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Conversation with Vicky Abad Kerblat

Vicky is a painter in Divonne-les-Bains, France.


When I arrived, Vicky ushered me in like a long-lost friend and sat me down to share in a mouth-watering spread of banana bread, Filipino halo halo (fruit salad with coconut), and strawberries dipped in chocolate... The sofas and chairs faced each other in a square, like the traditional Afghan style, and the living space was full of colourful fabrics, rugs and cushions collected from all over the world. It was clearly impossible to ask Vicky about her art without first understanding her cosmopolitan life path, so I asked her how she had come to leave her native Philippines:


I was on my way to Boston to study for a Masters degree in microbiology – everyone wanted to go to America in those days! I had obtained a scholarship, and everything was set up for my life to unfold in that direction. But on the way, I stopped off in Bangkok to visit my sister, and while I was there, there was a breaking news announcement: medical assistants were needed to work in the refugee camps. This was 1979, when there was a huge influx of refugees coming in from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. So I said to my sister: “I don’t think I’m going to go”…


That must have been quite a big thing, giving up a prestigious scholarship?

She rolls her eyes and laughs. Everyone told me I was crazy! It was a big drama in the family. But you know, I felt I had a calling. I really didn’t want to be a biologist, doing research in a lab wearing thick eyeglasses – I wanted to help people directly. Somehow I had done everything to get to Boston, but this last step I couldn’t take. I got a job in Thailand immediately: my specialty is tropical medicine – malaria, TB, all those things – so I did blood and urine tests for the refugees coming in, many of whom were sick.


So you gave up entirely on the idea of moving to America?

I never went! I sold my air ticket to Boston so that I would have money to live. I wanted to be independent.


This was a very brave move! How old were you?

I was 21. I was bored! I had worked in a big hospital in the Philippines, very formal, with very wealthy patients. You had to wear high heels and be very proper! In the refugee camps, there was nothing – you live in tents, you bathe in the river, it was really “sauvage”, as they say in French. But you know, my heart was with these refugees, and with this work. I come from a family with a strong sense of public duty, so it came naturally to me to want to help. In the camps I would sometimes see fifty patients a day, and I felt very useful and accomplished.


Was your family happy for you to leave the Philippines?

My father passed away before I went to Thailand. But he had always wanted us to be well educated and to study abroad and travel as much as we could, so that later we could come back to our small island, Batanes, and help the people there. We had to leave anyway, because of the Marcos dictatorship – we were part of the opposition, so our lives were ultimately at stake.


And you ended up working with refugees in many parts of the world?

Yes, my husband worked in the humanitarian field as well, so we lived and worked all over: in Asia, but also in Mozambique, Pakistan, and in the border territories of Afghanistan.


Were you making art in all these places?

I was always drawing. You know it’s funny, my art even came out in my scientific work: every refugee camp I was in, I would gather the laboratory students and I would draw the parasites to show them what they were going to see in the microscope! But it was when we returned to Bangkok and I had my kids that I started taking classes, and I devoted much more time to my art.


Many of your first drawings and paintings portray refugees?

Yes, because I came back from these places with my mind filled with images of the people I had met. In these places, relationships were often short but very intense. For example I had helped this woman with malaria – she owned nothing, so to thank me she gave me her beautiful embroidered skirt. I kept her face in my head always, and I knew that as soon as I had a chance, I would learn to paint, and I would paint her.



Vicky shows me a series of striking portraits of refugees, mostly women, sometimes visibly impoverished, but with penetrating gazes that leap out of the frame. Vicky explains one of their stories:


Her family was lost in the camps and she became mentally unstable. Every morning I would be at my microscope in front of a big window and she would walk by. She thought I was taking her picture so she would stand in front of the window and pose!


And this one, she was from Laos, and she had suffered so badly from malaria that she almost died. You see her costume? It was so hot in these places – 35 degrees, but they still have these fur cotton collars and all this embroidery!


And these women are from Afghanistan – all the women there hid under their burqas and whispered amongst themselves… But then the minute the men left, their burqas would come off and underneath all this fabric, their faces were so beautiful! They were often heavily tattooed, and they had these green, green eyes…


Your passion for these people shows in your pictures...

When I was doing these portraits at first, I was so alive with it! I knew these people, so drawing and painting them came naturally and easily for me. Later on, when people commissioned me to do portraits, I found it was very difficult, it took me ages to finish pieces – because I didn’t know the people I was painting.


Perhaps the fact that you knew these people helped bring soul to your painting?

Yes I think so. The way I look at it, a good portrait is when you capture the essence of the person, when you can feel the smile in the painting. It’s like they're just in front of you. That’s why these pictures are so important for me, and I’ve kept quite a few of them. A lot of people think that if you’re selling your art, you’re good, but that’s not my point. I’d rather keep the pieces that are important to me and be able to keep on sharing them.


What have you taken from all these cultures that you’ve moved through? Have they shaped you as a person?

I think it’s been very good for me in the sense that I’m open to everything, and I can appreciate anything. I’m a very positive person! You know in Pakistan we were working in big tents on the border with Afghanistan – it was a very dangerous place to be, and there was no communication with the outside world. We were living in minus 17 degrees with no heating – my husband was lucky to get a little kerosene heater from Iran! And everywhere around, the snow was brown… This was my very first snow! You can imagine the difference from the Philippines! She laughs. Anyway from that point on, I realized that if I could cope with those kinds of conditions, I was ok, I could live anywhere.


You were also obviously inspired by all the fabrics that you encountered in your travels?

Yes, many refugees gave me little pieces of clothing, and I also collected batik and other fabrics. Many of them are so intricate and beautiful! These are the pieces that I integrate in many of my paintings now.


After your figurative portraits, you developed a whole new style…

I think my gateway piece was this Ivatan woman that I painted. She is from my island of Batanes, and every strand of her hair has a phrase in our local dialect – it’s all of her worries as she is wondering whether or not to leave her homeland: “Oh my God, I have to earn money, how are my kids going to be fed and educated, ”… It’s all there, expressed in her hair. And her clothing is made up of the small villages in the island of her province; there’s even an airport strip. Her gold earrings are her heritage from her family, the only thing she can take with her to her new life that will remind her of her past.



It’s a mixed media piece?

Yes, I'm crazy about gold leaf and rice paper! That was when I started to integrate papers and fabrics in my paintings. I recycle all kinds of materials in my painting now – I glue in Thai batik, African batik, papers, fibres and bits of jute or rice sack… And I also make impressions with different things I find: for this one I cut a piece of the non-slip plastic that you put under a rug, you know? I pressed it into the paint and it made this beautiful pattern... And this one is painted on a canvas that I made from a beautiful old piece of linen I had bought in a flea market. You see, I use everything!


And your paints are oils?

Yes, I use natural pigments in powder form, and I mix them with linseed oil. When I was painting classical portraits I felt frustrated – you have to mix paints to get just the right colours, and I felt hemmed in trying to reproduce a specific reality. Whereas here, look at this blue, it's stunning! I used a very old Afghan cloth for this one – it was so faded, it was impossible to tell what colours it had had originally, so I reimagined it. I love working in little details, it's my biologist side. She laughs.



Looking very much the scientist at her lab bench, Vicky shows me how she mixes her paints.


Yes, I really love mixing my own colours – you see, when you make turquoise, it comes out so perfect… And the reds are so bright! I work on several paintings at the same time so that I can use up the colours I’m making and not waste them before they dry.




You did a big series of paintings of doors recently...

That was during the Covid lockdown. I was thinking about the refugees, how they lived so long in the camps without complaining. Their families were dead, or they knew they would never see them again, and they were staying in these makeshift tents… But they still produced beautiful embroidery pieces – and that fascinated me… Because, look, here we were, confined, but we were still so free also! Life was still good! Yes, their human spirit really inspired me. And then since it was lockdown and I couldn't go out to buy new materials, I brought out all these pieces of fabric that the refugees had given me over the years, and I integrated them into my paintings.



It's impossible not to mention that your sister, Pacita Abad, was an internationally known artist. What was this like for you?

My sister and I were ten years apart, but we were always very close, we were like twins: we shared the same sense of humour and we even looked alike. Our family is very conservative and religious, but the two of us were a bit crazy! Pacita tried to help me in so many ways – she always passed on everything she learnt about art, she was a big part of my education. For a while she had a big studio in Singapore, so I would go there and paint with her during my vacations. And then she would come and stay with us, and even though she was already a famous artist at this point, she would say “I’m going to take care of the boys, I’ve enrolled you in this class. You’re going to go and you have to do this.” So I went! She also encouraged me to go to a lot of exhibitions and museums, and that’s how I got accustomed to the art world.


How influenced are you by your sister’s style?

I think her main influence on my work is colours. But it’s a Filipino thing too, you know – in our culture, colours are very important! She also taught me that showing your art is not about selling, it's about sharing - and you can use art to raise awareness about things that matter to you.



Are there other artists in your family?

My nephew Pio Abad is a visual artist in London, he does beautiful work. It’s funny, my father used to claim that being an artist wasn’t a real profession - you wouldn’t be able to help our small island if you were an artist. Those were the olden days, you know... My father was a lawyer and civil engineer, and he was always trying to encourage us in our education: in our house the TV and telephone had padlocks, and at dinner, if you weren’t able to answer his questions, you had to go and eat with the maids! That’s how strict he was, so we all listened to what he said.


But you’ve fulfilled your father’s wishes to help your island of Batanes?

Yes, and it was through art in the end! After my sister passed away, the Jorge, Aurora and Pacita Memorial Foundation, Inc, was created and Pacita's house and studio in Batanes became her museum, Fundacion Pacita, which we run as a nature lodge and art gallery. The money the foundation raises goes to the preservation of Batanes heritage culture and funds scholarships for students who cannot afford to go to Manila.


Pacita always had this dream of creating a haven for artists on the island, and she was determined that I would carry on her work. It was hard when I was abroad, but everything came together when my husband was given his last posting in the Philippines. By then our boys were grown up, so I had time to go to Batanes every month and work for the foundation, helping artists gain recognition.


What was it like being back home?

I was so inspired by everything! Batanes is stunning, it has rolling hills and these beautiful old stone houses that are built low to resist typhoons; many of them are now being demolished, so I used my paintings to campaign for their preservation. A lot of these houses appear in my work.




I think I really found my voice at this point – all the figurative work I had done up to that point was me trying out techniques, learning how to paint landscapes, learning to do watercolour… I had wanted to be a classical painter, but I was bored, and I wanted something different! So I experimented with more abstract painting in very bold colours, and I integrated fabrics… And I just finally felt like I had found my own identity, you know? From that point it was go-go-go! I did so many projects back in the Philippines. With the funds I raised from my first solo exhibition, I was able to open an art gallery where local artists can sell their work. With the next exhibition I was able to get Batanes artists to a prestigious museum in Manila, and then to publish their work in books celebrating the islands; and after that I got famous Manila artists to come and run workshops for people in Batanes. It all worked out as if my sister's spirit was overseeing things!



Your social conscience really shines through in the work that you do.

In every painting I make and every exhibition that I’m part of, there’s always a message to my work. I painted my refugee friends, and now I integrate their fabrics in my paintings. I feature the old houses that I campaign for, and the landscapes and materials of my beautiful Batanes that I want to promote. And during Covid as well, I wanted my work to have symbolic meaning, bringing hope and colour to the world. Actually, I realize that I’m happy only when my work has meaning. This is what inspires me!


You can see more of Vicky's work on https://www.victoriaabadkerblat.com/

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