The Obituary of Joey Velasco and the Table of Hope
By Kevin Stoda, The Philippines
This past Friday in The Philippine Star there appeared an obituary to a 43-year old artist named Joey Velasco, who had painted the TABLE OF HOPE (Hapag ng Pa-asa).
The obituary was written by an acquaintance at the Star, author Ricky Lo. The painting and story of the real life characters who made up the artist’s projection of The Last Supper inspired me to share the tale to the world.
Joey Velasco died on July 23, 2010 of kidney failure. By all accounts, the author was prepared in his last weeks for his fate.
Velasco’s magnum opus, Hapag ng Pa-asa, was seen by the author Lo on the wall of a souvenir store over the St. Nino Shrine in Cebu City several years ago. The tale of this most thought-provoking version of The Last Supper by Velasco had already become the source of sermons throughout the Philippines churches at that time. It is a large painting of a dozen street children sharing a meal with Jesus—instead of the 12 disciples. Lo observed, “At the left of the wooden makeshift table sits a boy looking away from Jesus, holding a bag he must have snatched from somebody, instead of Judas clutching a bag of 30 pieces of silver.”
Lo writes of his first encounter with the impressive artwork, “Moved by the sad and empty faces of the children in the painting, with our conscious pricked [my friend] Raoul and I watched Hapag ng Pa-asa nearly teary-eyed with mounting curiosity noting how Jesus appears so comfortably at home with his table mates, engrossed in the breaking of what looks like a pizza-pie.”
Lo immediately bought ten copies of the painting and mailed them off to friends and family members. Several recipients told him that the painting haunted them for days.
Others told Lo that it was “disquieting”.
Lo, a well-known writer in Manila, noted, “The one [image in the painting] who touched me most was the little boy bent over under the table, sharing what could be crumbs with a (presumably) stray cat.”
The child, Lo adds, is “looking so emaciated and no better than a rat devouring a piece of stolen cheese.”
Lo wondered who the real children in the story were—even before Joey Velasco himself sent him a book describing the painting. The Star writer, Lo, thus learned, “The children are real after all, all 12 of them. One is dead and the rest are alive but not too well, living in cramped spaces under the bridge which they call ‘home,’ scavenged from the trash in Payata, snatching a bag from a rich-looking passerby, selling sampaguita [flowers] while dripping wet in the rain, knocking on car windows for some coins, molested at the tender age of 13 by a drug-addicted neighbor, maltreated by jobless parents. Jesus, I’m sure, is in every one of those children whom Joey calls by fictitious names in the book. You see, even the down-trodden have a privacy to protect.”
“The famished little boy under the table was inspired by ‘The Unknown Sudan boy,’ whose photo, taken in the 1994 Sudan famine won the photographer, Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize”. Joey Velasco explained in a popular book, THEY HAVE JESUS (THE STORY OF THE CHILDREN OF HAPAG): “The picture [of Carters] shows a heart-breaking scene of a starving child who collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center . . . . In the background, a vulture stalks the emaciated child.”
As with the stories of most of the real children immortalized in Joey Velasco’s own painting of THE TABLE OF HOPE, the destiny of the child in Kevin Carter’s photo is uncertain. Joey noted, “Three months later [after he took his photo]. . . Carter was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg, a suicide at 33, so depressed and ‘haunted by the vivid memories’” of death and violence in Sudan.
It is important to recall that, in contrast to the “haunted” late photographer, Kevin Carter, Joey Velasco had never intended his painting of street children to become symbols of dismay, but instead had entitled his painting of the Last Supper: “TABLE OF HOPE (Hapag ng Pa-asa)”.
Before he passed away, Joey Velasco had stated that his “ardent wish . . . is to one day see the Hapag ng Pa-asa turned into a Hapag ng Pag-ibig [Table of Love] with the sad faces of Jesus’ modern day ‘apostles’ wearing a happy smile.”
NOTE: This hope for happy children and faces is something that we all should see, Joey. In the meantime, hopefully, people across the Philippines are inspired to aid those impoverished street children who served as your models.