Known as ‘BoyD’, Federico Domínguez currently lives and works in Quezon City in the Philippines. His paintings of agrarian places and peoples have been featured on many covers of this journal, as well as on posters celebrating JPS scholarship. His paintings have also travelled in numerous exhibitions across the Philippines, in Europe, Taiwan, Australia, and other places. BoyD’s agrarian art is a strand in a long history of art being created in support of, and in symbiosis with, struggles for social justice (e.g. Lampert 2013; Reed 2019). The Philippines, for much of BoyD’s childhood, was ruled under martial law by the Marcos family which drew on oppressive US colonial patterns to purloin the country’s resource wealth. Even as democratic government seemed to arrive from the mid-1980s onwards, entrenched structures of corruption and exploitation persisted, with local politicians and businesses inviting in development projects that displaced peasants. The authoritarian Duterte government continues these practices of violence against humans and ecosystems.
Through his artwork, BoyD closely observes the ways in which extractive capitalist systems seek to engulf rural life across South-east Asia. His paintings become simultaneously acts of sharing, revelation, and resistance. He not only conveys the experiences of rural life, dispossession, and ecocide to people living in urban centres, but makes the presence of peasant communities and Indigenous peoples impossible to ignore. In ‘Land Grabs’, 2015, for example, BoyD depicts a distant city skyline, with lengthy lines of trucks emerging from factories, travelling towards the container port. Close up, a group of jovial businesspeople steer a large bulldozer, peeling away highly fertile soil, crop polycultures, and a fish-filled stream, while brutally prodding Indigenous people and smallholders, along with their goats, pigs, and portable possessions, aside. As the cleared land in the middle prophesies, this peasant-made landscape will be swiftly converted into rectangular monoculture fields that eventually supply global trade circuits. Yet the bulldozer is being picketed by the remaining peasants, who refuse to leave.
Central to BoyD’s painting practice is his durable identity as a member of the Mandaya Indigenous people who live in Davao Oriental, in the eastern part of Mindanao. When I spoke with him,1 he said, ‘Though I was not born, [or] raised in my ancestors’ place I still consider myself a Mandaya not because of my blood line ancestry but [of] my engagement in promoting issues about the plight of Indigenous people in our country and also to other countries in the world thru my paintings and illustrations.’ Over 14 to 17 million Indigenous peoples belonging to some 114 ethno-linguistic groups are estimated to live in the Philippines (United Nations Development Program 2013).
BoyD also reflected on his commitment to making art as part of his activism. ‘My ancestors came from Indigenous people who depend on small, shifting fishing and agricultural livelihoods threatened by big compradors, landlords and business concessionaires. My skill, cultural and political experiences, the belief that art can visually articulate issues and enlightened ideas that makes art as a decisive tool for social change. And these as a painter vis a vis visual artist, I choose to be a sociocultural activist.’ For the past 25 years, BoyD has belonged to the Concerned Artists of the Philippines group. He has collaborated on numerous occasions with social movements and NGOs, sharing his creations without any intellectual property restrictions or watermarking. He greatly welcomes solidarity-based payments to support his work where possible but recognises that many groups have few resources.
BoyD explained that he always draws on folklore or stories from his ancestral Mandaya people, or from another Indigenous people, to identify a concept for what he will narrate in a specific picture. Most of this folklore uses a repertory of heavenly and environmental spirits, mortals and immortals, and narratives of struggles between malevolent and benevolent protagonists. BoyD learns about the issues, such as clearing land for cash crop plantations, cyanide and mercury contamination in rivers due to mining activity further upstream, or environmental degradation caused by logging. In other words, he undergoes political ecological education so he can understand what is happening and why, drawing chains of causation between seemingly distant places and production systems and the consequences for his places (Robbins 2019). He then selects which folk story or legend expresses his visual narrative interpretation the most meaningfully. Agraryo Marksismo is a good example of this process. The painting reflects a Marxist analysis of the exploitation of rural regions. While peasant farmers and fishers engage in their everyday lives, businessmen fly overhead, and a pipe-puffing governor gazes at his realm. Conveyor belts carry food into processing plants and cities from the countryside, symbolising the extractive behaviour of industrial food systems.
Surveying the many paintings BoyD has created over the years, viewers can discern several important motifs. One is his juxtaposition of ‘worlds’ within the same physical space. He contrasts peasant agriculture with industrial agri-food production, lush rural areas with megacities, healthy ecosystems with devastated habitats, and regenerative Indigenous cultures with predatory business worldviews. These, of course, are not binaries because rural and urban areas always co-produce one another, with the flows of value, knowledge, and resources determining much about the nature of agrarian change. And BoyD shows that many relations are possible: rural and Indigenous people running food businesses and thriving in local markets, illustrate that markets can support thriving peasant agroecology if a qualitatively different, solidarity-based political economy can be built. Yet his bold contrasts serve to reveal the divergent pathways that peoples can take, and to expose how a particular dominant pathway is currently being imposed on peasants and Indigenous peoples, relentlessly encroaching upon their territorial and knowledge sovereignty.
Another motif represents peasant life as beautiful, energetic, and tactile. Peasants are not primitive, marginal, or disposable: they have their own valuable lives and worlds. Patel and Moore (2017) write about the cheapening of bodies and nature as fundamental to the workings of capitalist accumulation. Reinforcing their analysis, BoyD’s work reveals that, in fact, peasant people, animals, and natural places are not cheap resources to be harvested and transformed into capital or manufactured products. The embodied knowledge of farmers, for example, nourishes the rural landscape, unlike the economic expertise of financiers.
And another motif shows the environment as always present in his paintings, with forests, trees, rivers, farm fields, and animals pouring out of the canvas board. Earth coexists with human life, reflecting the distinctively Indigenous cosmovision of Mandaya culture. Earth has a visceral, material reality, with farms growing food under the protection of the spirits that Mandaya people and their Indigenous kin recognise. Ing Lam-aw ni Manaog’, or Avatar's Pond, 2019 (the title image above) evokes this ontology: to the right, a totem post embodies Manaog, who is an avatar of the supreme being, Magbabaya, and also a direct messenger through which the Mandaya can relay their problems in life, expecting a sign from Magbabaya, the provider. To the left, several Mandaya women in customary dresses with intricate patterns and jewellery are floating through the atmosphere, accompanied by other mythical birds with glowing curlicues. These women look tranquilly at a Rousseau-like dreamy forest and down at women swimming in the river. But a disquieting sight exists in one corner: a plane dropping agrochemicals over farm fields and further away, a metropolis. Still, this painting suggests that rural inhabitants live in a reality that the industrial world deceives itself about. Industry depends on rurality and on the environment for its continued existence, yet it devastates something it cannot survive without. By contrast, peasants could live without the capitalist economy.
BoyD has had diverse artistic influences. In school, there was no fine arts teaching, so he essentially taught himself to draw and paint from a young age, learning from the communal knowledge of Indigenous patterns, forms, and symbols. He visited the studios of local artists to observe their art practice and scrutinised movie posters in the streets to evaluate the methods being used. In high school and at university, he studied commercial drafting and then architecture for a time. Moving to Manila, he finally could enrol in a fine arts programme at the University of the Philippines, where he absorbed both the European Renaissance and Filipino artists such as Fernando Amorsolo and Victorio Edades. He also became politicised through intense discussions in the artist organisations he joined.
Thirty years on, BoyD has refined a technique to communicate his activist themes. Figure 4 (available in the full article) shows BoyD at work. When painting, he favours vibrant, bright hues; sharp contrasts between light and shadow; and dynamic arrangements of his elements. The symbols and images are designed to be direct to the point he wants to make. Watercolour or acrylic paint allows him to achieve a highly fluid feel that resonates with his viewers. He purposefully works to pull people deep into his paintings, and to create cognitive dissonance, in order to share agrarian struggles more meaningfully with people who do not ‘live’ these existential battles. He explains: ‘That is why [the] majority of my paintings are colourful, folksy & full of figures in a particular place and time. For me [in] this kind of rendition the viewer will appreciate the beauty and later on they will notice that there’s something wrong in the pictures and their mind starts to ask questions and they will somehow interpret my work closer to what I want to convey.’ His technique often uses a multi-perspective layout with smaller sections telling their own stories and a central figure in the middle to synthesise all the surrounding scenarios.
This approach can be discerned in 'Images of Calamities, Aggressions, Oppressions, Reactions’, 2020, (available in the full article) one of BoyD’s most complex and multi-layered pieces. In the centre, two giant Filipino businessmen grin, holding a deed of concession and a ‘for sale’ poster respectively. Behind them yet another bulldozer endangers a Philippine eagle and other now-rare species. But at the sides, we notice several smaller pictures, one of which juxtaposes a fenced-off oil palm plantation and a plane spraying agrochemicals, with an agroecological farm and a shepherd guiding a goat flock. To the bottom left, we find a forest where peasant dwellers are being expelled by armed forest guards, while a vociferous group of demonstrators march past town buildings, urging ‘Agrarian Climate Justice Now!’ In the upper right, an impoverished family sits atop a house roof while floods rampage past and wildfires burn on the hillsides. A few wind turbines suggest that merely constructing some ‘sustainable’ projects will not resolve the root causes of the climate crisis. Finally, we notice more businesspeople gathered above the Earth, calculating how much they can profit from foreign investment, satellite communications, and land seizures – while being backed by powerful state institutions such as the military and central banks. These various juxtapositions create a sense of interconnected struggles for justice and life, in opposition to the many-stranded, voracious capitalist political economy. No single struggle happens in isolation; every resistance contributes to the emergence of mass mobilisations for change.
This insight coalesced out of BoyD’s travels. In recent years, BoyD has connected even more closely with allied agrarian struggles across Southeast Asia. In 2013, for instance, he spent 3 months in northern Thailand with an Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship Grant, staying with a Daraang Indigenous refugee settlement in Chiang Mai province. The Daraang were displaced from Burma through aggressive military and development actions during the early 1980s. There, BoyD was surprised to discover that the Daraang share many of the legends and knowledges of his own Mandaya people. Both cultures also have amulets that people place in strategic locations around their houses to deter evil spirits from bringing misfortune to the family. The Daarang have woven items, while the Mandaya depend on the wood human figure called Manaog. He told me: ‘By these short experiences in Thailand, I was able to realise that Filipino people and Thai people have common struggles in our identity, cultural heritage, politics, socio-economic, environment, etc., in globalised capitalism.’ Subsequently, BoyD translated his field experiences into paintings, such as one that surrounded a Daarang woman and baby with Daraang amulets and eyes to evoke the shared heritage. (See A Daraang amulet painting, 2013 - available in the full article )
Significantly, BoyD’s art has evolved over the decades, in parallel with the music he makes and listens to. Alongside being a visual artist, BoyD loves performing as part of bands. He used to paint differently from how he paints now, producing landscapes instead of figure-based narratives of social events and realities. In both his paintings and music preferences, he began with the experiences of his family and ancestral groups, before turning to British and US musicians, including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and the Rolling Stones. Beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s, BoyD reclaimed his Indigenous Filipino imagery and auditory heritage, when some Filipino musicians created progressive music to critique prevailing social conditions and Marcos era martial law, leading him to wonder if he could not do the same with his art. This longer learning arc underpins BoyD’s artwork: it is a taking of colonial knowledge from elsewhere and then moving beyond this to find ways to allow local knowledge to revive and live.
This is why BoyD tells himself and his people: ‘Be humble enough to embrace and not to forget our ancient traditional beliefs & knowledge in all that remains as our identity in a more culturally diverse Filipino society. And importantly not to forget our Mandaya language.’ This is where the global capitalist order meets real resistance – by visually insisting that peasants and Indigenous peoples are not going to vanish, BoyD’s work contributes to their persistence.
Republished from the Journal of Peasant Studies. All the paintings mentioned in this piece are available in the original article.
A gallery of BoyD's work is available at https://peasantjournal.org/gallery/
1 BoyD and I exchanged a series of messages as part of an extended interview during November 2021. Thank you so much to BoyD for his generous, insightful replies to my questions about his art and music.
Lampert, N. 2013. A People’ s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements. New York: The New Press.
Patel, R., and J. W. Moore. 2017. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Reed, T. V. 2019. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Robbins, P. 2019. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. New York: John Wiley & Sons. United Nations Development Program 2013. Fast Facts: Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines. https://www.ph.undp.org/content/philippines/en/home/library/democratic_governance/FastFacts-IPs.html.