Our histories are all linked, and Pio Abad draws out the threads of complicity to weave a bigger picture.
Anchoring his practice in the Philippines, he gives domestic objects cultural and historical context. Through his installations, textiles, drawings, and photography, he combines political and economic facts and events—that initially don’t seem related—with a retelling in which we, too, play a hand. “Different narratives demand different ways of narrating,” says Abad. With this, he allows his audience to imagine all the possibilities.
Abad has been based in London for over a decade now. A rising star in the UK art scene, he has exhibited his work at the Zabludowicz Collection in London (where he showed works inspired by his father, former Department of Budget and Management secretary Florencio Abad’s visit to Pyongyang in 1989), the Royal Academy of Art in London, Glasgow Festival of Visual Art, to name a few, as well as in galleries in New York City, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Manila. Last year, he was shortlisted for the Ateneo Art Awards Fernando Zobel Prizes for Visual Art for his solo exhibition The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders at Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center.
He tells visual narratives by appropriating cultural spectacles and icons. “Every Tool is a Weapon if You Hold It Right” are scarves done in the style of Hermès depicting Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ loot, including Imelda’s famous stilettos, hand-drawn by Abad then printed onto hand-stitched silk twill with acid dye as part of 1975-2015. It was mounted early this year at 4A, Sydney, the first solo exhibition/survey offered by the 20-year-old gallery focused on contemporary Asian art to a Filipino artist.
Abad recently returned to Glasgow with Notes on Decomposition at the Centre for Contemporary Art. There, in one of the three room-sized works, he presented 100 counterfeit replicas of Thatcher’s black Asprey bag, made in Marikina, to link the decline of Marikina’s leather production industry to when the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization—a legacy of Thatcher’s that allowed the liberalization of trade, specifically the importation of foreign goods and the transfer of production to China. As part of the show, each bag is for sale for £25,000—the same price that Thatcher’s handbag sold for at a Christie’s auction. (Most of the proceeds will go back to its producers in Marikina.)
How has putting history and politics inside an art gallery added to the narrative you are creating?
History and politics have always been irrevocably tied to art-making, whether it’s explicitly stated or not. We are political animals by our very nature. When you place these narratives within the rarefied space of the gallery or the museum, it allows people to focus on them, see them in high contrast or in higher definition, so to speak. My interest in making work that explicitly deals with politics isn’t something that is just added on to my work, my reflections on politics and history are the very foundations of my work. It just so happens that instead of a scholarly text or a documentary, my reflections are crystallized in the form of silk scarves, or wallpaper, or drawings.
As a Filipino artist whose work delves on politics and history, do you try to find or pin our place in world history?
I don’t try to assert the Filipino’s place in history as much reflect on this idea of a global history through my own personal narrative, a huge part of which has been shaped by me being Filipino. The only way to understand history is through one’s own subjective lens. History is a complex and slippery beast and I think it’s important that it’s told with different voices. We should always be wary of forces that try to simplify it or try to erase aspects of it altogether.
Do you think being able to look at Philippine politics from a geographical distance gave you a better perspective you wouldn’t have had, had you pursued your career in the Philippines?
For me, the most important thing that the geographical distance has allowed is a bit of clarity to understand how politics in the Philippines has evolved in the way that it has and to relate certain occurrences to a larger context. Sometimes there is an overwhelming and often frustrating sense of insularity in the Philippines and I am very aware that it is a privilege to have a certain distance from that. With that privilege comes a sense of social responsibility, which is something I take very seriously in my artwork.
What are you currently researching on?
I’m about to go to Bucharest in Romania for a residency. I’ve been interested in the shared histories between Manila and Bucharest particularly because both cities paid dearly for the political abuses that were tolerated both by the United Stated and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We endured and are still suffering from the effects of Imelda and Ferdinand’s kleptocratic regime, while Romania suffered under the conjugal dictatorship of Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu. The huge difference is Romania executed their tormentors, while we somehow managed to transform our villains into celebrities.
Interview by Marbbie Tagabucba
Illustration by Gica Tam