The ABCs of human rights

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FROM “activism” to “zero,” the ongoing exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines called The Weight of Words: An Alphabet of Human Rights presents 26 artworks that correspond to 26 words synonymous with one of today’s controversial issues: your merits as a human being.

The words usually associated with human rights like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “peace” are present in the alphabetized list, and are interpreted and executed by visual artists — mostly graphic designers and photographers.

Artist Daniel Palma Tayona visualizes the words “freedom” and “peace” through graphite on paper drawings of a person behind bars and four people showing the word “peace” in sign language.

Each artwork, which is untitled, has a short artist’s note beside them, which explains the artists’ sentiments on this sensitive topic.

For “D” as in “democracy,” artist Keith Dador took a photograph of a blindfolded woman. He said in his note: “when the few elites masquerades itself (sic) as the rule of the people, how easy is it then to control everything for personal and political gain? Do those in power serve the people or do they become the appointed lords who expect subservience from their people?”

“The issue of human rights is divisive. You cannot talk about it without people getting angry or different sides talking past each other. But the irony is that everyone agrees that the idea of human rights is a good thing. No one claims that they are against it. So, it should not be divisive, yet it is,” said Gigo Alampay, CANVAS’s executive director.

On view until Jan. 21, the exhibition is the brainchild of CANVAS (Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development) which is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote literacy among children, to explore our national identity, and promote a broader public awareness for our art, culture, and environment.

To have peaceful discussions on human rights using art as the medium, CANVAS goes back to the basics — our ABCs. “The alphabet is a basic tool for learning, reading, and understanding. So if we go back to the basics, maybe people will realize that we can talk about human rights in a sober way,” Mr. Alampay said.

Words like “barbed wire,” “martial law,” “torture,” and “revisionism,” which allude to the Marcos Regime were rendered in artworks including a paper cutout, candle wax, a photograph, and a sculpture, respectively.

The letter “B” for “barbed wire” — made from strips of watercolor paper — is “a symbol of human captivity, degradation, and torture in modern history.” For artist John Ed de Vera, it is a “tool for division: it separates and confines, protecting those who are inside it at the cost of caging them.”

Artist Meneer Marcelo used the wax drippings from a candle to form the profile of Ferdinand Marcos on framed glass. He said of his art: “The process is contemplative and hopeful. A metaphor for prayers that seek justice for the victims of martial law.”

Designer and illustrator Dan Matutina made the metal and acrylic sculpture of a hand holding a “T”-shaped hammer. Reflecting on “torture,” he said: “Man is the only creature capable of consciously and deliberately harming another for no reason whatsoever. What does that say about us? Who are the animals?”

Curator Jaime Pacena II said that the project was originally intended for the kids. “That’s why it is an alphabet, but we saw the difficulties of explaining it to the young ones, so we eventually thought not to be conscious of who our target audience is. It is for anybody,” he said.

The Weight of Words: An Alphabet of Human Rights will also have a corresponding book that will be formally launched on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, commemorating the day in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The book will be distributed for free to disadvantaged communities in the country as part of the CANVAS’s “One Million Books for One Million Filipino Children” campaign.

While there are words that are contextualized in the local milieu, the exhibition also included universal icons of human rights including Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, all done by the street artists called Ang Gerilya.

A group of five mural artists who usually work with portraits of Filipino icons, Ang Gerilya’s work for the exhibit was done by only two of its members, Janno Gonzales and Marianne Rios. They said that the topic is timely and timeless because anywhere in the world people are experiencing or have experienced injustice. — Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman