by Divya MenonApr 15, 2023
Timing the solo exhibition to go out weeks before the Philippines national elections in May 2022, Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts by Pio Abad tells the haunting story of the Marcos regime in the 1980s, at a point in time where history is feared to repeat itself. Born to parents who were student activists and community organisers at the time of the brutal regime that saw the origination of crony capitalism, Abad draws from his family’s lifelong commitment to being advocates of freedom and justice, as well as from archival material that relay the nation’s history. The site of the art exhibition activated forgotten or ‘expunged’ histories, where the University of Ataneo was integral to the resistance.
The dictatorial regime was led by Ferdinand Marcos, until he was deposed in 1986. Over the 20-year rule, the Marcoses, including Ferdinand’s wife Imelda, led extravagant public construction projects that served as propaganda, stole between $5-10 billion from the Philippines treasury to store in offshore accounts under false identities, created foreign financial debt for the nation through infrastructural projects undertaken, implemented martial law that saw censorship of media, arrest of opposition leaders, extrajudicial killings and overall marked a period of darkness in the history of the nation. With the national election this year, the Marcoses’ son Ferdinand ‘BongBong’ Marcos Jr. took over as president, bringing back a history that the country still struggles with.
In conversation with STIR, the London-based artist says, “The term ‘crony capitalism’ was coined specifically to describe the Marcos regime in the 1980s, they cultivated a political system (if it can be called that) that enriched their family and friends to the detriment of the country. That alone speaks of how the Marcoses destroyed and continue to undermine Philippine institutions but also how they became emblematic of large-scale corruption and unquenchable greed the world over. [...] It’s absolutely heartbreaking that the Marcoses are back in power, using that stolen money to manipulate the Filipino public and distort historical facts to suit their personal ends.”
The wealth that the Marcoses had collectively amassed from looting the Philippines treasury included collections of Regency-era silverware, Staffordshire porcelain, Old Masters paintings, classical sculptures, objects, and jewellery, all of which have been brought into the exhibition space, through archival material, prints and 3D-printed replicas. The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders (title referring to the false identities taken up by the Marcoses) looks at the ‘Hawaii Collection’ as it was popularly termed, creating replicas of the fine jewellery that was seized by US Customs, upon the Marcoses’ exile to Hawaii. Produced in collaboration with the artist’s wife Frances Wadsworth Jones, the 24 pieces of lavish jewellery are presented as 3D-printed replicas in shimmery white, lending a certain ghostly quality to what has already been lost. Eventually the collection was repatriated to the Philippines. Speaking to the particular collection, the artist says, “This act of reconstruction becomes a painstaking process of giving sculptural form to accountability, giving sculptural form to defiant acts of remembrance.” The exhibition display imitates a museum collection, performing an imperialist’s fantasy, through large-scale opulence and grand gesture, where it becomes clear that the Marcoses produced their own public image as one of royalist splendour and God-like allegory.
In an interview with STIR, Abad elucidates the gestures that the exhibition makes towards restitution and reparation, “The entire exhibition has been a process of recovery, of excavating narratives and objects that have been conveniently or purposefully forgotten, and of resisting these efforts to institutionalise historical amnesia in Philippine society. Under this new Marcos presidency, history will be one of the battlegrounds – how it is told and how it is disseminated. As an artist, I see an important role not only in giving form to suppressed histories but also in finding ways to imagine things that seem so out of reach – imagining restitution, for instance, by inviting the public to reclaim the Marcoses’ collection of paintings as postcards.”
The exhibition begins with a photograph taken by Pio’s mother Dina Abad, of his father in the Malacañang Palace on February 25, 1986 when the first wave of protesters swarmed the Marcoses’ residence, only hours after the family was ousted from power and chased out of the country by millions of citizens, during the People Power Revolution. The photograph marks the moment, according to Abad, of when the public veneer of the Marcos regime was shattered. The exhibition takes on a spectral presence, where seemingly innocuous book cover designs from Ferdinand Marcos’ manifesto, painted on canvas by Abad, take the form of austere abstract symbols for a nation under dictatorship. Dedicated to Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, who were members of Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP), and spearheaded community organisation towards the fight for democracy in the Philippines. They were one of the many murdered under the regime, and the exhibition’s memorialisation serves as a remembrance to those who have been committed to the fight for freedom and democracy, towards an imagination of the future. Abad envisions the exhibition as an act of hope that attempts to subvert the social, political and economic domination by the Marcoses, and speaks to acts of remembering amnesiac history and demanding accountability.
Pio Abad: Fear of Freedom Makes us see Ghosts was on view at Ateneo Art Gallery in Philippines until August 6, 2022.