Author’s note before reading: This article isn’t to substantiate anyone’s innocence. Nor is it written to elicit sympathy. This is about art and a man’s coming to terms with his fate in life.
Bilibid inmate’s art helps support his family
by rick olivares
One of the many classrooms of the Alternative Learning System at the New Bilibid Prison is used for electrical class and the art department. On the wall are a couple of dozen impressive paintings of different themes ranging from landscape to religious imagery to people.
In one corner of the room sits Ariel Cabiluna who’s busy at work. None of his works are on display. “They go real fast,” shared one inmate who goes by the name of Boyet. “That’s how in demand Ariel’s works are."
Cabiluna is currently working on a portrait for the Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae (CICM), a Belgian-based Catholic mission that has been serving in the Philippines for several decades now. The portrait features over two dozen of its members. The likenesses and detail is incredible. More so when you realize that the technique that Cabiluna uses is rather uncommon. It’s called pyrography, the art of illustration or design using burn marks created by soldering pens.
The 40-year old from Talisay City, Cebu, has been working on the portrait for over a month now. It has been time consuming because of the number of people and his attention to detail. When done in a few days’ time, it should fetch for several tens of thousands of pesos. “That should help my family pay for the bills and their needs for a little bit of time,” hoped Cabiluna in the vernacular.
The Cebuano is one of the more celebrated inmates at the Maximum Security Compound of the New Bilibid, not for crime that he vehemently denies to this day (I spoke with 15 inmates and everyone admitted to their crime; Cabiluna is the only one who maintains his innocence), but because of his art. The restorative justice program of the Bureau of Corrections provides inmates a means to earn a living and to support their families outside.
Cabiluna’s claim to “fame” was during the visit of Pope Francis when he created an impressive likeness of the Holy See using pyrography. Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle received the work of art from Cabiluna on behalf of the Pope. Since then, Cabiluna has created other portraits of other notable people including President Benigno Aquino III and Bro. Armin Luistro, the Secretary of the Department of Education among others.
“When I was still free, I used to drive tricycles or work as a conductor in a jeep,” recounted Ariel. “I used to sketch but I never took it seriously.”
When he was jailed, Cabiluna admitted that in those first few months, his mind was a mess. “My thoughts were constantly about death and I wished I would die. I didn’t know how to get through one day to the next. While walking around the compound, I met a man named Jesus Negro (since transferred to a medium security facility) who was engaged in wood burn art. I was fascinated and asked if he could teach me the craft. Jesus took me under his wing and I soaked in everything he taught me."
It took Ariel five months to learn pyrography. And the skill later greatly helped him care for his family. It is while in jail that he married his girlfriend from Cebu with whom he later had a daughter named Ariana Mariz. The separation tears at his heart but he’s learned to cope after being in Bilibid for almost two decades now. And through his art, Cabiluna is able to support his daughter’s schooling and her needs."
“When I think about it, if I was outside, I am not sure how being a tricycle driver or conductor can support my family or even send my daughter to school. It’s really ironic when you think about that in here, I learned something that really helps us. It’s a painful trade off. But you learn to cope."