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Pacita Abad: an Ivatan exemplar

(Article published in the June 13,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)   

Butch Abad’s text message in answer to my query about Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge in Basco, Batanes was typical ivatan understatement.  He said, “Pacita was my artist-sister.  She passed away in 2004.  The Fundacion was her studio turned into a lodge.  The proceeds are used to train young Ivatan artists and to restore vernacular Ivatan houses.  The lodge sits on a grazing land our family owns.  It is managed by a Foundation.”

The lodge was all that, and a lot more.   Nestled at the tip of Northern Luzon, where the visitors’ legs and lungs, like the signals from Globe and Smart, are challenged all the time by distance, weather, and terrain, the Fundacion surprisingly offers amenities not always found in its counterparts in the lowlands.  Hot water, at any time of day or night, flows from the bathroom faucets; rooms each  have air conditioning units that keep out heat of day and sounds of the wild at night.  And most remarkable are the personnel, all of them from those who run the operations at the office down the road to those who from the service areas run to you if you were to but make the slightest signal for assistance, they are as constantly courteous as the steady wind that every minute sweeps the hills and as warm and friendly as the sunlight that daily strokes the seemingly ever mowed grass. 

But being a lodge is only its minor feature; Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge is really more of a gallery.  Every wall displays the art works of Pacita Abad and the young Ivatan artists that the earnings of the Fundacion support.  The hallways and the dining areas breathe both expressive art and  private self, floating both in trajectories and arches, seamlessly transforming the flow from one to the other, and back again.  They reflect the art and the life of Pacita Abad which come to you as one.


Pacita Abad was born in the post office of Basco, Batanes on October 5, 1946.  And her life took the form of mail: travelling far and wide, coming at different times in varying shapes and sizes, contents sometimes spilling out, at others securely boxed in, and, at all times, carrying the colors of being alive.  Both Pacita’s father, Jorge, and her mother, Aurora, were distinguished politicians in an era when politics was not yet a four-letter word.  Jorge Abad was elected to the House of Representatives during the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th Congresses and was in the cabinet of then President Diosdado Macapagal as secretary of the Department of Public Works, Transportation and Communication.  Aurora Barsana-Abad held the same congressional seat during the 6th Congress.  Neither father nor mother was ever involved in any political scandal nor anomaly.

After taking up political science at the University of the Philippines, Pacita, after graduation, went to law school.  Since she was a social activist in a time of political unrest, characterized by protest marches and mass demonstrations against then President Ferdinand Marcos, she was sent by her parents to the United States to continue her study of law.  Instead, she studied painting at the Corcoran School of Art + Design in Washington, D.C. and became part of The Art Students League in New York City.  Corcoran is one of the very few, if not the only one, art school that is integrated in a world class museum in Washington D.C. which has 65 museums, monuments and other cultural resources.  The Art Students League was founded in 1875 by artists for artists and continues to this day training artists both from the USA and abroad.

Her breaking loose from the confining net of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law apparently set her artistic spirit soaring free. From the US, she travelled all over the world, living in five continents and working in more than 80 countries which included Guatemala, Mexico, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Mali, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Indonesia.  These places must have provoked her creativity in different ways, serving as her inspiration, providing her material, and eliciting experimentation. 

The outpouring of her artistry seemed boundless; she produced more than 3,500 artworks, in various media, from canvas to paper to bark cloth, metal, ceramics and glass.  Despite their number, however, one can discern the stages and sequences of her interests: from the early figurative socio-political works of people and primitive masks, to large paintings of underwater biodiversity, tropical flowers, and animal wildlife. 

No wonder her works are known worldwide.  Pacita had 40 solo exhibitions in various galleries in the United States, Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America; she was also involved in more than 50 group and travelling exhibitions.  Her works are presently in art collections in over 70 countries.

Her most awesome achievement was done in illness.  While struggling with physical constraints brought about by her ill health, Pacita, against all odds but nevertheless with official blessing, painted a 55-meter long pedestrian bridge in Singapore known as the Alkaff bridge that crosses the Singapore River at Robertson Quay.  All over the Alkaff, Pacita painted 2,350 multicolored circles.

“Painting the Alkaff bridge is my gift to Singapore” declares Pacita.  “I passionately believe in public art and hope that this project inspires many more like it...”  Done and spoken like a true ivatan.