When we talk about Robert Alejandro as a Filipino artist, we don’t see him exhibiting his work in cold galleries. Rather, we immediately see Robert out on the streets, sketching with children; reading his books in far-flung communities, holding free workshops to stave off pandemic anxiety, and freely giving away illustrations for anyone to use during the Leni-Kiko campaign.
Art and volunteerism as “super powers”
For Kuya Robert, as he is affectionately called, art is volunteerism, and volunteerism is art. In fact, while discussing his recent online exhibit for Fundacion Sansó, “Art for All 3”, his opening words were: “Oh, you should volunteer!”
ATD Fourth World Philippines is the organization that will benefit from the sales of “Art for All 3”, which is under Fundacion Sansó’s Art+Design=Empowerment (ADE) program, wherein guest artists create with a chosen beneficiary in mind. ATD Fourth World is a non-profit organization that aims to eradicate extreme poverty through community workshops, literacy programs, and more. Robert’s first exhibit for ADE benefited Museo Pambata, a fellow institution that was struggling throughout the pandemic lockdowns.
“I’ve known ATD Fourth World Philippines for more than 20 years; I first got to know them at our Ang INK (Ang Ilustrador Ng mga Kabataan) exhibition of children’s books at Ayala Museum, and I remember seeing a whole group of children being led to see our exhibition,” Robert shares. The artist was asked to volunteer with ATD’s street library soon after. “Sa street library, yung mga libro na pambata nasa bayong, tapos dadalhin mo yung mga libro sa mga communities, like near North Cemetery, beside the railroad tracks. Sabi ko: This is so interesting, especially as a children’s book illustrator, [because] it’s important for me to know that my work reaches children who cannot really afford the books…at ATD Fourth World, we don’t give away computers; parang the most that we give is our friendship and giving back the dignity of the people living in those communities.”
Robert continued to volunteer with ATD in the following years, inviting friends to participate in their workshops, summer art festivals, and other programs. The artist has also been continuously working with Museo Pambata, designing a crafts room for them, and donating part of his sales from “Art for All 2” to the institution late last year. His art-volunteerism recently reached its zenith during the recently concluded presidential elections, when he dedicated his time and talents to the Leni-Kiko campaign.
“I must say that the volunteerism aspect of my art comes quite naturally, and with very little thinking or planning—it’s more of a gut feel reaction to what I see in society,” Robert says. “If I see that my art/skill can be of some service or worth, I go for it. I am very grateful that I am able to have this ‘super power’ that I can use for the greater good.”
Celebrating all things Filipino
“Art For All 3” features mostly Filipiniana works; a theme the artist is best-known for. These include his Philippine Botanical series of native plants such as Alibangbang, Sampalok, and Tsampaka figure in delicate mixed-media paintings on paper (“Inspired by Father Blanco’s Flora de Filipinas, but more modern, of course,” Robert explains); whimsically decorated jeepneys in ink, and his matchbox-sized miniature art books of Philippine Storefronts, Bahay Kubo, and Philippine Food.
“I love showing Philippine imagery the way I see it—quirky and cool and actually sophisticated!” says Robert about his penchant for all things Filipino. “From a very young age, I’ve always enjoyed creating Filipino imagery. I supposed it started when I first saw the drawings of Fernando Amorsolo in Camilo Osias’s [book] The Philippine Readers…I remember drawing Filipino themes even when I was still in school. A big influence were the books created by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and her team.”
The art of healing
One of the more interesting collections in Robert’s recent “Art for All 3” exhibit are his abstracts. The works are minimalist yet stunning, with large swathes of red and black on stark, white paper. Robert, who has been living with cancer for years, admits that he completed these abstracts after coming home from a doctor’s visit as a way of “completely freeing mind and soul”, and of “throwing out all preconditioned ideas of ‘who Robert Alejandro is,’ and coming up with a clean slate of what I want to do without my past.”
Even in the face of illness, there is an irrepressible positivity to everything that Robert does. He again encourages his audience to go out and volunteer as a way of spreading joy and hopefulness during these uncertain times. “I strongly encourage you to do volunteer work!” he says. “Volunteering for ATD is one of the best things I’ve done in my entire life.”