At first glance, the subdued azure tones and subtle, curling waves of the seascapes painted by artist Joar Songcuyaappear as soothing depictions of a serene sea. Going through the rest of the works, however, there is a foreboding, and then an aggressive buildup of sorts: calm, blue waters suddenly turn red and turbulent; a lone, empty lifesaver is tossed about in perilous waves; and angry confrontations erupt between crew members.
Such is the seafaring life as experienced firsthand by Joar, who worked as a marine engineer onboard tankers and cargo ships for ten years. He encapsulates the beauty and the danger of the profession in his exhibit “The Sea is Not a Quiet Place”, currently showing at Altro Mondo in Makati City.
For centuries, seascapes have been a popular subject of artists worldwide. But this time, it is depicted in a matter-of-fact way, shifting from a romanticized setting to a venue of daily struggle. In “The Sea is Not a Quiet Place”, the waters are unsettling and unfamiliar.
In a series of expressionist paintings and installations symbolic of the maritime trade, Joar presents the sea as an unforgiving force. “The sea is a representation of human life, and man as the extension of the water, or the becoming of a man…a sea-man,” he says.
The untold stories of Filipino seafarers
“This exhibition touches on the perils that Filipino seafarers like Joar face,” explains Ricky Francisco, the curator of this exhibit. “With an estimated 25 percent of the 1.5-million-strong mariners in the world being Filipinos, the Philippines is the main supplier of maritime labor force. It is a concern rarely tackled in contemporary art, with Martha Atienza being the only other artist who exhibited about it several years ago; but it should be taken more seriously as it contributes so much to our economy, as well as to some issues connected with our society.”
Joar, who hails from Iloilo, grew up knowing the value of hard work, patience, and familial sacrifice, as his mother left the country to earn a living. His introduction to maritime work came early, as he set out to sail the world as an apprentice at the age of 18 on a scholarship from the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association.
The seafarer-turned-artist offers myriad, often life-threatening stories of his experiences. “I have experienced watching pipes explode, my ship chased by pirates at the Gulf, our engine failing in the middle of a storm,” Joar shares. “But I think the worst experience I encountered happened last 2020. I suffered an inflammation onboard; my appendix swelled while we were in transit from Africa to Europe.”
He relates how he survived on painkillers and anti-inflammatory tablets while he waited for his ship to dock in Spain where he would undergo emergency surgery. “For the whole two weeks in my cabin, I would only tell myself that if I will be given the chance to go home, I would pursue what I have been dreaming, and that is painting full-time,” he says. “So that near-death encounter has become my entry point to my artmaking.”
Isolation gives birth to art
Aside from these treacherous occurrences, one of the worst experiences at sea, however, is loneliness. This theme of isolation is very much apparent in Joar’s works. An empty cot, a sole crew member out on deck, shows how tiny Man is in the middle of the big, blue sea.
“It’s really hard to be placed in the water for long months; I mean, during those early sailing years, I was really lonely,” he admits. “But what choice did I have? That was the career I signed up for. So, art became my companion. With each contract I entered, I would stuff my luggage with paintbrushes, tubes of paint, and rolled-up canvases so that I had something to work on when the tides at sea weren’t friendly.”
Joar transformed his cabin onboard into a makeshift studio, and occasionally brought out his easel on deck to paint. What he brought home were not just art pieces, but honest and intimate depictions of life at sea. He eventually went on to show small works at Art in the Park in 2018 and 2021, participated in group exhibits at Greyspace and Pinto, and eventually held a solo show at Altro Mondo entitled “A History of Water” in 2021.
“Aside from the style that he evolved by himself, which is most likely why there are no artists locally with this particular style, his decade-long experience as a seaman gives his works a unique perspective and voice,” says Ricky of Joar’s works. “His human figures have a naïf quality to them, as he is largely self-taught; but I find the seas quite expressionistic in how he highlights the emotional and dramatic qualities of it. I find that instead of the usual expanse that landscape painters highlight when they paint the sea, Joar’s works highlight movement, the quality of light, and how both water and spray affect them, imbuing his works with mood.”
The Visayan Connection
One of Joar’s art highlights was his participation in VIVA ExCon 2020-2021, the Visayas-wide art biennale, in the show “Atlantiko, Pasipiko, Artiko.” This show was curated by Dr. Patrick Flores.
“I think the series was chosen to be part of the VIVA ExCon because it fit the year’s theme of ‘Kalibutan: The World in Mind,’” Joar muses. “I come from the Visayas wherein its large percentage of seafarers are employed locally and internationally, so presenting these works that celebrate the grandness of the world’s wildest seas from my impression as an OFW or Ilonggo seaman was an interesting addition.” The online talks at the biennale also gave the artist a chance to discuss the seafaring culture of the Visayas, and his personal stories at sea.
Along with VIVA ExCon, this artist’s breakthrough in the art world was not only a triumph of having survived his years at sea; it was also a small victory for Visayan art. His representation as a Visayan artist shows that sometimes you have to look beyond the Metro Manila art scene to discover more emerging creatives.
“There is this undeniable challenge for Visayan artists like me to break out and be seen in the big city,” Joar enthuses. “It’s like you’re feeling small and alienated that you are pressured to produce better works. And that pressure is an advantage, because it pushes you to create. Visayan artists are competitive, but at the same time, so connected with their roots. Not to sound biased, but it’s easy to spot a work done by a Visayan…there’s so much heart put into it.”
Now that he is finally settled on dry land, Joar hopes that his works would change the “dollar-earning, adventurous job” impression that most have of seafarers and OFWs, and to open our eyes to the dangers of the job and of the unpredictability of nature—and man—in general.
“The sea or the ocean will always be dangerous,” he says. “You could be anywhere around this water-world, but it is you, man, who has the sole control of the danger that comes. The sea is only waiting; nature is nature, but man is more dangerous.”
“The Sea is Not a Quiet Place” will be on show at Altro Mondo at 1159 Chino Roces Ave., Makati City (open Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm); until February 5, 2022. Follow them on Instagram @altromondoart to book an appointment. Follow @joarsongcuya on Instagram.
Photos by JC & N Photography and Ricky Francisco