Looking towards Manila’s most impoverished communities

By Jessica Pearce
Happyland artwork by Kaff-eine

Happyland
Documentary directed by Marti Salva
Exhibition at No Vacancy Project Space, Federation Square

A huge portrait of a smiling young boy hangs on a painted tarpaulin at the centre of a mountain of garbage. This mountain is home for the residents of Manila’s most impoverished slums, Baseco and ‘Happyland’ (an ironic play on the local word for garbage dump). They are places of unimaginable suffering; children run naked in the streets, dinner is pagpag, refried fast-food leftovers, and the temptations of crime are hard to resist. The artwork is from Australian street artist Kaff-eine. Its playful sense of scale, the way the boy presides over the lumps and bumps of waste, is striking. In this moment, instead of being at the mercy of his unforgiving environment, he is king of the trash.

Kaff-eine and the Cheeseagle collective travelled to the Philippines in 2016 to produce 10 portraits of significant local residents, print them onto large, disused advertising tarpaulins, and hang them around the slums. The tarps are practical – they can be used as waterproof roofing, cut up and repurposed for other uses in people’s makeshift homes, or sold or traded as art. But they’re also beautiful. They celebrate the residents’ lives, stories and experiences, sharing proud faces and silently acknowledging the members of one of the world’s poorest communities. And, they’re visible from the sky. This art-as-social-welfare project has been documented in a film, Happyland, which had its world premiere at the 2017 Human Rights and Arts Film Festival, and in an exhibition of the same name, which showed at No Vacancy Gallery, Federation Square.

But there’s a sense upon watching Happyland that we’re only getting the ‘feel-good’ version of Kaff-eine’s visit.

Kaff-eine’s portraits are both joyful and contemplative, and this is the tone of the film Happyland: colourful aerial footage of the portraits sprinkled throughout the slums is accompanied by infectious music. The perception of street art as both cheeky and political is affirmed by the film and in the voices of the residents. Yan Yan, a photogenic trash collector of no more than 10 years old, remarks sassily “why don’t you do this [interview] for me?” when a film assistant quietly feeds him his interview lines. Another young female subject, Monique, proclaims “my wish for my friends is for them to be clean!” before dissolving into a fit of giggles, impressed at her cleverness. The residents’ wonderful sense of humour and attitude is charming, and their pride in the artworks is palpable – especially in the case of Vanessa, a transgender nail technician who has experienced significant discrimination.

But there’s a sense upon watching Happyland that we’re only getting the ‘feel-good’ version of Kaff-eine’s visit. The harsh realities of living in the slum are glossed over, the context for Kaff-eine’s work is missing, and essential insight into her creative process and the identities of her team are lacking. All of this extra information would have made fascinating additions to the film, fleshing out the project so the audience could have engaged more closely with Kaff-eine’s work and the slum in which the work is set. Mostly, it’s disappointing not to experience the production of the artworks, not to see Kaff-eine’s brush hit the canvas and to witness the portraits come to life. Happyland is a vivid and moving snapshot of a place and a project, but as a narrative it has moments of superficiality and left me wanting more.

The exhibition remedies this. Featuring a burst of neon plastic flowers under a bell jar –a type of neat metaphor for the entire project that would have been welcome in the film – the juxtaposition between Kaff-eine’s art and the realities of the slums is more poignant in the gallery space. One of the real tarpaulins, half crumpled in a pile on the floor, all 10 of the original portraits, and some bazura bags made of recycled packaging, co-exist in the space and assume the significance of religious iconography. Kaff-eine achieves her goal, inspiring us to look toward these impoverished communities instead of away from them, to build relationships, and to support and celebrate communities.

Devoting more attention to the story behind her work, while admittedly available elsewhere, would have made the film a more compelling experience and done justice to this essential project.

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