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Since the late 1970's, the Social Realist, or SR, movement in the visual arts has awakened the public to the significant divide between two kinds of artists in our midst. On one hand are those who paint such decorative comforts catering to popular demand as interminable flower still-lifes and ponds full of carp, nubile nudes and girls in pretty, pink dresses, pastoral landscapes and nostalgic facades/interior of old houses and churches. Painting as wall decor extends to stylish abstraction, particularly by craftsmen with a geometric bias: from the bland minimalism of Arturo Luz to the feeble metal-relief efforts of Lor Calma...

On the other hand are those who believe art to be more than decorative divertissement. They are no mere artisans but artists who hazard to make a statement, or comment, on society and the human condition and do so without compromising the integrity of their art-making, even as they take up the cause of human rights as many in the SR movement do. Many perceive the movement of concerned artists as having peaked in the mid-1980's, and continues only in spurts after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the withdrawal of the US military bases from the country... But to say that SR today has waned for want of issues to deal with and causes to uphold is absurd. There are plenty remaining to be addressed, though human-rights support groups are harder to come by in the post-martial law era. One such issue is the perennial oppression of the many by the few...

...Not to be bypassed in any survey of the movement is the rise of a Bacolod-based progressive group known as the Black Artists in Asia [BAA]. It was founded in 1986 by the formidably and diversely talented trio of Nunelucio Alvarado, Charlie Co and Norberto Roldan... Of the three, Alvarado bears the most "conscientizised" attitude toward the agrarian problem of Negros centered on the migrant worker, or sakada. He has, in fact, made an icon of the sakada totally his own: squat, square-shoulder, and wide-eyed from hunger as much as from quiet desperation amid the sugarcane plantations of the landlord classes.

But somehow he doesn't look weak and frail, but as Alvarado sees him -- sturdy, burly, hard-edged -- capable of holding his destiny in his own hands. To see his finest masterpiece, Ang Ginsugdan nga Waay Katapusan [1990], a tightly-organized omnibus picture of four interrelated, identical-sized, handmade paper panels crammed with multiple images, you have to go to the Singapore Art Museum that acquired it. What he portrays therein is no less than a symbolic illustrative history of the world of the oppressed Visayan peasantry, highlighted by such images as: a farmer tilling the field with a carabao, a peasant Christ crucified on a cross of cane, a dolorosa sacred heart and Pieta, a bellowing carabao struck by a missile.

His own contribution to last year's Philippine Centennial was a triad of large oils on canvas that evinces the Negrense peasant uprising, bristling with emblematic spikes around a leader who brandishes a bolo in his left hand and holds a green serpent in his right. The other has peasants ominously closing ranks with a New People's Army, their heads covered, with only their fearsome stares showing. Both hazard revolutionary statements, not Centennial nostalgia-tripping, serving notice to sugar barons of an impending fire-fight...