Paintings that speak for the refugee
Pacita's husband had dropped her off with her paints and easel at the gate of the Sa Kaeo refugee camp in Thailand. The sight of suspicious refugees milling about the gate made her uneasy.Skip to next paragraph
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She remembered a similar morning in Kenya's bush country when spear-carrying natives had come running out of their village to inspect the strange human who had happened upon them. Whipping out her pencil, she had instantly won them over with quickly-sketched portraits.
The same technique might work again.
She smiled at a refugee woman nearby and the woman's little boy came up from behind -- the opening Pacita was looking for. In a matter of moments she had sketched the boy's portrait, delighting his mother.
It was the beginning of encounters with the world's homeless that would absorb and fascinate this Filipino painter for nearly a year.
Pacita Abad had originally gone to Thailand in June 1979 to paint village life. Instead, she got caught up in the drama of Cambodian refugees flooding across the boarder into eastern Thailand -- and decided to document what she saw on canvas.
To walk through Pacita's Cambodian collection, recently exhibited for the first time in the United States at Boston University, is to become aware that something has been missing from the somber, gray news photographs and one- dimensional, gloomy reports that have come from the camps.
In a word, humanity.m
Pacita has been able to convey this quality through a curiously appropriate use of dazzling color.
Dancing across her canvases are brush strokes of bold primary colors interspersed with the bright pastels so characteristic of the Southeast Asians -- rose and pink reds, lime and chartreuse greens, amethyst and lilac purples, azure and robin's-egg blue.
Pacita insists that her subjects do not inhabit a world without fascination and purpose.Not that their ordeals have been overlooked. But refugees who have so often peered out of photographs like statistics in a sea of nameless numbers, are here given a human face.
Pacita's secret is that she has discovered that there is much worth learning about in those faces -- even the more somber ones.
"I want my paintings to speak most for the children," Pacita explains to me at her current home on Boston's fashionable Charles Street. She is seated on a long makeshift sofa covered with rows and rows of festively colored quilt pillows, some in the shapes of playful snake-dragons and animals collected from all over the world.
"Obviously it takes more than clothing and food. They need a lot of love -- especially the hundreds and hundreds of orphans. That's why I like to paint kids. When you paint them, you give them attention and they respond to it."
The message reached workers at UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, who have selected four of Pacita's paintings for their famous greeting cards.
Other exhibitions this spring will display the range of Pacita's odysseys through countries around the world. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst will display her Bangladesh collection for the rest of March. The relief organization CARE will show her east African collection for its 35th anniversary celebration in New York on May 18. And from May 23-30 the International Play Group, which sponsors activities for foreign children living in the US, will exhibit her paintings along with those of other international artists at the Union Carbide building in New York.
It was Pacita's good fortune to marry a man whose career would harmonize so precisely with her own.