 2020: A celebration on canvas

Filipino artist Johnny Guarin shares with us his latest painting honoring the valuable contributions of the frontliners and workers who are risking their lives the most in fighting the pandemic and in keeping society afloat in this time of crisis.

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