Artist Pio Abad brings up the archive of resistance to the Marcos dictatorship in the Phillipines following the recent burial of the dictator.
Pio Abad’s “Counternarratives” is on display at Silverlens, Makati City, until 29 April 2017. Art Radar takes a look at the exhibition and artist’s practice of historical critique.
In “Counternarratives”, Manila-born, London-based Pio Abad (b. 1983) continues his engagement with the Philippine’s political history, specifically looking at the problematic cultural legacy of the Marcos dictatorship in light of recent controversy surrounding the burial of the former dictator and president. Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos ruled as a dictator under martial law from 1972 until 1981. While his regime started an unprecedented number of infrastructure projects and monuments (known colloquially as an “edifice complex” and at great taxpayer cost), it also became infamous for its corruption and brutality.
This new body of work on display at Silverlens Gallery brings Pio Abad’s critique home as the artist, who was trained at Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools in London, reconfigures familiar narratives and excavates popular iconographies of resistance in an attempt to understand the consequences of decades of repressive politics in the Philippines. This exhibition was directly inspired by various anti-Marcos protests throughout history, and recuperates some of their slogans for renewed visibility and reflection in 2017. One of the most striking pieces in the show is a scarf bearing the message: “IMEE’S FACE IS A NATIONAL TREASURE. WE PAID FOR IT!”
The phrase refers to Imee Marcos – the daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda Marcos – and her 2015 Tattler magazine cover, accusing her of having had plastic surgery on her chin at public costs. The critique of the indulgences of the Marcos family is ancient: Imelda Marcos is famous for her collection of over 3,000 pairs of shoes, which were partly destroyed by termites, floods and general neglect after being kept in storage in the Philippines when she and her family went to Hawaii in exile after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. The phrase was seen across the protests of November 2016, which erupted across the country against the burial of Ferdinand Marcos, scheduled to take place in November at the Heroes’ Cemetery nearly 30 years after his death in 1989.
The Marcos burial, which eventually did take place hurriedly at the Heroes’ Cemetery on 18 November 2016, was a controversial issue as critics – particularly victims of human rights violations during the Martial Law era – and participants of the People Power Revolution strongly opposed attempts to glorify the dictator, who they deem as unfit to be buried at the particular cemetery due to his authoritarian rule. Much criticism has re-surfaced of the Marcos family, who has yet to return money illegally removed from the country’s treasury. It is into this context, where institutional narratives clash with people’s (often witty) protest, that “Counternarratives” intervenes, pointing to the continued importance of questioning dominant institutional narratives regarding national history.
This is not the first time the artist has turned his eye to an exploration of the current residues of 1980s politics – whether local or global. At the recent Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, Pio Abad was selected to be part of Encounters — a programme dedicated to presenting large-scale sculptures and installations by leading artists from around the world. Also with the support of Silverlens Gallery, Abad decided to show a collection of 180 replicas of the black Asprey handbag famously carried by Margaret Thatcher.
The replicas were produced in the city of Marikina, a once thriving site of leather manufacturing that was dealt a blow it never quite recovered from when the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization, a project Thatcher was heavily involved in. The installation, entitled Not a Shield, but a Weapon (2017) caught the eye of the international art press, including The New York Times and the BBC.
The title of the current exhibition “Counternarratives” is taken from a collection of short stories and novellas by the American author John Keene that draws upon multiple accounts – memoirs, newspaper articles and speculative fiction – to offer new perspectives on the past and present. The notion of a “counternarrative” is popular among politicised cultural critics keen to dismantle the dominant narratives of history perpetuated by government or cultural institutions for ideological reasons and often resulting in the suppression of critical voices.
Abad uses the idea of “counter-narrative” as a starting point in an archival project that seeks to gather the silenced, lost and repressed critiques of the regime. His approach throughout the exhibition is one of “translation”, whereby he takes stories gathered from personal and political research and “translates” them into images and objects. This collection of objects are thus communicative vessels that contain both painful lived histories of repression as well as the communicative force of telling the ‘counter-narrative’. Pio Abd’s “Counternarrative” reflects on acts of mythmaking and monumentalising, and also points to the question of when it is best to forget.
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