Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At the recently concluded Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, two Filipino artists made distinct impressions on the global art stage.
Zean Cabangis, a young artist known for his meditations on landscape and figuration, won the opportunity to stage a solo show with his home gallery Art Informal, as one of the artists selected for the Discoveries program, a platform designed as a showcase for emerging contemporary artists. Even more impressively, Pio Abad, an artist who’s won distinctions here and abroad for a body of work concerned with the social and political signification of things, was selected to be part of Encounters — a program dedicated to presenting large-scale sculptures and installations by leading artists from around the world.
Together with Silverlens Galleries, Abad chose to show an arrangement 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, titled “Not a Shield, but a Weapon,” caught the eye of the international art press, including the New York Times and the BBC.
Pio Abad is the eldest son of the lawyer and politician Florencio “Butch” Abad — a fact that wouldn’t be worth mentioning in the context of Pio’s own formidable and prolific career as a visual artist, if not for his decidedly politically-charged body of work. A few days after Art Basel wrapped in Hong Kong, Pio opened his latest exhibit in Silverlens Galleries in Manila, a new show inspired by various anti-Marcos protests in history. 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!”
CNN Philippines Life recently caught up with Abad to talk about Marikina, legendary visual artist David Medalla, and how anti-Marcos protests influenced his latest work. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
I couldn’t help noticing that scarf in the middle of your exhibit, with “A bas la with mystification” painted on it. That’s what David Medalla said at the opening of the CCP [Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969], right?
Actually, the three scarves that are next to each other — “We want a home not a fascist tomb!”, “A bas la mystification, down with mystification!”, “Re:gun go home” — were the three placards that were put up in CCP. I think [the painter Marciano] Mars Galang was the other one [with the poet Jose Lansang Jr.]. For me, it’s such a seminal performance for David and also for, I guess my point of view, it’s trying to understand voices of dissent in the history of Philippine contemporary art. It seemed like a good point to start this body of work. In fact, I made those [designs] a few years ago and they’ve been on file for ages. I’ve been trying to work out in what context to place it.
Funnily enough, history has a way of telling you what to do, diba? So after the November protests against the reburial of Marcos, you know this kind of outpouring of creative placards, I thought it would be interesting to kind of place it there. It becomes the beginning of this history of creative placard-making but also, the history of this particular part of Philippine contemporary art history that I’m interested in.
Your trademark scarves now have these messages on them. And what I gather is these are taken from different anti-Marcos rallies at different points in time. I remember the “Imee” statement as one of the things that went viral during the rallies last year.
It’s largely from the CCP protest in ’69 and the two rallies that happened in 2016. Rather than a broad historical account, it’s the bookends. I like the idea that it starts with David Medalla, and it ends with a Hamilton quote. I think that brings everything together neatly.
[Deciding] was hard because I filed everything eh. I had over a hundred very low res images from Twitter, Facebook, my own photos — it was really difficult to choose which ones to go for. In the end, I’m not really sure how I ended up with this selection but I think it’s a combination of — apart from the quote by [Associate Justice] Marvic Leonen when he read his dissenting opinion about the burial of Marcos in the Supreme Court — everything else is made in the exact way that the placards are made. I just happened to put them on scarves — exact fonts, exact design.
"I wanted to play on things that already exist in people’s political imaginations. Otherwise, what’s the point? You want to communicate things as quickly as possible. I don’t believe that artists have to hide so much in theory or kind of obscure facts."
On the floor are busts of Ninoy Aquino. I’m curious. Why did you decide to use an image of him without the glasses, which is part of his iconography?
I always work with what I’ve found, and I came across this study for this monument. The piece on the floor, which is called “Studies from a Forgotten Monument,” is based on Anastacio Caedo’s study of the Ninoy Aquino monument, the one that was initially placed on the corner of Paseo and Ayala. I think it was up as early as ’87. It was of Ninoy Aquino going down the stairs of the China Airlines flight as he was getting gunned down. So the face of Ninoy on the floor multiplied 327 times is the exact face of Ninoy [in the monument] when he was shot.
Why 327 times?
It’s sort of a symbolic equivalent of the 3,270 people who died during martial law. That’s why if you see there are three empty [spaces among the busts], that’s because the grid is arranged 330, tapos binawasan ko so it’s 327. I wanted it to be a kind of piece about heroism but also about loss. Because that’s what that face was.
The glasses weren’t there because the original piece that I got, this is the exact cast of it. I have the original study. I found it while doing research for another show, in an antique shop in Teacher’s Village. He had loads of casts by Caedo … Well, you don’t know anymore. Philippine history goes with “the story goes …” because there’s no way of confirming, really. A lot of these kinds of Caedos and [Guillermo] Tolentinos, when the artists themselves died, whoever inherited the molds kept on producing copies.
What I found interesting about the Ninoy head is it was on its own and it had a rusty bit of like, metal that suggests it was once attached to the whole thing. I was told it was the original study, and the kind of age of it makes it seem so. But it could also be a cast of the original study. But it was definitely for that monument, that’s now been replaced by something that’s maybe a lot more conventional for a hero’s monument. But for me, I think the earlier sculpture was stranger and maybe more appropriate for these strange times.
For me, when I experienced the show, I first looked at the scarves, and then I looked at the prints of the Marcos busts — which is one understanding of it — and then you see the busts on the floor and it adds another reading. Why did you decide to zero in on that Ninoy image for the busts?
For me, this is the least subtle show I’ve ever made and I think it’s sort of appropriate for the times. It’s not very subtle times … Essentially, it’s a show about heads and the heads happen to be these three people [Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda Marcos, Ninoy Aquino] who have arguably affected our lives the most in recent history. The way I work is I’ve lived with these artefacts for a while, and at a certain point they just crystallize into a show. And it seemed important, when you talk about narratives and counternarratives and revised narratives, the starting point for discussing that in the context of the Philippines is these three people.
Let’s talk about Art Basel Hong Kong. Congratulations on being part of Encounters. It’s an amazing platform. How did you end up becoming part of Encounters?
I’ve known the curator Alexie Glass-Kantor for quite a while. I met her at the first Art Basel [Hong Kong, five years ago] … I met her through [the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) director and curator] Joselina Cruz. They’ve been friends for a while and Alexie is now on the board of MCAD. So we’ve been talking about wanting to do things for a while. So when I did my first solo show in Sydney last year, I met up with her and she said, I think you and Silverlens should put forth a proposal. So we proposed this project, which already existed in a show in Glasgow I did, the handbags. But I really wanted to bring it to Hong Kong because it’s more specific to that place. Hong Kong is where the Philippines and the U.K., in a way, share the same space. It was the perfect site for it, and the reception was great. The position of the installation was perfect, right between a dead Fidel Castro and the Gagosian Gallery. [Laughs] The end of history, in the art fair.
Tell me about the production process. I read that the bags were made in Marikina?
In the way that I’m using Ferdinand, Ninoy, and Imelda in this work, and using Margaret Thatcher, I wanted to play on things that already exist in people’s political imaginations. Otherwise, what’s the point? You want to communicate things as quickly as possible. I don’t believe that artists have to hide so much in theory or kind of obscure facts. There’s a way to kind of share these alternative ways of readings by using things that already exist in people’s heads.
"For me, this is the least subtle show I’ve ever made and I think it’s sort of appropriate for the times. It’s not very subtle times. Essentially, it’s a show about heads and the heads happen to be these three people — Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda Marcos, Ninoy Aquino — who have arguably affected our lives the most in recent history."
The handbag, and then looking at Marikina in the context of neoliberalism, seems like a perfect fit, the way I saw the piece was, I wanted to use the bags to tell a kind of microhistory of neoliberalism. Marikina used to be a thriving sight of leather production. But when the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization, which was obviously a Margaret Thatcher-Ronald Reagan project, Marikina went into decline. So using that history to product the installation kind of was as much an important part of the work as using Margaret Thatcher herself.
It was interesting. The first time I did it, I didn’t really [explain to the artisans what the show was about]. I just wanted to have the bags made. I used a company called Bags Bunny — and that’s mainly why I used them because ang ganda ng name. [Laughs] When I was doing the piece for Hong Kong, there were certain requirements that made it clear that they weren’t making bags anymore. We had to put holes in the base of the bags so they could be drilled. We had to put wire in the handles. When I was asking them to basically make a new version of the piece I showed in Glasgow, I had the installation shots so they had a better understanding.
How did you zero in on the bag as a kind of emissary of your message?
I like looking at domestic things and also the way domestic things can substitute for people. In the same way that for various reasons, Imelda Marcos has been contained in one shoe, or Philippine history from 1960 to 1986 can be contained in one shoe, a lot of Margaret Thatcher can be contained into the black leather handbag. It seemed to be logical to me … What was interesting actually was, making that Hong Kong work, I started making it June of last year. I just voted to stay in the European union. And then as I was confirming production on June 23, I found out that Brexit was happening. And then showing it in Hong Kong a few days before Theresa May. A few days after the show ended in Hong Kong — the show ended March 25 — and then March 29, Theresa May handed over the letter saying they want to kickstart the divorce proceedings — it’s strange. Obviously, I have no control over that but the production coincided with this very specific history unfolding in a place that I now call home.
Now, I have to ask, because obviously you don’t make work in a vacuum, especially in Manila. How did your family react to the “Counternarratives” show?
I think they kind of understood it, which is great. They don’t always understand everything I do. [Laughs] And actually the opening was really interesting, it was a good mix of people who fought during the dictatorship, young artists, but also people from the international art world flying in for the weekend — it was a really interesting cross section of people who read into the work whatever situation they found themselves in, in the past or now.
“Counternarratives” by Pio Abad can be viewed in Silverlens Galleries until April 27.