At 73 years old, Filipino National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Cabrera—best known to all simply as “BenCab” remains thriving as ever with 50 years of creativity behind him.
To follow his inspired career sees his earlier years as an artist here in the Philippines, who later travelled to such sophisticated cities as London, Paris and Tokyo where he honed his craft and opened his art to the rest of the world.
With endless achievements as a master of contemporary Philippine art, from countless paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures that emanated from his ingenious mind and gifted hands, it is surprising indeed that the most famous artist of his generation can still recall stories behind every piece he has produced as if he had only worked on them yesterday.
This he proved when he graciously toured members of the media through his latest retrospective exhibit titled BenCab: The Filipino Artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, which officially opened to the public on October 5. Albeit shyly, the master was very generous in sharing his inspiration and artistic process behind each of the magnificent works on display.
Curated by Dannie Alvarez, the exhibit abundantly represents every decade of BenCab’s career beginning from his early works as an art student at the College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines, to his exhibit pieces when he was living abroad, all the way to pieces he created just this year.
Alvarez was enthusiastic in hailing the importance of this retrospective as it gathers almost 150 artworks loaned from various institutions and private collections that have long patronized the National Artist’s remarkable talent. The curator related, “What we have staged here is the concept of what a Filipino artist is, and we hope the exhibition will initiate the conversation between our National Artist and the audience on how a Filipino can dream for his country.”
From London to Beijing
One of the earliest series of works shown at the exhibit came from BenCab’s time in London from 1969 to 1985 when he studied printmaking at the Chelsea School of Arts.
But instead of showing prints as one would expect, what he chose to include in the retrospective were unfinished sculptures of human forms. According to the artist, besides learning printmaking, he also attended sculpting classes where real human models would pose for his class.
There are also paintings of Filipinas in the countryside, which according to BenCab were born out of homesickness. Quite endearingly he recalled, “It was my first time to be away from the Philippines and I missed home.”
Ever promising, the said pieces were immediately included in a group exhibit at a London museum.
Besides his early paintings and sculptures from London, BenCab also exhibited the second of his “Larawan” series painted in the 1990s in Beijing. The collection depicts the lives of Filipino migrants in the foreign land whom he met during while preparing for an exhibit in the Chinese capital.
With faces of Filipinos painted with company IDs, BenCab said of his works, “I think they were one of the first OFWs [overseas Filipino workers]we ever had.”
Ever present in the retrospective are old and new representations of Sabel, BenCab’s most famous muse, who has become synonymous to his name.
In the artist’s profile, it is said that Sabel was first painted as a representation of a disheveled scavenger wearing scraps of plastic and wandering the streets of Bambang, Sta. Cruz, which is part of the old Manila where BenCab grew up.
Throughout the years, the iconic Sabel has been painted by the artist countless times in different media, but always, the woman with dark hair and draped in white remains recognizable.
At The Filipino Artist exhibit, one giant 168 cm by 130 cm Sabel painting lords over all others but besides its size, BenCab revealed that the particular piece is special because of the material he chose to paint her with—pigmented paper pulp. A medium he found challenging to control from the very beginning as it quickly dries up, the painstaking process in painting this Sabel has made her the artist’s “favorite.”
The National Artist humbly said that he is grateful that Sabel has inspired many other artists, and not just those from the visual arts. He cited the theater production Sabel, Love and Passion, directed by Freddie Santos in June, starring Iza Calzado and the Philippine Ballet Theater, among others.
Bevy of works
Besides the iconic works of BenCab, his latest retrospective further presents many of the artist’s lesser-known pieces, which are mostly experimental.
Take for example the giant metal installations that greet visitors at the Met’s entrance—according to BenCab, these are bigger reproductions of his first attempt on metal sculpture back in 2006. Interestingly too, upon examining the sculptures’ hollow middle, the viewer will notice how it mimics the shape of a woman named Sabel again.
For The Manila Times, the most prominent display in the exhibit is a painting of faces of Baguio City folk and anito, as if to pay homage to the Ifugao town where he has lived for 30 years since settling there in 1985. As everyone knows, the artist’s personal collection is significantly displayed at the BenCab Museum, which he also built in the summer capital.
Indeed, BenCab has gone a long way from his Fine Arts days at the University of the Philippines, where he was lucky enough to study under the great Jose Joya. And even if he dropped out of course somewhere along the way, he proved himself worthy of being called an artist at the young age of 23.
Eventually conferred with a Doctor of Humanities, Honoris Causa by the Alma Mater he left, BenCab also received highest honor given to a Filipino Artist by the Philippine government.
Yet, despite all that he has achieved, there is no stopping BenCab from doing what he loves best. Without anything more to prove, he has even gone on to discovered a new medium, which has him transcending into digital visual art using smartphones.
Asked what advice he has to give young and aspiring artists who were just like him 50 years ago, the National Artist replied, “Always try hard, and just do it. Do what you can for as long as you live. I, for example, only dreamt of putting up my own museum and never thought I’d able to do that in my own lifetime. But I did because I never stopped.”
Indeed, this Filipino artist has already built a legacy to leave the realm of arts and culture. But why stop now when he can continue to move, touch and inspire more and more people with his exceptional giftedness.