“Our Community is our Immunity”:

The BIMP-EAGA Artists in the Time of COVID-19 Pandemic – Impact, Resilience, and the Road to Recovery

Hazel Meghan B. Hamile

Photo credit: iStock/razaklatif.

This article is based on the discussion of the representatives of the Arts and Culture sector within the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) on their experiences of the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and their subsequent coping strategies and recovery plans. This activity, the “Conversation on the Arts and Culture Sector in the BIMP-EAGA and the COVID-19 Pandemic” was led by the Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), on 17 July 2020. The lead discussants are Mr. Faizal Hamdam and Ms. Osveanne Osman from Brunei Darussalam; Mr. Anwar “Jimpe” Rachman from Indonesia; Mr. Harold Reagan Eswar, Mr. Terence Lim, Mr. Jerome Manjat, and Mr. Chris Pereira from Malaysia; and Regional Director of the Department of Tourism – Region IX Myra Paz Valderrosa Abubakar, Dr. Mario Aguja, Mr. Abraham Ambo Garcia, and Mr. Claudio Ramos from the Philippines. This discussion was moderated by Ms. Ma. Victoria Maglana. The Executive Director of the NCCA Mr. Al Ryan Alejandre, consultant Mr. Nestor Horfilla, staff members, and guests from various sectors were present. Follow-up interviews and research were conducted to clarify and flesh out ideas.


The COVID-19 hit countries all over the world. Governments have implemented lockdowns and quarantine protocols to curb the spread of the virus. As preventive restrictions take place, the veins of society are affected at all levels, including the arts and culture sector. Life, as it is known, comes to a halt. The art community sees the closure of significant art and cultural spaces—including museums, galleries, and community studios—and the suspension of their corresponding in-house activities.
The need to have physical distance between people has affected communities whose works are public engagement in nature. Cancellation of events— live performances, music tours, cultural festivals, conferences, exhibitions, and film and documentation—are announced.

People have stayed home. Tourism stops. Arts and crafts are left unsold. Since most of the traditional artists and artisans are reliant on a physical transaction, it has become a challenge to set up an online store. Those who need to craft their products from raw materials cannot go out into the field.

Significant loss of incomes and revenues subsequently follows after the closure of art spaces, cancellation of live performances, and temporary suspension of the production and marketing of traditional products. Artists who have depended solely on commissioned work and art projects find themselves to have lost their source of living. Some of them have to shift to other income-generating schemes to pay their bills and make ends meet. While others, who used to live in the cities, have retreated to the villages in search of a lower cost of living and shifted to subsistence farming. Some barter their artworks for basic necessities. The impact of COVID-19 on these artists are not only aesthetic and technological but also economic in nature (Aguja 2020).


The COVID-19 pandemic calls for resilience. The BIMP-EAGA artists and cultural workers look into their inner selves and recover the richness of the region’s art and culture as one of the most important assets in battling this crisis. With this innate resource, they strengthen their sinews and move with a creative spirit to respond to the challenges of the present time. Three important steps are initially done across the region to cope with the situation: (1) a shift to online platforms, (2) a dynamic leadership in galleries, and (3) innovation in traditional arts and crafts for creative and sustainable enterprise. With this, artists and cultural workers take the frontline, and a community of sharing comes into being.

A Shift to Online Platforms

“Our artists have to press the reset buttons,” Lim said. Virtual platforms become the new stage. For example, the Át Adau band, based in Sarawak, Malaysia has moved its music production online. Before the lockdowns, they had been traveling across Europe and Asia since 2019 and highly considered that 2020 could be their breakthrough. However, COVID-19 came. They have felt the need to “reset the buttons.” So, their hut is transformed into a recording studio. With the camera and lights on, the sounds of sape’ and the beat of contemporary music continue to flow against the backdrop of the night sky on the island of Borneo to the world, through their Facebook page. This online presence means making the “audience know that they are still relevant [and] their music is still relevant during the pandemic, and they are going to continue” (Lim 2020). However, the usual revenues are not coming in. Their members have to seek other ways to earn a living. Their Facebook page is also raising funds for charitable causes and advertises their colleague’s artisanal product, determined to continue their mission to heal the world with the music they create.

Annual cultural festival shifts online. The local government of the City of Isabela, Basilan, Philippines and the Department of Tourism have encouraged their community to be one in spirit in celebrating the Sakayan Festival by joining online contests. The essay writing and the boatmaking contests “highlight the way of life of the people” (Ramos 2020) and encourage them to create meaning about their community by the sea.

Biennale moves online. In Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the spirit of the creative community is undeterred. The Makassar Biennale (MB), “a forum, dialogue, and worldwide cultural works held every two years with arts as its main drive and the Maritime as its perpetual theme” (Makassar Biennale 2020) opens the project, “Menghambur Menyigi Sekapur Sirih” with a subtheme, “Sekapur Sirih.” The theme “Menghambur Menyigi” means “igniting and sowing” and “Sekapur Sirih” or the traditional chewing of the betel nut as a sign of hospitality towards one’s guests. MB has started sharing and gathering its rich art and cultural resources through research and writing in five different cities in Eastern Indonesia.

Through their webpage makassarbiennale.org, in collaboration with the organizers of Jakarta Biennale and Biennale Jogja, MB is showcasing 10 works of artists from various regions in the country.
MB is also working on its invitation to Art Jakarta 2020. Anwar Rachman, the artist and curator of the program, coordinates with other artists for virtual exhibitions. He hopes that someday when this pandemic is over, people can finally experience—touch, see, and feel— these works in person and people can come together as a community.

Museums open in virtual spaces. Since the closure of the buildings and infrastructure, museum tours are made accessible online. The Museo Dabawenyo in Davao City, Philippines, has created a virtual tour of its exhibit, “A History of Davao in 50 Objects.” Guests can click designated buttons to navigate around the corners of the museum. Small dots, when tapped, show descriptive texts about the objects.

The Davao Museum of History and Ethnography, in partnership with Mindanao Creative and Cultural Workers Group, Inc. has published the online article, “Welcome to the Davao Museum,” by Pamela Castrillo (2020) that ushers readers to the world of the museum through words. It explains important information about its artifacts. Through this, readers are able to engage in sense perceptions and continue to experience the place.

Art conferences and workshops become virtual. Initially, for Sabah and Kota Kinabalu artists, the pandemic arrives as a shock and there is a general feeling of being lost. But they have managed to go into action. When lockdown restrictions had eased, they moved to organize woodcut workshops. Conversations about art practices continue.

Artists Helping Artists: Galleries Sustaining the Art Community

Galleries become the strong backbone in supporting the synergy among the people in the creative and cultural industry. The Creative Space Art Gallery continues to be a cultivating and nourishing space of the artistic resources of Brunei Darussalam. Osveanne Osman, its manager and curator, together with her father, Hj. Osman, have been helping artists through workshops and art classes. They guide them in building their portfolios and promoting their works. They also locate the local and homegrown artists and provide them access to the art scene (Osman in Lau 2020). After a three-month closure, they have moved online. They manage the works of the artists—from promotion, transaction, and deliveries and successfully achieve “a good number of sales” (Osman 2020). When Brunei Darussalam has eased the restrictions, they continue to operate by drafting their Standard Operating Procedures, in line with government health protocols. Through this, the art community is sustained.

Another gallery, the Art Portal, Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Davao City, Philippines, headed by Alfred Galvez, launches the “TaliPopArt 2020,” a wordplay of “talipapa” (market), “pop” or the popular, and “art.” The exhibit curates the works of the local artists in social media and calibrates their online presence. It invites people to civic action through a call, “Your Local Artists Need Your Help.” A percentage of the earning either goes to the artists themselves to alleviate the loss of their income due to the pandemic or to the Southern Philippines Medical Center to help the battle against the virus (Mindanao Times 2020).

More artists also sell their works as fundraising campaigns to purchase personal protective equipment for the medical frontliners, food distribution, and promotion of community hygiene (Garcia 2020). Jerome Manjat (2020) said that as a collective, “our people are helping together. It is really hard for us to sustain and keep the gallery and to survive but we sold our merchandise online and donated half of the sale to the frontline.” The art community “just didn’t think about themselves” (Garcia 2020), but used their art and culture of sharing to look after each other’s wellbeing.

Artists in the Frontline: Indigenous Textiles to Face Masks

In times of uncertainty, people go back to their roots to find the strength in their core being. In this case, according to Aguja (2020), “we have a crisis, but the solution for this is to go back to culture and arts.”

In Mindanao, Philippines, the sector in the culture and arts industry returns to the versatility of indigenous textiles to create a sustainable livelihood in cultural communities. The malong, for example, has taken the lead. This tube-shaped textile woven by the Moro and Lumad ethnolinguistic communities in Mindanao can be used in a hundred different ways—as a skirt, a headdress, a blanket, or a hammock for an infant. When COVID-19 had taken its toll, the flexibility of the textile responds to the pandemic. Nurainie Ampatuan, founder and designer of the artisan brand and clothing line Hilyah Signorina, reshapes the inaul (Maguindanaon term for the malong) into face masks. It is adeptly designed to have a slit where an additional filter, in the form of tissue or cloth, can be inserted.

Hilyah Signorina works as a sustainable creative enterprise that promotes Moro and Indigenous Filipino textile. According to Ampatuan (2020), “during this difficult time, there are many Moro and IP weavers struggling with their livelihood. By creating these products like turbans, headbands, and masks using traditional fabrics, we are helping local communities, especially their weavers.” It is also her way of promoting the richness of her Maguindanaoan culture and identity while sustaining the community.

Similarly, the Yakan weavers in Zamboanga go back to their cultural knowledge to cope with the challenges they encounter as a people. They had been affected by social unrest and displacement in the past. To rebuild their livelihood, they formed the Yakan Weavers Association. The group innovated their textiles to create placemats, bags, and table runners to sell in the market to support their everyday lives. At the onset of COVID-19, when markets closed, they have transformed their textiles into face masks and incorporated traditional patterns such as kenna-kenna (fish), dawen-dawen (leaf or vine), kabang buddi (diamond) (Habi ng Yakan 2020).

Through this, the younger generation is able to interact with their elders as they learn the art of their weaving and sustain their community together. In their Facebook page, they said, “when you buy our mask, you help Salma (master weaver), and other weavers in our community to have a sustainable livelihood.” These innovation in traditional textiles to face masks across the region is “a big help to our local communities, especially the weavers in Mindanao” (Abubakar 2020).

The fashion industry responded with creativity and innovation with their partnerships with cultural communities and traditional weavers. They connect them to the market in the form of creative and cultural enterprise.

NIÑOFRANCO by Wilson Limon has been working with indigenous communities before the pandemic. Now, because of COVID-19, they are using their former collection and design collaboration with artists from cultural communities to create the #MaskOfHope. It has become significant by “fondly remembering the recent past and carry it on to protect us as we fight and adapt to change” (Limon 2020).

Also, the #MaskOfHope, as a collaborative project of NIÑOFRANCO, CulturAid, and the Iranun Weaving Community, incorporate the handwoven inaul into the face masks. NIÑOFRANCO purchase the cotton fabrics from these weavers.

They also work with the Tribal Women Weavers Association, a group of Bagobo Tagabawa women, who are focusing on weaving and beadwork. The beads are laid in denim face masks. A percentage of the sales goes back to both the Iranun and Bagobo Tagabawa weaving communities.

In one of his engagements with the Department of Trade and Industry in Davao del Sur, Limon has seen how communities are empowered when an artisan told him, “Dili nako na image na ani diay ka gwapo amoang mabuhat, daghan diay pwede mahimo sa amoang art” (I can’t imagine that we can produce such beautiful piece! Indeed, there are lots of things that we can do with our art).”


It is clear that life must continue, the creative soul must express, and communities must seek its way to connect with each other again. This entails “a change of mindset” (Lim 2020) because it will become “a deep crisis if we are not able to get out of the box in terms of our thinking” (Aguja 2020).

The re-envisioning, re-dreaming, and rethinking of a transformative creative strategy for the new normal include (1) a redesigning of creative spaces, (2) realignment of activities to health protocols and standards, (3) building massive collaboration and stronger connectivity within the BIMP-EAGA region, (4) encouraging policy-makers to draft policies and support for the arts and culture sector, (5) upscaling of technological skills, (6) and positioning the value of arts and culture as a valid response to the pandemic.

Creative spaces and activities must be redesigned. Studio work and exhibitions can be done in various ways while adhering to government and health protocols. First, activities can be done in open spaces. Second, “it is going to be on a smaller scale,” (Garcia 2020) which means part of the exhibitions can be done with a few people who can experience the artworks in person while the rest of the audience can participate through online platforms. Third, while travel restrictions are in place, Garcia said that it is possible to “send the works without the artist. Objects can do that for us, which translates into people-to-people connection.”

These protocols can help the community in conducting programs while navigating the safety measures. For example, in General Santos City, Philippines, Teatro Ambahanon led by Leonardo Cariño, in partnership with the Cultural Center of the Philippines – Kalinga ng Sining, has conducted a training for teachers through dance workshops and the production of classroom instructional materials. They do so by observing the guidelines provided by the Philippines’ Inter-agency Task Force for COVID-19. Physical distance is observed in the training. This will help teach dance lessons as schools shift to online classes.

Stronger connectivity within the region must be established. This does not refer solely to internet connectivity but also to building networks and linkages among individuals to art and cultural institutions (Aguja 2020), conducting a vibrant exchange of knowledge and resources, strengthening relationships, and building synergy in the BIMP-EAGA. The following steps can be done:

First, the technological gap should be addressed. It must be noted that not all genres and art forms can be readily transposed to virtual platforms; and communities have varying socioeconomic conditions that may make them unprepared for the digital shift. While visual arts and live performances can be curated and performed online, those who work with Intangible Cultural Heritage (brass casting, basket weaving, beadwork, etc.) might find it challenging. They should be supported in crafting and managing online platforms where they can sell their products. Those who work with Tangible Cultural Heritage and whose livelihood relies on tourism can be helped with digital literacy and the production of online educational campaigns to continue the promotion of arts and culture.

Second, an inventory and production of a database for artists and cultural workers in the region must be done. It is important to have a clear picture of the cultural, human, and artistic assets of the BIMP-EAGA that should be streamlined in its future programs. These resources can also be mobilized through the crisis, “because if we lost all these cultural workers we have, we really have a big problem. They should be factored in in looking for solutions because they are many” (Aguja 2020).

Another, this database can connect young artists to established artists. Individuals must be connected to bigger art and cultural institutions.

Third, there should be trading within the BIMP-EAGA and dynamic networking between public and private organizations. It is necessary to build solidarity— where the traditional and contemporary ways of doing things meet and uplift each other. All of these can be started on a small scale while building strong foundational relationships (Garcia 2020).

Capacity building, skills training, and knowledge exchange should be conducted. While the size of social gathering is reduced, the skills of the art community must be upgraded. This can be done in the form of seminars, training, and workshops, such as writing grant proposals (Eswar 2020), utilizing digital technology, learning about the digital economy and cultural entrepreneurship, and enhancing artistic skills and talents overall. Joint trainings, mentorship programs, and an inter-regional exchange of ideas within the BIMP-EAGA should be prioritized. There must be no boundary in cultural and knowledge exchanges, “we only need to create a platform and program” (Aguja 2020) where these activities can be put in place.

Masterclasses can be produced and educational materials can be published for classroom use. These are some of the ways that “artists can do to generate income” (Lim 2020) while “we keep the cultural enthusiasm of those practitioners and the audience (Aguja 2020).

Uphold the value of art as a means for human survival. There has been a common perception that art has no value for basic human survival, and primarily viewed as a mere “hobby, and still as something on the side rather than the main thing” (Pereira 2020), and it is not seen as a “sort of ammunition available to deploy when there are problems” (Aguja 2020). However, this can be seen as part of cultural blindness that disregards the role of art and culture in processing and attending to the needs of the people. One instance is an issue on mental health. Prior to the pandemic, people had been taught to be with each other physically when problems are encountered. However, the situation prohibits them from doing so. This is where “culture and arts should really come into the picture” (Aguja 2020).

Art can be used as a therapy. For instance, both the pandemic and the working from the home scheme have become a retreat for some artists, which helps them to produce more works. However, it also destabilizes the routine of the people due to the pounding realities of doing household chores, thinking about bills, and feeling of general anxiety. For visual artist Norman Narciso, he goes back to his art. He said that “with or without an audience, we have to do creative works to acknowledge God and our existence.” He works with his pen and ink drawings again, wire sculptures, assemblage, and construction of DIY instruments. He has found quilting helpful. The act of connecting pieces together “replicated the process of patching up, reconciliation, and eventual healing that leads to order and peace” (Narciso 2020). Artmaking becomes a way to find meaning in the situation and existence, vis-à-vis a form of therapy.

Art can be used as an information campaign. Similar to what is being done in Sabah, artists and cultural workers have made videos about COVID-19 in different ethnic languages to “make the video accessible for everyone to understand” (Eswar 2020). This can be replicated in various genres.

There should be an investment in Cultural and Creative Industry. There must be research and publication of the tangible and cultural heritage before these are totally forgotten by the younger generation, such as the method of tattooing in Sabah. This can be harnessed to become “financially gainable” (Pereira 2020).

Clear government policies and support from cultural centers must be strengthened. Governments perform in varying degrees. While subsidies and bank loans are given to the art community during the pandemic, it is a challenge to encourage policy-makers to create clear guidelines and sustainable programs for the art community.

Artists and cultural workers create a community of sharing. This pandemic has changed the context in which people live. The BIMP-EAGA artists and cultural workers strategize and navigate within new structures and new rules while they look into one’s culture as a source of strength. What is traditional and contemporary move alongside each other (Horfilla 2020). According to the Acting Director of the Arts and Culture of the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports of Brunei Darussalam, Haji Mohd Abdoh Bin Hajo Awang Damit, this community must go back to its Asian self that values family above else and practice the values that “have [been] shared from generation to generation: we accept change. We love the elderly. Whatever we do, we always think that we are part of society.” He further adds that “our strength of being Asian [can be found when] we are coming together as individuals and as society as a whole. Whatever change that we have, whatever new norms that we have, [we] always come together, [and] live with it together.”

This situation can be viewed as a narrative that currently shapes and makes us who we are (Damit 2020) in our story as people. As all stories go with a beginning, middle, and end—this one starts with the crisis, then, people come together as a family, relationships become stronger, opportunities for meetings are made even more meaningful, and communities strive harder for resilience. And while we are in the limbo of re-dreaming our dreams, we are creating an identity of a responsive community that looks after each other, and this community, as Rachman (2020) puts it, “is not something outside from us, the community is us. Our community is our immunity.”


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