Pio Abad’s political art is almost in his blood. The child of activists during the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the Philippines, he takes items of the Marcoses’ plunder — jewellery, silverware, Old Masters of tenuous provenance — and reworks them as postcards, drawings, augmented reality. It is a practice of history and memory which has only become more urgent since the Marcoses’ son was elected president in the middle of May.
“My mother and father never separated their advocacies as activists from their role as my parents,” says Abad, 38, from Manila, where he has travelled from his home in London to open his show Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts at Ateneo university art gallery in the city. In August 1983, when he was a one-month-old baby, his parents took him to street protests that followed the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, one of the Marcoses’ opponents.
Fear of Freedom opened weeks before the election and shows how he imbues the Marcoses’ artefacts with democratic possibility. In “The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders” (2014-present) — the names were the Marcoses’ aliases on their offshore bank accounts — Abad and his wife Frances Wadsworth Jones, who is a jewellery designer, have 3D-printed in plastic replicas of jewellery from Imelda’s collection. (The collection was confiscated by US customs upon their arrival in Hawaii in 1986, where they spent their exile after a popular uprising removed them from power.) Rendered in plastic, the pieces lose their lustre and assume a ghostly quality which, according to one critic, resembles reptilian skin as it is about to be shed. The work was acquired by Tate in 2021.
As another part of the work, the artist has recast Imelda’s collection as an augmented reality project. Using their phones, the public is free to summon virtual images of pieces of jewellery and place them in everyday scenes, wherever and however they want, reappopriating her appropriations.
Abad was drawn to these items not just because of their lurid expense, but because they were intimately involved with political history. One of the best examples is the Samuels Collection which he has rendered into intricate ink drawings for this exhibition. The collection comprises the contents of American philanthropist Leslie Samuels’ entire Upper East Side townhouse — gilt furniture, Staffordshire pottery, Louis XIV-style mirrors. Sotheby’s was to auction the collection but Imelda bought the lot beforehand.
His work is “committed to telling this history through works that are in proportion to the body — postcards, silk scarves, jewellery, furniture,” he says. Items of jewellery are particularly interesting because “they are the ones closest to these historical figures. They are interesting witnesses to upheaval.”
In a similar vein, Abad has reproduced as postcards Imelda’s collection of Old Master paintings, which were sequestered from the family and sold by Christie’s on behalf of the Republic of the Philippines after they were ejected from power. In this new portable form, the paintings are free to be taken by gallery visitors.
For him, the motivation behind “The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders” is to “render the Marcos loot in visual terms”. The Marcos plunder is “so vast and so overwhelming that it often become abstract when people try to comprehend it . . . Ultimately, I see it as art-making as a form of evidence-building amidst intense efforts to expunge these memories from collective history.”
The exhibition is a homecoming of sorts for the artist, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools and has been largely based in London since 2004. The choice of venue feels especially fateful because it was at Ateneo university that Abad’s parents met as labour organisers, and where they were held under house arrest during the period of martial law in 1981.
The recent election, where Bongbong Marcos won with 59 per cent of the vote, has rendered Abad’s efforts to correct myths about the Marcoses especially fraught. “The heartbreaking results of the elections are difficult to stomach but perhaps not entirely surprising,” Abad says. “The Marcoses have always been adept at using fantasy for personal and political gain. It was primordial myth and national pageantry before, it’s TikTok videos and Facebook posts now.”
There is still an air of anxiety sparked by the election campaign. Commentators are anticipating an intensified campaign to rehabilitate the Marcos family name, which might translate to rewriting histories and censoring narratives that paint the Marcoses in a bad light. “I have been working on this project for 10 years, and as the world has turned upside-down and democratic institutions have crumbled, my resolve to carry on with this narrative in my work, despite the risks involved, has only strengthened,” Abad says.
Yet Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts begins and ends with gestures of hope. The exhibition starts with a life-sized image of the vacated Malacañang presidential residence after the Marcoses were deposed in a popular uprising. It ends with paintings memorialising the people who were at the forefront of the resistance against them.
While the works in the show are critical of how history is told and what is remembered, these bookends propose a way of recasting history for future generations against current revisionist trends. “I think, ultimately, what is art making but an act of hope? To succumb fully to despair might be easier but, in the end, not at all productive. We hope that the struggle that our work depicts or embodies will outlive us. In my work, grief and creation are entwined and it’s this entanglement that drives the work. As an artist, you can only tell the stories that you know.”
To July 30, ateneoartgallery.com