‘One diamond could have bought two airports’ – the Filipino recreating Imelda Marcos’s gems stash

Over his three terms as president of the Philippines from 1965, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda were able to cream off some $10bn of the nation’s assets through offshore banks. New revelations that a close associate of the dictator was also able to maintain an account with Credit Suisse as late as 2006 therefore comes as no surprise to Manila-born Pio Abad. For a decade the artist has been making work under the title The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders, a reference to the aliases the couple used with the Swiss bank.

“It’s funny when a 10-year project becomes news,” says Abad, who is now London-based. “These institutions are very culpable for what happened in the Philippines.”

This week the artist, working alongside British jewellery designer Frances Wadsworth Jones, launches the latest iteration of The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders, having digitally recreated the huge stash of gems Imelda Marcos tried to smuggle out of the country in 1986 when, the couple having been deposed, she and her children were exiled to Hawaii. “I’m endlessly trying to get to the granular truth of this history,” Abad says. “It’s rendering these details in high resolution. There’s elections coming soon in the Philippines and Marcos Jr, the son, is currently leading the polls. Historical amnesia is in the air.”

The actual jewels were repatriated to Manila, where they’ve sat in the vaults of the central bank. Wadsworth Jones spent three years building the digital replicas from just a couple of photographs made available by Christie’s, the auction house that, in 2016, was approached by the government about selling the hoard. After the authoritarian populist Rodrigo Duterte was elected later that year, the sale fell through. One Cartier tiara has more than 21m surfaces which Wadsworth Jones painstakingly rendered. From the website of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, an arts institution opened by Imelda Marcos herself, people will be able to overlay 3D images of the jewels on to the world, or wear them using a virtual reality app. “It is a gesture of accountability where it doesn’t exist in the real world,” Abad says. “I like to think an exhibition can become a place of restitution, where justice, however small, can be performed.”

It is not the first time the artist has shown the copies. The digital files were used originally to create 3D-printed replicas, rendered in a dull white plastic, to show at the Honolulu biennial in 2019. “It was as if this jewellery was returning to the scene of the crime. But maybe as ghosts. They were a desaturated version of the sparkly gems,” Abad says. That work is now in the collection of the Tate. Alongside each bracelet and necklace, a small plaque is displayed noting the market value, and what that could have paid for in terms of national infrastructure or government aid. “A pink diamond for instance could have bought two airports. A suite of bracelets could have provided vaccinations for thousands of kids. We wanted them viewed not for their aesthetic value but in terms of the painful possibilities that have been lost.”

Abad has been dogged in his pursuit of the Marcoses and their wanton excess. Over the past 10 years he has recreated Imelda’s dresses; produced a sculpture in the shape of a shell-adorned clock the first lady once owned; and distributed a series of postcards replicating the couple’s vast collection of Old Masters. “Imelda’s imagination was shaped by a western, imperial, Hollywood or Rhode Island vision of glamour and success,” Abad notes. “She’s wearing this guise of sophistication through these baubles, and through the Queen Anne-era silverware she had.”

Abad’s parents were both prominent activists against Marcos’s corrupt and brutal regime. “They met as labour organisers. They were really young, late teens, working with farmers and fisherfolk trying to understand their concerns, trying to work with unions. This was in the mid 1970s, the depths of martial law.”

On 26 February 1986, they were among the first of the protesters to storm the presidential palace. Abad has a photograph of his father grinning next to a kitschy painting of Ferdinand Marcos as an Adam-like figure in the Garden of Eden. “This was a very pure moment, as these moments are, before they had to pick up the pieces,” Abad says. He also saw the painting in the flesh. “My first school field trip was to the palace, when the basement had become this ad-hoc museum of all the Marcoses’ stuff. My first museum experience was looking at loot. That’s shaped everything.”

In 2012, for his MA show at the Royal Academy, Abad commissioned a copy of the kitschy portrait, versions of which he has shown numerous times since. In 2016 however, after the newly elected Duterte declared that Ferdinand’s body should be moved to Manila’s Heroes’ Cemetery, Abad exhibited the work at a museum in Manila blacked out in paint. “The time for whimsy has long gone,” he says. “The election of Duterte was an incredibly harrowing experience.”

For Abad, the election of a man whose “war on drugs” is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of Filipinos was a personal as well as a national disaster. “I lost my mum in 2017,” he explains. “I always thought the nation’s cancer became her own. I now talk of The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders in terms of spectres. Of how the spectre of political violence in my country became intertwined with incredible personal loss.”

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