Filipino artist Pio Abad transforms the cozy correspondence between Ferdinand Marcos and Ronald Reagan into art at Carnegie International – 71Bait

A foreign dictator pleads his case with the US President and the fashionable First Lady. Rudy Giuliani intervenes. Senator Orrin Hatch as well. These come not from the top-secret documents former President Donald Trump keeps at Mar-a-Lago, but from the correspondence of another famous president, Ronald Reagan, from his official archives. And for Filipino artist Pio Abad, they are proof of how powerful people manipulate public opinion to assert their status.

The Reagan letters all concern the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, who fled the Philippines in the wake of the People Power Revolution in 1986 and found refuge in Hawaii. The lyrics were carved by Abad on a series of Carrara marble plaques entitled “Thoughtful Gifts” as part of his contribution to the Carnegie International exhibit in Pittsburgh, which opens Saturday September 24th.

“You can see that this wasn’t just a professional relationship,” Abad said of communications between the two political power couples. “It was a personal thing. And I think they really liked each other.”

“Dear Mr. President, I have no choice but to write this letter to you,” Ferdinand Marcos implored Ronald Reagan on October 20, 1988, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid blackmailing charges from then-US Attorney Rudy Giuliani for the Southern District from New York. The ousted dictator wanted the president to personally intervene and allow the Marcoses to prove that the billions in cash, real estate, art and gems they amassed during their decades in power – some of them smuggled out of the Philippines – were not acquired with stolen funds.

“Imelda sends her prayers to you and Nancy,” Marcos finished. “I remain your obedient servant.”

Pio Abad, Thoughtful Gifts (October 20, 1988) (2020).

In his response, written the same day, Reagan told Marcos, “The facts and circumstances of this case left me no choice but to contact the Attorney General. I deeply regret that this has become necessary, but our system gives you every opportunity to refute these allegations.” He finished her note with an assurance that “Nancy joins me in conveying our best wishes to you and Imelda. “

A day later, the Marcoses were indicted in New York on RICO charges, and although Ferdinand died just months later, Imelda stood trial in 1990 – and was acquitted.

In another letter, presented as a triptych by Abad, Giuliani outlined the evidence against the Marcos family in a memo to the Attorney General’s office following a search of her daughter’s home in California. Giuliani wrote that the confiscated assets of federal agents — including more than 100 works of art and antique furniture — “provided further evidence that the Marcoses have continued to commit crimes and conceal the fruits of their extortion enterprise since their arrival in the United States.”

Although Imelda Marcos was acquitted of extortion charges, the art treasure confiscated by authorities in the US and Philippines was auctioned in New York in 1991. A Picasso was discovered on the wall of Imelda’s house during a visit by her son Ferdinand Jr. after he won the presidential election in the Philippines earlier this year.

“These letters become portals into the past,” Abad said of the historical documents. “They’re also like a palimpsest of how those characters were viewed then and how they are now.” Ferdinand Jr.’s rise to power, for example, came largely through a whitewashing of his parents’ actions during their reign. “The way political figures are recycled and reinterpreted throughout history and the fact that we’re seeing this within a single generation is chilling,” Abad said.

In another twist of fate, the Carnegie exhibit opens almost 50 years after Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines.

Pio Abad, installation view from distant possessions (2022) at the 58th Carnegie International. Photo: Sean Eaton. Courtesy of the artist and the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Abad’s other works in the exhibition relate to the Carnegie Museum of Art’s own history, particularly its founding patron, Andrew Carnegie. In addition to his activities as a philanthropist and art collector, the steel magnate was above all an industrialist.

“Obviously, Andrew Carnegie was one of the proponents of public philanthropy instead of paying your taxes,” Abad said. Carnegie was also a vocal opponent of a proposal then being put forward by the US government to annex the Philippines, even offering to buy its independence for $20 million.

In an essay published in 1898, Carnegie put forward his arguments for why the Filipinos should be left to their own devices. In a revealing passage, Carnegie described the Philippines as a nation of “about seven and a half million people, composed of races bitterly hostile to one another, alien races who do not know our language and institutions. Americans cannot be bred there.”

Abad took that last phrase and enlarged it into a wall-sized mural, painted to mimic the neoclassical letters engraved on the museum’s facade. The work aims to show that the ideological structures underlying these cultural infrastructures “may not have really changed,” according to the artist.

However, that does not mean that change is impossible. “I think we’re at a point where a lot of Americans are questioning the myths they grew up with,” Abad said. “Beliefs about the extraordinary are being taken apart – and rightly so.”

What Abad wants to convey to visitors about his project is that “it’s a geopolitical study, but also an obsession shaped by personal history. So it’s also universal.”

“It is a transnational tragedy that touches all of our lives, ultimately linked to capital, greed or impunity, and the need to turn political facts into personal myths,” Abad said. “No matter how distorted it gets.”

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