Words by Kinah Praise R. Baguan
This year, the Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation commemorates its 54th National Art Students Competition with its theme ‘reSTART’. Identified as one of the prestigious and highly anticipated platforms in the Philippines, this year’s theme not only celebrates the ingenuine artistry of the young Filipino artists, rather poses a critical thought in the role of artists in nation-building.
From documenting human history to expressing collective emotions, Shell alumni winners – Alfredo Esquillo Jr., Jose Luis “Junyee” Yee, and Francis Eugene “Isko” Andrade, tell us how they view their role as creative contributors.
Artists create a sense of community
Regarded as continuing the legacy of the Social Realists, Alfredo Esquillo Jr.’s paintings executed in figurative realism expose the paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions of Philippine social life.
Art critic Alice Guillermo wrote in Asian Art News: “[Esquillo’s] organization of elements defies familiar convention. While his figures are unrelentingly realist, Esquillo is not content with the figurative realism of elements organized in a single-point perspective”.
Esquillo explains, “I’d like to integrate fine arts, which is associated with ‘high art’, with crafts, which is associated with ‘mass art’, into unified objects”. 
One of his winning pieces, “Daang-Ligid Krus” resembles a famous scenario in the procession of Black Nazarene. It is a masterpiece that is closely identified with Esquillo wherein his art interrogates Filipino identity, and attempts to capture its hybrid character by employing imagery commonly sourced from religious iconography, Filipino psyche, and experiences.
Artists work to illuminate the margins and make societal changes
Known for his pioneering work in installation, Jose Luis “Junyee” Yee creates something out of nothing. Art writer Alice Guillermo writes of Junyee’s oeuvre: “[Junyee’s] sizeable body of work definitely established the trend in indigenous material. Rejecting sculptural volume and solid mass created by carving or molding processes, his work assembles, binds, and weaves together various shapes and organic materials such as dried pods, twisted roots, banana pulp, coconut shells, twigs, and coconut fiber”.
In an interview, he was asked, “before your foray into installation and environmental art, you made paintings and sculptures in a social realist mode. How does the use of indigenous materials and outdoor space connect with your politics?” 
“Even now, I still consider myself not just an environmentalist but a social realist artist. I define a socialist artist as one who speaks on behalf of the people and not just for himself. It is political to work outside the confines of an art gallery and to use materials most people can relate to”.
Artists offer messages of hope
Having dealt with a series of life’s blows, from dire poverty to a crisis in the family when his father abandoned them, Andrade considered setting aside his artistic pursuits with a heavy heart. But the darkest night did not put out the stars. During his semester break at Bulacan State University, he mastered what was left of his creative juices and used up his remaining oil paint to come up with his last act of defiance—an entry to a national student art competition.
His winning piece entitled, “Pinagkait na Kalayaan ”, depicts a literal burial of Andrade’s art, as symbolized by his paintbrushes, which are wrapped in plastic and buried in soil. The hyperrealist piece has emotional undertones, yet it conveys a hope that shall be pursued in the near future.
This particular piece won the Grand Prize in the oil painting category of the 47th Shell National Student Art Competition (NSAC) that year, providing him with much-needed reassurance. What was meant to be his final work would pave the way for a new beginning. Later on, Andrade has swept the board two more times in succeeding years, as well as the 2015 Philippine National Oil Company Art Awards.
Beneath the differences in styles, media, and aspiration, their artworks lie a common experience that in a way, contributed to and powered them to be the celebrated artists they are today.