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Marine Engineer Joar Songcuya: Finding visual poetry on the high seas

Finding visual poetry on the high seas
Yashika F. Torib January 13, 2021

Science and art. Two polarized worlds that have, for centuries, been dominated by technical introverts and expressive eccentrics. One is systems driven, the other by, creativity. But for those who have had their hands on both worlds, the similarities of purpose far outweigh their stereotypical differences — what is real, why it matters, and how can it propel society forward.

Such is the case with Joar Songcuya, a seafarer by profession and a painter by passion. His laboratory is the highly technical international parts of the ship, particularly the engine room where he applies his skills as a marine engineer, and his studio is his cabin or wherever he brings his sketchbook with him. He has bridged art and science by navigating both poles and the space that lies between them until ultimately, he has acceded to both worlds when his life needed saving.

“There were years when I had to face piracy threats at the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and the constant dangers of sea storms,” Songcuya said, alluding to how the science of seafaring saved him from the tempest of the world’s oceans. “And then there were moments of exhaustion and bouts of loneliness at sea. It is then that my art relieves and rescues me,” he added.

Songcuya has always been into art since childhood, taking with him a small sketchbook to document things and express himself. For the times in between, he is found swimming along the coastlines of his hometown in Barotac Viejo in Iloilo. The young lad grew with both painting and the sea intertwined in his heart until the time came when he had to choose one for a living.

“I wanted to become an artist but the absence of an art school in Iloilo pushed me to consider another profession. My love for the sea settled the matter and the marine engineering scholarship from a Norwegian company at the John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University (Jblfmu) sealed it,” he recalled.

Since graduating in 2011, Songcuya has sailed the high seas on board oil and chemical tankers, bulk carriers, and container ships. He was the first seafarer in his family.

“What I like most about my job is the opportunity to explore the world, to be able to talk to other people of different languages and races and see places which I have only seen in history books and movies. These are some of the things that made my profession rewarding. Shipping, however, is a physically demanding profession. You are required to stay focused and be fit at all times because you have big responsibilities to perform onboard. There were also long months of isolation,” it was during these difficulties that Songcuya resorted to art.

“It was in 2012 when art became a nightly routine after my working hours onboard. I would spend nights inside the cabin painting or making drawings. Life inspired me to paint.

It feels good to look at the world beyond what the eyes can see and reflect on it. Is it colorful, dark, calm, or chaotic?”

Songcuya mostly paints marine subjects and seascapes. And while these subjects are closest to him, every stroke of the brush reveals the artist himself. “It gives people a glimpse of my personality – deep and composed, but at times, shallow and stormy much like how the seas are.”

“Expressing through art is fulfilling especially when words come short and only the canvas could fill in. It makes the reality of life a little less harsh and it soothes the aches of the heart” he reflected.

Beyond the swells of seafaring and swirls of paint is a young man who is known to be sensitive and emotional, an empath who couldn’t easily fit in a crowd and is often silent. “My friends understand how I tend to be a little distant, but they also knew that I am always a beep away.”

While waiting out the storm of the pandemic, the third engineer currently spends his time preparing for his inaugural solo exhibition at the Altro Mondo Arte Contemporanea, the biggest commercial art space in Metro Manila. The show entitled “The History of Water: Joar Songcuya” is curated by Filipino poet and writer Charlie Samuya Veric. It is a visual record of the global history of oceans from the viewpoint of a Filipino mariner and will be opened to the public from January 16 to February 7.