Published  08/01/2020
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Pio Abad – interview: ‘The backbone of my practice is family: personal and political narratives entwined’

Pio Abad – interview: ‘The backbone of my practice is family: personal and political narratives entwined’

The London-based Filipino artist talks about The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders, 3D replicas of some of the $21m haul of jewels amassed by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and why the underlying narrative throughout this project is the act of grieving

Pio Abad & Frances Wadsworth Jones. The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders (detail). Twenty-four reconstructions of pieces from the Hawaii Collection, modelled from photographs taken by Christie’s. 3D printed plastic, brass and dry-transfer text, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Chris Rohrer.

by IZABELLA SCOTT

When I enter a dark exhibition room at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, I discover 24 ghosts. These white, spectral objects are arranged in rows in a long glass case, and lit in such a way that each delicate shape appears to glow from within. They are the spectres of jewels, which have been deprived of life – a pair of encrusted earrings made colourless; a fat diamond choker stripped of its glitter; a dripping tiara bleached to white.

The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders (2019) is a set of ghost jewels fabricated by the Filipino artist Pio Abad and his wife, the British jewellery-maker Frances Wadsworth Jones. The 24 jewels, which have been 3D printed in plastic, are taken from the Hawaii Collection, a vast set of jewels amassed by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, kleptocrats who served as the 10th president and first lady of the Philippines between 1965 and 1986. During this time, the couple became infamous for corruption, brutality and decadence, concealing large amounts of wealth in Switzerland under the false identities of Jane Ryan and William Saunders and declaring martial law from 1972, targeting political opponents, student activists and anyone who fought against Ferdinand’s rule. The Marcoses extravagant lifestyle played out alongside a proliferation of human rights abuse, with 35,000 documented tortures across the period. Finally, in 1986, Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by the People Power Revolution. With the help of Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Marcos family fled to Hawaii taking with them the 413 pieces of jewellery.

Abad began his art education at the University of the Philippines, before studying at Glasgow School of Art and later at the Royal Academy Schools. For nearly 10 years, he has been interrogating the legacy of the Marcos family – in particular their recent, and very worrying, political rehabilitation – through an inventory of lavish objects left behind: secret bank accounts, diplomatic gifts, portraits, silverware and jewels.
        
I caught up with Abad at his studio in south London to talk about tombstones, political buffoonery and America’s hidden empire.

Izabella Scott: In The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders (2019), you have fabricated ghost versions of infamous jewels owed by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Among the 413 pieces of jewellery in their collection were a pink diamond worth millions of dollars and a tiara once owned by the Romanov family – both of which you choose to refabricate in printed plastic as spectral, bone-like objects. For many years, the location of these jewels was unknown. How did you get accurate images to begin the refabrication?

Pio Abad: Importantly, this project is a collaboration with my wife, Frances Wadsworth Jones. Her contribution often gets edited down, but it is key in this particular project, especially as the backbone of my practice is family: personal and political narratives entwined. The jewellery installation is the latest iteration of a project that has unfolded over an eight-year period, and in that period the political realities all over the world, including the Philippines, have changed – and you could argue that they have collapsed. When I began this project in 2012, I had the support of a government agency in the Philippines called the Presidential Commission of Good Government (PCGG). It was a time of political optimism. From 2010 to 2016, Benigno Aquino III of the Liberal party was president and his government was actively re-educating citizens about the realities of the Marcos dictatorship and correcting historical amnesia – or trying to. This meant that my project was welcomed. The PCGG, which had been set up in 1986 after the Marcos family fled the Philippines, was tasked with sequestering the Marcoses’ loot, and it functioned like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Agents looked for ill-gotten wealth and filed cases to sequester assets. Ultimately, those assets were to be auctioned to bring that money back to the Philippines and into government projects. Among those assets were 400-plus pieces of fine jewellery, supposedly valued at $21m, which had been sitting in the vaults of the central bank of the Philippines for years.



Pio Abad & Frances Wadsworth Jones. The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders (detail). Twenty-four reconstructions of pieces from the Hawaii Collection, modelled from photographs taken by Christie’s. 3D printed plastic, brass and dry-transfer text, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Chris Rohrer.

IS: Was there a real sense in 2012 that these jewels would be auctioned and the proceeds reinvested in infrastructure?

PA: There were complications. The Marcos family have been trying to get the jewels back since they were sequestered by US customs in 1986, on arrival in Hawaii. The Marcos family fled the Philippines with the help of the Reagan administration, after the popular revolt in February 1986 which led to their exile. Imelda Marcos brought the jewels with her on the escape plane wrapped in diapers. That was the headline at the time: “Imelda arrives in Hawaii with diapers and diamonds.” But these jewels never really arrived in Honolulu. They were seized by US customs and repatriated to the Philippines.

IS: Why has there never been a right time to liquidate them?

PA: One of the issues has been that the Marcos family are litigious and the unrecovered money they stole from the Philippine treasury gives them the resources to sustain these litigations. Over the years, they have filed many lawsuits concerning sequestered property and many regarding the jewellery. In the case of the Hawaii Collection, as the horde of jewellery became legally known, it was not until 2015 that all these cases had been resolved against the Marcos family and in favour of the government. That year, employees from Christie’s came to Manila to photograph and value the jewels, so it looked as if the collection was about to be sold. Then, in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president and efforts to liquidate the Marcos assets stopped. The PCGG assumed, rightly, that a lot of the material it had gathered would be under threat once Duterte assumed power, and so it shared the images with me. This is how I got hold of the photographs taken of the jewellery for auction. Legally, I knew I could not use these images because they were government property, so Frances and I decided to use the images to create something else – facsimiles. Frances, who is a jewellery designer, recreated models of the jewels, facet by facet. I always say that she is in charge of production and I am charge of political trauma.

IS: Seeing the results, these ghost-like jewels, it feels as if you made them phantoms by choice. But what you are saying is that certain constraints made this choice for you.

PA: It began with a constraint, yes – the question of how to transform an image, which we could not legally use, into something else: a three-dimensional object. It took two years to construct the 24 models using [the design software] Rhino. The 3D model of the Cartier tiara alone involved 20m surfaces. But reconstructing also became a metaphor for recovering history, or dealing with the shift in the politics of the times – in recent years, as a way to imagine some kind of justice that may never happen. So much has changed in the eight years since I began the project, and even since I received the images in 2016. The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders was first shown at the Honolulu Biennial in 2019, and it was quite powerful to return them to Hawaii, or at least to complete the journey that was frustrated by US customs in 1986. They returned as ghosts in a place populated by the ghosts of various empires. We discovered that there are still people living in Honolulu who remember the Marcos family vividly, and the biennial installation became a site of recollection, a point where people converged to recall this period. At the opening, Sherry Broder, a human rights lawyer based in Honolulu, came up to Frances and me: it turns out that she was the lawyer in a legal action against the Marcoses, and successfully sued the family for $2bn. She said: “I’ve been looking for this jewellery for 30 years!”

IS: Difficult, potent artefacts often present curators or collectors with a conundrum. Take Nazi memorabilia, for example. Should it be archived and exhibited as crucial records of a moment in time? Or does archiving simply promote or elevate the  souvenirs? But in your case, by making phantom objects, you seem to break free of this predicament – the jewels are neither vanquished nor saved, but hover somewhere between copies and ghosts. Were you looking for this point of balance?

PA: At this point in time, I don’t think it’s possible to destroy or forget. David Rieff, in his 2016 book In Praise of Forgetting, says forgetting is the only way you can move forward, and it’s the only way history moves forward. You have to let go – deny, almost. This might be useful in some situations, but in the case of Marcos history, it’s still unfolding. Despite the PCGG’s findings, the family seem to be successful in laundering their legacy. Since returning to the Philippines in 1991, they have been intent on political rehabilitation and have shown themselves to be adept at image-making and fantasy. This political revisionism is gaining ground. So, how can you let go of something that hasn’t yet been fully accounted for?

IS: The jewellery is, by its nature, seductive, and it cannot help but represent the glitz and glamour of the Marcos family, as much as their shame. But you have removed the sparkle, the veneer. Stripped back, they appear like courtroom objects. Did you want them to seem forensic, evidential?

PA: The moment you are lured in, the objects present you with something other than what you expect. Not simply because they are stripped down, but also in the short text underneath each one, which converts the value of each jewel according to specific aspects of Philippines national development. The lure of the object gives way to data: a pink diamond that costs the same as the construction of two domestic airports; a Cartier tiara that could pay for the treatment of 12,000 tuberculosis patients; a Van Cleef & Arpels sapphire necklace that could provide electricity for 2,000 households.

What is significant about the ghost objects is that they do not celebrate the glitz of the Marcos family life. They hover between effigy and evidence. It was a conscious choice. Often, when I tell people I’m making a project about the Marcos family, they ask if I am making a project about shoes. It has become a ridiculous anecdote that Imelda owned 3,000 pairs of shoes. But it was through this slapstick glitz, the depiction of herself as a pantomime villain, that Imelda was able to absolve herself. People saw her as ridiculous and comedic, but they never saw her as lethal. There was a humour to her corruption, and this has been a very dangerous tool in allowing the Marcos family to write themselves back in to politics.

IS: There’s a comedic excess to Imelda in particular, in which the buffoonery of having so many shoes or handbags is a great distraction from the important facts: election fraud, human rights abuses, theft. People find the buffoonery charming.

PA: A documentary on Imelda Marcos, called The Kingmaker, was released last year. It’s by Lauren Greenfield, who also made The Queen of Versailles (2012), a documentary about a time-share billionaire couple during the economic crisis. When I read an interview with Greenfield, she put it really well. She said that, when she began covering Imelda in 2014, she thought she was making a film about a historical footnote in global politics. But by the time she released the film, she realised she was making a film not about a footnote, but about a template for the characters that now populate global politics – there are so many we could name, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson – people considered so ridiculous that they can’t be dangerous. I think this fact is the sadness and also the outrage that has allowed me to continue making work.



Pio Abad & Frances Wadsworth Jones. Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite, 2019. Concrete, mica dust and metal. Courtesy of the artists and Kadist San Francisco. Photo: Jeff Warrin.

IS: In your new iteration of the jewels, exhibited at Kadist in San Francisco this year as Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite (2019), you have created an enormous version of one bracelet in concrete. Was making it this big a way of making it revolting, of visualising this ghastly comedic excess?

PA: For that exhibition, which came out of a residency at Kadist, we made this very large version of the diamond, ruby and pearl bracelet, which is 3.5 metres long. But it was less to do with comedic excess; rather Frances and I were thinking of monuments and mausoleums, and of turning the jewels into effigies, into bodies lying in state. The underlying narrative throughout this project is the act of grieving. There is a sense of loss that’s to do with history being erased, but also personal loss for me in particular. 

IS: Is that to do with no longer being welcomed in the Philippines, or something more private?

PA: It’s more literal than that. As I said earlier, I consider family to be the backbone of my practice. I often return to a photograph taken by my mum in 1986, which is the starting point of this project. My mum has now passed away, but she and my dad were political activists who were part of the People Power Revolution. My parents were among the first wave of activists to enter the presidential palace on the day the Marcos family fled to Hawaii. The photograph was taken in Ferdinand and Imelda’s bedroom and shows my dad looking at a large painting of Ferdinand as a kind of topless Adam figure – in Philippine mythology, he’s called Malakas, or the Strong (there is also a painting of Imelda as the female counterpart, Maganda, the Beautiful). This audacious attempt at self-mythology reminds me of Trump’s recent post of himself transformed into a buff boxer, with his face superimposed on the body of Sylvester Stallone.



Pio Abad. Imelda as Maganda, Ferdinand as Malakas, 2012. Oil on canvas in faux gilt bamboo frames. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: RJ Fernandez.

IS: The image of Ferdinand as Malakas is ridiculous to the point of hilarity – but I’m catching myself as I laugh. It is an example of that dangerous buffoonery we just spoke of. But what is also potent about the photograph taken by your mum is that it shows your parents’ political activism being realised – they are in the presidential palace and the Marcos family are gone.

PA: My parents were incarcerated during the dictatorship, and, after that, both were involved in politics. My mum died in 2016. People talk about the death of liberal democracy, but in my case it’s an actual death. This is what I mean when I make a parallel between my family history and political history – the timelines are so often overlaid, as if the public is also playing out privately, in my home. My mum’s illness was a consequence of working towards political change, the stress of trying to make things better against incredibly difficult circumstances. I think you can forget your body as you try to do something outside of yourself, and then the body catches up.

IS: Since Duterte’s election, there has been a devastating increase in extrajudicial killings, as part of the so-called war on drugs. Duterte seems to represent the re-emergence of the fake strong man, à la Ferdinand Marcos or Malakas. It is as if this old myth – that a strong man is all you need – has once again become pervasive.

PA: I see it as a rejection of complexity that allows these figures to emerge. People want to believe that problems can be solved at the click of a finger. At the same time, to a certain extent, institutions and neoliberal polices have let people down. Look at what’s happening in Chile now. Neoliberalism has failed people and they are angry. The Marcos family, in particular, see power as monarchic. They peddle a myth that there is a natural order in Philippine society. They treat people accordingly, and what I find so difficult to understand is that people behave accordingly. Maybe this is where art can come in. I like to believe that, if politics refuses to present people with complexity, perhaps art can build towards that goal. I know there are limitations to what art can do, but if there’s a way of showing the history of the Philippines from more than one angle, then maybe that’s the role this project can fulfil. It’s also been interesting taking the Collection travelling. Showing it in Hawaii was so different from showing it at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, where they were exhibited this year. When the exhibition opened in October, Jameel invited members of the Philippines consulate to the exhibition, and with them came members of the diaspora. The Marcos family are quite popular overseas and while the United Arab Emirates arts community was encouraging of the work, the diaspora response seemed very cold. The project forced them to confront facts that they were not ready or willing to consider.

IS: I find it fascinating that the Turkish diaspora in Germany voted very heavily for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In fact, support for Erdoğan was proportionally higher among the Turkish community in Germany than it was in Turkey. This suggests something about voting from afar, or voting for the fantasy of a homeland that you may not have to live in – voting for your dream, for your aspiration. Perhaps that goes some way to explain the Philippine diaspora buying into Duterte or the Marcos myth.

PA: I’m struggling to understand it. Duterte is popular overseas, but he’s also popular locally in the Philippines, despite having killed 25,000 people. Here in the UK, in a similar way, people who have suffered from the most austere cuts for a decade are willing to ditch Labour and vote for a Conservative leader who says he will deliver a Brexit fantasy – a fantasy that is no more and no less than this painting of Ferdinand as Malakas. And I keep going back to my mum’s photo of that painting. It’s an image for the times, in which the fantasy of politics collides with the reality of people, and in which dictatorial fantasy collides with revolutionary struggle. 

IS: Your father is laughing at the painting. It is iconoclasm in action – they are ridiculing the Marcos myth and showing how fragile it is. Is that what you see?

PA: The strange thing for me is that there was a time when this photo would have been a perfect representation of revolutionary success. But now I can’t help but look at it as an image of failure. Maybe later on, it might change and become an image of success again, and I need to, I want to, accommodate that.

IS: You painted copies of the paintings black, as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila. Was this your own act of iconoclasm?

PA: This exhibition opened in September 2016, about a week after Duterte had been elected. That November, Duterte fulfilled a promise he made to the Marcos family regarding the burial of Ferdinand. Since Ferdinand’s death in Hawaii in 1989, there had been pressure from the Marcos family to bury him in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila, but those who said Ferdinand was not worthy of burial in such a place fought back. His body had been returned to the Philippines in 1993 and, for many years, he had been embalmed and put on display at a mausoleum in his home town, in Ilocos Norte. I remember visiting the mausoleum as a child, and hearing that greeting-card canned classical music when the door opened. It still gives me the creeps. So, for more than 20 years, his body had been refrigerated and then Duterte allowed his body to be buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery – which was a fuck you to everyone who had fought against the Marcos family. As part of this group exhibition, Soil and Stones, Souls and SongsI was showing replicas of the paintings of Ferdinand and Imelda as Malakas and Maganda, but on the day that Ferdinand was buried, on 18 November, I painted these replicas black. I was in London at the time, but I oversaw it and we made a video of the event. These paintings had been facsimiles of ridiculous frivolous things, but then the mood shifted. With Duterte in power, they were no longer frivolous.



Pio Abad. Imelda as Maganda, Ferdinand as Malakas, painted black after the events of 18 November 2016, 2012. Digital prints on canvas in faux gilt bamboo frames, black household paint. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Pioneer Studios.

IS: If you look at the blacked-out paintings closely, or at an angle, you can still see the Marcoses’ faces below, and in this way it feels like a defacement. There is an anger to the paintings. Did you want to spoil them, to somehow humiliate and shame? 

PA: It was an act of erasure. My logic at the time was: if the Marcoses can erase history, so can I! The act, documented in the video, is quite beautiful to watch – erasing images of excess with each roll of paint – and, in some ways, it was cathartic. For a very, very brief moment, I felt better. But to me, the paintings seem less about anger or catharsis, and more about lingering sadness: disappointments, grief. This work is also a good reflection of how the project keeps having to change and evolve in real time. I begin doing something for one reason, as a corrective, say. Then an election happens. The project – life itself – is upended. Just recently, these paintings have accrued another life. Going back to Greenfield’s documentary, I saw it a few weeks ago and was surprised to see my replica paintings in the film presented as historical fact. I thought it seemed appropriate that these counterfeits have replaced the actual things in circulation, fraudulent representations for fraudulent histories.

IS: Because of sharp political turns, it is as if you have to keep changing your footwork: from defence to offence. The work – or you and Frances – have to be flexible enough to adapt.

PA: This is also true of jewels. The whole premise of making ghosts of the Collection was that it has not been seen, and we don’t know where it is. Then, just as the exhibition opened at the Honolulu Biennial in March 2019, Duterte released a statement saying that the jewellery would be auctioned off after all. Surprise! But there was one condition: Imelda Marcos would be allowed to bid. So, with this twist in the tale, the project changes again. What does it mean if the Collection is finally liquidated – but it returns to the hands of the owner? What does this mean for the legacy of the Marcos family, for the project of laundering their own history?

IS: The role of the US in this story is fascinating, and one we have not touched on yet. American foreign policy casts shadows over this whole story.

PA: There are a lot of histories still to be uncovered in south-east Asia because the US used us as pawns throughout the cold war. This was part of the Marcos family’s power: they knew they were useful to the US. The two Philippines naval bases in Subic Bay and Angeles City were the US army’s largest overseas installations, and they closed only in 1991-2. So, across the cold war period, the Marcos family would threaten to withdraw the US bases, but their power was limited. And as much as the Marcos family used the US to paint a portrait of themselves, the Reagan administration used the Philippines to paint a fantasy of themselves, too. In that way, this history of the Philippines has much more to do with Cuba, Puerto Rico and Central America than south-east Asia – sites where the US had what amounts to an empire, and yet wasn’t honest enough to name it so. There is a book by Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019), which succinctly shows how this US empire was hidden.

IS: There was a denial in the US at that time, a desire from within the ruling elite to tell a pleasant story about itself. (What is perhaps even more scary, now, is what we see with Trump, who dispenses with those illusions entirely.) But for a long moment, across the second half of the 20th century, we could say, the US wanted to tell a story of its own goodness as it peddled democracy against communism. It wanted to believe it was moral.

PA: What it hid from itself was that it was just like the old world. The Philippines is not just a soft colony; it has always been a site of proxy wars, a site where power is contested. Manila, after Dresden, was the second most destroyed city during the second world war, as the site where the Japanese and the US confronted each other. The Philippines celebrates its independence from Spain on the same day as it was annexed to the US. Now, China and the US are fighting over what is called the West Philippine Sea, but which China insists is called the South China Sea. So, the Philippines has always been a seam where two superpowers meet. And built into that history of power play is trauma. The Philippines is a traumatised nation, which is why it’s in the state it is.



Pio Abad. A Thoughtful Gift I, 2019. Laser etching on Carrara Marble. Courtesy of the artist.

IS: In your recent works, such as A Thoughtful Gift (2019), you have made marble copies of letters from the Reagan archives, such as ones between Nancy and Imelda, or Ferdinand and Ronald. What was it like entering the archives?

PA: The archives are in Simi Valley, just outside Los Angeles. In them, I found so many letters and documents. I even found the invoice for the army plane used for the Marcos family to fly to Hawaii in 1986. I’ve been turning these letters into sculptures, etched in marble, which pulls again on this tension between monument and mausoleum. They have a funerary quality, and relate again to this notion of grieving, or a site of grief. It was fascinating being in the archives. There were so many diplomatic gifts, like an eagle made out of seashells, a hideous gift to the Reagans from the Marcos family. In the museum backroom, where I was given access to these objects, I was also surrounded by a 1980s cold war missile next to a collection of Reagan’s riding saddles and some of Margaret Thatcher’s clothes. That’s an exhibition in itself.

IS: We have spoken of grief twice now, as the narrative beneath your work. I was recently reading Judith Butler’s essay Violence, Mourning, Politics (2003), in which she considers whether exposure to mourning and loss can be a resource for political community. She asks: “What politically can be made of grief besides a cry for war?” Do you hope for these various effigies you have made to become points of identification, sites for collective grief?

PA: The hope is for these objects to engender some kind of solidarity, for the communal act of viewing them to be restorative. I am planning to bring the entire project back to Manila in time for the next presidential election in 2022, when the popular opinion is that the Marcoses will be aiming to recapture the presidency. The plan is to show the work at Ateneo Art Gallery, which is at Ateneo de Manila University, the university where my parents were incarcerated. So, like taking the jewellery to Hawaii, there is another sense of a return.

IS: Was the university a prison?

PA: It was a Jesuit university and, although it stayed open during the military dictatorship, students were under campus arrest. They were not allowed to leave the campus. It actually became a refuge, but since they couldn’t leave, it was also a prison. My hope and my plan, is to bring the whole project, whatever form it has taken in two years’ time, back to Manila. Back to the roots of my own political history.

IS: As you keep pointing out, your family narrative is a kind of spine, a roadmap. Separately, you are also running your aunt Pacita Abad’s archive. She was a visual artist, making painted tapestries, who died in 2004. Her solo show Life in the Margins, which you co-curated, will open this month at Spike Island in Bristol. When did you begin to look after her legacy?

PA: This is another part of my life, another advocacy. Pacita, who was my dad’s sister, was meant to be the politician in the family, but she was a student around the time that martial law was declared in 1972, and my grandparents worried that she would be arrested, since she was a visible student activist in Manila, and so they sent her to study law in Madrid. But she stopped in San Francisco on the way, and ended up living a hippie life in Haight-Ashbury and became a painter. She made these large-scale works that she called trapunto paintings, paintings that are quilted, stitched and embellished, some of which were shown at Frieze London last year. They are huge, colourful objects, from kaleidoscopic abstractions to social realist tableaus where she was depicting the immigrant experience, multiculturalism and representation of people of colour – and this was in the early 90s, when a wider discussion of transnational practice was only coming into being. She died too early, before the art world went global. My role is custodian: building the scholarship around her work, collaborating with curators I have worked with in the past to bring her work to a new audience and slowly helping to place her work in institutions – the Tate has just acquired three, for example. I believe in the work so much – I don’t think anything like this exists in the world.

IS: Are you working towards a solo show of your work in the UK?

PA: I am working on exhibitions for the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and New Zealand. As I mentioned earlier, I am starting to plan for the show in Manila in 2022, which I would like to then tour. Sometimes, making work in London, I feel so removed from the contexts I want to address. I get a sense here that the Philippines is the “wrong colony” and so the response has always been a little removed. Here in the UK, I often get the impression that my work is seen more as a curiosity – interesting rather than necessary; in other places, whether in Dubai or the US, the work has a different agency, the conversations arising from the history and the politics of the work feel more urgent. That’s probably why my last show in London was five years ago, and I’ve racked up a quite a few air miles since then, because of a constant need to converse with elsewhere.

IS: I saw The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders at Jameel Arts Centre, as part of the group show Phantom Limb (2019), which takes on questions of decolonising the museum and heritage. I loved seeing your work in dialogue with that of artists such as Akram Zaatari, who exhibited eight photographs taken in the 1880s showing the excavation of Phoenician sarcophagi. In the photographs, the unearthed artefacts seem to glow: Zaatari has altered the photographs, so that the sarcophagi are rubbed out, the surface of representation erased, to become white. It reminds me of your strategy in The Collection: stripping back the object, denying the viewer the old spectacle, the pleasure of the theft.

PA: I really value that context of showing the work in Dubai. Zaatari has a solo show at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Against Photography (until 10 January 2020), which I loved seeing. My context is south-east Asia but, during my time in the Emirates, I reaffirmed how much I owe to artists from the Middle East, especially those trying to make sense of the war in Beirut, such as Zaatari and Walid Raad. I consider their practices as foundational. They make sense of fragments, sometimes fictionalising those fragments to make a point. Sometimes, I feel I owe more of a debt of form to artists such as Zaatari and Raad than lineages of conceptual art in the Philippines, and even here in the UK. Like the work of Zaatari and Raad, The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders is about reconstruction, but as much as we strove to document, the element of fiction also had to be embraced. As we extruded the object from the pictures, we imagined the facets. And for me, it’s that certain combination that makes me choose art – civic responsibility with the liberties permitted by poetry.

Pio Abad’s work is on show at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, as part of the group show Phantom Limb, open until 15 February 2020. Pacita Abad’s solo exhibition Life in the Margins, co-curated by Pio Abad, opens at Spike Island, Bristol, on 18 January and runs to 5 April 2020.

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