The portmanteau artivism, or art + activism, runs strong in the blood of artist, environmentalist, marine conservationist, climate change and peace advocate AG Saño.
I can still clearly remember how beautiful the Philippines and Mother Nature is in his eyes when he recalled how at the young age of 11 has he started to travel the country at his own pace. From the northernmost down to the southernmost of the country, Saño, into his words, “found a heart to give himself for the cause of Mother Nature.”
Because of the calling of his God-given talent in painting, he left the comforts of his six-digit paying photography job abroad to advance the levels of artivism to his advocacies. He used art to express what the nature can’t by painting the hues of what used to be colorful in his eyes.
Truly, Saño’s artivism is a way to protest and fight for what is right without having to speak.
I was with Saño last June to revisit some of his old mural works in Manila. We set foot on his first few works, recalling how he started his fight for the freedom of dolphins, and how happy he was that though most of which we visited were painted back in his early paintings years, the dolphins were still left happily and freely swimming on the walls he worked on.
On the same month when I last saw Saño, I found myself road-tripping along the scenic road of Basco, Batanes and came across a familiar mural. A mural, which I knew right then and there, was Saño’s work of (he)art. It was painted in a pastel-washed wall with dolphins and flying fish happily swimming in the whirls of waves painted back in 2012. Left amazed, I told Saño about it. “Kupas na! (It’s already faded!)” he said. I kept mum.
Through his six-year painting career, Saño devoted most of his mural artworks to dolphins when he learned about the notorious captivity and killing of such gentle creatures in Japan through the documentary film titled, “The Cove.” Since then, he dedicated each wall he gets a chance to paint on to every dolphin captured.
“After watching the film, I thought of expressing myself so I painted one dolphin the next day. That was in Babuyan Islands,
“When I got back in Manila, I posted online that I’m going to paint one dolphin for every dolphin they capture in Japan. It turns out that they have a quota of 23,000 dolphins annually, so that became my target,
“From there, we [volunteers] exceeded 23,000 and stopped counting at 35,000. From 10 volunteers on our first mural, we had 100,000 volunteers already from more than, well at least, 62 countries or nationalities participants,” Saño recalled.
Going through it all now, I realized why the murals remain painted on those walls and how time conspired with the hues of his murals not only in Manila and Batanes, but also from all over the country—the dolphins needed to stay on those walls because there, they are free to swim, there is impossible captivity, there is safety, and there is home through his art.
“I always say that if there are captive dolphins in the Philippines and as long as there are threats to the marine environment, we will not stop painting. It is our way of telling people how beautiful Mother Nature and how colorful the marine world should be if it’s left untouched,” he said.
Agit Sustento, the ‘face of climate change’
Apart from being an environmentalist and marine conservationist, Saño equally champions his climate change advocacy in both local and international scenes through his murals and pilgrimage walks.
This advocacy intensified even more when he survived the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, in Tacloban three years ago. Though he survived the horrific destiny of his hometown, he lost a friend who died with 6,300 other typhoon victims. A beloved friend whom he happily shared drinks with the night before the devastation, and who is a lover of all things nature-inclined.
Left resilient after the storm, Saño, together with other pilgrims, did a 1,500 kilometer-walk from Rome to Paris for 59 days to spread climate change awareness and to paint the human face of climate change, who happened to be the dear friend he lost from Typhoon Yolanda, Agit Sustento.
Along with Agit Sustento’s mural, he also did three murals in Italy, one in Switzerland, and four in France.
“A lot of Europeans don’t really find connection with what’s happening to the other side of the world. It’s our responsibility to give light to what’s really happening,
“It is important to bring his [Agit Sustento] memory because he is like the face of climate change. He makes climate change real. Each person is important, but we’re losing them, and there’s no time. We can’t wait anymore.”
In his Paris trip, Saño learned that the melting of ice caps cannot be stopped anymore. Also recently, he conducted an event in Asia Dive Expo, Singapore to do murals and to lecture about climate change in Southeast Asia. He also did a 180 meter-long “SOS” sand art in La Union to kick off the Ocean Month. SOS technically means, “Saving Our Seas” to promote a responsible stewardship to our Philippine seas and coastal environment.
Saño believes that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity. Thus, the small acts of awareness he sends off overseas with the help of his art and persistent care stretches the never-ending possibilities to resolve the Earth-wide crisis we have been enduring for years now.
Peace, a great equalizer
Mindanao has always been that chaotic place for most Filipinos, but Saño experienced and brought peace during his mural stint to Tawi-Tawi, which he considers one of his most memorable works up to date.
Upon arrival in Taganak Island, Tawi-Tawi, Saño met different communities with different faiths and beliefs—from Muslims to Christians, and from soldiers to rebels. As he was painting, he was surprised to see that these people of divergence came all together to paint the dolphins and Mother Nature.
“It was a profound experience. It wasn’t just painting a dolphin mural; it was about people from different communities and faiths working together for the dolphins and Mother Nature.”
And this was not the first and last scenario of unity in Mindanao, the dolphin and peace murals extended its positive vibrations through Lanao, Sulu, and even Basilan, depicting right in their walls the symbol and message of what the world longs for: love, peace, and equality.
In mid-June, Saño rejoined a ‘top secret’ two-week peace march in Fukushima, Japan in commemoration of the Nagasaki Hiroshima bombing and to protest the use of nuclear weapons.
“10 years after the bombing, the citizens or the survivors thought they needed to bond together, to protect their interests, their livelihood and their lives. So they came in solidarity to remind the world every single year that it [bombing] shouldn’t happen again,
“It’s a popular belief that they’ve been contaminating the world’s oceans the past five years because of the discharge of their system, which is using salt water then being discharged back to the ocean,” he shared.
This article was first published in Explore Philippines Issue 12
Photography by Andrea Genota