Although there were only shoes found in former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ closet, there are surely skeletons beneath the Manila Film Center. Known in Filipino pop culture as the site of haunted spirits, the disaster injured, killed, and entombed seven—or at least that’s what Marcoses’ media told. In reality, over 160 construction workers perished under the quick-drying cement in a rush to materialize Imelda’s obsession with gentrifying Manila into an opulent display of cultural brilliance.
Imelda’s edifice complex—funded by unpaid foreign loans—caused economic instability and thousands of atrocious human rights violations, creating two ripple effects: a shift in the local perspective of the arts and the birth of radical pieces of art that challenged the administration. “The Marcoses’ support for art was never in the service of art, it was always in the service of the Marcoses,” artist and curator Pio Abad weighs in.
Today, their family’s ill-gotten collection of 160 missing artworks worth over USD24 million are still not surrendered to the government. The Marcoses’ patronage to the arts became a limbo for political contestation, tearing art’s universality of human experience to instead represent mere status symbols in solidifying the development of their dictatorship.
Secrets of a shopaholic
In order to understand how art was weaponized, Karlo Mikhail Mongaya—professor of the Wika, Kultura, at Panitikan, sa Ilalim ng Batas Militar sa Pilipinas elective at the University of the Philippines Diliman—says that subtle manipulation was first done. “For your regime to earn a certain modicum of stability, [dapat] ma-earn, to a certain extent, ‘yung consent ng mga sinasakupan mo,” he describes.
(You must earn, to a certain extent, the consent of your constituents.)
This happened through initiatives the Marcoses implemented to make the masses look through their rose-colored glasses: building stellar architectures, hosting international galas, and collecting foreign artworks and designer pieces. “Gusto niya (Imelda) ipakita na [they were] a patron of the arts, kahit na palamuti [lang] ‘yon,” Mongaya reminds.
(They wanted to show that they were a patron of the arts even if it was just for show.)
In reality, the Marcoses had other plans. “It was for the benefit, consumption, and upward mobility of the dictators, their cronies, and the ruling oligarchy [who] benefited from the system,” says Lisa Ito, Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) secretary-general. This is most evident in the threatening walls of the many cultural hubs the Marcoses built; the Brutalist-styled Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Manila Film Center, and the Philippine International Convention Center, to name a few, aimed to host cultural festivals and conventions that are on par with foreign fairs. “The Marcos regime did not hesitate to treat the many workers who built these art institutions as fodder left to die if inconvenient for their own aims,” Ito shares.
With regard to the “patron” herself, Imelda needed her bouffant hair and terno to become “worthy” of partying with heads of state, artists, tycoons, and celebrities. Yet, in her desire to flame such fantasy, she became an international punchline. “She didn’t really have the capacity to talk about [the critical discourse surrounding] art,” Abad posits. “She just liked shopping.” His point is further supported by biographer Bob Colacallo’s description of Imelda in the Andy Warhol memoir, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, “[She was] a kind of cross between the middle-aged Merle Oberon and the juvenile Elvis Presley.”
This was most blatant in the Marcoses’ support for conceptual art, specifically the avant-garde style. Abad explains that conceptualism is tied to activism and left-wing politics. With pieces from Mark Rothko’s anarchic viewpoint and Jason Pollock’s leftists behavior in possession, he asks, “What happens if…a dictatorship essentially funds conceptual art?” Ito answers by pointing out that the Marcos family merely worshiped the arts as “an extension of [their] personal wealth [and] power.”
In January 2020, the CCP premiered The Kingmaker, the critically acclaimed documentary about the troubling legacy of the Marcos regime and its attempt to reinstate power. That same week, they honored Imelda as the founding chair of the CCP.
For Abad, this situation is a matter of cognitive dissonance. “It’s part of a larger fabric of this complicated relationship between art and power,” citing the irony of using dirty money to seemingly patronize Filipino culture. “This is also why I keep making art, [to] constantly remind people that these relationships exist,” he culminates, citing how his galleries help spark discourse on the Marcoses’ unjustified displays of power.
Thus, a counterculture far from the palatial aesthetic affirming the regime emerged at the height of it—particularly literature. Often, these artists were situated in underground networks or in the mountains. “Working [on ways] to carve autonomy, using resistance kung nasaan [sila]—‘yan ‘yung mga ginawa nila,” Mongaya explains, mentioning Pete Lacaba’s Prometheus Unbound and Primitivo Mijares’ The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos as examples.
(Working on ways to carve autonomy, using resistance where they were—that’s what they did.)
One example is CAP itself, born due to the Free the Artist campaign against censorship in 1983. To this day, CAP holds workshops and forums, and shares pieces of art that support their advocacy, “[CAP] testifies to how artists experienced exploitation and repression under the regime,” Ito shares.
While great works of art were birthed under the resistance toward the dictatorship, and projects like the CCP paved a way for various art forms to be accessible to the public, Abad remains adamantly critical. “It’s hard for me to think of a positive side when the level of trauma inflicted by the dictatorship far outweighs any kind of installation.” Similarly, Ito verifies that ignoring the atrocities for the sake of merely appreciating art “is in this sense a form of escapism and impunity, at its worst.”
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. may not have plans to construct a cultural hub for his presidential campaign, but he has one thing that his late father didn’t have: the internet. With the goal of returning to Malacañang, motives to alter public perception about the Marcoses have been circulating on Tiktok, Facebook, and Youtube. “They have an incredible talent for self-mythology, creating stories that they want the public to believe in,” Abad says.
Painting the town red
The Philippines’ debt crisis thereafter raises the question of whether it’s still necessary to spend that much for arts & culture-related projects. Abad mentions with the elitist notions of art the Marcoses inflicted upon, we face a poverty of imagination. “The market will always make art about how much it costs. [That’s why] I really emphasize the role of art as an educational tool [and as] a way of noticing things,” he clamors.
Trying to separate art from its patrons dismisses the disgusting atrocities behind the façade of glorified opulence. “Our knowledge of what art is and can be [must] be widened to embrace the experience, stories, and struggles of the people,” Ito declares. But perhaps the saddest part is that this manipulative power play was born from the whim of a power hungry dictator and his flamboyant, shopaholic wife.
Art is more than just an aesthetic; it should always stand for something. Ito confesses that her ultimate goal as a cultural-worker is “to truly democratize and critically engage with such collections, sites, objects, monuments, and memories as means of truth-telling today,” making sure Filipinos never forget and never return to a dictatorship.