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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Pacita Abad


Pacita Abad (1946-2004) is an Asian-American artist, born in Batanes, Philippines and raised in a politically active family. She received a BA degree in political science at the University of the Philippines and, because of her political activism against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, was forced to leave for America in 1970, where she supported herself as a seamstress and a typist, while studying Asian history at the University of San Francisco.

At graduate school she worked as the art coordinator and became deeply involved in the San Francisco art scene when she married painter George Kleiman, though they later separated. She then decided to hitchhike across Asia for a year with Jack Garrity, whom she married, and then returned to the U.S. to study painting, first at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. and later, at The Art Students League in New York City.

After finishing her studies, Pacita became an itinerant painter lugging her paints and canvas, as she traveled with her husband across the globe, living in countries like Bangladesh, Yemen, Sudan, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Her travels significantly impacted her artistic style, and were the inspiration for many ideas, techniques and materials she used in her paintings.

Pacita’s painting is characterized by vibrant color, constant change, experimentation and development. Her early paintings were primarily socio-political works of people, primitive masks, underwater scenes and tropical flowers. Pacita’s most extensive body of work, however, is her vibrantly colorful abstract paintings - on a complete range of materials from canvas and prints to bark cloth, metal, ceramics and glass. Many of these were “trapunto” paintings, a name she gave to her technique of stitching and stuffing her canvases to give them a three-dimensional effect. She then began an almost magical process of transforming the surface of her paintings with materials, such as traditional cloth, shells, buttons, beads, mirrors and other objects.

A disciplined and prolific painter, Pacita created over 5,000 artworks and even painted a 55-meter long bridge and covered it with 2,350 multi-colored circles just a few months before she passed away. A truly global artist, Pacita had over 60 solo exhibitions and participated in more than 70 group exhibitions at museums and galleries in the U. S., Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Her work is now in public, corporate and private art collections in over 70 countries.

Feminist Artist Statement

I am a painter who paints from the gut, but has a strong social conscience, and my early work often dealt with global social issues. I truly believe that, as an artist, I have a social responsibility for my painting, to try to make our world a little better. I have tried to do this in my small artistic ways: from socio-political paintings series like my “Portraits of Cambodia” and “Immigrant Experience” that make people aware; to abstract painting series like my “Abstract Emotions” and “Endless Blues” that make people think; to public art projects like my colorful “Painted Bridge” that makes people smile; and to the numerous workshops that I have given around the world to help students learn.

I have also been very fortunate to spend most of my artistic career painting in the far-flung corners of the globe and my journeys have been a major inspiration for my paintings. It also has been a tremendous learning experience that has made me acutely aware of the difficult lives many women lead in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Being a woman of color, I also became more sensitive to the less than equal treatment of both women, and people with darker skin throughout the world. This has also made me appreciate how very fortunate I have been as a woman to be brought up in the Philippines, educated in America and live all over the world.

As a politically concerned artist, many of my paintings tell the stories of people, and especially the women, that I have met and talked to along my way. As can be imagined, this has not always been pretty, as I depicted: the male dominated lives of women from countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh: the violence against women in my paintings in Papua New Guinea, Sudan and Cambodia; the sexploitation of young women and girls in Asia; and the difficulties that many Asian women face when they emigrate abroad to work as domestic workers.

Although I have tried to raise awareness of these issues through my paintings, I know that it is but a small effort to help address these problems and so much more needs to be done. As women, we all have an obligation to help improve the lives of other women, both in our own countries and around the globe.

Pacita Abad and the Painted Bridge

I have always thought that art should play an important role in our everyday lives, and not just be a picture that hangs on the wall of the galleries and museums. Because of this belief, throughout my artistic career, I have constantly been involved in a wide range of art activities outside my painting studio.

Pacita Abad and the Painted Bridge

I have always thought that art should play an important role in our everyday lives, and not just be a picture that hangs on the wall of the galleries and museums. Because of this belief, throughout my artistic career, I have constantly been involved in a wide range of art activities outside my painting studio.

Weeping woman

I still vividly remember the poor women in Papua New Guinea, who are considered less valuable than pigs, and where rape, along with binge drinking, is the national tribal sport for men. One particular scene is etched in my mind, which happened when I went to a local weekly market outside of Mount Hagen in the Central Highlands. I was the only foreigner there and was a bit nervous surrounded by all the local tribesmen. Just then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a man kicking and beating his wife with a stick and she was screaming at the top of her lungs, but he didn’t stop. Shockingly, no one even paid any attention to either the beating, or the woman, and when I started over towards her she caught my eye and gave me a quick, sad look, before three men jumped in front and motioned for me to go away. As I left, I could still hear her sobbing. I will never forget it and as soon as I could, I started working on this painting I called “Weeping woman”.

Water of Life

I saw examples of severe violence against women when I sketched in the refugee camps along the Thai/Cambodian border in 1979, as poor villagers were streaming across the border to escape the Khmer Rouge and trying to reach the UNHCR refugee camps. Those who made it had harrowing stories to tell, but even after they were in the camps there were still numerous cases of abuse of refugee women and girls by the local soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them. It just shows that in many developing countries, a woman is never really safe.

If My Friends Could See Me Now

I worked on a series called Immigrant Experience. These are paintings portraying the American immigration experience of people of color - those from Asia, Africa and Latin America. They had come to America for a variety of economic and political reasons. I personally can identify with immigrants because I am one of them.

Yield to the Adventure

This painting is part of my “Endless Blues” series, which expresses the feelings I have since 2001 on both a personal and global level. During this period I spent a lot of time in my studio painting and listening to my favorite blues music. Endless Blues is an apt description of how I felt after September 11 and the ensuing battle in Afghanistan. On a personal basis, I struggled with lung cancer and its associated treatments. The emotional and physical sense of uncertainty made me take refuge in my studio. The result is that painting and listening to the blues was the best therapy. Like the blues, my paintings are always strong, sometimes sad, a bit nostalgic and very colorful.

Sugar Donuts

Anything is possible! That was the challenge the printers and papermakers at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute gave to me when I began my 3-month collaboration with them. I decided to focus on circles as the unifying theme of my prints and pulp paper pieces. Circles have always been in my work and they are direct, simple, modern, universal, intimate, fascinating and playful. I love the shape of circles.

Black and White Stones in Old Sanaa

In Yemen, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the doors of houses, buildings and places of worship. I spent fascinating hours walking around alleys and streets of cities and villages, just looking at the houses and their doors. I was more partial to the steel doors than to the wooden doors, as they were painted in strong, loud, pure colors softened by the sun and the sand.

The days in Yemen were a non-stop creative challenge, every day a new idea, every day a new door. I discovered new doors in different towns throughout the country, and through my fascination with the doors, I discovered more about the Yemenis and their daily life.

I named this painting series “Door to Life”.





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