The Daring Art of Pacita Abad

By SFMOMA By SFMOMA | October 25, 2023 | People, Sponsored Post,

Pacita Abad, European Mask, 1990; collection Tate Modern, purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2019; courtesy Pacita Abad Art Estate and Tate; photo: At Maculangan/Pioneer Studios

Asked in 1991 what she had contributed to American art, Pacita Abad exclaimed, “Color! I have given it color!”

This fall, SFMOMA welcomes Pacita Abad, the first major U.S. retrospective of the late artist, featuring more than 40 daring works, including her signature trapunto paintings—stuffed, quilted canvases adorned with materials and methods she studied during her lifetime. The exhibition will be on view through January 28, 2024.

Born into a family of politicians, Abad left the Philippines in 1970 and a stop in San Francisco became a long-term stay that changed her life’s trajectory. Here, she fell in love with art during studies and work at Lone Mountain College (now part of the University of San Francisco) and met immigrants whose stories inspired her. Art became the conduit through which she advocated for marginalized peoples.

From the mid-1970s through the early 2000s, Abad spent time in more than 60 countries. Her practice was enormously impacted by the artists and makers she encountered and the techniques they used, from the stitching methods of Rabari women in Rajasthan to mirror embroidery in India.

The exhibition explores the artist’s work across five themes.

View of the exhibition Pacita Abad: A Million Things to Say, Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD), Manila, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, 2018; image: courtesy the Pacita Abad Art Estate and MCAD Manila; photo: At Maculangan/Pioneer Studios

Social Realist Works

These paintings and drawings emerged from Abad’s visits in the late 1970s to refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thailand border. Abad realized she could spread awareness of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the camps through her art. “After the media coverage ends, my paintings keep staring at you,” she said.

Masks and Spirits

Abad’s interest in global masking traditions led to Masks from Six Continents, a monumental grouping of paintings that reference masking cultures from Oceania, North and South America, Africa, and Asia. This series was installed in the Metro Center in Washington, D.C., from 1990 1993, recognizing its role as a major transit hub where people from different countries cross paths during their daily commutes.

Pacita Abad, L.A. Liberty, 1992; collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2022; courtesy Pacita Abad Art Estate; photo: Max McClure


In the 1980s, Abad delved into abstraction, peaking in this approach in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of these colorfully exuberant pieces are decidedly political in nature, bearing titles like Life in the Margins (2002) and The Sky Is Falling, The Sky Is Falling (1998), which was created during Indonesia’s economic collapse. Other equally vibrant works were influenced by somber events, including the September 11th attacks, war in Afghanistan, and her cancer diagnosis.

Immigrant Experience

Abad noticed how immigration stories often focused on Europeans, not those from Asia, Latin America, or Africa. Her Immigrant Experience series aimed to reveal stories from the periphery of power. If My Friends Could See Me Now (1991) depicts the promises of the so-called American Dream, while I Thought the Streets Were Paved with Gold (1991) presents the tougher reality.

Pacita Abad with her trapunto painting Ati-Atihan, 1983, wearing garments and jewelry collected on her travels; courtesy Pacita Abad Art Estate.

Underwater Wilderness

Glorious, massive trapuntos like Anilao at Its Best (1986) depict underwater paradises dense with fish, coral, and rocks, using buttons, rhinestones, and iridescent fringe to animate the color-soaked scenes. Abad became a certified scuba diver in 1982 and dedicated this series to the peace she felt in the ocean and her concern for its environmental protection.

Experience the daring works of artist whose vibrant visual, material, and conceptual concerns are as urgent today as they were three decades ago. Book your tickets here.

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