Small is not a word one should use to describe the cavernous, 20-meter high gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. And yet, as the enormous, richly colorful works of painter Pacita Abad swallow up your field of vision, that’s exactly the impression you get. Everything seems small in comparison.
“It’s going to look great,” says curator Yeyey Cruz, just a little over a week left before Pacita Abad: A Million Things to Say opens. The artist’s monumental trapunto paintings are finally being scissor-lifted into place. This is all after two years of Cruz and her co-curator—predominant artist Pio Abad, Pacita’s nephew—scouting works everywhere from Washington D.C. and Singapore to Batanes and Bacolod. Fitting for a show about an artist whose entire practice is founded upon a frankly ridiculous amount of travel over three decades. “We’re talking places like Papua New Guinea, Sudan, Congo, and Nicaragua,” says Abad. “She hitchhiked by land from Istanbul all the way to Manila.”
And yet, despite the fact that this is indeed the first Pacita Abad show in Manila since her death in 2004, what you are confronted with as you enter is not the glorification of an artist’s myth, but its deconstruction and reconstruction. “This is not a retrospective,” stresses Cruz. “This is not a definitive show on Pacita. We wanted to look at her from a different angle—and we thought the way to do that was not to reintroduce people to what they already knew, but to bring on aspects of her works that are, if not neutral, [about] what she was really interested in.
A Million Things to Say focuses on the pieces that do not typify the artist—you won’t find her circle patterns, Indonesian puppets, or her immigrant series here. You see instead trapunto paintings of African masks, painstakingly embellished with beads, shells, and tiny mirrors. Her Underwater Wilderness paintings are reunited here for the first time since they were shown at Ayala Museum over two decades ago—an enormous work of an octopus fighting a shark dominates the center of the room, surrounded by smaller (but still sizable) works depicting fish and coral, their scales glinting true to life from metallic threads and tiny buttons. Walking—or swimming, as Abad would put it—through the show, you move from Pacita’s figurative works to her abstract assemblages. However, you also find yourself taken through her travels, their influence present in every stitch. The common thread in her work across decades is perhaps that there is a bigger world out there, one that she explored as a global contemporary artist ages before the term would be coined by the market.
The greatest (and most easily noticed) deviation from the typical exhibition of the artist’s works is this: most of these pieces hang close to the ground, away from the walls. “One thing we wanted the viewer to experience is the back of the painting,” says Abad. A turn around the work reveals the neatest hand stitches you’ll ever see in your life, running across meters of canvas. “People’s idea of [Pacita] was ‘crazy,’ but when you look at the back, she actually meant business. Precision is not something she’s associated with, but you see here that that’s what she was—she was crazy, but she wasn’t wild.”
At the very end of the gallery hangs a gold abstraction—one from the last years of Pacita’s life. There are thousands, if not millions of gold specks of paint and muslin cloth on canvas, giving the illusion of shimmering in the light. On the back, the artist gives it the title, I have one million things to say. “When we saw this, I said, ‘I think this is the title of the show,” says Cruz.
“We chose it to refer to the multiplicity of the textures, materials, and narratives in her works,” adds Abad, “but also we chose it because it refers to how complex her persona is—she was an artist, an activist, a community organizer. She was an aunt, a wife, the life of a party. She was so many things.”
“There are really, literally, a million things to say about Pacita Abad,” says Cruz. “This is just a fraction of it.”
‘Pacita Abad: A Million Things to Say’ runs until July 1, 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, G/F De La Salle College of Saint Benilde, Dominga Street, Malate, Manila.