“How do you tell history through objects that people can relate to in terms of their body?” shares Filipino artist Pio Abad, elucidating how grand historical events seemingly determine the way we live relating to his and Frances Wadsworth Jones’ approach in their installation “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders” (2019).
The 24-piece collection was recently acquired by Tate Gallery, United Kingdom, with funds provided by its Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee.
“There’s something ergonomic about moving the historical away from this grand entity to things that relate to the body,” says Abad. In “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders,” Abad and Wadsworth Jones retell an elaborated history of corruption during late dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos’ regime, through all-too-familiar jewelry.
Similarly, in Abad’s 2017 iteration of his work at Art Basel Hong Kong, “Not a Shield, but a Weapon,” he explored Margaret Thatcher’s problematic legacy through 180 reproductions of bespoke black handbags which he draws connection with trade liberalization in Marikina City, Philippines.
Abad describes his body of work as “manifestations of domestic accessories.” He describes these domestic accessories as compelling but overlooked, referring to often forgotten histories and embedded narratives.
For the Collection, the names “Jane Ryan” and “William Saunders” were aliases used by former Philippine dictators Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ Swiss bank account in 1968, one of the few testaments of the stolen $10 billion from the Philippines making this their own personal wealth.
In this interview, Abad, together with his wife, Wadsworth Jones, talk about their ruminations on their process and product vis-à-vis their collaborative work “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders” (2019) which started as a research project in 2014.
I viewed some of your recent exhibition shows, and I’m curious about the materiality of narratives through your body of work and intersections in domesticity of power, political histories, concept of value, among others. How do you describe this in relation to your artistic process and “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders?”? Also considering translation of these into objects through a myriad of strategies also working with Frances.
Pio Abad: The idea of an inventory is central to how I approach making work and collaborating. An inventory is an account of how people live, it can be made precious and referred to as a collection and it can also function as a body of proof of how history has unfolded. And so, that’s a key structure, the inventory in the sense of it being a collection of things that people have valued or people have lived with and the inventory in the sense of it being a body of evidence.
Correct me if I‘m wrong, but I’ve read that there are 413 pieces of jewelry. How did you come up with selecting at least 24 for the 2019 iteration?
Frances Wadsworth Jones: The piece was originally commissioned by the Honolulu Biennial and so we focused on the jewelery that Imelda and Ferdinand brought with them when they fled to Hawaii, which is legally referred to as the Hawaii Collection.
Pio Abad: There is also the Roumeliotes Collection, which, if I’m not mistaken, is also in the Bangko Sentral vaults alongside the Hawaii Collection.
I think the 24 out of 413 is also proof of how little pictorial evidence we have of their plunder. This is part of the Hawaii collection, which is why we chose them, but they’re also the only hi-res images that we could work with. As much as there is an element of speculation in the way we reconstructed these objects, we’ve had to base them on existing imagery.
Frances Wadsworth Jones: We only had images of 24 of the pieces, and not having the rights to the photos of the jewelery led us to reconstructing them as 3D printed sculptures. The process basically involved me working with photos and reconstructing the best that I could without making up any information of parts that I couldn’t see, like the backs are blank, the scales may not be quite right, it’s all very speculative but it’s still rooted on as much visual evidence as we could gather.
Pio Abad: And I think in terms of the strategy of working, the role of collaboration particularly with this project is important. The project started in 2014 at UP Vargas Museum, and family has always been a big part of telling this story, family history has shaped (this) and the values behind the need to tell the story, but in this instance, family also extends into process, and this wouldn’t be possible without Frances’ expertise. She’s been a jewelry designer and educator for ten years.
We’ve been married for 12, together for 16, and so in some ways, we’ve lived through the political challenges of the last decades. But the actual intricacies of creating this jewelry from thin air is really Frances’ work. I always say that in this project I’m in charge of political trauma and Frances oversees production. When we showed these in Hawaii, people assumed that we just really scanned the jewelry, that we got access to them, we 3D scanned them, I don’t know, with an iPhone, and then just 3D printed them out. But actually, these works were painstakingly reconstructed, every facet of every gem has been reimagined digitally. I think there’s one tiara which has like, how many?
Frances Wadsworth Jones: I think I went a bit ridiculously into detail, and it has about 22 million surfaces.
Pio Abad: We killed a few computers along the way.
That’s fascinating. I’m also curious what was your initial reaction to the acquisition by Tate? Were you surprised at all?
Pio Abad: It was amazing to be finally able to share the news and to get so much support and encouragement. Museum acquisition processes are often very lengthy. In this case, it was a yearlong process. When we finally got the official letter saying that it has been acquired, we were so thrilled. Having lived in London for the past 11 years, well, in Frances’ case, she was born here, it is incredibly validating. I think we both have very vivid memories of the first time we stepped into Tate Modern. It also validates the history that we talk about. Despite the massive effort at revisionism, the plunder of the Marcoses and the physical loss and trauma that it has brought does not belong to the past. It very much speaks of the urgencies of the present. It’s very heartening to have the Tate recognize that and to commit to telling that story.
While you were answering the second question, I was thinking about how accessibility still plays an important role when we do artistic and creative work. Now, you’ve described the Collection as both “effigy and evidence.” Can you elaborate on this?
Frances Wadsworth Jones: Well, evidence is obvious. With these pieces we’re trying to bring something to light that had been hidden for a long time and we haven’t seen ourselves. In creating this body of evidence, people can finally visualise this act of plunder that has been rendered abstract by time. We also wanted the pieces to be ghostly.
Pio Abad: And you know, we’ve had some comments when we were making the work, “When are you going to color it? We're not going to color it in.” They do look like jewelry, but we want them to appear as specters, like ghosts that you can and can't catch and there's something about the 3D printed material that has an elusive quality. It suggests ivory, bone or even sugar.
Frances Wadsworth Jones: We wanted them to be beautiful, obviously, but we didn’t want people to be too seduced by that beauty and that sparkle. We wanted them to be able to take a step back and see it in a slightly different way.
Pio Abad: And just to elaborate on their function as evidence, there’s a textual element to the work as well. It’s installed as you would see jewelry installed in a museum but instead of labels describing what the jewelry is, the text that accompanies it is the equivalent value of each piece of jewelry according to national development that we lost as result of Marcos plunder. For instance, there’s a pink diamond that is equivalent to the costs of building two domestic airports or a tiara that can fund 2,000 college students.
Frances Wadsworth Jones: These pieces were also meant to be sold at auction in 2016 and the proceeds intended for national development, but the change in government put an end to those plans. So, the photographs that we saw were taken by Christie’s for the auction that never actually happened, and the installation is also the ghost of an unrealized exhibition.
Pio Abad: When we first showed it in Honolulu in 2019, this woman came up to us at the opening and she said, “I’ve been looking for these for thirty years.” The woman was Sherrie Broder, the human rights lawyer who successfully filed a class suit against the Marcoses for two billion dollars on behalf of the human rights victims during the dictatorship. I think the most interesting and gratifying [thing] about this project is how it enters the realm of politics and legal history as well. There is an element of restitution, at least imagined restitution.
You’ve mentioned in an interview with the British Council that Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker, and Cathy Wilkes have been influential to your practice. Subsequently, you also help oversee the management of Pacita Abad Art Estate. How have these been shaping your practice, trajectories, and process or specifically with the Collection?
Pio Abad: I think all three artists are invested in telling stories and we mentioned how accessibility comes into play. For me being generous with narrative is very important and therefore the works are materially seductive as a way to engage the viewer into the polemic. My aunt Pacita has always been a huge influence. Having an artist in the family makes choosing that life an easier proposition. Pacita was also the one who told me to check out the Glasgow School of Art, where I met Frances. Family history and how it’s entwined with politics, social issues, and with art history is at the center of my art, our collaboration, and my role in curating Pacita’s body of work.
If I may just share my first encounter with Pacita’s artwork, it was part of a corporate collection that I used to manage. When we’re doing collections management, I froze for a moment just to look at the textile. I could not believe it was literally in front of me as I was just reading about them in books.
Frances Wadsworth Jones: And you really must experience them physically. You don't understand them until they're there in front of you, and they mean something very different.
Pio Abad: They’re very visceral. Going back to family and art, there are three of us in Tate, Pacita, me, and Frances. Alongside David Medalla, we represent Philippine art in the collection. I have also just come back from Dubai where I co-curated an exhibition of Pacita’s work at Jameel Arts Centre, who also showed the jewelery in 2019. There’s something beautiful about the entwining of the personal, the political, the cultural, how family, friendships and these working relationships are all woven into each other.
I saw the show at MCAD Manila, it was actually very nice. You are co-curator for that show, Pio, right?
Pio Abad: Yeah, I did it with Joselina Cruz. That’s the show that started the rediscovery of Pacita’s work. Now she’s still breaking boundaries. The show in Dubai is the first exhibition devoted to a Filipino artist by a museum in the Gulf. When you think about how many decades of Filipinos working in the Gulf and building the Gulf, this is the first time that they're committing to a Filipino story. For me I really felt the enormity of that when I was putting together the show at Jameel and relating it to how we feel about being in the Tate, it’s a real honor to be able to have certain narratives present within museums spaces and to make sure that Filipino stories are visible in these big institutions.
I believe that they have a strong role in knowledge circulation and production.
Pio Abad: And we always talk about museums as universal places but they’re also specific places, and the moment that you see your story, your struggle represented within these institutions, it validates what you’re going through, where you want to be, and how you’ve told your story.
I understand that you’ve started your research for the Collection in London and mounted the first iteration of the show in 2014 (starting from postcards and eventually reproductions at Jameel Art Centre and Kiss the Hands You Cannot Bite at KADIST San Francisco in 2019). How do you approach both process and product? Do you have a specific criteria or considerations for such iterations? How do these iterations alter/modify certain factors like materiality and contexts, perhaps your relationship with the work working with Frances, among many other things?
Pio Abad: I started the research in 2011, when I was doing my MA at the Royal Academy in London. The first iteration was a joint exhibition in Manila and London in 2014: at the Vargas Museum with Patrick Flores and at Gasworks which is an organization that I’ve been very much involved in here in London. Since then, the project has traveled pretty extensively, as you’ve mentioned. In terms of process, it always has to be in service of storytelling, like say transforming the Imelda’s collection of old master paintings into postcards, for instance, that seemed a succinct way to democratize the collection, to share that work. And that element of generosity but also that element of seducing the viewer really informs both how I make things and what they become in the end.
The language of museum display has also deeply informed how the project has developed. I see it as a traveling museum for a history that needs to be revisited and made present. As it has traveled, finding ways to engage with the audience has also been central.
I like how you mentioned audiences and say integral, because it always affects the process and the product. You mentioned that you intend to bring the collection to the Philippines next year (2022), specifically at Ateneo Art Gallery. Can you share with us how the project is going along? What shall we expect in this iteration?
Pio Abad: I’m still hoping that the pandemic will allow the project to happen in 2022. We're still planning like it’s going as planned. But for me it was always important that the entire project comes back home. By the entire project I mean the postcards, the jewelry, there's a whole section of the project that talks about the Marcoses’ use of mythology, specifically the legend of Malakas and Maganda, for propagandistic ends. There is also a whole section to do with the Samuels collection, where Imelda bought the entire contents of a Manhattan mansion in the ‘80s as the Philippine economy was dying, thanks to her spending habits.
I've always envisioned the entire project to return to Ateneo because that’s where my parents met as labor organizers, that’s they were held under campus arrest in 1981, and that’s also where my mom taught. So again, it goes back to family, and it goes back to how embedded the trauma of the dictatorship and the costs of fighting for what you believe in, how it has shaped me, and my family and my relationship to art and history. And it shaped you (Frances) as trauma by osmosis, and I think that it’s always important that it comes back to the Philippines, and specifically to Ateneo. So that happens in April 2022, a couple weeks shy of the election. I think I now also need to find a way of incorporating the color pink into the exhibition.
Another iteration of “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders” is an augmented reality restitution and intervention for the jewelries. This iteration is part-commissioned by Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and 21AM led by Marian Pastor-Roces. The virtual exhibition of the Collection and augmented reality restitution is accessible through this website. More details on this can be found on their Instagram account.