Bencab: Bringing the Arts Closer to the People

MANILA, Philippines - Many assume that National Artist Benedicto Reyes Cabrera, holed up in Km 6 Asin Road, off Baguio City, is elusive. On the contrary, painter and printmaker Bencab is open and accessible — because he wants to bring art to the people. 

The distinguished artist kindly accommodated a request for a shoot and interview for PeopleAsia’s “People of the Year” issue. But he had one condition: “Kindly focus on my museum, not me.” Juggling a tight schedule, Bencab had just arrived from a month-long trip to both the US and Mexico. He had just unpacked but had to pack again for a flight to Singapore to attend the Elephant Parade. It is the largest open art exhibition solely dedicated to saving the Asian elephants. He is one of over 100 artists invited to join the first Elephant Parade in Asia. 

Top artists, including fashion designers, were handpicked to paint life-sized baby elephants made of fiberglass. The paintings will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in January 2012, the proceeds of which will go toward the conservation of elephants in Asia. Despite Bencab’s stature as an international artist, he remains surprised at having been chosen. “I don’t know why they picked me,” he candidly shares. Alongside international greats like goldsmith Sabine Roemer, singer/songwriter Joss Stone and fashion designer Paul Smith, this Filipino artist gladly contributes his talent and time in this exhibition and auction to benefit the Asian Elephant Fund. Of the 162 pachyderm figures, Bencab’s “Santan” was one of two statues handpicked to be unveiled to media a day before the exhibit. 

Undoubtedly, Bencab’s name is important not just in the local scene, but also in the global art sphere. He is often invited to participate in fundraising events like this one. “When you reach a certain age in the art world, with 40 years of work, you get invited. You get all these requests to help other people. But you have to also be selective. We become inundated. They think it is easy to just give a painting,” he shares.

The Elephant Parade meets three facets of art important to Bencab at this phase in his life. He sums up his choice: “It’s a good cause. It’s fun. It’s public art, so it’s nice to see how people react to your work.” Transporting the bulky three-dimensional fiberglass elephant from Thailand to Bencab’s home in the mountains and then to Singapore was a challenge. But it was definitely worth the effort; the painter enjoyed the new experience of painting on a different surface on the elephant. He is helping an environmental cause he believes in. The elephants will be displayed all around Singapore, giving the public easy access to an original work by one of the Philippines’ National Artists. 

His vision to bring art closer to the people is the prime reason for opening the Bencab Museum two years ago. Bencab observes: “When you go to Europe, great artists there have their own museums. Here in the Philippines, few artists have a museum for their work. There’s the Blanco Family Museum in Rizal. But that’s different.” 

The Bencab Museum is much more than home for the National Artist’s masterpieces. The museum, which is nestled in a four-hectare property that includes a farm, showcases several galleries. There is a Maestro gallery devoted to his collection of works by masters of Philippine art like Joya, Sanso, Legaspi and Magsaysay-Ho. A fascinating Cordillera gallery features indigenous arts and tribal crafts Bencab collected over the past 40 years. In the farm, the artist grows organic vegetables, herbs, strawberries, sweet potatoes, coffee and ornamental plants alongside native farmers. With the breathtaking views, the river meandering through his property, cascading waterfalls and the presence of farm animals, visitors to the museum experience the soulful communion of art and nature. 

Not only has Bencab brought the art closer to the people; his museum has become an art tourism spot as well. The maestro is pleased with the public’s warm reception. He says, “We get a lot of people visiting the museum. There are a lot of students, particularly from the north, who have had no experience going to museums before. A lot of people come back several times, too.” Café Sabel’s dishes made from produce from Bencab’s farm complete the experience. Visitors make it a full-day excursion, allowing them to partake of the National Artist’s joy in living and creating in his adopted hometown. 

The museum keeps changing with fresh offerings like film showings and workshops. “It should evolve. It is not just a place where you see the old,” the visionary artist explains. “In an upcoming exhibition in 2012, we will show how the pasiking, the ancient indigenous basket/backpack, is evolving from using rattan to plastic.” Aware of the declining supply in hardwood, Bencab is involved in introducing carvers in his town of Tuba to bamboo instead.  

 As his 70th birthday approaches, Bencab’s art remains fresh and more relevant than ever. His paintings have always had an underlying social commentary associated with them. But now, the interest in his art extends beyond the framed canvas collector’s purchase. An original Bencab Rags-To-Riches bag made out of scraps of cloth fetched an astounding price at a fund-raising auction. His favorite muse, Sabel, a scavenger, has evolved to different media. Last year, Sabel was the inspiration for Agnes Locsin’s dance show called Sayaw, Sabel. Using intense emotions elicited by Bencab’s images of Sabel, Locsin’s choreography epitomized how the Filipino endures life’s difficulties. The show successfully toured many cities in the Philippines, including Manila, Bacolod, Iloilo and Davao City, among others. It was also performed in Singapore during the opening of Glimpses at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

Bencab volunteers, “Sabel was an inspiration in one of Rajo Laurel’s fashion shows.” It is ironic how a homeless person inspires Manila’s most fashionable set. Perhaps this is the best testament of the universal appeal of Bencab’s art. A twinkle sparks in the artist’s eyes as he speaks of an upcoming project with the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra (MMCO) called 12, for the 12 artists and 12 composers. Twelve artworks by Filipino masters will be the inspiration for 12 compositions. Bencab smiles, “MMCO conductor Chino Toledo quickly chose my painting of a human figure draped with the Philippine flag as his inspiration for an original composition.” Bencab is both amused and curious how his painting will translate to music. 

Many are pushing Bencab to do a retrospective for his 70th birthday in April. He laughs, “Maybe on my 75th birthday.” Louie Ocampo and Freddie Santos have been working on a musical based on Sabel for the past few years. “Maybe that will come out in time for my birthday,” he muses.

Southeast Asian art is becoming more popular for art collectors around the world, with Filipino artists fetching big bids at the auctions. In 2000, Bencab’s 1983 oil painting Waiting for the Monsoon bagged a hefty price at Christie’s Singapore’s auction. As he remembers that moment, Bencab brings to light the reality painter’s experience. “I still remember the price I sold that painting for. But the buyer of the painting earned much more from the auction than I did from selling the painting.” 

With a National Artist award, books written about him and numerous achievements under his belt, what’s next for this famed artist? Bencab smiles at me and says, “I don’t know. It depends what opportunity comes next.” He stresses how important it is to remain consistent and to keep working. He looks away, then looks into my eyes: “You know what word I really like? Evolve. You have to evolve, or else you get stuck.” 

After some thought, Bencab is captivated by a new idea: “Maybe I’ll just turn to farming.” He marvels at the varied colors and textures plants create using the soil as his brown canvas. Undoubtedly, it will be one gorgeous farm. It doesn’t really matter what medium he uses. With his genius and talent, anything Bencab creates always radiates beauty and inspiration. He evolves. 

  • Follow Us: