The National Artist BenCab (Benedicto Cabrera) was hoping to meet up with his longtime friend SYM during his planned visit to Vancouver, Canada.
Last year’s summer visit to Vancouver by BenCab and his partner, Annie Sarthou, was most instructively affecting as it was most memorable.
At the city tour in historic Gastown, BenCab stopped to observe an artist working along the street using the sun’s energy as his main tool in creating art. He also took notice of the displayed First Nations face masks and totem poles and posed by them in Stanley Park. And on our way to lunch while waiting for the stop light to turn green, he took a photo of a homeless street person carrying a sign at the entrance of the Burrard Bridge. BenCab seems to work constantly, keenly observing human gestures and behaviors. He possesses a heightened awareness of his surroundings, exuding a Zen-like aura. Looking and studying his paintings and other works, figurative or otherwise, his interest and passion for the human condition is palpable. Be it from a portrait's rendered facial expression or a painted figure's pose, one can hardly resist the feelings and thoughts that well up. His work has a way of making its way into one's being, the inner human core. It undoubtedly follows, as well, that BenCab is a highly socially conscious artist. And it is no surprise that he is as much a proponent of human rights. The black T-shirt he wore one day read “Stand for human rights” and below it, " www.canvas.ph."
BenCab is one of a few select members of the coveted Order of National Artists in Visual Arts. It is the highest national distinction presented to Filipino artists who have contributed to the advancement of the arts. The Order of National Artists is a program directed by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CPP) in collaboration with the Office of the President. BenCab was bestowed this honor in 2006.
Perhaps the most sought-after and famous living Filipino visual artist, BenCab commemorated 50 of his creative years in 2015-16. “When the idea of a retrospective exhibition first came up many years ago, it started with just one museum then it became two museums, and as the BenCab50 project grew, all the other museums wanted to be part of it,” longtime partner Annie Sarthou told me. In the end, eight museums joined in celebrating retrospective works from his personal collection, together with private and public collectors works, portraits, the artist’s Larawan and Sabel series to an art performance featuring his large works as well as an interactive digital art exhibition.
The upcoming and most anticipated BenCab: The Filipino Artist, a two-volume boxed set will highlight the said eight retrospective exhibitions.
BenCab’s passion for art began as a child, at seven, under the wing of his older brother Salvador, a painter-illustrator who was 13 years his senior. Born in 1942, BenCab is the youngest of nine children. At the University of the Philippines Fine Arts Department was where he met his other mentor, Jose Joya, also a Filipino National Artist in Visual Arts. BenCab first worked as an illustrator for magazines and print media.
“He was more active in the illustration side of art. If you will notice his paintings, even today, have the roots of that of an illustrator and I don't mean this in a derogatory sense but about aesthetic sensibility. His art has therefore grown legitimately and naturally from his beginnings,” Roces observed. “His becoming a National Artist nudged him towards larger monumental scale, but his themes have not changed. And as well, he has not changed in the sense the he remains the same straight guy I used to know.”
It was in 1965 when BenCab decided to take the plunge and follow his dream to simply create his own art, experimenting on different platforms and mediums. His successful first solo exhibition in 1966 at the Gallery Indigo in Malate marked the beginning of a lasting career.
That same year, the infamous incident during the Beatles’ visit to Manila in 1966, when the band members were maltreated after turning down an invitation by the then first lady Imelda Marcos, is a narrative most Filipinos would rather forget. However, not many people know of the stroll the Beatles took along gallery row in the Mabini tourist area. Inside Salvador’s gallery in Ermita, a painting caught the eye of the 24-year-old Paul McCartney entitled Fishing in Sexmoan. He paid 70 pesos for a BenCab original acrylic painting. Not present at the gallery when the transaction occurred, the artist often wondered about the painting. Years later, McCartney’s agent confirmed that the singer-composer (and now a painter as well) still had the artwork and provided a transparency that is featured on page 67 of the BenCab book written by Krip Yuson and Cid Reyes.
A Drawing Session
SYM was out of the country during BenCab’s Vancouver visit so we of Dimasalang III, SYM's Canadian Artists' group, instead had the privilege of welcoming BenCab via a figure drawing session. This encounter remains a most unforgettable and delightful experience for each member of the group -- a once-in-a-lifetime event. Dimasalang III's newly appointed president, Leo Cunanan Jr., booked the best model for the drawing session with the National Artist. "I have never seen the members this energized and inspired," Cunanan said. The venue for this activity, incidentally, was a short walking distance to the Stevenson Wharf where BenCab's old-time friend SYM Mendoza took him during his first visit to Vancouver exactly 30 years ago.
Artist Edgardo Lantin noted, “He is very approachable, respectable with no ego whatsoever. He was willing to share his ideas and most of all his passion about his art. A sign of a true master, he continues to experiment on something new. He has a positive energy – everyone who meets him says he is humble and so down-to-earth.”
BenCab shared incredible images of his works via iPhone. The smallest paintings the master created is smaller than two centimeters of canvas. “We found a pair of earrings that looked like frames in a flea market and just filled in the empty space with a tiny bit of canvas.” BenCab painted with acrylic the image of “Sabel” -- the only pair of earrings he created. (Sabel has long been the artist's extraordinary mainstay muse and powerful driving force of energy, inspiration and transformation.) A pendant of similar size, also of “Sabel” complements the earrings. These are the only three BenCab paintings that appear on jewelry.
On the other side of the spectrum are the limited edition BenCab Moooi Carpets produced in the Netherlands. Exclusive distributor of Moooi Carpets in the Philippines, Abitare Internazionale, carries these specialized high-resolution reproductions of eight BenCab designs, in sizes ranging from 8x6 feet and 6.5x13 feet. The wall carpet exhibition was launched in May 2017 and lasted a month. Reproduction of the eight designs was limited to eight carpets for a total of 64 pieces of wall art. “The number eight was more of a coincidence, although it seems to be everyone’s lucky number, especially with the Chinese,” Annie Sarthou added when asked about the recurrence of the number eight.
Knowing that the artist is a lover of nature and an environmentalist, I included in our itinerary a visit to the city’s iconic Stanley and Queen Elizabeth Parks. Walking along the trails, BenCab would point at the local plants and trees and remarkably identify them by name. The artist talked about the six-hectare BenCab Museum with such joy – a museum surrounded by a manicured garden, an animal farm and aviary with birds, ducks and peacocks. It is graced with a waterfall and a river stream flowing through the property. Located in the town of Tuba, 15 minutes from Baguio City by car, the museum opened in 2009 and is run by the BenCab Art Foundation (BAFI). The Foundation closely works with neighboring Ifugao woodcarvers and has introduced alternative and sustainable material like bamboo to help preserve the indigenous hardwood. Some native products are sold at the museum and with the thousands of museum visitors every year, the native community of Tuba in Benguet has benefited from this.
Voted the number-one Baguio attraction by TripAdvisor for five-to-six consecutive years, the BenCab Museum was one of the TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice List of the Top 25 Museums in the whole of Asia in 2014. It was the only museum that made the list from the Philippines. It not only features the works of the National Artist, but also promotes and highlights tribal art by the Igorot, the indigenous people of the Cordilleras, the highlands of Northern Luzon. The Igorots such as the Ifugaos have a rich heritage and culture, and whose ancient ancestors built the famed and magnificent Banaue rice terraces. The BenCab Museum also offers the opportunity for emerging and established artists to display their works at Gallery Indigo where temporary exhibitions are housed.
Most of the staff at the museum and Café Sabel come from different ethnic groups in the region. Experts in stone terracing, the Ifugao people are also employed in managing the BenCab Farm and Garden. The artist himself finds solace in tending to the vegetables and fruit gardens. Coffee plants are grown in the property and BenCab’s Brew coffee beans are a popular item for sale at Café Sabel, the museum’s coffee shop.
BenCab continues to elevate and raise awareness of the Igorot people and their culture. Being one with nature and the native people in the community of the Cordilleras, which he now calls home, BenCab lives in the truest sense of a National Artist. At 75, this dynamic, most distinguished and accomplished artist remains active and involved in the art scene in the Philippines and steadily maintains respect and recognition even in the ever highly competitive international art stage. BenCab, as one true and much treasured emissary of goodwill and generosity, tirelessly continues to nurture, inspire and connect artists and others everywhere in his travels and commitment to promoting Filipino art and culture.
Sandie Gillis is based in Vancouver, Canada. She is the co-author ofSYM: The Power of Struggle, a biography on Filipino-Canadian artist SYM Mendoza. She holds a degree in Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines at Diliman. Aside from writing, she enjoys traveling and has a passion for producing documentary short films.
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