Navigating crisis and kindness with creative and nonprofit leader Issa Barte
Time and again digital renderings of a mountain or a night sky appear on Instagram stories, shared by friends of friends. A double tap and a pinch to zoom reveal that the texts and illustrations are thought provoking reflections by Manila-based artist and nonprofit founder Issa Barte. With every share on social media, it becomes more apparent that her images and words resonate with thousands of strangers.
Issa’s pieces tackle a variety of topics and causes ranging from love and heartache, self care and mental health, to current events and environmental conservation. Recurring sketches of people, nature, animals, and even coffee cups are paired with storytelling and the goal to educate.
Prompts for prose
Growing up, Issa always dabbled with art. She also dreamt of becoming a vet, an environmental lawyer, or a safari guide. But she found herself in the corporate world and it wasn’t until two years ago that she decided to commit to creating more art.
“Art was personal so it was a new feeling to see it become a communal experience.”
Her work displays the evolution of digital art on social media as discourse between audiences and artists like Issa converge to form a community.
Followers submit answers to questions and prompts she posts, then she finds inspiration in their responses. Her first series was entitled 100 Stranger Thoughts. “I asked people to tell me about the time they felt most hurt. I was nervous because I needed 100 submissions to make it happen,” she recalls being surprised when she eventually received a hundred submissions a day.
After going through each response, Issa realized people needed to be heard. “Some entries were submitted because they felt they couldn’t share [their thoughts and stories to] anyone. I guess that’s why the series blew up. It gave people what they didn’t have: someone to listen to them.” Issa has since lent an avenue to be heard. She’s been told a few times that her work has saved a life, and knowing this motivates her to share more about human vulnerability.
Some of her series touch on themes such as earth day and life lessons. A collection that really hit home for Issa is an earlier work called What Color Taught Me, where she explored the changeability of the self. Issa asks, “how can you believe that you cannot be something else when so many things make up what you are?” She recalls that while painting detailed faces, fingernails, and eyes, so many colors are involved to make up a single body part. In turn, she could use the same set of colors to paint something completely different.
“I realized it’s the same for myself—there are so many things inside me, experiences, memories, places I’ve brought this body, and that I was playing myself a bad hand in thinking I was always going to be someone I didn’t like.
The complexities of identity and change have helped Issa growing up. She now believes that change is possible as it is also one of life’s greatest pleasures.
It’s personal and political
“I see my art evolving with the times, because it really moves with stories. And the story today is as troubling as it is deafening — we need to wake up to the noise,” says Issa who creates art that is raw and outspoken in contrast to social media channels that strive to keep content neutral and impersonal.
She laughs admitting, “my professional, personal, and political ideas really just come together on my page.” Lately Issa creates more arguably controversial content since her work is rooted in current events. “Today’s political climate is trying to say the least,” she explains, making it a point to engage in political conversations to prove that every voice matters. “Thinking we’ve already lost just lets them win easier.” The young artist simultaneously faces waves of concern about her own safety given the newly enacted Anti-Terrorism Act that many worry could hinder freedom of expression, particularly opinions against the current administration.
“With thousands turning to my page daily, I know it’s important more than ever to be honest with how I am. I try to show them that they’re not alone in trying to figure it out, trying to navigate today.”
Pivot from home
Issa is fueled by a mix of caffeine, water, yoga, and rest as she adjusts to working from home during the global pandemic. Quite a contrast from her frequent travels across the Philippines for her environmental work. Apart from producing art, she leads For The Future (FTF), formerly Fund The Forest, an initiative she started with content editor Maite Jalandoni and designer Clara Petterson to raise awareness and donations for endangered animals and local tribes.
“I’m constantly messaging point people from across the country to make sure they get the help they need,” she says describing a typical work schedule hopping on and off video calls to manage teams remotely. She balances a large dose of human connectivity and time online with grounding habits that allow her to retreat into silence and stillness.
During the onset of the pandemic, For The Future’s diverse team of 11 partnered with travel and creative platform Where To Next to reach out to 50 artists, photographers, and writers, “some of those who have inspired me on this path of art and action.” They formed The Artist’s Promise, an initiative to raise funds through their creativity.
They published First there were rocks, then there was the world, an e-book that stemmed from feelings of uncertainty and a desire to help ill-equipped front-lines and families facing hunger and unemployment because of COVID-19. The book compiles poetry, short stories, and illustrations that explore present struggles and unsettling emotions to remind readers that they are not alone through quarantine.
As the lockdowns extended throughout the country, the FTF team received daily messages from communities with little resources to get by. They watched as inconsistent protective measures were implemented for society’s most vulnerable. They released Tomorrow, Again, a more optimistic and intimate diary behind the lives of artists and writers in isolation, detailing time spent alone, reconnecting with family, slowing down, and taking rest.
Altogether, the e-books raised about Php 300,000, which was distributed to youth-led initiatives to aid frontlines, those recently unemployed, food relief, and COVID-19 facilities construction. Since FTF’s launch in October 2019 and the wave of support they received during these efforts, Issa observed that “people really wanted to help; most just don’t know where to start. And FTF has been a way for them to help and learn more.”
In defense of people and places
“Being an environmental defender in the Philippines is like putting a target on your back,” admits Issa, who is well aware that the country was deemed one of the most dangerous places in 2019; further stressing 2020’s many crises on top of the Anti-Terrorism Act. “But without that voice for dissent, people who have no regard for the environment will just keep destroying it,” she adds.
Art and social justice intersect through voices according to Issa. “We speak out when there’s something wrong. We help tell stories,” she says despite never knowing before that she could integrate these two worlds. Her signature sketches involving people and places don’t just portray beauty, but are drawn from her own experiences around the Philippines. Art is her tool and platform to communicate.
Apart from storytelling, Issa utilizes her gift for community building both online and on the ground. Most of For The Future’s partnerships begin from interactions and friendships with people and organizations who have longstanding relationships with the communities in need. FTF collaborates within these networks to amplify the attention and impact necessary to help more.
Their homegrown projects are tailored to meet the needs of the urban poor and in the country’s neglected rural areas. Starting with a Meatless Mondays campaign that grew into a holistic food security project called Rainbow Plate to an event in the city in partnership with an ecotourism group and rentable chef called Everybody Eats. They raised food allocations for 27 tamaraw rangers that go into the forest to protect the last 480 living tamaraws in the world.
Issa notes how she has met some of the warmest and most welcoming people around the country, who although have very little financially, choose to dedicate their lives to protecting the environment. “They understand better than anyone else I’ve meet in the city and abroad, about the relationship between humans and nature.”
“The Philippines is one of the 17 mega-biodiveristies in the world. We’re extremely rich in resources and life, yet about 17% of our population still live below the poverty line.”
For The Future’s partner communities have similar narratives and circumstances: people who protect endangered life, but lack protection themselves from systems that keep them in poverty.
They aid the Yangil Tribe in Zambales who have faced challenges in reforestation since the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. FTF is also a support system for river guardians, Bantay Danao and Manobo tribe who live among the Agusan Marsh. In protecting the second largest peatland in Southeast Asia, it takes them two-hour boat rides to the nearest market to stock up on clean water and supplies.
FTF partners with youth and water groups to supply them with water filters to provide clean and safe drinking water. “You should’ve been there that day we saw how the water filters changed their lives,” she happily recalls. Heavy duty rain coats, cooking materials have also been provided to make their daily lives exposed to the elements a little more bearable and sustainable.
“All these communities depend on nature to survive, and when [corporations] destroy their homes, they’re not only taking away their futures, but they take away the very spirit of the connection we have with the environment.”
Together with their network of organizations and the hardworking individuals that comprise the FTF team, Issa shares the belief that these communities are crucial to our wellbeing and ecosystem.
Wielding digital art and social media to spread awareness for those in need, Issa leads audiences interested in art and in nature to weave a mutual story of survival. She doesn’t sketch stories of medical front-liners or of endangered tamaraws and wetland tribes, but of our common survival—yours, mine, and ours—as we cohabitate in today’s layered crisis.