An artist and a politician

Pio Abad is a successful artist in the UK, having lived here for 17 years. His work has been inspired by serious political and social themes. One painting became a poster for the Art on the Underground project; millions of Londoners saw his work every day on public transport. Butch Abad, his father, is a politician and Liberal Party stalwart who has held various Cabinet level posts for both former presidents Aquino, including Secretary of Budget and Management, Secretary of Education and Secretary of Agrarian Reform.

PIO: My aunt, the artist Pacita, told me if you really want to be an artist, you need to get out of there, because you know you have to travel. You have to live on your own, you have to know how to build something yourself, you have to know how to build your practice.

I moved to the UK when I was 21, it will be strange when I would have lived here for 21 years as well, which is not far off now. I think crossing the half-half divide will probably just pass by, but it would still be quite a strange thing to think about.

For me that photograph (a work that shows his father and a colleague in Malacañang immediately after the Marcos family was ousted) shows the exact moment when the Marcos façade fell apart, and suddenly the public (because my parents were one of the first wave of activists who were able to enter Malacañang) was privy to this sordid unofficial history. I think the history of my family, its political entanglements, the dissidence, definitely has shaped how I think of history. I always think you can never trust the official narrative because I’ve known the other stories and the other individuals or other kind of incidents that shaped what you think you know or what you’re told you should know.

There were moments when he and my mom were very busy, but they always managed to make time. When my dad was in Congress he’d always come home for lunch. They were always really busy, often really stressed, but they were always around.

My first very vivid memory of my dad being a politician was the 1992 senatorial elections which he lost, I think he was like 26 or something. There was a lot of interest in him because he was the progressive candidate. We were always hanging around in the campaign office. I remember the students that came in to volunteer, the lanai where all the posters were being printed in campaign colors, bright blue and neon green, and the campaign jingle.

The campaigning politician waving at the public was always the same guy who was my dad, who held my hand. I know my dad is really stressed about work when he starts making drawings of furnitures, that’s when his creative side kicks in. When he’s trying to…I don’t know…balance the national budget for example… He’s also drawing a chair. It’s a coping strategy.

In an ideal world if money were no object, I’d love to live half here and half in the Philippines but whether that’s possible or not, I don’t know; not in the near future, I think.

BUTCH: Through his art, Pio exposed the billions of pesos invested by Imelda and Marcos on paintings of European classical painters which sold for hundreds of millions of pesos. In one work he encouraged people who went to the museum to take back what belongs to the Filipino people. He went to the PCGG, photographed those expensive paintings and turned them into postcards. As the viewers left the exhibit area Pio had them take home these postcards as a symbolic way for Filipinos to take back what belongs to them.

I did a lot of volunteer work when I was in college, which shaped my life in public service. In the early 70s when Luzon was inundated by floods, I got involved in the relief operation. We realized more fundamental problems like land were the cause of poverty.

During martial law it was dangerous to work in those places, if something happens to you, nobody will know. You can get, you know, the word then was “salvage.” I was in jail twice in 1978 and 1980. As a compromise with Fr. Jose Cruz who was then the president of the Ateneo University who negotiated our release, the deal was I would stop doing trade union work and go to law school. He said: “If you don’t go to law school, you’ll stay here in jail! Anyway, I’ll give you a scholarship!” So that’s what I did. From 1980 to 1985 I was in law school.

The children have seen us stand our ground at the risk of incarceration or giving up important positions in government. I resigned when I couldn’t agree with President Aquino on the issue of agrarian reform. She asked me to sit in the Cabinet as secretary of agrarian reform but when the time came that their land had to be covered, I told the President: “If this is, what she then called, the centerpiece of her administration, I think the best way that you could demonstrate your commitment is by putting your family’s landholdings ahead of the others.” In fairness to her, she didn’t mind her own share of the property being covered by the program, but the problem was, she said, “I belong to a family and the others would have to agree.” Of course the others didn’t.

I fault the Spaniards for the Philippines’ having a weak sense of nationhood, that brought about this dark side of Philippine family values. We were in the process of building a sense of national identity that was disrupted by Spanish colonialism. We ended up becoming a network of clans or families and even our political party system is really based on clan, not philosophies or presuppositions. We’ve never gotten beyond that because even the Americans, although they say they were here for democracy, built on the Spanish colonial legacy, and then the Filipino elite to this day have carried that on. So your point about the family being primordial over the interests of society or nation is something that has deep historical roots.

There was a long period of debates in Cabinet meetings. I said: “You have to do this, otherwise how can I go to a guy who owns 100 hectares or 1000 hectares and then have him point at you and say how about her?” So after three months I gave up and in the process lost my seat in Congress. These are things that my kids were witness to, we told them that’s the price of standing your ground and you too, in whatever you’re going to be involved in on your own, even if it isn’t politics, have to bear the cost of standing your ground, and some of them have.

Before, as politicians, we could criticize each other freely, we could demonstrate. But you don’t do that under a climate of fear where you can possibly get eliminated physically; that’s the environment now, you face really existential risks.

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