ARTS

New exhibit unpacks martial law era corruption stories

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“Malakas at Maganda (1986-2022),” is a hand-formed concrete and steel in the round sculpture that greets you as you enter the exhibition. Photo by JL JAVIER

The exhibition, “Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts,” is a pinnacle of Pio Abad’s ten-year project that unpacks narratives of realities stemming from the late dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. This exhibition includes an iteration of “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders,” a 14-piece collaborative collection with his wife, London-based designer Frances Wadsworth Jones, which was recently acquired by the Tate Gallery London in 2021 with funds provided by its Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee.

READ: A new Tate Gallery installation tells a story of martial law corruption through jewelry

After receiving his BA from the Glasgow School of Art in 2007 and MA from the Royal Academy Schools, London in 2012, artist Pio Abad has had solo and group exhibitions in various parts of the world. These include shows in San Francisco (2019), Ontario (2019). Glasgow (2016); Sydney (2016); London (2014); and Manila (2014). Most important to note, Abad’s works belong to a myriad of important collections in the world including Kadist in Paris/San Francisco, and Art Jameel in Dubai.

“Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts,” is a pinnacle of Pio Abad’s ten-year project that unpacks narratives of realities stemming from the late dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. Photo by JL JAVIER

Abad alludes to manifestations of domestic accessories in his body of work through the years, as something compelling but overlooked, specifically broaching forgotten and obliterated histories and embedded narratives. From mere conventional forms such as paintings, photography, and sculpture, Abad presents new artistic gestures through digital technology interventions such as three-dimensional printed sculptures and the use of augmented reality in this exhibition. His artistic practice is informed by intersections between visceralities and political histories. The exhibition location evokes a specific resonance to Abad both as an artist and a Filipino. His parents, Butch and Dina, were held under campus arrest in 1980 at the Ateneo de Manila University in line with their social democratic movement, which was eventually crucial in plummeting the 20-year authoritarian regime as well as the country’s recovery towards democracy. In “Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts,” Abad presents an elaborate renunciation of “violent political fantasies, laundered histories, and alternative facts.”

A photograph of Abad’s parents, Dina and Butch, taken on Feb. 25, 1986, posing next to the portrait of Ferdinand Marcos. Photo by JL JAVIER

Described by Abad as a history lesson turned exhibition or an exhibition of a history lesson, it ushers its publics to “Malakas at Maganda,” an introductory component echoing Philippine mythological personas. This myth was maneuvered by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos at the height of their power to come about as propellers of cultural and political renewal in the Philippines. The exhibit is displayed in a black-walled room with strong lightwork directed toward each piece. Abad explicates this through “Malakas at Maganda (1986-2022),” a hand-formed concrete and steel in the round sculpture with a male figure standing on its right with his right arm raised as if he’s inviting someone over, beside a female figure resembling a gesture of reliance, support, and togetherness with/to the male figure. Historically, this iconography, including the couple emerging from a bamboo stalk, was utilized by the Marcoses to forward their slogan “This nation can be great again” through various works all over the city during their 20-year authoritarian regime, particularly found in their private chambers.

On the other side of the room, two pitch-black framed paintings are hung. These are portraits of Ferdinand and Imelda painted in black upon which the former was laid to rest as a hero, at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, on Nov. 18, 2016. Crucial to this portion is a photograph of Abad’s parents, Dina and Butch, posing next to the portrait of Ferdinand Marcos. This framed photograph may look like usual memorabilia, but it actually serves as a lookback to Feb. 25, 1986, a historical turning point for millions of Filipino people, hours after the Marcoses were expelled from the country during the People Power Revolution.

Two pitch-black framed paintings represent portraits of Ferdinand and Imelda painted in black, upon which the former was laid to rest as a hero, at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Photo by JL JAVIER

The second section reveals “Jane Ryan and William Saunders,” Abad’s research project that started in 2011 and had its first show in 2014 through a joint exhibition in Manila and London. It explicates the idea of inventory, serving as accounts perceived as both a valued collection and a historical proof, perhaps a body of evidence. He expounds, “one of the main reasons behind this is to disentangle this loot from that collective singularity, laying out individual objects in a forensic fashion to confront the public with its unwieldy scale and terrifying range.”

For Abad, this loot, plunder, and ill-gotten wealth are most of the time referred to as a whole. The names “Jane Ryan” and “William Saunders” were aliases used by Ferdinand and Imelda in their Swiss bank accounts in 1968, where they deposited $950,000 to four bank accounts in Zurich. For this exhibition, he reveals 23 objects from the Leslie R. Samuels Collection comprising 17th and 18th Century English paintings, furniture, and pottery from the philanthropist’s apartment at 666 Park Avenue, which in 1981 was auctioned by Sotheby’s. The buyer who purchased the entire collection for $5.95 million wasn’t disclosed until 1988, when the FBI raided a property in Woodside, California with 113 concealed items identified as part of the Samuels Collection before Ferdinand and Imelda were indicted for fraud and racketeering by US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani.

In this section, Abad makes postcard reproductions of Old Master paintings accessible by letting the viewers get copies presented like magazines and books at a stand and giclee prints of forty pieces of silverware. These were sequestered from Ferdinand and Imelda and sold by Christie’s on behalf of the Philippine Commission on Good Government. There are also intricate and ineffable ink drawings of objects from the Samuels Collection. “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders” has a digital iteration as well through augmented reality. It can be accessed through this link.

The “Jane Ryan and William Saunders” section contains ink drawings of objects from the Samuels Collection, comprising 17th and 18th Century English paintings, furniture, and pottery sequestered by the Marcoses. Postcard reproductions with replicas of Old Masters paintings are free to take. Photo by JL JAVIER

What bridges the third section to the second is an all-too-familiar showcase of expensive-looking pearl white jewelry replicas made to look like they are floating in a dark-painted room, serving as strong reminders of what has been stolen from the Filipino people. The collection is a 24-piece 3D printed replica from the jewelry smuggled into the United States in 1986 by Ferdinand and Imelda. Abad’s collaborator, his wife, British designer Frances Wadsworth Jones describes these as both “effigy and evidence.” Abad shares that the family had tried to conceal this in Borgy Manotoc’s diaper bag when they went to Hawaii.

“We wanted them to be beautiful, obviously, but we didn’t want people to be too seduced by the beauty and that sparkle,” says Wadsworth Jones. First shown in Honolulu in 2019, each piece screams ill-gotten wealth. Some of which are a pink diamond which, according to the piece’s text description, equates to the costs of building two domestic airports, a tiara that can fund 2,000 college students, a jewelry piece equivalent to provision of electricity to more or less 2,252 houses in far-flung areas, and a pair of earrings which cost an average annual income of 15 Filipinos.

A 24-piece collection of 3D printed replicas from the jewelry smuggled into the United States in 1986 by Ferdinand and Imelda. Photo by JL JAVIER

The third section foils an interesting and insightful exhibition experience through playfully clever rendition of abstract paintings by Abad in “Silme and Gene.” These form part of an ongoing series that “bear witness to the struggles of those who devoted their lives to fighting the dictatorship and its cruel legacy.” The title echoes two young leaders of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP), Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, who both put social justice forward in the United States and democracy in the Philippines. These abstractions have reference to book cover designs of Ferdinand Marcos’ manifestos, most specially his defense to declare martial law in the Philippines in 1972.

As Abad shares, these paintings become cenotaphs, abstract elegies to political leaders, community organizers, and student activists who resisted and worked towards imagining a space for freedom and democracy, recognizing that these are productive gestures of lamentations on what we massively lost as Filipinos. Abad’s practice has always been a convergence of visceral experiences and political histories such as themes stemming from his family, particularly experiences of his parents embedded in Philippine history. He dedicates “For Dina I” and “For Dina II” to his mother, and how she is remembered after passing in 2017. Through the years since then, his works are testaments on his efforts on atonement and a continual and necessary process of grieving.

Abstract paintings comprise the “Silme and Gene” section, with the paintings serving as cenotaphs, abstract elegies to political leaders, community organizers, and student activists who resisted and worked towards imagining a space for freedom and democracy. Photo by JL JAVIER

All in all, in “Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts,” Abad employs playfully inviting, elaborate yet clever installations and artistic interventions retelling narratives of corruption during the martial law era serving as critical invitations and reminders for us to constantly rethink our positionalities and approaches to our encounters across personal, cultural, social, and political ecologies. This is Abad’s way to approach memory as “a form of knowledge, and an agent of remembering, underscoring the relationship of the private to the public; the personal to the political.”

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“Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts” runs until July 30, 2022 at the Areté, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City. Visits to the gallery are strictly per appointment only for the time being. Appointments can be scheduled ahead through this online form. More details can be found on their website.

On a related note, Pio Abad collaborates with Stephanie Syjuco in Crime and Ornament at Silverlens Galleries in Makati City. In this show, Abad deliberately dissects/explores Marcosian iconography vis-à-vis dissent and commentary geared towards discourse across social and political ecologies. This exhibition runs until May 7, 2022. More details can be found on Silverlens’ website.

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