FEATURE: Portrait of a Filipino Artist in Captivity

FEATURE: Portrait of a Filipino Artist in Captivity
What you need to know

Juan Paolo Verzosa, his wife and hundreds like them are being used as a bargaining chip for the state to gain the upper hand in ongoing peace negotiation in the Philippines.

It feels like an honor receiving a phone call from JP. There is always a fleeting sense urgency to it amidst the short intervals of banter. I immediately drop everything since I know it takes a lot for him to make that one call. He says you must befriend the guards, pay for the call and somewhat sneakily make your time on it as discreet as possible. Unfamiliar numbers calling my phone could always be my friend and comrade, JP Verzosa, who has now spent more than three years in prison.

A total of 19 political prisoners from the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) were released last August to participate in the first round of peace negotiations with Rodrigo Duterte’s government. While the release was welcomed by the NDFP, they have continuously noted there are hundreds more individuals unjustly apprehended because of political activity.

Duterte has yet to sign the amnesty proclamation, in his hands since October. Releasing political prisoners en masse has been one of the positive talking points of his presidency since the start. The president has said that he wants to “build confidence” with a clean slate in dealing with the country’s revolutionary forces.

The cultural worker

I met Juan Paolo Verzosa, or JP, through my brother. They were both activists from the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. JP is medium built, with a stocky frame and Kayunmanggi skin (loosely translated as Filipino brown). He was a full-time activist back then and needed a place to stay at times, so he frequented our house since my mother would "adopt" activists who needed a place to stay.

During college, JP also was the photojournalist for the esteemed Philippine Collegian. Having never pursued any mainstream or commercial tracks of arts, JP’s works (paintings and sculptures) have mainly been used for social causes and educational campaigns. In 2006, he became weary of the city life and took off for Samar to integrate into peasant communities. He spent most of his time there even during the holidays.

JP and his art shunned the traditional trappings of a classroom or art gallery. Instead, he chose to take his talents straight to the core of his audience, the oppressed and marginalized. It was a matter of reshaping art and shifting the paradigm of an artistic platform towards non-traditional venues.

Galleries, bistros and theaters should not be the main stages of artistic production. Why not the market, the barrio, the campfire, town square or even the most remote rural areas? These are places where arguably art in the service of the people at its most potent progressive energies can flourish and be embraced by those who imbibe its message the most.

The output of these endeavors speaks of JP's objectives not only as an artist but also as a cultural worker. One who combines working for cultural development along the lines of organizing and asserting basic democratic rights to food, land and justice. Along with Grace, a poet, the couple utilized various cultural forms to arouse the budding unrest in peasant communities.

JP and his wife Grace had been living in Metro Manila for almost a year when the police suddenly came knocking on their door on June 28, 2013. The two had been peasant organizers in Samar, one of the poorest provinces in the country, for around seven years. They were staying in Manila to focus on caring for their son, Daniel, who was 3 months old when they were arrested.

The pair was charged with multiple counts of robbery, homicide and illegal possession of explosives. Aliases, instead of their real names, were used in the arrest, making the warrant presented to them defective. Despite this, a judge from the Regional Trial Court of Samar deemed it admissible. The aliases, (seemingly random names) assigned to JP were Arvin, Cocoy and Egay while Joy, Lenon and Laurel for Grace are some of the most common assortment of names you will find in the country. Their sentences have yet to be determined, and even after three years the charges against the pair are still being tried in court.

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Photo Credit:Palayain sina Juan Paolo Verzosa at Grace Abarratigue Verzosa
"Evening sessions: Balita sa labas (News from the Outside)" / 14"x20" Acrylic on canvas
The prison activist

JP’s steps in art and organizing have largely been undocumented since, well, that was never the point. Only now, due to his incarceration, has he been able to archive his works — all of which tackle the tragedies that befall working class citizens and the conditions of his own imprisonment.

During our phone conversations, JP told me of the revolutionary work being done inside the penitentiary. According to another former political detainee and artist, Ericson Acosta, activists are generally treated with a bit more reverence by the other inmates.

JP and Grace have been busy campaigning for better cells, longer recess hours and held a protest inside the prison against the cancellation of a sports tournament. They have circulated several petitions against militarization and human rights abuses all over the country. The Samar Provincial Jail turned into a hotspot for engaging political occurrences happening outside their chambers.

The pair is adamant that they should be freed, for the sake of their son, and especially since the charges against them were fabricated. In all the hearings on their case, not one witness has surfaced to substantiate the claims made by the police. Both the judge and law enforcement have managed to delay and disregard their appeals for years.

Their situation is not uncommon, and many have been persecuted for their beliefs with maliciously contrived and circumstantial evidence even after the Marcos dictatorship fell in 1986. It is easier for the state to crucify a criminal than a revolutionary.

JP’s art has also taken on another dimension. Not only exploring the nature of confinement but also that of social detention. Societal structures interplaying to hound cultural workers, activists and critics have featured more prominently in his work.

It is a bleak yet truthful recognition that there are systematic efforts to keep him and others like him in captivity. Moreover, if and when they are released, JP feels it will only be a step up into a bigger prison. He says, “Through paintings, I’m able to illustrate the situation of political detainees. Is real freedom just about freedom from jail or is there something more meaningful than that?”

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Photo Credit:Juan Paolo Verzosa
"Pagtuklas sa tunay na kalayaan (Discovering true freedom)" / 12"x18" Acrylic on canvas
Held hostage

My last conversation with JP was right around the time Duterte won the election. I attempted to be positive by saying that he will probably be out soon because amnesty is on the table. He was cautious, however, preferring to wait and see how things pan out.

According to local human rights group KARAPATAN, out of 504 political prisoners, 148 should be released on humanitarian grounds. These are the sick, elderly and individuals that have been held for more than 10 years.

No doubt Duterte has the power to do this and could have already done so by now. However, the government’s Chief Negotiator Silvestre Bello III has said, “A general amnesty could be declared by President Duterte, with the concurrence of Congress, once the peace talks are successfully concluded.”

Instead of both sides collaborating on a framework for peace and justice, the administration has shown a lack of sincerity, recanting on the release of political prisoners. Adding fuel to the fire, reports of continuing military combat operations have surfaced. This runs contrary to the interim ceasefires initiated independently on both sides as the peace negotiations are ongoing.

All this could be the first major hurdle in the negotiations. The government will not release the detainees if the rebels do not “kowtow” to their wishes. Meanwhile, the NDF would like to continue the smooth sailing of the negotiations but must be wary of the military still making the rounds and the regime’s somewhat unexpected backpedaling. JP, Grace and the hundreds like them are being used as a bargaining chip for the state to gain the upper hand.

These circumstances are looking more like the imprisonment JP described outside his cell. December will be crucial. Bello has set a deadline for amnesty along with the bilateral ceasefire deal on the first week of December, although it seems increasingly unlikely since the initial October deadline was already marred by these conundrums.

All of those incarcerated look bound to spend another Christmas in jail, away from their families on the most gratuitously celebrated holidays in the country from September to January. They deserve to be free. But despite the passing of the years and the injustice afforded to him, JP can at least take comfort in the fact that the state has not managed to stifle his creativity or dedication to serving the oppressed.

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Photo Credit:Palayain sina Juan Paolo Verzosa at Grace Abarratigue Verzosa
Prisoner's Christmas Card.

Editor: Olivia Yang