Toym Imao's "Barikada" commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Diliman Commune in 1971. Photos courtesy of Toym Imao

Meet the artist slash activist behind UP’s much talked about barricade

“Barikada now not only represents a commemoration of the Diliman Commune but becomes an essential visual response to current developments concerning the university and state forces.”  
RHIA GRANA | Jan 29 2021

Practically taking over the Oblation Plaza in UP Diliman the past few days are two towering barricades. Made of bamboo, old and condemned campus furniture, and remnants of dismantled art installations, they are actually components of a suspended artwork. 

Painted in stark red, the installation was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Diliman Commune, a historic protest action led by UP students, faculty, campus residents, and transport groups in 1971. The protest ran for nine days and was organized to block men in uniform from entering the university. It was a show of defiance against the Marcos dictatorship and UP’s declaration of independence. 

About 20 people worked on building the "Barikada" installation, which is made up of bamboo, old and condemned campus furniture, and remnants of dismantled art installations. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

“Barikada,” the installation work greeting university visitors these days, is actually the second of a three-part artwork. The first, marking the 50th anniversary of the First Quarter Storm, was unveiled in February last year: a sort of arc made of classroom chairs that floated above the Palma Hall steps. The third part of the project, to be unveiled in 2022, will commemorate the 50th year of the declaration of Martial Law. All three events, the Diliman Commune included, are landmarks in the history of the Diliman campus. 

Behind these three artworks is the multi-media artist and UP faculty member Toym Imao. Imao, who teaches at the College of Fine Arts, pitched the three-part installation together with UP’s Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts (OICA). While the teacher-artist has been jokingly tagged in the UP community as a “serial collaborator,” having done various collaborative public art undertakings around the Diliman campus, how life prepared the artist for “Barikada” and the two other installation works is no joke at all.

Students and professors hold a symbolic protest at the University of the Philippines-Oblation Plaza in UP Diliman on January 26, 2021. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Growing up during Martial Law

Imao was only a kid in the ‘70s when he was introduced to the world of activism. It was the era of Marcos rule and Imao’s parents somehow got involved with the opposition. Growing up, he would often hear stories about human rights violations. 

“My father, a Tausug, lost his brother to soldiers who shot him, mistaking him for a Moro rebel,” the artist tells ANCX in writing. His father is Filipino painter and sculptor Abdulmari Asia Imao, who was named National Artist of the Philippines for Sculpture in 2006. It was the first time Imao saw his father cry, reading a telegram on the fate that befell his brother. Imao’s paternal grandparents meanwhile fell into despair after the burning of Jolo in 1974. “Their lives became more and more difficult during the dictatorship.”

Toym Imao, with his father National Artist of the Philippines for Sculpture Abdulmari Asia Imao, and son Diego.

Meanwhile, Imao’s mother Grace is “the firebrand Kapampangan activist in the family.” She was an associate of former Education Secretary Alejandro Roces Jr., and supported the original Lakas ng Bayan-Laban party that fielded candidates to the Batasan in 1978.

At age 10, Imao would tag along to his mother’s meetings and production work, eavesdropping on conversations involving the likes of Soc Rodrigo, Teofisto Guingona, Nene Pimentel and Neptali Gonzales. He remembers beauty queen-turned guerilla Maita Gomez, with daughter Melissa and son Luis, taking refuge in their old home. “I had a basic introduction to the realities of our painful histories through dinner table discussions,” Imao recalls. 

Toym Imao's mother, Grace. Photo courtesy of Toym Imao

He may have been too young to completely grasp the murmurs around him then but he knew something terribly wrong was happening to the nation “and the Marcoses were a big part of it.” The First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune were constant topics in the house he grew up in, the stories he heard like war tales exchanged by the people his parents associated with, many of whom were from the UP Community.

After the People Power in 1986, Imao himself became a student activist. He got involved in campus politics and progressive organizations, some of which he led himself. “It was still troublesome during those years—the coup d’état, the assassination of Lean Alejandro,” he recalls. “I was at the Mendiola massacre and anti-U.S. bases rallies. The Diliman Commune stories was a narrative that the student movement took pride in so that narrative was already hardwired into my system.”

Imao (left) overseeing the installation of "Barikada". Photo courtesy of Pol Torente for UPD OICA


It’s not lost on Imao that the recent abolition of the UP-DND accord came uncannily around the time of the installation of “Barikada.” But this is not the first time his installation felt somehow strangely connected to what’s happening in the country. 

For example, the day after his “Nagbabadyang Unos” installation was taken down—it was the artwork that marked the FQS turning 50—government declared a lockdown due to Covid-19. “The ‘unos’ became the pandemic, and amidst a nationwide lockdown, Malacañang was able to flex its authoritarian policies under the guise of managing an outbreak,” the artist says.

Meanwhile, on the evening of their first day of preparations for “Barikada,” the UP-DND Accord was unilaterally abrogated, adding another layer of meaning to the work. 

“’Barikada’ now not only represents a commemoration of the Diliman Commune but becomes an essential visual response to current developments concerning the university and state forces. Just overnight, it was transformed from an artwork that was meant to remind us of the past into a protest art installation for the present, a pièce de resistance that accompanies the call to #DefendUP and academic freedom, by the UP community of alumni, faculty, students and staff,” Imao says.

"Nagbabadyang Unos," an artwork that marked the FQS turning 50. Photo courtesy of Toym Imao

Asked about the current atmosphere inside the campus, Imao observes there is visibly heightened security after the abrogation of the accord. “Coupled with this tension within the campus, there is sustained red-tagging of our campus organizations,” he says, pertaining to groups like the UP Mountaineers of which he has been a member since 1987.

The college where he teaches, the UP CFA, has also been tagged as a hotspot and an “HQ” of rebel sympathizers and recruiters. “Friends and colleagues have been included in several dubious ‘lists,’” says the art teacher. “There is worry, but not fear. Anger and indignation—but not confusion —within the UP Community.”

Imao says the red-taggings and the accusations being thrown at the university has only emboldened the UP community to come together and defend their beloved institution, “to resist and counter the allegations against the university.” He says he sees a swelling of pride and support among its people. “In a manner of speaking,” says the artist, “the recent attacks have awakened a sleeping giant.”