I recently visited the Philippines, + was fortunate to be able to paint a special mural on the wall of (+ with children from) the headquarters of Bahay Tuluyan (BT), a Non-Government Organisation which aims to prevent + respond to the abuse + exploitation of children in the Philippines. The headquarters is located in the heart of Malate, a super-busy shanty town in Manila.
Despite being home to many restaurants, bars + attractions, the Malate population includes many families living below the poverty line + on the streets. In order to support children in the community, BT offers an emergency + residential shelter for children in need of special protection; reintegration + after care; an independent living skills program; a drop-in centre; a classroom; alternative education; community organising; children’s rights education; participatory action research, + local/national/international advocacy.
BT Malate is constantly buzzing with many children, staff (comprising volunteers, managers, + young people in training who first came to BT in need of shelter, care or protection) + construction workers (the new headquarters are being built in stages, as donated funds arrive). The centre maintains an upbeat, cheery atmosphere, with everyone collaborating to accomplish daily tasks, + make BT (+ surrounding spaces) a fun, supportive place to be. I was excited to start painting, in a context completely different to that in which I had ever painted before…
I had anticipated that the wall would take 2 days to complete. Of course, this underestimated the time it would take me to source paints, commute + complete the work in a huge city such as Manila, in an area with many street children + folk, in a children’s shelter, in tropical weather. Over the course of 4 days, in thick smog, humidity + heat interspersed with torrential rain, amidst the constant fire of small BB guns (considered mandatory by most of the street children), continuous karaoke featuring 80s power ballads, + intense scrutiny from the local community, under the watch of a lovely armed guard (with great taste in music), four BT children + I completed the wall.
I am used to working with aerosol, laying out a range of cans on the floor at my feet + working with 4 or 5 at once. Here in the streets of Malate, that was not possible. I had chosen latex paints (so that the children could paint with me), hoping to mix everything from the primary colours in trays at the wall. However, the hands of curious onlookers + mischievous children ensured that I had to mix colours behind closed doors inside BT, navigate through the children in the shelter to reach the wall with a full paint tray, + paint with one colour at a time, holding the tray + brushes in my spare hand (paint or brushes placed on the ground were quickly put to use elsewhere). For each of the 20+ colours I used, the process had to be repeated. This completely different process, combined with waiting-time during downpours, waiting to be let back into the shelter to mix paints, + chasing little ‘helpers’ who ran off with my brushes (or dipped ammunition in my paint before firing) was time-consuming but hilarious.
It was the hardest painting I’ve completed to date, but also the most satisfying by far.
The young artists, wise beyond their years, were given complete control over the characters’ clothing. Two pairs worked on a character each. They worked hard to choose their colours + make patterns, + refused to stop painting when the weather closed in. The tough, determined, responsible young women created some fantastic clothes for the wall, + were an absolute joy to work with; I wish I’d had more time with them, to paint many more pieces around the neighbourhood.
I was lucky to be fed by BT’s restaurant (a training facility for children in BT care) while painting, enjoying vegetarian pizzas, muffins, brewed coffee + other treats. On the fourth day, exhausted from a cold (or my lungs adapting to Manila’s air), I added the finishing touches to the wall, + attempted to take some clear photos of the finished piece, in context, without the throngs of children in front of the images.
I tried to be discreet with photo-taking (mindful that my camera + phone were hot property to those desperate to make money), but no matter how subtle I was, as soon as I tried, scores of gorgeous, cheeky children would materialise in front of the lens! Posing with their friends + their BB guns, they made it into almost every shot I took. That evening I was recounting my photography attempts to my Filipino friend, exasperated that I couldn’t get a good photo of my work ‘in context’.
My friend reminded me that I had painted amongst scores of children + residents of the shanty-town all week; that they were, absolutely, my context! So here are some photos of my work, in context:
… + some rare ones, with nobody in the frame:
I had an absolutely unforgettable, fantastic week, + I would like to sincerely thank the managers, staff + children of Bahay Tuluyan headquarters, + the residents of Malate, for allowing me to be a part of their lives. I hope that the collaborative mural brings pride + joy to BT + Malate, + inspires the young artists to keep painting + creating in future.
For more information about Bahay Tuluyan, see http://www.bahaytuluyan.org/aboutus_history_2_5_1.html