Saturday ∗ 04 Oct 2014

the Marcoses’ embarrassment of riches

It is always with a heavy heart — yes medyo OA — that I read / listen to discourse about the Marcos’s wealth of art and clothes and shoes, the ones that history tells us we have paid for, but which is handled with nary care or creativity by the powers-that-be as we get these back from the Marcoses. 

The piece below was written in 2012, when the boxes of Imelda’s gowns were discovered and deemed “insignificant” by Malacañang’s historian Manolo Quezon, save for those gowns made by Joe Salazar and Pitoy Moreno among other designers. There was also the question of what to do with Imelda’s jewels, when the Tourism Department’s Mon Jimenez did not think it worthy of being exhibited and sold as tourist attraction because Imelda’s notoriety “is not exactly the best way to attract tourists.”

It’s all uncreative really. And then there’s recent news of the paintings seized from the Marcos’s home in San Juan, where a news report’s headline asks: “No masterpiece in haul?” because apparently the point of the raid is to just get “the masterpieces”? Because of the 140 paintings on the list of the Sandiganbayan Order only eight pieces were named to have been seized and they are unsure as to the authenticity of these?

But all these are the people’s money. Every piece of art that the government seizes from the Marcoses should be handled with care, and presumed authentic before being dismissed as fake. Because to sequester these works in the name of the people, but to fail to protect these because it is the people’s is about as bad as stealing from us all over again.

Which is of course also to wonder: as they get these paintings and find these to be real, what kind of care will these get? And in whose hands will it fall? As far as I’m concerned it should be going straight to the National Museum for authentication, and it should be guarded and secured there like the national treasures that these are. But you know how things happen in this  country, and how little we care for art and cultural production and history.

A history commission with its eyes trailed on other pursuits does not help any.

***

What to do with Imelda’s embarrassment of riches*

There was no talk of culture at all, and neither does that word even appear in the numerous – and well done, I must say – handouts and catalogues that were given us at the last National Competitiveness Council (NCC) Dialogue with the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). The closest thing to culture that government is spending on is tourism, but only in so far as building infrastructure, i.e., roads and airports. In an interview with Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez early in the year, I asked him about heritage conservation in relation to tourism, as well as the fact of the local visual arts and theater scene being an untouched tourism resource. The answer was non-committal.

In the grand scheme of things, this government obviously doesn’t care about culture enough to fund it on the one hand, but even more so to talk about it with some degree of respect. At the very least, you do not judge cultural artifacts and say these have no historical significance. Neither do you go out in public and say that for all we know some of those are fake.

That these comments have come from Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III and the President himself, is dismaying. Minsan iniisip ko, hindi manlang kayo magpanggap? Or what if, kaunting filter naman?

Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning (PCDSP) Undersecretary Quezon is even more disappointing, as we have known him to value history more than most. “The boxes <of Marcos’ belongings> hold no historical significance, except some of the clothes were made by Joe Salazar, Pitoy Moreno, and other designers,” Undersecretary Quezon has said.

And one can’t help but wonder: who’s to say that the rest of what’s there is insignificant? That’s 150 cartons of belongings, kept since 1986, and we are saying these don’t matter? Have these been inventoried? What is here exactly? Certainly we had reason to keep those boxes, in the same way that we’ve kept Imelda’s jewelry all these years? In fact what these statements point to, including the President saying that for all we know some of Imelda’s jewelry might be fakes, is the fact that as with the governments before them, this one knows not what to do with these artifacts of our past.

For a government that likes to project itself as cool and in with the new, its thinking is sadly far from being both.

So yes, there is the prickly matter of what to do with these things, given what the National Museum says about those cartons and “the as yet politically-sensitive nature of their provenance.” But here is where the problem lies: we look at those objects and only think “eeew, the Marcoses.” Government thinks culture and imagines profit. We imagine Imelda’s jewels and we think let’s sell them and earn from it. We look at those cartons of the Marcos’ belongings and think oh they’re old and now rotten and ergo insignificant.

And then we think: oh let’s exhibit the jewels to attract tourists! And the Tourism Secretary is far from excited.

At the core of these reactions, lacking creative imagination at the very least, is the fact that when we think of the Marcos belongings and Imelda jewels, we think: what a shame. Instead of thinking: wow, this is a grand display of a time when local culture was celebrated to Imeldific delusional proportions. Wow, this is the people’s money, in the hands of the most powerful couple in the land, at the most oppressive of times. Wow, this is the work of the shoemakers of Marikina, the Filipino couturiers going crazy on the terno, the classic jewelry of international designers from the 70s.

It is these perspectives that might help in actually dealing with the vestiges of a violent and oppressive past. It is from here that we might go from thinking these to be nothing but historically insignificant symbols of the Marcos regime, towards imagining them to be the remains of an embarrassment of riches. Remains which we can earn from, and not just in terms of money, but in terms of a sense of history and culture, and in terms of asking questions crucial to the present.

The fact that these objects and jewelry, shoes and clothes, are an embarrassment of riches within its historical milieu, is the necessary context for exhibiting these for the public to see. But that is not a limitation, as it is the ground upon and against which we might allow for our art conservators and curators, our art scholars and researchers, to go to town with it. Provenance doesn’t stop with Imelda and Macoy as it will mean research into the history of each artifact, its making, its buying, its existence as part of the Marcos myth. It would be interesting to dig through old photographs, match jewelry to clothes, match the aesthetic to documented event, contextualize all of that in historical milieu. And obviously I mean nothing like the gold exhibit in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum, which is utterly and totally boring.

Instead I mean the promise of a new exhibit every three or four months, working in more of the jewelry that’s there, many of the artifacts. You do not have to come out with them in one grand exhibit – curators can have their pick based on the kind of exhibit they’re working with. Call on young curators (off the top of my head Angelo Suarez, J. Pacena II) and seasoned curators (Dr. Patrick Flores, Yeyey Cruz), even artists (Jose Tence Ruiz) and scholars (Dr. Brenda Fajardo), and ascertain exhibits that will always be exciting, not just because the jewels and artifacts are being seen for the first time, but because there is a present voice that takes us through their provenance, that demands giving us a sense of precisely why they are historically significant, why they are important to the present.

The possibilities are endless if we view it from the perspective of art exhibits and cultural production. The possibilities are endless if this government were open to the creativity of the art world, which has yet to be acknowledged as important. Allow our art world to take this on, and it will be a gift that will keep on giving. Throw those artifacts away and we’ve just wasted the kind of international media mileage the fact of its damage has gotten; auction those jewels and I tell you, the more enterprising of art buyers and collectors will buy the lot and exhibit it as Imelda’s jewels themselves.

Keep it within the realm of tourism, and certainly it will be old soon enough; keep it there and all you’ll be working with is Imelda’s notoriety, which Secretary Jimenez says “is not exactly the best way to attract tourists.”

Well, yes, if we’re talking about being notorious for a bus hostage taking, or the utter lack of clean public toilets, or the worst airport ever. But with Imelda’s jewels and the Marcoses’ belongings? Youbegin with notoriety. What happens next is up to us.

*This was previously published in GMA News Online, September 28 2012.

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