Manuel Ontong was, like many artists, a quiet man whose inner feelings ran deep. In fact, in 1970 the Art Association of the Philippines cited him as the “Best Expression of the Filipino Soul.”
That was the year he joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan, of which his younger brother was already a member. He also joined Sining Bayan, an organization of socially committed artists that included stage, movie and television personalities. Ontong participated actively in the First Quarter Storm of 1970.
Before that, he had worked for two years as an artist-illustrator for the National Museum, having graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Santo Tomas in 1967. His work entailed traveling to archaeological excavation sites as part of the team from the museum, and executing sketches for the documentation. His illustrations were later incorporated in the museum’s reports and publications.
Ontong was disappointed when his nomination for a study grant to Australia in 1969 did not push through; he thought it was because no one powerful was backing him up. The “palakasan” system, his sister observed, was what started his politicalization. At the time, she explained, the National Museum’s director had become critical of the Marcos administration, so that when the latter resigned her position Ontong followed suit.
When Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, Ontong was arrested and detained with some other activists for one week. Because his mother had been so traumatized by this incident, he got a job as artist-illustrator at the Philippine Council for Agricultural Research and Resource Development in Los Baños, Laguna. He was already working there when martial law was declared. But quietly, Manny Ontong continued to create posters and other art works that expressed the people’s anger under the dictatorship.
On November 26, 1975 his family received an anonymous call informing them that Ontong had been picked up by men in civilian clothes and taken away in an army jeep in front of the Philippine General Hospital along Taft Avenue in Manila. His mother went from one detention center to another looking for him, reaching as far as Camp Vicente Lim in Laguna and in Pampanga. She never found him. Manuel Ontong was 29 years old when he disappeared.