“It’s fun!” National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Cabrera candidly responded when asked to describe his 50-year journey as an artist. Then he quipped, “You’re looking for struggle?”
Truth is, for mere mortals it’s hard to believe that making art and thriving in this field aren't rife with agony and frustration, at least once in a while. But we are not BenCab, who at age seven started painting on walls and pavements, and has not stopped since then.
“I’m curious. I like to try a lot of things,” he said. From drawing and painting on walls and pavements he moved on to canvases and handmade paper, and further explored other media such as printmaking, sculpture, performance art and interactive art.
With a prolific professional career that started when he staged his first group show in 1965 at the Art Association of the Philippines, it would seem like he’s done everything. But always up to reinvent himself and evolve with the times, BenCab, at 73, looks forward to exhibiting a series of his drawings on a Samsung Note 5.
“As long as you’re living, you should feed that curiosity,” advised BenCab. “Do what you can, if you can do it just continue as long as you’re living.”
Throughout the five decades of his creative career, BenCab became identified with certain images, notably the intriguing Sabel – a bedraggled lady clothed in plastic scraps, hair disheveled, skin soiled with dirt and grime, scavenging and wandering the streets of Bambang in Tondo, Manila – who has grown and has taken different variations from the day he first saw her. The National Artist also continues to explore his Larawan series – a collection of paintings that started in the late 1960s and based on colonial Filipino photographs he discovered at a Chelsea antique shop when he was living in London.
The long list of accolades bestowed on him attests to his solid and enduring contribution to Philippine contemporary art. He received the Thirteen Artists Award in 1970, Kalinangan Award for Painting from the City of Manila in 1988, Gawad CCP Para Sa Sining Biswal in 1992, and ASEAN Achievement Award for Visual and Performing Arts and Outstanding Citizen of Baguio Award for Arts in 1997, among many others.
In 2006, he was conferred the Order of National Artist for Visual Arts – that alone says a lot.
BenCab also founded the BenCab Art Foundation, Inc., that supports activities related to the arts and environment, and the BenCab Museum in Baguio where he is now based.
BenCab, despite his fame and fortune, remains his reserved, shy and easy-going self, whose candor is often funny and always admirable. “I’m actually boring!” he said when asked if he had quirks typical to many artists.
But for many of us living in a world filled with BenCab’s art, we can only understand the artist through his works. Thus, to mark his 50 fruitful years, the BenCab Art Foundation, Inc. organized a year-long celebration in eight museums, which kicked off in February at the University of the Philippines in Diliman to celebrate his life and artistry.
The highlight of the ongoing celebration is BenCab’s retrospective exhibit entitled “BenCab: The Filipino Artist” at the Metropolitan Museum Manila which opened on October 5 and will run until February 27, 2016.
“This is the spine of the whole show,” declared BenCab. “The idea [for the year-long event] is thematic and this is the one that will show the range of my 50-year career.”
Curated by Dannie Alvarez, the show gathers more than a hundred paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures from BenCab’s collection and those loaned from several institutional and private collectors. According to Metropolitan Museum of Manila president Tina Colayco, each piece on exhibit was “painstakingly reviewed by the artist himself and our curator.”
The show serves as the Met’s recognition of BenCab’s contribution to Filipino art. It aims to present an assemblage of works that represents the artist’s five-decade career from his early creations as a Fine Arts student in UP to his 1960s paintings when he began as a professional artist to his most recent works this year.
More than anything, the exhibit showcases BenCab’s proficiency in different art forms beyond painting and printmaking, how his familiar images of Sabel – a recurring figure in this show – has evolved from an abstract drawing to a metal sculpture (“I am exploiting her!”), and how, through his works, he has touched the Filipino psyche and encouraged conversation among his audience.
Apart from the many faces of Sabel, on exhibit is a painting of people with a banner that says “Positively No Filipinos Allowed,” which BenCab said was about the discrimination Filipinos faced abroad in the ‘70s. There’s also a piece featuring Filipina chambermaids working in London. The show also presents his artwork inspired by the City of Baguio and its people as well as his current favorite subject, “Drapes.”
But of the over a hundred pieces on exhibit, BenCab said his current favorite is the 168x130 cm “Monumental Figures,” which is another Sabel image painted on pigmented paper pulp on STPI handmade paper. He said doing this piece was challenging because he had little to no room for mistakes as the paint quickly dries up, but the outcome, for him, “[is] impressive! It can actually be a sculpture,” he said, while carefully eyeing his work. “I should attempt to do it as a sculpture,” he finally exclaimed.
BenCab’s career has evolved and flourished because he did not stop, not even if he was uninspired. Besides, he said, “Inspiration is only for amateurs. I’m just working; I get proposals from people who come to me and I take the challenge.” And after 50 years, BenCab is still ready to take on any challenge.