In New Bilibid Prison, inmates use art as therapy

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Inmates scraping to put together a better life find freedom through art in New Bilibid Prison's Kulay program. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It is Friday at the height of noon in the maximum facility of New Bilibid Prison. The inmates are wearing bright orange. What little clothes they own dry on the clotheslines. Dust rises out of the sand-colored ground. The heat bounces off the walls and roofs of their overcrowded buildings, coming off in waves, mixing in with a blue cloudless sky. From the inside, the barangay of New Bilibid looks like a very warm painting.

This high security prison is home to 17,000 out of the 25,000 total population of the national penitentiary. Infamous for its drug trade and now uncommon gang riots, it is perceived to house the nastiest and most notorious of criminals. But inside this prison of orange, beige, and red is a group of inmates who dare to paint it a different color.

To the side of a gymnasium blasting karaoke, there is a mini gallery. Outside of it, under the shade of trees, are three different inmates at work in pyrography — the art of decorating wood through controlled burning. One of the works in progress, intricately detailed, are of butterflies trapped inside a jar.

Kulay New Bilibid Prison.jpg Three inmates practice pyrography, the art of decorating wood through burning. Photo by JL JAVIER

It was also under a tree, an aratilis, that the first group of artists in New Bilibid gathered in 1998. With the help of the late artist Mauro “Malang” Santos, they eventually organized in 2000 to form Kulay, short for kultura at layunin. Now with over 60 members, the group is represented at the Bureau of Corrections through their supervisor, Josemari “Joey” Alambro.

Alambro, who finished degrees in both criminology and fine arts, has been with the Bureau for over 30 years. He initially worked as an illustrator in Makati but gave it up, hesitantly, to work for government. Kulay landed on his lap when, as the group expanded and started having disagreements, he was assigned to the case.

“Noong nalaman nila na artist din ako, in-encourage nila ako na maging supervisor … Inisip ko rin, siguro ito ‘yung calling [ni] God sa akin,” he says.

Alambro is tasked with teaching the inmates the basics of painting, facilitating the purchase and entry of their art supplies, and arranging for their works to be exhibited outside of prison. He says he thinks of the inmates as mentees.

He says painting is a good way to keep their minds and hands occupied. After all, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, especially in a place like prison, where it is easy to sink into depression — or even crime. Alambro assures them of the government’s support, as long as they stick to their rehabilitation. He encourages them to paint, even when — especially when — they are troubled.

Kulay New Bilibid Prison.jpg Kulay was established in 2000 with the help of the late artist Mauro "Malang" Santos. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Pinipilit ko silang magtrabaho kahit na may problema. So as of now, sinasabi ko na nagbago talaga ang paintings nila. Kahit na may problema pa diyan, sabi ko, ilabas niyo ang sarili niyo diyan,” says Alambro.

Their works have since expanded beyond depictions of Philippine culture, even delving into abstract and expressionist approaches, but the name Kulay stuck — and appropriately so. If there is a common trait among the variety of portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings, it is their vibrance in color.

“Mga gawa namin noon, madidilim pa. Kumbaga, 'yung pangugulungan namin, ina-apply namin doon sa pagpipinta,” says Gil Español, who joined Kulay in 2002 and has spent 15 years in New Bilibid.

“Noong dumating siya, tinuro sa amin kung paano mag-apply ng kulay... kumbaga, lagi niyang sinasabi sa amin na 'O, maasim pa yan …’ Kaya 'yung mga gawa namin ngayon, unti-unting napalinaw,” adds Español, whose works commonly depict bayanihan; sometimes with men working together to hoist a giant fish, or to catch crabs like he would back in his home province.

Joey Alambro Bureau of Corrections.jpg Bureau of Corrections supervisor Joey Alambro taught the inmates how to paint, utilizing his fine arts background. Behind him is his own painting of jars in a garden. Photo by JL JAVIER

The prominent use of color is not merely aesthetic — it also makes the work more likely to sell. If it earns, the more an artist can hand over to his family even as he paints from behind bars. It is Alambro, who can slip in and out of maximum, who facilitates this assistance to the families.

Inside the back room of their little gallery, Alambro even has his own painting; that of jars in a garden. Sometimes, when he teaches the inmates to paint, he only wears a plain shirt, and he even shares meals with them. When they break bread together, they are all — at least for the lunch hour — neither prisoner nor warden, but simply artists.

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The inmates make no mention of their crimes, as they are eager to leave this life behind. They have been here several years, after all. I think it rude to ask; in my previous visits to the prison, they would simply share their stories without the guests asking. On the day of my visit, they are concentrated in talking about starting anew.

But they talk around their crimes, or those of their companions, like an outline, or a picture unfilled.

Kulay New Bilibid Prison.jpg An unfinished depiction of The Last Supper sits among other finished works made by the inmates in Bilibid. The works cover a wide range of subjects. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Malaking misconception ng tao sa labas — akala nila lahat ng tao dito ay masama. Pero karamihan — sa tingin ko lang, obserbasyon ko, karamihan dito ay nakulong lang sa pagkakataon at siguro sa sitwasyon sa labas. Kaya, ayon ... hindi naman lahat likas na masama,” says Edwin Soyangco, who has been painting with Kulay for eight years.

Soyangco would later gift me with a self-portrait, depicting only his outline drawn four times over a multi-colored canvas. You can tell it is him because of his clean-shaven head and his sharply shaped ears.

All his paintings, he said, have been sold. The first, which had been a mere experiment from inside his cell, had been bought by a superintendent.

“Natuwa ako. Sabi ko, 'Puwede pala akong magpinta,'” says Soyangco.

It is not uncommon for the workers of the Bureau to end up buying art from Kulay. Even at the entrance to the facility, a nurse working at the prison hospital boasts that she had purchased an ₱8,000 painting from the group.

“Although physically nandito kami sa loob, pero doon po sa artworks namin, puwede namin mapalaya ang aming kaisipan.” — Pedrito "Ding" Peñalosa

Avelino "Jong" Zabala Jr., president of Kulay since August, also sold his work to former Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan. The work, entitled “Satisfied,” had been a still life painting of a flower vase, with his face hidden in the painting — “Hindi lang [klaro] — pero ‘pag tinutukan mo, mukha ko.”

He adds that government officials buying their work can bring great pride. Its success compelled him to make a series, which is now in its tenth installment.

When asked how he knows a work is finished, he responds, “'Pag satisfied ka na.”

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Pedrito "Ding" Peñalosa, the vice president of Kulay who also works as an art teacher at the prison’s alternative learning school, has curious word choice when describing his sentence.

“Alam ko po na kami naman po dito ay hindi naman pang-matagalan talaga, kami'y mga bakasyonista lamang, bagamat kami po ay may mga big time na hatol ... Ganun pa, paniniwala namin na kami po'y may kalayaan pa rin,” says Peñalosa.

After 17 years in prison, I ask him how much longer he has to stay. He responds he does not know, as he was sentenced for life. But he has been keeping from trouble all this years, and he hopes that translates to parole.

Kulay New Bilibid Prison.jpg Painting is a good way to keep the inmates' minds and hands occupied, says Bureau of Corrections supervisor Joey Alambro. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Gusto ko pagbalik ko sa malayang lipunan, mayroon naman akong magiging panibagong buhay … kung saan [maipagmalaki] ko [na] ‘yung buhay na ‘yun ay galing dito, at puwede ko iharap kahit kanino,” says Peñalosa.

But the freedom Peñalosa believes they possess is not only the one that waits for them outside of prison, but the one inside their workshop.

“Ang artworks namin, isa ‘yun sa mga nagbibigay ng positibong pananaw para sa amin at sa taga-malayang lipunan ... naipapakita po namin doon ang gusto naming iparamdam sa mga taga-labas,” he says.

“Although physically nandito kami sa loob, pero doon po sa artworks namin, puwede namin mapalaya ang aming kaisipan.”

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At New Bilibid Prison, both the formation of artistic skill and the rehabilitation of inmates is a team effort. The prison management has been accused of many things — corruption, collaborating with the drug trade, incompetence — but Kulay is undoubtedly one of its sincerest successes. Amid the bureaucracy and changing tensions of prison life is a small group of people trying to make a difference — in their lives and in Bilibid’s notorious reputation — one painting at a time.

Kulay New Bilbid Prison.jpg The high security prison is home to 17,000 out of the 25,000 total population of the national penitentiary. More than 60 of them form the group of artists in Kulay. Photo by JL JAVIER

Alambro, who has seen many inmates come and go after going on parole, says he hopes inmates still create art after prison. He constantly reminds them to ready themselves for reintegration into free society, and tells them to brace themselves for life with a scarlet letter.

“Kung mahilig ka diyan sa painting, pakita mo lang sa kanila na ito na ako ngayon. Hindi na ako katulad dati. Kung meron man akong nagawang pagkakamali noon, tapos na iyon. Ito na ako ngayon,” says Alambro.

“Minsan naging victim din sila ng situation. Hindi naman lahat iyan nadala sa maximum, medium eh kriminal na sila … Naniniwala ako na ang isang tao, mayroong natatagong kabutihan, kahit pa ang sama [ng tingin] sa tao.”

In the maximum facility of New Bilibid Prison, where those dealt with reclusion perpetua are sentenced, the hours and days bleed into each other like spilled paint. Men will do what they can to make their time bearable and to keep their hands busy: they play basketball, sing karaoke, volunteer at mass. Sometimes, they make art.

Kulay New Bilibid Prison.jpg The prison management has been accused of many things — corruption, collaborating with the drug trade, incompetence — but Kulay is undoubtedly one of its sincerest successes. Photo by JL JAVIER

Human hands are curious things — on one hand, they are capable of unspeakable crime, and on the other, they are capable of the sincerest craft. The same sinful hands are capable of control, of precision, of lighter colors, of producing something beautiful.

None of the inmates we met knew they were artists until their time in Bilibid. Painting was one of the things they could do to discover, after all these years, that there is good inside of them.

Español gives me a painting — a brightly detailed, coolly painted depiction of bayanihan. In blues and greens, he shows a group of people working together to lift a house, and carry it to a new home.

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For purchases, orders, and art supply donations, contact Joey Alambro through alambroj@gmail.com or 09175510313.