How These Artists' Empty Chairs Became a Statement for Mental Health


What makes a chair a chair? Is it the physical sense of it, the fact that it has four legs and a cushion? Or does a chair only become a chair when we sit on it? We simply designate its meaning, some will say. It's the age-old philosophical quandary. Whatever. We sit on them. That's what we can all agree on.

For the Visual Arts Helping Hands Foundation, Inc. though, a humble chair can mean so much more (without the need for all this intellectual mumbo jumbo). A chair, as the group's The Empty Chair Project Reprise proves, can be a full-blown statement. In the hands of artists, it can be thought of as an instrument to support our fellow man, including those who are suffering from the burden of psychological distress.

The foundation's The Empty Chair Project relies on art to promote the relationship between good mental health and collaboration. "This exhibition is a reminder for our need to look out for each other," Visual Arts Helping Hands Foundation, Inc. Director Daniel dela Cruz said. "This was the message of The Empty Chair Project in 2019. And it rings truer now."

We are all aware of the adverse effects of the pandemic on the human mind. According to data from the Department of Health, it is estimated that close to four million Filipinos suffer from mental health disorders. The World Health Organization also claims that the first year of the COVID-19 crisis had increased the prevalence of anxiety and depression by as much as 25 percent.


"Trono ng Diwata" by Fil Delacruz and "IF" by Pepe Mendoza.

Photo by Art Lounge Manila.

In the past few years, the Visual Arts Helping Hands Foundation, Inc. has been raising funds to take care of visual artists in the Philippines. The Empty Chair Project initially ran at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila back in 2019. Now, The Empty Chair Project Reprise has been staged in 2022 as a means of establishing meaningful connection after the lockdown, considering that the local art scene has lost a few of its own during the period.

"We lost two artists during that time, Riel Hilario and Leo Abaya, and their works are in the exhibition. We would like to honor them by exhibiting their works, along with other artists, as the lockdowns and the pandemic were tough on everyone’s mental as well as physical health," noted dela Cruz.

"The Healer" by Juanito Torres and "We be relax" by Migs Villanueva.

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Photo by Art Lounge Manila.

The organization partnered with Art Lounge Manila at The Podium in Ortigas Center to showcase the artists' chairs. It also tapped 58 emerging and established contemporary artists for the project. These include the likes of Anton del Castillo, Carlo Magno, Veronica Peralejo, Yasmin Sison-Ching, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, Leeroy New, Louie Cordero, Rodel Tapaya, and Romeo Lee, among others.

The artists were chosen for the range and depth of expression that they each possess. With this, they imposed their own distinct modalities, styles, and ways on each piece to communicate a more profound sense of community.

“During the lockdowns, artists and collectors were among the very first to rise up to help our frontliners through various online fundraisers. The usually solitary artists have come out of their shells to support other members of our community when the need arose," Curator Ricky Francisco pointed out. "I think this is the essence of The Empty Chair Project, and this is our essence as Filipinos. We are always there to offer a helping hand to those in need, as we know deeply that when we are in need, others will do the same.”



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"Life is thickly sown with thorns" by Anton Del Castillo and "Indissolubilis (Unbreakable)" by Aileen Lanuza.

Photo by Art Lounge Manila.

Art Lounge Manila was one of the biggest fundraisers to support health workers during the lockdown, as well. So its partnership with the foundation only made sense. These chairs are a way for the art community to band together, too, in pursuit of the bigger goal of making sure that Filipino artists get what they need to pull through tough times.

Gallery Director Suzzaine Tiausas added: "We are happy in the inclusion of our artists among The Empty Chair Project, which is primarily a project of the Visual Arts Helping Hands Foundation, as the pandemic taught us that only by working together can we truly keep each other healthy."

Collaboration is key in times of crisis. And in order for us to really address the pressing issue of mental health in a post-pandemic society, we must each contribute to the conversation in the most gracious of ways. This exhibit goes to show that, together, we can stand up for our right to a sound well-being, even with the otherwise inanimate objects we mindlessly sit on everyday.

The Empty Chair Project Reprise runs until July 30, 2022 at The Podium's The Art Lounge Manila in Ortigas Center. For more information, visit the Art Lounge Manila website.

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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