The Ledesma Exit
The sunset sky was turning the color of indigo that December afternoon. I was racing against the fading sun rays, and still, my skin was soaked in sweat. Having cycled so fast to the city from Pavia, I had to catch my breath when I reached my stop. I thought I was late for the performances.
As I approached the Ledesma Exit that had a sign that said, VEHICLES NO ENTRY, I was stopped by Manong Guard who asked me where I was headed. “Sa Artivism, Nong,” I replied before I was let through. I went down my bike and walked slowly as my sense of sight began to be bewitched by the colors the walls were already boasting and bursting with. I smiled as I remembered the first time I was here.
That first time was also in December, eighteen years back. We were to shop for shoes. The walls I remember were bald and bare. And barely alive. I was in second grade then.
My father worked as a salesman at SM Delgado for eight years. Often, my older siblings and I would quiz him with what the letters S and M stand for. Shoe Mart, he would say, so sure, and yet, we would still think differently, propose our own, and come up with tales to explain our made-up meanings.
That December, I asked my father for a new pair of tennis. I have learned from experience that everybody sports their best outfit during Christmas parties. The next weekend, during his day off, he took me for a walk.
Imagining myself wearing shoes from Shoe Mart made my heart race with exhilaration as we threaded from Zamora the labyrinthine thoroughfares that led to the commerce centers of the city. Papa, who was a city boy, knew by heart the twists and turns that portalled pedestrians to their ports of call.
There are only a few of these shortcuts that I recall. One is a small opening along Calle Real that outs to Iznart. Another is an alley in Mapa that maps to Ortiz where in between, one may find himself bingeing on the famous pancho sold at the Buho Bakery. Along Ledesma Street is a pathway one can wormhole in and find himself transported to the street of either Delgado or Valeria, or vice versa – the Ledesma Exit.
The Dool Narrative
When Nang Kristine asked me if I could cover this leg of Artivism, my thoughts raced thinking how I could best tell the story of Artivism: Dool. A story so exquisitely complex, given the brilliance of the brains behind it. Save for my recollection of this passage where this leg of Artivism transpired, there may just be a million more breathtaking stories waiting to be told. With the walls painted anew, a million more memories are merely waiting to be made.
From midday to midnight, I mused over old mythologies and overused metaphors. I then pictured mangrove roots in my mind and imagined what if my tale of this street overlaps with that of others, like the interweaving of the small streets and smaller thoroughfares of this city.
Like the aerial roots of the mangrove. Like the dool.
Slowly, I was overcome by this insight: it is through these intertwines that our lives are linked - streets and stories, intertwining like the dool.
Dool translates to English as pneumatophores. Pneumatophores are a type of aerial roots that grow above the water to facilitate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide among plants in waterlogged soil habitats. Usually a feature of plants that grow in muddy coasts and salt marshes, these root structures are formed when plants cannot respire normally through their actual roots because of their being submerged in water.
Asking around, I have learned that not a large number of native speakers of the local language understand what the dool is. Project leader Marrz Capanang likened the unfamiliarity of the dool to the unpopular notion of artists being social innovators. Many misconstrue art as an elitist form of expression that is closed and clandestine to the masses. The entire Artivism movement, however, wanted to correct this very concept by enabling and empowering street art to catalyze critical messages across varied barriers and borders.
Earlier in 2021, when coronavirus cases hit new highs in Cebu City, oxygen tanks were selling out everywhere. It already felt like a dystopian dimension to see pictures of vehicles lining up for medical oxygen supply. The pandemic seemed to me a paradox. It made us all realize how necessary for survival the gift of natural oxygen is while also making it crystal clear that once the virus contaminates it, it may as well be the means to the end of our lives. Hard times like this compel us to be a community but with the safe distance we must keep, how do we mutually sustain and support one another?
A few days before Christmas, Typhoon Rai (Odette) entered the Philippines and ravaged Visayas and Mindanao, leaving them to recover from somewhat irreparable damages. This, amid an already ongoing pandemic that has magnified our mortality more than anything in the last two years. How does one go on living at a time like this? I asked myself many times. With December being a season of sharing, the moral dilemma was: what was left for us to give when there was barely left of us?
Artivism: Dool could not have come at a better time. The project opened on Christmas day, a few days after Typhoon Odette, and amid a global pandemic. Inspired by the idea of pneumatophores that supply and sustain life to the mangroves, many local artists of different origins came to the Ledesma Exit. Connected only by the common goal of making us rethink our relationship with the world at large, the Dool artists gifted us not only with their gift of art but also with their advocacies.
Ledesma Exit was slowly coming back to life.
Step after step.
Stroke after stroke.
Species after species.
Story after story.
Now, the walls by the Ledesma Exit open like a storybook of many stories. Each wall is a page laden with the lore of and the life in the water. Each creation is as compelling and as colorful as the next. Each mural is a mirror to view ourselves upon and question our morals with. Each tells a tale that intertwines with our own and carries a lesson to lead our lives by.
These are the dool narratives. This is the dool narrative.
The Dool begins with the divine, as beginnings do in most origin stories, like an invocation to a deity to assist us in our attempt to dabble with a divine duty - to create life out of chaos. Or in this case, to bring to life the already worn-out walls by the MaryMart Center.
It is therefore only fitting that the murals begin with Mary of the Sea. Conceived by artist Marge Chavez, Mary of the Sea has inspirations rooted in the liturgical arts and is an imaginative incarnation of the concept of “the mother”.
Like the sea, Mother Mary in this mural is the origin of life, an idea more reinforced by the growing life forms surrounding her. It is through this understanding that we begin to see the sea and Mary as one. Her blue veil merges with the cerulean waves of the ocean; her head, coronated with a coral. Her hand, a celestial invitation for the passersby to pay close focus to, or perhaps pray for, the little and lesser-known life forms of the water, like the fish next to her, the apahap.
Apahap artists Hannah Hope Vergara and Jai Figueroa took inspiration from the recent pictures of the many hook and line fishers that trended across social media. These pictures featured them beaming with pride as they paraded their enormous catch of this sought-after fish. Since then, the apahap has become the goal of many others.
While the apahaps’ presence in and populating of the river semaphores that this body of water is once again alive, the mural calls for responsible waste disposal from among us humans as the plague of plastic pollution remains a pressing problem that we need to pay heed to. Moreover, it offers us a perspective of the apahap as part fish, part garbage to highlight half the probability of catching a piece of plastic trash instead.
The artists further conclude, “Nature will always flourish even if we disappear today, but we humans will not advance without nature.”
Across Apahap is the Alimosan. Alimosan is an artwork featuring a fish species similar to a catfish. Given the atrocities we have demonstrated towards the marine habitat, what surrounds the Alimosan are the words that the fish would likely say if it could speak. Most prominent among these words are TOUCH ME NOT, a literary allusion to Jose Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere.
Artist Marrz Capanang remembers an incident in his childhood that inspired the conception of such a mural. He recalls having witnessed a man whose hands were sore and swelling, having hurt himself in an attempt to catch a danyo, a fish that can leave one feverish if one gets stung with its spines that are filled with toxins.
When a danyo grows, it is already called alimosan, and its ability to hurt also doubles. But hurting humans is not the way these creatures were designed. These abilities were meant for them to defend themselves, so humans would touch them not. Touching, however, may also mean harming these marine and riverine creatures by irresponsibly disposing of our garbage in their habitats all in the name of artificial progress and material success.
Through his mural, Marrz wants to rekindle a sense of nationalism among us in a firm belief that our fate and future are deeply linked to our dark past. A painful past of periods in history where we have been heavily abused and brainwashed resulting in our present suffering. Despite this, Marrz leaves a hopeful note and looks at us for answers. He asks, “The river is still flowing, full of hope – how can we bridge the gap?"
Next to Alimosan is a caricature of a city built on the back of a hermit crab, the umang-umang. Usually seen sauntering along the sandy shores of seas and rivers, these crustaceans struggle to find shelter in the emptied shells of other organisms in the benthic regions of the ocean, or risk being defenseless. Thus, the umang-umang rightfully earns becoming the emblem of adaptability.
Cuidad de Umang-umang artist Epalan Noel notes that to survive in this ever-evolving environment, organisms of all shapes and sizes, have three options: to migrate to a safer place, to accept or adapt to change or to simply die and decay. He elaborates that this mural is a portrait of a creature encumbered with artificial progress but still flounders for survival as it searches for shells it may finally call its home.
Tiny slivers of bangrus swim by the Apahap. When the Milkfish Divides offers an imaginative take on one of the most highly-coveted catch by the fishers of the Iloilo River. With the number of recipes rivaling the amount of its supply and demand, milkfish proffers a variety of flavors for the Ilonggo tongues and tummies to enjoy.
Artist MA Tuvilla elucidates that the mural is a metaphor for the vast universe we are in and the heavenly bodies it consists of – systems of planets, stars, galaxies, as well as unseen celestial structures. Each slice offers an insight into the insides and the individual series of matters one sees when he gazes at the sky, captivating him to speculate on the unknown or the answers that lie behind. Or beyond. Answers that satiate the famishment of the curious, in a fashion similar to when one savors the bangrus. It’s as if one feels taken to the high heavens that convinces him to have more… to know more.
Swimming in the same tropical realm as the slivers of the bangrus are three tropical halfbeaks. Sigwil artist Kyle Dile looks back on a childhood memory as the muse to his mural. Growing up in Davao, he recalls seeing this fish species as a child. When he moved to Iloilo, still seeing the sigwil in the waters of Iloilo reminded him how ecosystems transcend beyond the physical and penetrate the personal. With a sentimental attachment to the fish, he reminds us to look after our waters for they carry with them not only a means of living but also a means of remembering.
The wall that sits beside the sigwils and the bangrus is that of the tamasak. Taking inspiration from the mudskippers’ amphibious nature, Tamasak artist Isaac Bravo aims to represent through his mural the diverging away from the norms set by the society as well as charting your own course. After all, unlike most fish species, the mudskipper, literally, is a fish that prefers to skip about in the mud than swim in water when it very well can.
Apart from the metaphorical message it projects, however, mudskippers are bio-indicators because of their being highly sensitive to the changing levels of pollution. Thus, their presence and abundance are direct determiners of the health of coastal and mangrove areas.
Beside Tamasak is the Bulan-bulan and the Microplastics. Bulan-bulan is one among the many fish species found in the now revived Iloilo River. The artwork by artist Sasha Cabais provides us with an X-Ray perspective into the insides of the fish, a view that is rarely paid attention to. In the mural, the belly of the bulan-bulan is riddled with microplastics. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, not five millimeters long that are the result of the decomposition of plastic materials. These usually contain contaminants like chemicals and trace metals that many marine life forms may ingest.
Most importantly, however, the mural calls for us to be more mindful of where and how we dispose of our garbage because, cliché as it can get, what goes around comes around. The plastic we throw away so irresponsibly may end up serendipitously served back on our plates.
After the Bulan-bulan sits Pam Reyes’ Kasag. By creating crab characters of different shades and sizes, the artist wants to challenge through her mural the concept of crab mentality. Crab mentality is a frame of mind where one prevents another from achieving what he cannot achieve himself, so they all die amid the danger, fair and square.
The artist proposes that instead of bringing others down, we should celebrate everyone’s effort and help one another to reach greater heights. Pam paints the words, HELP, AMBAGAN, AMLIG, and BULIG to further accentuate her point.
Within the claws of the crabs is Red Gico's mural of the sailfin dragon lizard, or ibid, as known locally. Almost endemic to the Philippines, the ibid’s skills in swimming and its dinosauric dorsal crest that runs down to its tail are some of the reasons it has become a target of the illegal exotic pet trade. Also harming the existence of the ibid are human activities that lead to the eventual loss of their homes and habitats.
In Ibid, we see the sailfin’s dorsal crest transformed into a sailboat maneuvered by men divided on the direction they are to take, a lifelike depiction of men’s indecision and lack of firm resolutions on concerns that decide the indeterminate fate of our wildlife.
The brief walk by the mural walls ends strongly with a moral, like a children’s book that not only compels you with its colors but also betters you as a human being, one story at a time. Ten, this time. The murals, all rich and riveting, conclude with Dohol, Dool: Engine of Reciprocity.
Dool, Dohol is an image of the tropical coastal system that encompasses mangroves, seagrass, corals, among others. When viewed closely, one sees the dool as mainly formed by small human figures to represent the idea of reciprocity in the relationship that we share with these forces of nature. Ginhawa Ko, Ginhawa Mo, these words emblazoned across the green seagrass blades further fortify the insights of the Dool mural, and that of the entire Artivism: Dool.
We often do not realize how our lives are so interconnected with these smaller and sea beings that we fail to see their significance. The existence of marine life not only predates ours but also predetermines it. These life forms being natural solutions may be the only thing that saves us from both natural disasters and the equally calamitous climate crisis.
Dool Artist Raz Salvarita advocates for and asks us to return to a life rooted in generosity and giving. He advises, “Dohol ta ang kamayuhan para sa tanan”.
Like the Dool
That weekend my father took me out to buy shoes, we did not make it to Shoe Mart. I would realize later when I was much older that we did not have the money to afford such a luxury. But when we entered Ledesma Exit, we made a stopover and bought shoes at the Shoe Castle, one of the many stores in MaryMart Center that, despite the COVID-19 and the cutthroat competition, stands strong to this day. Like the dool, thriving in harsh environments.
When Frank ravaged us in 2008, Iloilo City grew mangrove forests to dispel disasters of parallel magnitudes. Sometimes when I am sad, I walk barefoot among strangers frequenting Iloilo Esplanade for all the right and wrong reasons. When life begins to escape my lungs, I would pause for a while and smell the saline in the air. I would lean over the rails and stare at the aerial roots of the mangroves and wonder if Iloilo City stands and survives storms on these roots alone. The dool. The lateral roots growing out of the water where oxygen is channeled to aerate plants whose main roots are submerged in seawater and soil.
In shape and structure, the dool is so much like the small and secret streets of the city – usually overlooked narrow pathways where life passes through.
Except for my memory of it, the Ledesma Exit was beyond recognizable. It was no longer the bald and bare walls that I remember it being. Its lungs were now breathing; its heart, beating. Revived like the river. If I didn’t know any better, I would have easily attributed its newfound life to the colors it now came with. But the shades and shapes were only secondary. Instead, it was the coming together of the many artists to form a community that breathed life into these walls. A community that champions both compassion and consciousness. A community that cares.
In one of the performances during the opening night of Artivism: Dool, we lit candles as a tribute to the survivors of Typhoon Odette and as a sigil of sharing light amid these dark and difficult days. Many times, the flame of my candle would be snuffed out by the strong blows of the wind, a ghastly reminder of that dark December night when Typhoon Odette hit, and all the lights went out. Each time it died, a stranger offered to revive my light.
The ritual still haunts me today. Some days, I think of them who still dwell in the dark, like mangrove roots deep into the soil and saltwater. These days, we are their dool.
Gen Daquinan | Sen Vargas
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