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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Jewels, Monets, and Edifices: How Former First Lady Imelda Marcos Weaponized Arts and Culture 

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President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took his oath of office on June 30 as the 17th president of the Republic of the Philippines. Departing from the tradition of holding presidential inaugurations at Quirino Grandstand, Marcos Jr. chose the National Museum as his official inaugural venue. Home to 29 galleries featuring some of the country’s most prized artworks such as Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, Felix Resureccion Hidalgo’s El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante, Botong Francisco’s Filipino Struggles Through History, and others, the National Museum of Fine Arts takes pride in standing as a place for exploring Philippine history, art, heritage, and culture.

The President’s choice of inaugural site speaks loudly of his own family’s, particularly his mother’s, inclination with arts and culture. This, of all places in the country, is a stark reminder for the millions of Filipinos of ways and means in which his family was able to easily take and retake the reins of power through something as noble as art—a reminder of how former first lady Imelda Marcos, self-proclaimed “patroness of the art”, weaponized that which was supposed to free the people from oppression.

As the elder Marcos’ first lady, Imelda, was able to wield power and influence as if she were a democratically-elected official herself; this provided for what Primitivo Mijares argued in his book as the makings of a “conjugal dictatorship.”[1] When Marcos rose into power, so did his First Lady. Together, they created a myth, actualized by a painting commissioned by Evan Cosayco, envisioning themselves as the first Filipinos with Ferdinand being Malakas, a strong figurehead who ruled with an iron fist, and Imelda as Maganda, an art patroness. 

Malakas at Maganda by Evan Cosayco | Photo taken from NOLISOLI

Imelda’s penchant for beauty and extravagance influenced her choice of projects that her husband, being the Chief Executive, would gratify using the country’s meager reserves. It was also through this that the Marcos family was able to finance their lavish lifestyle—a complete contrast to the condition of the majority of the Filipinos at the time.[2] These spending sprees were also what enabled the first lady to amass more than 3,000 pairs of shoes, jewelries, dresses, bags, and up to 200 artworks by artists such as Monet, Michelangelo, Picasso, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, and others.[3] However, following the collapse of Marcos’ regime, the works completely vanished out of sight. More than thirty years later, the hunt continues.

Aside from coopting the culturati or cultural establishment during Martial Law through an elaborate network of patronage, grants, and awards (ie. National Artist Awards), Imelda Marcos also built art-promoting edifices, some of which provided luxurious spaces for her elite friends to gather in.[4] In particular, three cultural institutions were built: the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the Philippine High School for the Arts, and the National Museum.[5] 

Philippine High School for the Arts | Photo taken from Wikipedia
Cultural Center of the Philippines | Photo taken from Wikipedia
National Museum of Fine Arts | Photo taken from Wikipedia

In 1966, Imelda became an appointed member of the board of trustees and eventually chairwoman of CCP. She was given the mandate to negotiate cultural affairs on behalf of the state. In playing the part, she tried to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the people with her “edifice complex.” This is a term coined and described by director Behn Cervantes as a seeming obsession and compulsion with building grandiose edifices as hallmarks of greatness and or signifier of prosperity and progress. She spearheaded the construction of structures, one after another, with the wave of her hand. She got what she wanted, whenever she wanted. 

Naturally, the projects proposed by the former first lady were lauded by their cronies on one hand and slammed for impracticality and overspending by their critics on the other. The construction of CCP, for one, was temporarily postponed as the cost ballooned from the original budget of PHP 15 million to PHP 48 million, with only three-quarters finished.[6] This prompted the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. to initiate an investigation and called the CCP “an institution for the elite, a center for the performing arts which was partial to foreign artists.” Moreover, Imelda was also known for building structures speedily. This was believed to be the reason for the tragedy in the construction of the Manila Film Center which killed more or less 150 workers. [7] She compressed the work to less than a year leading to subpar construction and eventual collapse of scaffolding on the sixth floor. [8] Despite this, work reportedly did not stop for the recovery of the bodies buried underneath the quick-drying cement. Until now, no one knows what became of the bodies, for how can the dead speak and tell the truth? 

The institutional elaboration of arts and culture during the Marcos administration served to flaunt power and develop the caricature of a brand new society that is barely accessible to an ordinary citizen. Imelda turned state power into a spectacle, the likes of which can only be seen in cultural centers, star-studded festivals, and five-star hotels. While Marcos’ power permeated fancy structures with brutalist architectural designs, it remained distant to its source—the people. It appears, the new social order can only be afforded by a few. This essentially necessitates us to look at the ulterior motive for the creation of these art-celebrating structures. Were they created as actual towering justifications of their love for the art or were they created to serve the greater glory of the Marcos clan–for the greater glory of the dictatorship? 

Whatever form art took at the time, it celebrated the ideological superstructure maintained and controlled by the sitting administration. Through art that reflected the values of the Marcos administration, they were able to instill false consciousness and nostalgia for the lost future into vast majority of Filipino people that later paved the way for their eventual return to power.

The “cultural projects” espoused by the former first lady were but extensions of her husband’s attempt to leave traces and crumbs of power everywhere, even until now. Art itself did not matter as much as what it can do for them. Art was ultimately subservient to the goal of furthering Marcos’ power—in making them look good. 

This is not to glorify Imelda’s part in the actualization of the darkest time in Philippine history, but she was a cunning first lady. This only goes to show that deceit knows no bounds. She may or may not have genuinely cared for the condition of art and culture in the country, but she used it nonetheless to advance a cultural and authoritarian ideology. She used what was originally supposed to challenge them to their advantage. She pushed for an artistic agenda to popularize the idea of beauty, comfort, and an illusion of progress despite the hunger, poverty, job insecurity, and corruption plaguing the country during her and her husband’s conjugal dictatorship. The worst of it all was that she was good at it. In the end, it is through art that she and the administration she helped build was able to normalize their authoritarian project, make violence seemed natural, and cover up the killings under Martial Law.

While there were many Filipino works of art that attempted to challenge Martial Law, most of them were either controlled or completely destroyed. Art was encouraged only insofar as it depicted a positive portrayal of the administration. Otherwise, artists will be tagged as the state’s enemy number One along side the alleged communist rebels. Literary works were banned [9], films were censored [10], and many artists, intellectuals, writers, and other cultural advocates were tortured and brutally killed for using their craft to expose the lies and deceit during Marcos’ administration.[11] What was left was the form of art that provided a self-celebrating avenue where the family was able to ultimately stand as icons of national patronage. 

It is beyond debate that art carries political weight. If Imelda Marcos was able to weaponize it to preserve her family’s position, it is not impossible for the current or any future administrations to do it again. This is precisely why artists have an important role in shaping effective mediums of art that evoke truthful messages and expose the status quo for all its filth. The propagandistic content spread on a massive scale must be met with a counter-content to mitigate the problem of passivity and disinformation in the country. For so long, arts and culture have been used to wash the blood off of guilty people’s hands, to conceal the corruption, and perpetrate plunder—all of these are straight out of any criminal’s playbook. These are the things we already know in hindsight and the same things we should be looking out for at present and in the future. 

As Marcos Jr. takes the helm of state affairs, 36 years after his father, the hunt to track down his clan’s ill-gotten wealth will likely wane as arts and culture, as tools for advancing the status quo, are expected to return or heighten. In the past, myth-making enabled Malakas and Maganda to pursue a cultural repertoire in, as Mijares wrote, “an era of thought control.” Today, the same lineage uses the same weapon not only to evade accountability but also to distort history. [12] The question remains: will the preservation of art remain merely for propaganda’s sake or will it finally serve its true purpose of mobilizing the people to make the powerful accountable?  


[1] Mijares, P. (1976). “The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos”. Retrieved from http://rizalls.lib.admu.edu.ph:8080/ebooks2/Primitivo%20Mijares.pdf

[2] Martial Law Museum. (n.d.). “Martial Law in Data”. Retrieved from https://martiallawmuseum.ph/magaral/martial-law-in-data/

[3] Butterfield, F. (1986). “Art Collection, Imelda Marcos Style”. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/12/world/art-collection-imelda-marcos-style.html

[4] Hollie, P. (1982). “Manila Film Festival Proves All-Out Spectacular” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1982/02/07/movies/manila-film-festival-proves-all-out-spectacular.html

[5] Baluyut, P.S. (2004). “Institutions and Icons of Patronage: Arts and Culture in the Philippines During the Marcos Years, 1965-1986”. Retrieved from https://openpublishing.psu.edu/ahd/content/institutions-and-icons-patronage-arts-and-culture-philippines-during-marcos-years-1965-1986

[6] de Villa, K. (2017). “Imelda Marcos and her ‘edifice complex’”. Retrieved from https://business.inquirer.net/236962/imelda-marcos-edifice-complex

[7] Ramos, J. (2022). “‘Never Again: Labor, urban poor groups recall workers’ death at Manila Film Center’”. Retrieved from https://mb.com.ph/2022/05/01/never-again-labor-urban-poor-groups-recall-workers-death-at-manila-film-center/

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines. (n.d.). “Art in Revolt: 5 Artistic and Literary Works Banned During Martial Law”. Retrieved from https://www.ipophil.gov.ph/news/art-in-revolt-5-artistic-and-literary-works-banned-during-martial-law/

[10] Cruz, E. (2017). “Cinema on Martial Law”. Retrieved from https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2017/09/23/1742008/cinema-martial-law

[11] Chua, M. (n.d.). “TORTYUR: Human Rights Violations During the Marcos Regime”. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/7968581/TORTYUR_Human_Rights_Violations_During_The_Marcos_Regime

[12] Iglesias, I. (2022). “Carmelite Nuns Cry Foul Over Scene in ‘Main in Malacanang’” Retrieved from https://www.manilatimes.net/2022/08/03/news/carmelite-nuns-cry-foul-over-scene-in-maid-in-malacaang/1853244

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