On a Saturday afternoon, in an 80-square-meter garage in a residential area in Quezon City, several men in their early 20s are cutting wood and painting amid the pounding of hammer and the grinding of metal.
Their movements are purposeful and urgent. In just a couple of days, US President Donald Trump is arriving in Manila to attend the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit and side events in Manila.
They carry a huge responsibility, literally and figuratively. The men are constructing a 13-fooot-tall-effigy—a giant parody of Trump—that will become the main feature in a mass demonstration that is expected to gather thousands.
Led by the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), the rally is directed against the bilateral meeting between President Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte scheduled that Monday, November 13.
The men are all members of Ugat Lahi, a militant organization of visual artists that has traditionally facilitated BAYAN’s SONA effigy projects since President Joseph Estrada's administration. Yet, despite the significance of their mission, they still manage to banter and horse around—a dead giveaway of their youth.
One of them, 21-year old Paolo Magtira, decides to take a break from applying strokes of yellow paint to Trump’s blond hair. He opens his laptop and starts typing away.
Magtira is the brains behind the effigy dubbed “Fascist Spinner”—an image of a scowling Trump with four arms formed into a swastika. In between painting Trump’s face, Magtira tries to squeeze in as much work as he could into his undergraduate thesis—one of the final hurdles before he and his friends in Ugat Lahi could graduate with a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines.
Art that tells a story
Unlike many of his colleagues however, Magtira did not have a particular penchant for drawing as a child. Illness led to the accidental discovery of his talent during what he says is the darkest period of his life.
He was 13 the first time tragedy struck. Severe headaches and a defect with his nerve synapses left him immobilized. Magtira was confined in a hospital and had to stop schooling. It would take a year and a half before he could go home.
He could still barely move at the time. The doctor advised him to start drawing as a form of therapy so that he could regain his motor skills. Magtira’s first drawings were editorial cartoons, inspired by Rene Aranda’s work for the Philippine Star.
“I’ve always loved artworks that tell stories,” he says.
The second tragedy—severe depression—came as he was regaining full control of his faculties. The medication that helped cure his body turned out to be the culprit behind the chemical imbalance that developed in his brain.
Magtira turned to drawing again, this time, as mental therapy.
To this day, Magtira is still battling depression. But what started out as a means to heal now became a source of fulfillment.
“It’s more fulfilling to make art that will be seen by the masses rather than art that is just enclosed in a frame,” he says. This motivation led him to join Ugat Lahi last year.
“Drawings contribute to people’s understanding of the world. People who view them should be able to see a story,” he says.
Magtira used to tell stories through editorial cartoons and comic books, even as he admits to also selling a different form of art to support himself through school and buy medication for his depression.
The artwork that I sell are “typical postmodernist, bourgeois, millennial things,” he says. Clients his age patronize artwork that carry such messages as “I love her but she doesn’t love me back,” he quips.
Nowadays, Magtira tells stories through the effigies he constructs with Ugat Lahi.
It’s not too different from what he used to do. “An effigy is much like an editorial cartoon, only in 3D,” he says.
Bookmarks in history
An effigy represents a hated figure in society, particularly those in power, says Max Santiago, National Capital Region coordinator of Ugat Lahi.
Santiago joined Ugat Lahi when he was a Fine Arts student in the University of Sto. Tomas in the late ‘90s. Since 2015, he has been involved in making the effigies of former Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno C. Aquino III, and more recently, of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Effigies are like bookmarks in history. They are a visual reminder of the context of that time,” Santiago says.
He recalls an effigy he and his colleagues made in 2005 that depicted Arroyo as a gecko, symbolizing the former President’s “hold on power despite an impeachment complaint she was facing at the time,” Santiago says.
An effigy could also represent popular culture, like when Ugat Lahi constructed one of former President Joseph Estrada called “Erapzilla” in 2000. The movie Godzilla was showing in cinemas at the time.
Those effigies, along with several others that Ugat Lahi made in the past two decades, were papier maches. But this year, the organization started constructing 2D effigies beginning with Rody’s Cube to commemorate the 45th year of the declaration of Martial Law last September 21.
The change also reflects the group’s evolution with its “new generation” of artists who are more skilled at painting rather than sculpting, Santiago says, adding that this year marks Ugat Lahi’s 25th founding anniversary.
A week’s effort
The process of creating an effigy begins with Ugat Lahi pitching a concept to BAYAN. Its member organizations then adds to the concept. In the end, the idea of the effigy is “a collective effort,” Max says.
Once the concept is approved, construction begins and takes several days. The “Fascist Spinner” for instance, took nearly a week to construct.
Magtira says he thought of forming Trump’s arms into a swastika as a symbol of fascism. Each of Trump’s four hands he says, carries an object that represents a form of fascism “being perpetuated by Trump as US President against the Philippines”: a nuclear missile to represent military fascism; a gun to represent oppression by the military and the police; a bag of cash symbolizing economic repression of the Philippines by the US; and a backhoe to represent mining and construction—industries that promote environmental oppression, Magtira adds.
“I use concepts from objects that people could relate to and apply them into a design until they are infused with meaning,” Magtira says.
For Santiago, not only is the concept novel, it also fits what the group thinks to be Trump’s persona to a T: “an extremely right-wing, racist, misogynist, and bigot US President,” he says.
On the fifth day of construction, the likeness of the scowling form to Trump is uncanny. The crouching figure of a tiny Rodrigo Duterte is also clearly recognizable.
The challenge now is turning the 13-foot-tall wooden figure upright and ensuring it remains stable despite its weight. Another challenge is making the swastika arms rotate smoothly.
To create the base, scaffolding, and mechanism for the spinning arms, Ugat Lahi engaged a carpenter and a welder who have been working for days alongside the artists.
Previous effigies have fueled speculations about the costs that such a production involves. Santiago himself is not new to such speculations. He recalls a time when former Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales pegged the cost of an Arroyo effigy constructed by Ugat Lahi at P250,000.
“That is much bloated. If that was the case, we could have bought a vehicle or something that would benefit the poor.”
For Trump’s effigy, Santiago says that the main materials they used were plywood and paint. They also had to buy paint brushes. But the rest of the materials were either donated—such as the bearing that served as the mechanism to make the swastika form rotate—or re-used materials, such as the metal base that Ugat Lahi has been using for a decade.
The artists also do not receive any compensation for their effort, he says, save for fare and food once the effigy is done. Even the welder is working on a voluntary basis and has lent his welding machine and other tools to the organization, he adds.
“We cannot make a very ostentatious effigy given the fact that many of the protesters who join the rally are from urban poor communities,” he says.
“It would be unethical for us to spend a lot for an effigy that will just be set on fire,” Santiago adds.
Fulfilling its purpose
On the sixth day of construction, the effigy is ready to be transported to Liwasang Bonifacio, the assembly point for the protest march. In all, it took eight Ugat Lahi members and two carpenters six days to construct the 13-foot-tall effigy with a rotating mechanism.
In just a matter of minutes, all that effort will go up in flames. But the artists have no regrets.
On the contrary, Magtira says the act of burning an effigy gives him “a sense of fulfillment because it is the culmination of our efforts.”
“An effigy’s goal is to send a message. It is not the effigy by itself; it’s part of a rally that carries the message,” Magtira says.
Unlike an image of a hero that should be preserved, an effigy symbolizes a hated figure, hence “we want it to disappear immediately,” Santiago says.
That is why, rather than merely destroying it, an effigy has to be set on fire so that nothing will be left of it but ashes, Santiago adds.
“An effigy that has not been burnt has not fulfilled its purpose. It’s really an important part of the process,” Santiago says.
For his part, Magtira is hoping that Trump and the international media will take notice of the effigy because people in other countries might be inspired to make their own protest art.
“We want to educate people. We want them to be aware of what’s happening around the world,” he says.
A week later, it seems Magtira got more than his wish. For even the popular late night American comedy program “Jimmy Kimmel Live” devoted airtime to the effigy. According to Kimmel, the host, the ‘Trump Fidget Spinner’ is “amazing.”