His Face Shields Are Both Protection and Protest
Text and photos by Basilio Sepe
For Leeroy New, art isn’t merely an expression, but a means to ignite action.
This is exemplified in the contemporary artist’s latest creation that has become essential in these troubled times—face masks. His artistic touch and social advocacies come into play by turning each mask into a canvass to protest social, political, and environmental abuses. The masks are crafted from recycled materials and are meant to cover as well as turn heads.
“I want to explore the idea of improvised face shield as protest,” New says. “This time I’m creating a world, a fictional world showing what if all hell broke loose in the Philippines.”
Through the years, New’s unusual works have been featured in local and international art exhibitions. He has also been involved in film and TV production. He’s certainly come a long way from just being a kid who loved illustrating monsters, depicting them in his entries to poster making contests in his childhood home of General Santos.
“They called me weird simply because I was into monsters,” New says, adding that here, people will call you weird right away if your work is not typical. There was no Internet when he was a child, and his only sources of inspirations were illustration books, comics, card games and toys.
In 1999, he left GenSan and studied at the Philippine High School for the Arts, where his formal training for visual arts continued. Studying in an art school sparked passion, and blew his mind. He started to embrace painting, sculpture, installation art and the idea of frightening monsters, “that they are all just man-made.”
New says that monsters evoke public attention toward the unknown and the uncharted. They give form to things that man has not yet fully comprehended, like the idea of aliens and other supernatural beings. They “embody the things that we are afraid of because we do not understand them,” he explains.
He took further studies at the University of the Philippines in 2003, and ventured into street art. Back then, he was already thinking through how artists could survive and put their names out in other ways. He believed that art galleries are not the only venue where artists can present their works. After graduating from UP in 2007, he pressed on with street and art installations in public spaces, an attempt to create and provide an alternative art experience for other people who don’t usually go to galleries.
After a while, New realized that the platforms where he wanted to showcase his works were outside the Philippines. He then also started taking on commissioned-based works abroad apart from local projects.
New also began collaborating with other artists. From that moment on, he learned to listen more and be a team player. “I learned to be able to adjust my practice whenever it’s necessary to accommodate the situation because you are dealing with a lot of personalities and creative inclinations and egos,” he says. It was a good training and he applied everything he learned in working with theater productions, film and TV productions.
“We don’t have the luxury to not do anything,” New says. It’s far more difficult to be creative in the Philippines that in other countries, he opines, where governments provide considerable support to the arts. He also believes that art should be able to point out and shine a lot on inefficiencies like these and other societal injustices.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. For New, reacting to the situation was not enough. He feels it is more important to contribute something practical to service the needs of the times.
When a desperate call was sounded for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, he and other artists came together to make more than 1,000 face shields out of recycled plastic bottles, and donate them to several medical facilities in Metro Manila.
The face shields looked like monsters or creatures from an alien planet, with different shapes, sizes and colors. Leeroy thought of scenes from Mad Max and Star Wars. He wanted to express his indignation over a lack of concern for the environment.
“What if the whole country becomes a huge Smokey Mountain, like a world full of trash?” the 34-year-old artists asks. “This time I’m creating a world, a fictional world showing what if all hell broke loose in the Philippines.” He also got ideas from protest masks used in Hong Kong and Venezuela.
Despite many public restrictions, New still makes face shields in his studio and accepts orders given the continuing COVID-19 infections. He believes that, even with limitations, the public should hold those in power accountable for either inaction or abuses of power.
“We do work within our homes,” New says, emphasizing the goal, “but we are still able to find ways to send out the message of what has to happen.”