Today’s Google doodle is extra colorful and extra vibrant, and that’s because the featured personality is Pacita Abad, the Filipina who, throughout her career as an artist, defined what it meant to be what kids these days call ‘so extra.’
She liked to say ‘fabulous’ and that is also kind of how one may describe her art and her journey. She created some 5,000 works in her career, and before she passed away in 2004, she painted the Alkaff Bridge in Singapore a bright shade of pink! And covered it, too, with more than 2,000 multi-colored circles—making it one of the country’s early tourist draws.
But we’re getting ahead of her story. Pacita was born in Basco, Batanes in the Forties. She was supposed to have been the politician in the family—she decided to take up Political Science in Manila—the role her brother, ex Cabinet minister Butch ended up taking. She left the country to study law during Ferdinand Marcos’s military rule.
On her way to find a place she can call her own in Madrid, a stopover in San Francisco would change her trajectory. She ended up soaking in the '60s Haight-Ashbury universe, birthplace of the hippie counter-culture movement.
“But she didn’t actually start painting until she did this trip in 1973 where she hitchhiked from Istanbul all the way to Manila via Iran, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Taiwan,” her artist pamangkin Pio told ANCX in 2018. “It was this kind of crazy year of just seeing Asian culture in that way [that] really made her decide that she wanted to be an artist.”
People like to throw the word “gypsy” when speaking of Pacita but there was more reason in her wanderlust than that word connotes. Traveling was a great part of her life and a great influence in her art. Apart from San Francisco, she lived in Jakarta and in Washington DC. When she married her second husband, Jack Garrity, a development economist whose work would take him to different parts of the world, Pacita would go with him. “But instead of behaving like an expat’s wife who would normally be the one hosting dinners, she forged her own path,” said Pio. “So Jack would be going to Port Moresby to check a bridge project for instance, and she would drive off to the jungle of Papua New Guinea and paint.”
Of her works, it is her trapuntos that would give the artist her distinction. They are the essential Pacita: exuberant, multi-layered, experimental, passionate, a sum of many ideas and experiences tightly woven into a gorgeous tapestry. “She traveled everywhere, and while she traveled she accumulated all these different references: from the use of seashells in Papua New Guinea to macramé to the patterns of doors in Yemen,” Pio said about how his aunt made the trapuntos. “These different geographies kind of found themselves in this one surface. And it was her vision and also her story that was putting all these things together.”
Pacita’s works have been exhibited here and abroad, and this September, they will also be seen at the Berlin Biennale, according to a recent posting by Silverlens Galleries. This year’s edition is “curated by a team of intergenerational, female identified South-American curators...who envision the forthcoming edition as a series of lived experiences that evolve as a process. It will explore vulnerability, resistance, and the manners in which individuals communicate solidarity.”
The Berlin show is a great opportunity to introduce Pacita’s works to a new audience and a new generation—works that has always defied categorization, and embraced personal, societal and political complexities. “I have always been hard to classify, and my work is an extension of me,” the artist once said. “People are always trying to put things in neat little boxes. My work does not fit in any of those; I have never been a traditionalist—I am not concerned about where I fit in and do not fit in.”