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Carlos Celdran.
Carlos Celdran.

Carlos Celdran (1972–2019)

The Filipino artist and activist Carlos Celdran, who founded the Manila Biennale in 2018 and was prosecuted for a 2010 performance piece in which he criticized the Roman Catholic Church’s stance against a contraceptive health bill, died of natural causes in Madrid at the age of forty-six.

Celdran, born in the Philippine city of Makati, began his art career at age fourteen as a cartoonist for a Manila newspaper. He began doing performance art after enrolling at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. Living in New York after graduation, Celdran witnessed the toll of the AIDS epidemic, which prompted him to consider the significance of access to birth control and sexual health resources. After returning to Manila in 2000, he worked as an assistant director at the nonprofit Heritage Conservation Society, started a walking-tour company called Walk this Way, and directed an exhibition space called the Living Room. Celdran presented his one-man show titled If These Walls Could Talk, a performance-cum-tour of Manila’s ancient walled city Intramuros, for more than seventeen years. In 2014, another tour, focused on former first lady Imelda Marcos, became the off-Broadway solo show Livin’ la Vida Imelda.

On September 30, 2010, Celdran disturbed a mass at the Manila Cathedral to protest the church’s opposition and decade-long delay of passing the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Bill, legislation intended to help the country’s most economically vulnerable gain access to family-planning services. (It was eventually passed by congress in 2012.) Celdran, dressed as the Filipino writer José Rizal—a champion of the country’s independence movement who was executed by the Spanish military in 1896 for leading a peaceful revolt against their colonial government—carried a sign reading “DAMASO,” a reference to Rizal’s fictional corrupt priest character Father Damaso from Noli Me Tángere (1887). He was immediately arrested and charged with “offending religious feeling.” After many court appeals, facing a year in prison, he moved to Spain in early 2019, where he had been living in exile since February.