How art helped Marawi children concentrate in school

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“For these [Maranao] kids, it’s so hard for them to verbalize things sometimes, and [art] helps to be able to provide this new avenue for them to be able to do that,” says Melissa Yeung-Yap, an artist and social entrepreneur who helped conduct art workshops for children affected by the Marawi conflict. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The conflict in Marawi has reduced the city to rubble. Though it has been liberated, its aftermath — homes and livelihood built for years destroyed beyond recognition — may be the most challenging image that the Maranaos will have to come to terms with.

Classes in 12 public schools have resumed in Marawi on the first week of September, but their usual routine has taken a pause. “[The students] were just drawing because they’re not yet ready for formal school. They’re too distracted with everything that happened to them. It’s only drawing that gets them focused,” says Melissa Yeung-Yap, an artist and social entrepreneur who headed art workshops for children in Marawi.

Yap was invited to conduct the workshops by Fr. Ben Nebres, S.J., the former president of Ateneo de Manila University, who started a feeding program in Marawi. Fr. Nebres’ group wanted to have more activities for the children. “The kids needed some sort of transition to get back to normalcy so they asked some people to have some activities with the kids, like sports, art, and storytelling,” she says.

They went to two schools in Lanao del Sur, one in Mipaga Elementary School and another in Saguiaran evacuation center. Yap initially thought that art workshops wouldn’t help children in recovering from their trauma or in making sense of all the turmoil that they experienced, but a teacher in Mipaga told her that art was the only way to get them to concentrate in school. Only then did she feel that her presence was not in vain.

Now, the artworks of the children — oil pastels on black sandpaper — are displayed in her restaurant, Earth Kitchen, a social enterprise that supports farmers and indigenous communities across the Philippines. Other artworks on display are pieces by children who were victims of Typhoon Yolanda, as well as works by girls from Cribs Foundation, an organization that supports survivors of sexual abuse.

marawi children's art.jpg "We used sandpaper because we work with kids and they don't really have that much control yet," says Melissa Yeung-Yap. "Sandpaper is the best for kids because it makes everything so vibrant without so much effort on their part." Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

marawi children art.jpg Various artwork made by Maranao children are displayed at Earth Kitchen. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

CNN Philippines Life talked to Yap, who is currently based in the U.K., over the phone to learn more about the art workshop she conducted in Marawi, the other workshops she headed for traumatized communities, and how she thinks art facilitates the Maranao children’s return to normalcy. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What got you started with creating art and also executing art workshops for traumatized communities?

I started painting when I was young but I seriously got into it when I was 11 or 12 because I got injured with soccer and I really didn't know what to do during summers. I was bored and I was really down. I enrolled in this art workshop and then I really got into it … My first encounter with an orphanage was during an institutional visit that [my] school, [Immaculate Concepcion Academy], organized.

When we were there at the orphanage, we also had this group of street children that they were taking care of so I hung out with them and then we started drawing together … They had a blackboard, and the kids and I had chalks, and then we created a nice collage of sort and it was really nice. Then they asked me to go back there, so I did for every summer for the next five years … They really sparked my interest and they gave me this purpose of sharing my art with others.

What was it like being in Marawi and interacting with the children?

It was a bit surreal and a bit scary, but not really. When you're with the kids, you kind of forget that it's scary because they were really fun and happy … We were just supposed to teach in Saguiaran [a municipality in Lanao farther from the war zone] but then we went to Mipaga [in Marawi]. Our van had all the materials so we just landed and [the teacher] was super thankful so it was really nice. It gave so much meaning to what we were trying to do because she said that art really helped the kids recover and get back on track with school.

"That was the only thing they had left — the clothes they had when they literally ran away from the war zone. But despite that, they can still interact with us and share so much despite everything." — Melissa Yeung-Yap

I was actually talking to the teacher earlier because we got to raise some funds, and she said she needed to buy printers and some books because they lost everything. The kids are getting enrolled again so there are more enrollees now because some of the people from the evacuation centers are now back in Mipaga and are enrolling their kids again.

What was the common theme that the children were drawing and why did you choose sandpaper and pastel as art tools?

A lot of them drew houses because they lost their homes, so that was bittersweet in the sense that their families are really important and their homes are really important, but then that was a bit heartbreaking.

We used sandpaper because we work with kids and they don't really have that much control yet, and sandpaper helps make the color more vibrant. I tried several types of surfaces and sandpaper is the best for kids because it makes everything so vibrant without so much effort on their part. Crayons on paper wouldn't be as vibrant and it's different also for them to explore different surfaces.

marawi children art.jpg Melissa Yeung-Yap was initially invited by Fr. Ben Nebres of Ateneo to think of activities for the children of Marawi, as Fr. Nebres initiated a feeding program. “The kids needed some sort of transition to get back to normalcy so they asked some people to have some activities with the kids, like sports, art, and storytelling,” she says. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

marawi children art.jpg A Maranao child's drawing of what is presumably a sarimanok, an iconic Maranao figure. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

What was the most revealing for you when you were doing the workshops?

It's their resilience. It was really amazing because they've been through so much and yet simple things like art or our simple visit there … they really showed so much gratitude. For us, it wasn't really much. We're trying to share whatever we can but we know it's not enough, but the gratitude they showed towards us really shows how much gratitude they have despite everything or how much happiness they still got to keep despite everything that happened to them.

Of course, when we talk to the moms about what happened, they'd still get teary-eyed and everything. Some didn't know what to do next. They practically only had the clothes they had. That was the only thing they had left — the clothes they had when they literally ran away from the war zone. But despite that, they can still interact with us and share so much despite everything. That really struck me.

You’ve headed workshops for communities that are often victim of various kinds of trauma. How do you think art facilitates their transition to ‘normalcy’?

Art helps express things that words cannot express. It's like another medium of expression. For these [Maranao] kids, it's so hard for them to verbalize things sometimes, and it helps to be able to provide this new avenue for them to be able to do that. And there, they could be free to do whatever they want but at the same time, what we did was we taught them some skills because it's so hard to just ask them to draw their feelings if they don't know exactly how to do that.

marawi children art.jpg Earth Kitchen supports farmers and indigenous communities across the Philippines. Other artworks on display are pieces by children who were victims of Typhoon Yolanda, as well as works by girls from Cribs Foundation, an organization that supports survivors of sexual abuse. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

What we do usually is to teach them some basic skills and it gave them so much confidence knowing that they can do this now … because that's the same thing that happened to me before and I couldn't express how sad I was from getting injured. Art helped me express things so hopefully it helps them do that as well.

What was the most gratifying thing about doing and finishing the art workshops with the children in Marawi?

When we went there, I wasn't really sure how helpful art was going to be for them. I wasn't sure how much of a difference we were going to make but when I talked to the teachers … and when I saw the kids drawing and when [the teacher] told me that, ‘Oh I’m not really an art teacher but I'm making them draw because that's all I can make them do right now,’ it gave so much meaning to what we were trying to do and how much impact art has to people, especially children who can't really express themselves so much in other ways.

It motivated me, together with other artists, to continue what we're doing in Marawi and other areas. What's inspiring is that even if I'm away now, another group of artists got inspired and they're going there sometime this October. They're just fixing logistics … I think I'm happy that it gave courage to other artists to also do that.

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Earth Kitchen is located along Katipunan Ave., Quezon City. Visit their website or Facebook page for more information.