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Pacita Abad, ‘Life in the Margins’, Spike Island, Bristol, 2020. Photo: Gwen Burlington

I could get lost in Pacita Abad’s paintings for days. Vibrant and colourful, her large canvases are quilted together in a range of materials and techniques including stuffing, embroidery, beads, buttons, shells and fabric. Co-curated by London-based artist and Pacita Abad’s nephew, Pio Abad, this selection of ‘trapunto’ paintings at Spike Island (prematurely closed in these virus times) form the first public showing of her work in the UK.

Born in the Philippines and having lived and worked in over six continents across at least fifty countries (including Guatemala, Mexico, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Mali, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Indonesia), the breadth of culture and transnational influence that has determined both her subject matter and material is substantial to say the least. Expressing this richness of life experience, her work narrates the stories of the minority and marginal groups she has lived alongside.

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Pacita Abad, 'Girls in Ermita', 1983. Photo: Gwen Burlington

The Immigrant Experience series (1991-1994), for example, depicts people Abad has met— Korean shopkeepers, Cambodian refugees, Filipino sex workers - in materials and techniques from these very places, including Korean ink brush painting, Indonesian batik and Papua New Guinean macramé. Suspended from the ceiling along a corridor as you enter the space, the figures are naive in style, evocative of a school art project. Girls in Ermita, portraying sex workers from Manilla’s red light district stands out among these social realist works—posing, bikini-clad girls are painted onto stitched and padded fabric, divided by a central strip of neon signage brandishing words such as ‘Pit Stop’ and ‘FIREHOUSE the hottest place in town’. Defiant in stance, these marginalised women claim their own agency through Abad’s depiction. In contrast to the many sexualised depictions of women in the canon of art history who are seen as passive, Girls in Ermita is a painting of sexual provocation. The women depicted address the viewer with differing dispositions from inviting, coy, indifferent to sexually aggressive.

Most striking, and marking a return to abstraction, are Abad’s later collages made in response to personal and political turmoil of the late 90s and early 2000s. Five large paintings hang in the main gallery. The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling (1998) the first painting the viewer encounters, is a chaotic and colourful explosion. Reflecting the ‘crumbling currency and rubble of a post-dictatorial Jakarta’, geometric shapes, patterns, beads and buttons sewn into the canvas draw the viewer into an uneasy, frenetic energy. Equally enthralling, with coloured stitching outlining canvasses like drawings, are the reverse sides of the paintings.

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Pacita Abad, 'Grasshopper', 1985. Photo: Gwen Burlington

In the same room, Fly Into a Rage (2000), Blues Train to Yogya (2002) and Life in the Margins (2002) are from the Endless Blues series (2000-02), inspired by the September 11 tragedy and the artist’s lung cancer diagnosis. Using batik, painting and sewing, Abad layers her canvases busily, evoking a mix of attraction and anxiety. Pleasurable for the sheer breadth and energetic detail that allows your eyes to wander endlessly, this series was made when Abad could no longer travel due to her health. Spending long hours listening to blues music, she worked alone in her studio.

The ‘narratives of despair’ played out on Abad’s abstract canvases are prescient to the strange moment in time we all now find ourselves in. The tension between the desire to move and to travel comes up against the national order to stay at home for health reasons in powerful ways. Abad’s practice was completely dependent on and grounded in international travel, constant movement, and in her later work, chaos. Life in the Margins has the paradoxical effect of exacerbating the difference and newness found in travel that I am currently yearning for, combined with the catharsis of seeing that frustrated energy expressed.

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Gwen Burlington is an Irish writer based in London. Her work focuses on LGBT and socially engaged art practice, as well as the precarity of labour within creative practices. She is currently researching an interview-based project addressing how artists financially maintain a practice.

Pacita Abad, Life in the Margins, Spike Island 18 January-closed until further notice.