This story was written prior to artist Neil Doloricon’s passing on 16 July 2021. It will be published in the upcoming issue of Art+ Magazine.
Words by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro. Photos courtesy of the artist.
The 1970s became fertile ground for protest art in the Philippines. Martial law brought about unconstitutional censorship, a dwindling economy, and thousands of lives lost, among many other tragedies—yet these became mere footnotes overshadowed by the celebrity of the Marcoses’ opulent lifestyle, the infrastructure and projects that came to be landmarks of illusory progress.
Even art in the mainstream – at least what frequented the Marcos-founded Cultural Center of the Philippines – supported the so-called conjugal dictatorship’s purpose: to craft a mythos that poised them as messiahs of a helpless nation.
Then came protest art, occupying spaces that Marcos’s high-brow art would not dare touch. This preempted the rise of Social Realism, shedding light on the realities that the dominant narrative excluded.
The rise of the era-defining movement influenced Leonilo Doloricon and several other artists, whose works helped embolden a nation suffocating from the iron fist.
Doloricon, better known as Neil, was part of the Kaisahan collective, an artist group often credited for the emergence of Social Realism. The anti-imperialist collective rejected “uncritical acceptance of Western mould” in art practice rooted in the nation’s years under colonization. This maintained a dissonance between Filipinos’ actual ways of living and how these were depicted in art.
“We were not able to develop our own distinct Filipino culture because the dominant culture was [that] of the colonizer and its leaders,” he explains. “That is why we believe that we should pursue a national identity in our effort to develop Philippine art.”
Doloricon puts necessary emphasis on the fact that this search is a national movement: the lack of our own art and culture may render us unable to survive globalization if allowed to persist.
Such disparity became all the more emphasized under martial rule, and so it became imperative for the collective to embark on a pursuit for a “national identity in Philippine art.” It became a time for artists’ awakening. Even established galleries became venues for politically charged exhibits, says Doloricon. “Many artists who were once apathetic to protest art started to join the anti-dictatorship movement.”
“Our art became valuable and significant when it took part in the anti-dictatorship movement in order to resist censorship and human rights violations under the Marcos regime,” he adds. In 1990, four years after the masses ousted the dictator, the CCP bestowed the prestigious Thirteen Artists Award to Doloricon.
A case for doubt
Doloricon’s experience from immersing himself in the nationalist labor movement after his graduation from the University of the Philippines has largely informed the tone of his work moving forward. His earlier pieces of acclaim captured sentiments of angered laborers under martial law. In the painting “Welga” (1981), a group of jeepney drivers protest, with clippings of different worker-led calls for strike collaged in front of them. A note in red – the words of labor leader Amado V. Hernandez – was painted across the newsprint.
Post-EDSA, the same call to dissent remained prevalent across Doloricon’s oeuvre. Another painting, titled “Galit ng Masa” (1990), illustrates a curious image of five outraged mouths, seemingly belonging in a singular body of multiple limbs and legs.
The same sentiments were carried through in his prints, popular for the multidirectional incisions so distinct in his work. In the rubbercut print “Pwersa ng Anakpawis” (1988), rallying workers huddle together. “Agraryang Rebolusyon” (1991) shows farmers harvest in a closely-knit formation reminiscent of a barricade—bent in a ready position to fight and defend.
Where he lays down his politics best would arguably be in his editorial cartoons.
Aside from serving as Chairperson to the progressive alliance Concerned Artists of the Philippines and a professor at the College of Fine Arts at UP Diliman, Doloricon has spent decades in newsrooms. First tasked to lend his ink to different writers’ words, he eventually requested his editor at the time to allow him the autonomy to make cartoons based on his own opinion.
“My attitude towards doing editorial cartoons is to be critical in all issues,” he shares. “As one political scientist said, ‘You have to doubt everything.’ You should investigate and always read between the lines before you decide on something.”
This wasn’t his first option for a living, however. “I love cartooning, but it was not my intention to be a cartoonist,” Doloricon says, when asked about his early days on the job. The dream has always been to pursue painting full-time, he shares, but too few took interest in purchasing Social Realist paintings at the time.
“Painting, for me, is not really something you do to earn a living,” opines Doloricon. He adds that painting serves him more for advocacy and expression than profit—partly because he finds it emotionally hard to let go of his finished work.
“When you realize the creative process behind your painting, you will somehow develop an attachment to your work—because you’re investing money, time, and effort in it,” he says.
Since he found his art aligned with the political orientation of editorial cartoons, he sought opportunity in media instead.
His first, albeit short-lived, run was with the opposition paper Observer in 1987. Two years later, he was hired as a part-time cartoonist at the Manila Times where he stayed for 10 years.
After a while of freelance work and a successive break from political cartooning, he joined Malaya Business Insight in 2016. The win of incumbent president Rodrigo Duterte and the countless concerns that ensued shortly after certainly made for strong material.
Art on the line
His political art has chronicled many presidencies and political controversies, so much so that it has become a way to keep track of Philippine events constantly unfolding.
This, too, offers the artist some personal use: “I felt that, aside from using my cartoons to raise awareness and educate the readers in a satirical and humorous way, I was also helping my mental health,” he says. “It was a way, perhaps, to avoid dementia.”
In recent years, Doloricon’s art, most notably the editorial cartoons he produces, has garnered thousands of impressions on social media. To date, some of his best performing cartoons posted online are about the Duterte administration’s ineffective response plan for the pandemic and the economic crisis.
In one cartoon, viewers see a wall riddled with cracks, water seeping through. Each crack represents a pressing issue dealt with by the nation today: COVID-19, poverty, unemployment, and economic recession. Opposite to the wall is a caricature of the president trying to seal the cracks by hand as he convinces himself that the Anti-Terrorism Law will fix the problems.
In another, a health worker in personal protective equipment is on all fours, carrying the weight of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases on their back as the latter commend themselves for a job well done, a bag of money – unpaid benefits for medical frontliners – kept close by.
Doloricon has also captured current narratives in print. One titled “Pila” shows people lined up in public as armed personnel guard at the backdrop. All are wearing masks, yet no one is able to practice physical distancing, so much so that the frame appears too crowded and claustrophobic.
Another print also centers on the lockdown: houses in a lower-income community bear masked faces on its façade, padlocked on the side, as military patrol the area.
In another, medical frontliners rush a person on a wheeled stretcher, behind them are silhouettes of a crowd marching in protest.
Given the extent of his work’s reach on social media and how much the latter has played in popularizing his newer pieces, Doloricon acknowledges how the role of social media in art and politics has grown significantly over the years—but not always for the better.
No longer is the artist restricted to only share their work in the newspapers they work for. Social media, he comments, has given cartoonists more platforms where their pieces can be viewed, appreciated, and supported. The performance analytics available per social media post allow for artists to gauge their audience’s impressions, unlike with print newspapers where not even street sales can guarantee that a cartoon has been successful.
It is also online where campaigns grow nowadays, such as the case with the community pantries initiated by Ana Patricia Non in Maginhawa, Quezon City.
On the other hand, there is also a downside to social media: “People who are against your political cartoons would smear your work and even threaten you with harm—although I just ignore the threats.”
“My political cartoons are only reflections of the people’s sentiments about prevailing issues that really affect our livelihood and political decisions on what to do with the pandemic, which is being weaponized by the state in order to suppress resistance and protest against human rights abuses and corruption,” the artist notes.
“Perhaps, my cartoons also contributed [to] raising awareness and building public opinion that would pressure the government to allow reforms for a better government.”