By Camille Anne M. Arcilla

WATER is supposed to be clear. But when it gets dirty, it becomes a medium of art.

Using art to raise environmental awareness
Dirty Watercolor, an exhibit of artworks created using pigments from Manila’s most polluted rivers.

Nine Filipino artists created striking artworks to raise awareness about the state of the Pasig River and its tributaries through an exhibit titled Dirty Watercolor.

Dirty Watercolor — which ran from May 24 to 27 at Makati’s Rockwell Center — showcased works by Toti Cerda, JC Vargas, Kean Barrameda, Ferd Fallano, Allan Clerigo, Van Isunza, Luigi Almuena, Renee Ysabelle Jose, and John Ed de Vera, and was curated by Cid Reyes.

What made the works special is that the pigments used by the artists were created from dirty water sourced from Manila’s most polluted rivers: the Cainta River, Tullahan River, Marikina River, the Taguig Estuary, and the Binondo Canal.

“It’s a known fact that a lot of artists were already using pigments from the environment long before there are commercially manufactured ones, but what we’ve done is we got pigments from the rivers to make a point about the environment. Water is supposedly clear, but [when] it’s polluted, you can actually use it to paint images,” said creative director Bryan S. Siy of TBWA Santiago Mangada Puno, the agency which spearheaded the project in collaboration with the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation.

Mr. Siy said the color of the pigment depended on what river it was taken from. In more urbanized areas, he said, the water is blacker. In other areas it could be more gray, brown, or even greenish brown because of moss and algae.

“These colors are produced by the pollutants ranging from biological, heavy metals, or sometimes, algae. We were able to get a variety of colors from black, gray, brown, greenish brown, sienna, and sepia,” he said.

To make the pigments, the water was first filtered, and the sediment sterilized. The sediment was then open-baked for 24 hours to dry. These were then mixed with binders to stick to the paper.

“We told [the artists] about the pigments, that it would be smelly because the procedure couldn’t get rid of the smell. During the actual painting, we were attracting flies. So they were equipped with masks and gloves,” said Mr. Siy.

He added that the challenge for the artists was the medium’s uniqueness. It was quite different from commercial watercolor, producing sedimentation and glittery crystals on the artworks.

“When you see the exhibit, you’ll actually see how the pigments were behaving in the artworks. It would produce veins… and it’s not as smooth, and it reacts differently with paper,” he said.

Notable works in the exhibit were JC Vargas’ Sabina and Luigi Almuena’s Talon and Gapang. According to Mr. Siy, Mr. Almuena used a different technique for Gapang.

“He flooded the canvas with dirty water pigment, and after, laid down pieces of plastic on top and allowed the water to dry. He took out the plastic bags, the pigments went into the creases making patterns for the artwork,” Mr. Siy said.

Using art to raise environmental awareness

Mr. Vargas, who did seven pieces for the exhibit, said Sabina, which is the largest features a child symbolizing innocence. The child is unaware that her playground (the dead river) is unsafe for her.

“We used pigment from the polluted rivers to create images of life. Dirty Watercolor is raising awareness for our dead rivers with images that you cannot look away from,” the artist said.

Melvin Mangada, managing partner and chief creative officer of TBWA said the exhibit was part of their “Creativity for Humanity” program which deals with different issues in the community such as animal violence, child trafficking, education, and the environment.

“We always allot time and efforts within the agency to think of thoughtful solutions and not just to sell products,” he said. “Someone wise told me, ‘It takes many years for environmentalists to convince others on the state of the environment, but it takes only a few pieces of work from artists to actually change the conversation.’”

Mr. Mangada also pointed to the growing interest of Filipinos with the art scene for the past few years.

“There have been more galleries being put up, there have been art fairs and exhibits and auctions. People are appreciating art more than ever. There are more artists coming out to express themselves, especially in social media,” he said.

“With the help of ABS-CBN, we are planning to extend this kind of campaign. Someone even suggested that we could use displaced soil from mining [as] a medium for sculptures, as part of the advocacy against mining. But we still have to study it,” he said.

The exhibit was extended by a day because of the positive response, said Mr. Siy, but there are no plans to re-stage it.

“There were 22 artworks that were on view, all of which are already reserved by 12 firm buyers. Proceeds will directly go to the foundation,” he said.

“But we will be working continuously with ABS-CBN for other projects like this in the future.”