"Heroism and gratitude loom large."
On the side of a condominium building in Barangay Teachers Village East in Diliman, Quezon City, a 50-foot mural serves as a stark reminder that despite difficulties we now face, ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things.
The woman in a surgical mask and a light green scrub suit, complete with a stethoscope around her neck, is not at all anonymous: With her familiar head accessory and cape of Philippine colors, she is unmistakably Darna – local superhero and pop culture superstar.
AG Saño is the artist behind this towering image. “Through the gigantic Darna mural, we wish to send the front liners our salute and tribute,” he says. “They go to work so we can be safe home.”
It’s a message for frontliners who risk their safety in performing their calling, but it’s also a call to the rest of us to support them in any way we can.
“We stay home to help them contain the pandemic. But we can do more. Chefs help by keeping them nourished. Driver-volunteers help by driving them home and to work for free. Bicycle advocates help by lending them bikes for personal transport. Civil society groups help by raising funds for PPEs to keep them safe in the hospitals. Performance artists help by keeping people entertained at home. As artists, the least we could do is to send them messages of hope and inspiration through our visuals.”
Saño is no newbie to such projects. Shortly before the community quarantine took effect in Metro Manila, he and his team finished a 120-foot mural – said to be the tallest environmental mural in Southeast Asia – of a Rufous-headed hornbill in Makati City. The mural, called Bird of Hope, hopes to raise awareness on the effects of climate change especially on the most vulnerable creatures.
Six years ago, Saño’s team painted a 96-foot concrete water tank in Santiago City, Isabela, depicting water conservation issues. The mural included a family of the indigenous tribe Gaddang – one of the first tribes who tilled the land in the northern Philippines.
His group, Art Attack, was formed in 2010 when he regularly went to Mindanao to give art workshops and mural sessions in communities affected by armed conflict. Art Attack is the group that popularized the Dolphins Love Freedom street art campaign to save dolphins from captivity and slaughter.
During this pandemic, many things prompted Saño to come up with the Darna mural. His organization, Teach Peace Build Peace Movement, started an FB Live series of wellness sessions that promoted inner peace while going through a crisis. They asked their participants to make greeting cards for frontliners and even for COVID-19 patients. He was also asked by a colleague to draw images of frontliners for a gratitude post to be made online.
Immediately, Saño asked his crew to prepare. They sought permission from the building association, which immediately said they supported the effort. His associates were rope technicians and Greenpeace activists who organize actions involving rope walls, rappelling and climbing. His team – he had two rope technicians and two assistant painters helping him – worked a total of 24 hours, spread over five days. They used some 14 liters of spare paint for the whole piece.
But sometime in the middle of May, just when the team thought they were on track with the project, typhoon Ambo made landfall on several areas in the Philippines and brought strong rain and wind. The slight drizzles occurring at this time of the year did not help, either. On top of these, Saño had to struggle with acrophobia which he has had since his teenage years.
But the team persevered. “Having a clear objective to finish an art piece takes priority over any other challenge.”
The mural has been reported on locally and internationally, its photo making it to the online pages of The Guardian. Saño is gratified that his team’s message has been conveyed and amplified. “I continue to thank the frontliners who are still in the thick of the fight to prevent the spread of the virus and in caring for the infected patients in hospitals around the world,” he says.
These days, restrictions are slowly being eased, not because the situation has improved (on the contrary, the Philippines recorded its biggest single-day increase in the number of COVID-19 cases Thursday, May 28) but because people are losing jobs, going hungry, and deserting hope. With the lifting of the lockdown, there is a very real possibility that cases would surge anew even as the curve has yet to be flattened.
Whether this happens, or whether the trend does improve as we all hope, frontliners – diminished in number, much scarred and exhausted – will continue to play their critical role in our society. They will continue to show up for work despite great risk (of contracting the disease) and inconvenience (because of the absence or scarcity of public transportation). Some of them are also discriminated against and are subjected to harsh treatment from by some members of their family or community. Worse, in some cases, their own hospitals or governments do not provide them adequate support and protection, leaving them to fend for themselves.
We have said thank you to our frontliners many times before, and in our different ways. We do so again and again, every day.