Lorebert Maralita and Jonathan Madeja address Labor Rights in Their Two-Man Show “Luwas” at Art Elaan

Before Jonathan Madeja and Lorebert Maralita became the artists they are today, they had to leave the comfort of their homes in the province and forge their own path in Manila where they witnessed the hardships of the poor. Many took on odd jobs and endured harsh working conditions bringing to question what labor laws are in place and how many jobs escape the basic requirements to protect their workers. In reaction to this, the artists produce a series that serves as a documentation of the experiences of the common poor as they enter the working class.

The story is probably one you’ve heard all too often. As soon as one is old enough, many pack their bags and buy a one-way ticket to Manila, buying into the idea that jobs are found in the capital city, as seen in Lorebert’s paintings “21 Anyos” and “Dulhog” respectively. Yet reality kicks in and the sacrifices people make just to make it each day can easily leave one disillusioned with the so-called promise of a better opportunity in life. The painting “Kibo” shows us people with heads of a kalabaw as they ride a jeepney on their way to work. The kalabaw is the Philippine’s national animal which also happens to represent labor. To the left we see a man discreetly handing a woman blue bills. They likely represent sex work. To the right, a man sticks a gun to the person next to him who has brought with him a large package, likely another naive probinsyano. Those in control assert their power by putting their victims’ lives on the line so that they are unable to escape. The person in the middle is unable to help anyone lest he becomes a victim or a beggar like in the painting “Tukar” which refers to the makeshift drum. Whether he looks to his left or right, this is just the reality he has to live with each day. Under the seat, a crocodile lies obscured, symbolic of apparent corruption.

On the other hand, Madeja’s triptych entitled “Katig’’ shows us a fisherman who appears to barely get enough nourishment that his ribcage almost resembles fish bones. He appears to be in a crucifix position as if sacrificing his life for a living when the whole point of finding a living is to support life. The title refers to an outrigger or the projecting structures on the sides of the boat to keep it from tilting over either side. The outrigger in the painting is portrayed as a balance beam, trodden upon by a person in power. Again we see the imagery of the crocodile, this time in the man’s shoes. The inhumane obstacles one has to undergo are again depicted in the painting “Salungat” where a worker is shown to have lost his hands, likely to a freak accident in a factory where safety is not regulated and it is questionable whether liabilities will be compensated for. He stares at a sea littered with broken crutches, the only thing he has to look forward to. Yet even he will have to keep working. Madeja further takes us into a glimpse of these workers’ inner world with the paintings “Pananong” the fish hook resembling a question mark to which there are no answers, and “Kalooban” to communicate that it’s what is in the mind and heart that counts regardless of one’s status in life.

Despite reported incidences of the poor being exploited, little improvement has yet to be seen on a significant scale. Those who benefit from employing cheap labor continue to operate under the radar, and they will never be at a shortage of new recruits, or “salta” as depicted in Lorebert’s vertical painting, so long as people need jobs. The name of the game is survival, but the game is rigged, and it is not clear who is able to thrive.

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Nicole Lasquety

A visual artist and writer with a passion for media exploration, where big ideas are commonplace. Art, theater, personal essays. lasquetynicole@gmail.com