Paige Lipsky’s series Puluy-anan (Home) is an exploration of two cemeteries located in Davao City, Philippines. Wireless Catholic Cemetery and Maa Public Cemetery are the focus of this project. Cumulatively, both spaces are home to roughly 200 informal settlers. Puluy-anan is a collection of photographs that range in subject matter. Many of the photographs focus on the exteriors of homes. Some compositions depict environmental scenery while others show people performing daily routines. The diversity within the representation hopefully will encourage a better understanding of the environment.
Puluy-anan was initially proposed as examination of cemeteries throughout Mindanao. It was thought to be an international continuation of Lipsky’s previous series, Not a Memento Mori that concentrated on burial grounds in the overpopulated city of Hong Kong. While photographing in the Philippines, the artist soon realized that the social dynamic of cemeteries differed from her previous observations abroad. The grounds were lively, not from visitors or mourners but from people residing on the properties. Out of the numerous sites visited, the majority had informal communities. It was a relatively quick decision to change the emphasis of the project from a formalist exploration of physical structure, to a social reflection.
For one month the artist interacted with the communities and they shared their experiences. As a foreigner, Lipsky feels that it would be difficult to establish a strong political statement. The purpose of Puluy-anan is to provide information and ideally, begin a social discourse.
Wireless Catholic Cemetery:
There are two settlements in Wireless Cemetery. One community sits in a shaded valley on private property that cuts across the cemetery. Six families have been residing here for more than two decades. One family has been living in Wireless for three generations, over 60 years. Most of the people residing in this section earn their livelihood as caretakers of graves or by providing funerary assistance. They pay rent and electric to a landlord. The residents of this area were recently asked to vacate because the landowner wants to sell the property.
The lower section of Wireless is comprised of more recent settlers and renters. The Catholic Church owns a part of this property. There is a fence that separates the residential area from the cemetery. The barrier draws a line between having to pay rent or not. Those staying on the church’s land aren’t necessarily paying tenants. Eventually when the cemetery administration utilizes the property settlers will be forced to relocate. This is a larger space than the other two communities photographed. A governmental consensus was taken to determine the number of settlers inhabiting the land. The official number of residents is 77, but a more realistic estimate is 150. They have a school and a daycare on the property. Many people work in a nearby market or they find work at the cemetery. They choose to live in the cemetery because of the short commute and affordable rent. Electricity and water are newer amenities for the area. Water is an issue. There is a river nearby where children bathe but there have been a lot of drowning accidents. The water connection helps, but there is often a shortage of supply.
Maa Public Cemetery:
Maa Public Cemetery is part Muslim and part Catholic. There are free standing houses that surround the Muslim burial grounds. The graves are flat with short concrete outlines. The corpses are buried underground without a coffin. This is a stark difference between the Catholic sections where bodies are buried in traditional Filipino fashion. Large, hollow, concrete rectangles sit on top of the ground and are ornamented with crosses near the lapida (name plaque). The coffin is not buried underground, but rests underneath the cement structure. Several houses are constructed using the Catholic graves as structural support, or entrance steps. All together about 120 people live in Maa Cemetery.
The cemetery has many compounds of houses that begin near Maa Highway and recede to the back of the plot, which resembles a landscape more bucolic. A group of settlers in the community hail from the Bla’an Tribe of Davao Oriental. Farming is the main livelihood of the Bla’ans back in the province but because of drought and additional economic factors they came to the city looking for better opportunities. Across the street from Maa Cemetery is Superstar Oil, a factory that processes coconut products such as oil and soap. Most of the residents in the cemetery work in this factory as contractual workers who are paid 350 pesos per day, a rate below minimum wage. Workers struggle to feed their families on income this low, but according to them it is better than the uncertainty of farming. Moreover, they cannot afford a decent place to live on their meager salary. Recently, the community has been threatened with relocation to Tugbok. The cemetery is going be further developed. Once relocated, it will be financially impossible for member of the community to keep their jobs and commute from Tugbok to Maa because of the distance and time involved.
A Shared Social Climate:
The informal communities in Wireless and Maa Cemeteries differ in some regards. There are different dominant occupations, cultural backgrounds, physical structures, and durations of inhabiting the land. There are also similarities such as religious affiliation. Most of the settlers are Christian. When asked if living among the dead stirred a religious/supernatural fear, the prevailing answer was, “I am more afraid of the living. The dead cannot harm us.” This sentiment is heard throughout both communities. Numerous people voiced without prompt that the dominant fear is being asked to leave.
Relocation sites are often distant from the lives people have spent years developing. Specifically in Maa, the distance of the relocation site would mean that would be jobs lost and children would have to transfer schools. Residents express that sites are notorious for poor job opportunities. It would be difficult to rebuild financial, physical, and emotional security for ones family.
Many settlers communicated that what they desired most was permanent property. People live in constant anxiety that their lives will be uprooted, so it comes as no surprise that many would long for land. One woman living in Wireless, Ate Myrna expressed that she wanted to work abroad and save money for a small piece of land. Uncle Delfin (from Maa) stated that he would welcome relocation, but fears the site would be too far from the lives already established by settlers. He hopes the government will provide a permanent relocation area that will be friendly to those moving.