Remembering Rameer Tawasil, Gentle Tausug artist

During a lull from covering the hunt for Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Sabaya, Kumander Robot and the rest of the Abu Sayyaf Group who were holding American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham in the Sulu-Basilan areas, Zamboanga City tourism officer Sarita  Sebastian invited me to an art show featuring a rising Tausug painter.

There I met Rameer Tawasil, a long-haired, frail young man with intense, black  eyes who spoke about his art thoughtfully. He was careful not to be misunderstood. As I listened to him explain his painting about the “Burning of Jolo”,   I realized he was telling me his life.

Rameer was five when war broke out between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Sulu. He remembered running as bombs shook the ground, and seeing people fall, bloodied and screaming for help. Tanks rolled down the streets, and bullets whizzed by his head.

The family relocated to Zamboanga City. In his first days in elementary school, Rameer picked up a pencil and started drawing guns, airplanes, soldiers with long firearms, children running in fear.

He was drawing the memories of a traumatized child.

Rameer must have seen so much blood because red would become the dominant color of his paintings of the “Burning of Jolo”. Not tomato red or fire engine red, but fresh-blood red. And there were many disturbing scenes, like a man inside a bullet, babies trapped inside a gun.

Did he paint to heal himself? Did he find catharsis in his art?

“I painted from my memory,” he said, without wincing.

But he was careful not to pass judgment on the combatants. Through his art, Rameer transcended the trauma and turned it into an art without borders.  Pain, fear, anger, despair, helplessness, agony, confusion, despair, hunger— from the point of view of a five-year-old caught in the crossfire. 

Expressed on canvas, the images spelled a traumatized boy’s call for a ceasefire. It was his appeal for peace.

After finishing a degree in Architecture from the Western Mindanao State University (WMSU), Rameer would pursue his art seriously with a series of solo exhibits in Zamboanga City. That was how I met him.

 An article I wrote about his art was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Lifestyle section. It was his first exposure in a national paper. We became friends. He invited me to his group exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He sent word he was getting invites to hold exhibits in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Europe.

We had a long chat last December after I saw his Facebook post from a hospital.

He said he was diagnosed with a rare medical condition in 2019. “I don’t sleep at night because it’s my work mode. But I’m trying to control it now,” he said. He was responding well to medication, too, he added.

Still, it was art that possessed him. He missed a solo exhibit at the Manila City Hall, and was looking forward to his first solo show in New York. “But I cannot travel because of my illness,” he said.

Rameer Tawasil passed away on June 6. He was only 54.

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