I am sat on the floor of the first cathedral to ever be built in the Philippines. A place filled with art and history and at this moment, the sounds of Taki, A-e and Fread's voices. They are not singing a particular song but are just singing and humming out notes in a room where the sound echoes around us. My eyes are shut and I'm listening to their incredible voices, giving me goosebumps.
Now I'm back at home, I can close my eyes and be transported back to this place, but I can't explain it to anyone else. It was an arts experience that only those in the room could truly appreciate, there in that moment. In this shared instance, we solidified a community that we had created over the previous two weeks.
The beginning of our time away was spent in Rizal Recreation Centre in Rizal, Laguna, just 3 hours south of the capital of Manila. I would later find out it was named after Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal, a poet, author, journalist, activist…in fact, the list is endless. Whilst at the centre we were tasked with running workshops for children from across the globe whose parents had come together for the week for a conference. We put together a programme of work using the supplies we had all brought, with a focus on a different craft each day, and the opportunity to act out stories and learn new songs together. The kids even taught us some of the different languages from the places they lived.
During our time of creating we would get to hear the children's stories of their lives and find out more about them as individuals. In the short time we spent with them, we had created a small, unique, creative community. Through the activities facilitated and the conversations that took place, we were able to deepen our relationships with the kids and feel truly connected. Watching these children explore creatively reminded me exactly why I work in the sector I do; I love seeing children smile and laugh as they create amazing things from nothing.
As our time in the Philippines continued, it further cemented for me the ways in which the arts were connecting us with the people around us. Halfway through the week, we had a meeting with our guides who we would be spending the following week with. This was when I first learnt they all had a connection to the arts. One of the guys, Taki, was an amazing artist who carried round a notebook everywhere he went, just in case inspiration struck. Taki ended up asking the artist of our group, Millie, to contribute to his book so he could have a memento from our time spent together.
Fread, another of the guys, was involved in running a monthly arts festival in the slums we were staying in, called Sining Kayle, Musikalsada, which translates as Art in the Alley, Music in the Street. Unfortunately it wouldn't be on whilst we were in Manila but Fread showed us images and videos from previous events. These gatherings bring together people of all ages within the slum community and encourage them to share music, create art with shared supplies and spend time exploring their own creativity. Fread explained that it was about making a more cohesive community and encouraging the locals to celebrate their culture and creativity.
In our second week, we moved into the slums in Tondo, Manila. This community unfortunately sits under a cloud of stigma from other nearby communities as a dangerous place to live. Fread and Taki shared that they had worked alongside groups who were working to not just change the community from the inside, but to change the perception of it to outsiders too. Their main tool for doing all of this was the arts.
On a Jeepnee ride back to our lodgings one day, I asked Fread about the importance of arts and culture to the Filipinos – not just to the individuals but also to the government. Fread shared that over the years there had been an overwhelming amount of Western art and culture poured into the Philippines, with a lot of the productions staged at theatres being big Western hits (while we were there, Wicked was playing in the National Theatre in Manila). While we have so much worth sharing from the West, for Filipinos it doesn't truly reflect who they are or their culture. Fread explained that the government were working hard to invest in more grassroots projects, encouraging all generations to share in different creative and cultural activities. In the Philippines, the government runs the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA for short). The NCCA has several different funds that groups or individuals can apply for to help towards facilitating projects or their own artwork. The Commission also supports many national museums, heritage sites, theatres and galleries, as well as inspiring the public to get involved in events such as National Arts Month, National Dance Week, World Theatre Week, Museums and Galleries Month, and many others.
A government who so actively encourages creativity must know the great impact creating a strong sense of community can have within their country. By connecting people through the arts they are able to discover more about themselves, their community and the culture they come from. By being enabled to explore their inherent creativity, people are able to open up, find new ways of thinking and be more active within their communities.
So my question now is: how can we more actively work to use creativity to create deep, meaningful relationships that lead to more cohesive communities, not just overseas, but in our own back yard too? Whilst I don't yet have the answer, I have learnt that this is something I want to explore and develop. I want to be better at helping people to uncover the creativity lying just beneath the surface, the kind of creativity that can so successfully connect us with those around us and help us to create strong, lasting communities.