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The insistence of hope

By Nicole Soriano, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 09, 2023 5:00 am

The greatest form of imagination is the insistence of hope. — Pio Abad

The first image that arrests me in Pio Abad’s exhibit “Fear of Freedom Makes Us See Ghosts” is a life-size concrete sculpture of a nude couple, appearing haunted in a darkened room on the third floor of the Ateneo Art Gallery. Before I read the wall label beside it, before I learn that it is in fact an enlarged version of a fake Anastacio Caedo sculpture of Philippine mythological figures Malakas and Maganda—whom Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos obsessively envisioned as themselves—I am struck by their nakedness.

In the dark windowless room, with the drama of a spotlight, the sculpture differs from a monument displayed in broad daylight. Its presence feels clandestine, secret. The man has his right arm raised, his left arm wrapped around the woman, and a leaf covering his genitals, and I am reminded of the precise moment when Adam and Eve realized they were naked—that they had something to hide. I am reminded of criminals in the dark, caught in the act, cops shining a flashlight on them and forcing them to surrender. But perhaps I am simply projecting my own desires onto the subjects of the show—imagining them in situations in which they must confront their nakedness, and feel nothing but shame.

Sculpture of Malakas and Maganda greets visitors to Pio Abad’s “Fear of Freedom Makes See Ghosts” which ran at Ateneo Art Gallery from April 19 until July 28, 2022.

I visited Abad’s exhibit almost three weeks after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. emerged victorious in a hotly contested Philippine presidential election, and the shock that stunned his opponents was still fresh. The President has consistently refused to apologize for his father’s dark, dictatorial regime that began half a century ago. A regime accused of pocketing $10 billion from treasury, imprisoning 70,000, torturing 34,000, and killing 3,200 Filipinos—numbers that may well be conservative estimates. In his show, Abad presents a decade-long project that meticulously replicates the gaudy objects and imperial fantasies that the Marcoses used to cloak these brutalities.

Yet, within the context of the Philippine election season, timing that Abad deliberately set, the show emits a chilling fog that blurs past and present. The show alludes to ghosts, but the repercussions of its objects are urgent and alive. Another Marcos is back in power, and while his supporters celebrate, his victory has reopened old wounds of the countless who suffered in the fight to overthrow his father. Wounds personal to Abad, whose own parents were political activists incarcerated during the Marcos era.

Abad grounds the show in the gaze of his late mother, Dina. Displayed in the first room with the Malakas and Maganda sculpture is a small photograph taken by her, in which the same Malakas figure appears. Abad’s parents were among the first protesters who stormed the presidential palace during the peaceful 1986 People Power Revolution, and the photograph captures those first moments when they discovered the extent of the Marcoses’ obscenely garish lifestyle behind closed doors. In the picture, a large portrait depicts Marcos as Malakas, appearing muscled and heroic as he emerges from a split bamboo. Beside the portrait is Abad’s father Butch, cheekily touching and laughing at the painting—a laughter that feels indistinguishable from power.

The relief and joy immortalized in this image contrast the mood of another work in the same room: two black paintings accompanied by a video, revealing the original paintings beneath the black paint as portraits of Marcos and Imelda, again as Malakas and Maganda. Abad originally commissioned replicas of the portraits in Malacañang—but in 2016, after Marcos’ body was buried in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, he had them covered in black. In front of these paintings is a bench, the only bench in the show, as if inviting audiences to meditate on this kind of erasure. Erasure as a protest. Erasure as a way to assert agency, amid attempts to bury history.

Abad believes that in order to remember the past actively, one must “go back to the body.” The second room in the show contains an inventory of objects in the collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders, fake identities the Marcoses used to deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, through which they bought art and property. Here, allusions to the body and Abad’s artistic hand are vividly present. Intricate ink drawings of ornate mirrors, Staffordshire figurines, and Louis XIV-style furniture portray not only these objects’ fraught provenance and the complicit hands that touched them—but also the hours, the toil, that Abad devoted to rendering their every line and detail.

In the third and last room, I find a similar fixation in a haunting display of fine jewelry, which was made in collaboration with Abad’s wife, British jeweler Frances Wadsworth Jones. In the form of bone-colored 3D printed resin sculptures, Wadsworth Jones painstakingly reconstructed a jewelry collection that the Marcoses smuggled into the United States in 1986. Below each piece of jewelry is a gut-wrenching description of how much it is worth in tangible terms. One diamond worth two airports. One tiara worth the four-year tuition of 2,000 college students. One of the first steps to justice, after all, is to expose the truth. It is hard to know what we deserve when we don’t know in precise, forensic detail what we’ve lost.

“To face History is to face the tragic. Which is why many prefer to look away,” art critic John Berger once wrote. In a country where records of the past are languishing in underfunded museums, where elaborate disinformation campaigns are erasing the collective traumas of the living and dead, Abad’s show proposes a way not just to face historical facts, but a way to look back and imagine. To imagine our oppressors exposed and ashamed. To imagine ourselves vandalizing their idealized portraits. To imagine ourselves owning and wearing what they took that is rightfully ours. To imagine ourselves, even for a brief, transitory moment, as hopeful—no longer afraid to be free.