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BenCab’s Sabel is the lady of the hour |

Sunday Lifestyle

BenCab’s Sabel is the lady of the hour

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan - The Philippine Star

I remember just how dizzying and dazzling it was.

The boat — well, a motorized kayak to be more exact — moved down the river in Ayutthaya, Thailand, past the temples, ruins and constellations of greens. Steadily at first, but at the confluence of the Chao Phraya and Pa Sak rivers, in front of Wat Phanan Choeng, it turned dramatically into a riot of waters. Body English by everyone just to keep from toppling off the boat and into the mini whirlpools in the overlapping rivers. A lot of guts to hold on to the breakfast of morning curry. I glanced at one of my boat-mates: BenCab the artist looked as cool as ever, seemingly enjoying the tempestuous transport. Cap firmly in place, his tallness bobbing up and down the boat, sunglasses hiding those kaleidoscope eyes that have seen quite a few plasticine-portered visions through the years — including that one woman wrapped with cellophane flowers of despair and mad triumph, iconic in her isolation, saintly in her scavenging.


Her narrative he promptly drew.

And which he keeps drawing.

That evening, Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera — the most rockstar-like of all the senior artists in the Philippines today (even if he’s down-to-earth, courteous and soft-spoken) — casually held court in one of the bars in Bangkok, nursing a shot of whisky with gallery owner Sari Ortiga, friend Albert Chua and sculptor Ramon Orlina, listening to the Thai house band plow through its set-list of songs by Metallica, AC/DC, the Stones, and that li’l four-piece band from Liverpool.

“Paul McCartney bought a painting of yours, didn’t he?” I asked Ben.

“Yes, my brother had a shop on Cortada Street in Ermita,” he recalled. “But I was out, didn’t even got to see Paul,” he lamented, “Nobody took his picture or asked for his autograph.”

The Beatles were in Manila for two concerts at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium in ’66, which began with much daytripping and ended up with the nowhere men of martial law bearing down on the Fab Four. In the morning of the gig, before the fracas, Paul walked into a gallery, liked and bought BenCab’s “Fishing in Sexmoan” acrylic painting for a majestic price of P70.

“(Many years later) when I came out with coffee-table book, my son corresponded with (the office of) Paul and he even (graciously) sent a transparency of the painting.” (The painting, by the way, is a visual ode to a little town in BenCab’s Pampanga.)

In the’80s, the artist would find himself in London as another musical quartet was creating a mania of its own, with Johnny Rotten as the leering king of it all.   

“Sa King’s Road sila nakatambay, ‘yung mga punks, then sa Camden Town,” he said. “I told them, ‘I would pay you two pounds if you would pose for me. They agreed naman kasi mga walang trabaho eh (laughs). They brought cassette tapes of their favorite punk bands while I sketched them.” The Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, the classics.

But when BenCab mounted an exhibition of his punk portraits at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 1982, the response was surprisingly tepid — something you wouldn’t expect from a BenCab show. Call it reverse-anarchy if you will.

“I only sold one or two pieces,” said the artist, shaking his head. “Nobody wanted them. Hindi nag-click.” It was a bust then: like monsoon rain on the mad parade. For some reason, the artist wasn’t able to keep a piece for himself. Those punk portraits appear nowadays as auction lots stamped with staggering price tags.

BenCab’s next brush with pop culture was for a show in ’95 at The Crucible titled “Rock Sessions.”

“My favorite subject during those sessions was Pepe Smith,” Ben shared. “I still have his portrait with me. I remember how he strummed his guitar while I sketched him. Si Lolita Carbon of Asin naman nag-yoyosi at umiinom. I got free one-on-one concerts (laughs). Joey Ayala would play a song for me while I drew. Si Freddie Aguilar naman was late. He made me sit there for one hour before he came out. Pinag-hintay ako (laughs).”

But the muse has never kept BenCab waiting.  


The man was born in Malabon at the start of the Japanese Occupation, the youngest of nine children; the family moved to Mayhaligue St. in Sta. Cruz when Ben was six months old. “Even before I learned to read, tumitingin na ako ng comics nun. Nung araw kasi, you could rent comics for just 10 centavos sa Yakal. I looked at the visuals even before I could read the stories.”

And what images they were: the marvelous, super-heroic adventures of Captain Marvel, the Flash, Starman and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. But not one of them was Ben’s first hero.

“My brother Salvador was my first influence. He was a painter and 13 years ang difference namin. I was fascinated whenever I watched him draw.” The young BenCab would soon paint on pavements and walls at age seven. When the family moved to Bambang in ’54, he sold comic books door to door and hand towels to jeepney drivers. At Arellano High School, he drew portraits of James Dean and Elvis Presley and sold them to schoolmates for P10.      

BenCab took up fine arts at the University of the Philippines in ‘59, winning painting awards organized by his alma mater as well as firms such as Pilipinas Shell. He worked as illustrator/layout artist for various publications such as Liwayway, Mirror Magazine and Sunday Times Magazine. That was until he had his first one-man exhibition in ’66 at the Indigo Gallery in Mabini. The gallery is next door to Indios Bravos café where artists and writers hung out. It was where you would spot icons such as Nick Joaquin and Virginia Moreno — rhapsodies and cream in their coffee, clouds and songs in their mouths.

“’Yun ang tambayan noon, tapos nagtayo din si Ishmael Bernal ng When It’s a Grey November in Your Soul coffee shop. Masaya nun!” (The café name was inspired by the protagonist Ishmael’s musings in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.) Ben hung out with artists Pandy Aviado, Nonoy Marcelo and Boy Rodriguez, as well as Sunday Times friends Sylvia Mayuga and Bibsy Carballo. “Doon din tumatambay sina Krip Yuson. There were poetry readings and underground film screenings — maraming happenings. You could also see exhibits by Bobby Chabet and Lee Aguinaldo.” Those were different times, indeed.

It was there that BenCab met the woman who was to become his wife (a British-Yugoslavian writer) and they would eventually settle down in London in ’69 and start a family; but three years before that, another woman was already a mainstay in the artist’s floating world. And she would remain so starting from the hip, hallucinogenic Sixties (where a longhaired, bearded bohemian would travel through Europe and restlessly take his art on a long road trip of self-discovery) up to our cyber-driven, ever-online present (where we find the wizened, well-respected National Artist for Visual Arts having already established a home and a stellar museum bearing his name in Benguet and, yet, still takes his art to stranger shores.)

The woman’s name is — well, you know this already — Sabel.

“Sabel was a bag lady or taong grasa,” he explained. “She was just going around our area on Yakal Street, and I’d see her from my window. Parang abstract eh — ‘yung mga balot-balot niya na plastic. I did drawings; then I started photographing her. I saw a lot of things in her — not only the human side, but also the abstract side.”

Half-woman/half-metaphor, Sabel would scavenge around garbage dumps everything she needed to stay alive; to defy hunger, the rains and cruel, cruel circumstance. There’s something sad yet strangely heroic about her plight. The young BenCab, the old BenCab — both of them are still enthralled by her.

“Sabel became one of my subjects aside from refugees and scavengers in my first exhibition,” he explained. She became a constant image in BenCab’s ever-shifting stylistic approach — something that grounds him, call it a point of departure if you will. In an interview with the New York Times, BenCab explained: “Every time I make a transition into something new, I work on her. I like the form, the movement. Now it’s almost become an abstract form, just an interpretation, a vague memory. This bag lady is almost a brand. I don’t think people realize who the figure is. They look at the movement, the color, the form and lines.”


It’s quite ironic that a homeless woman would find a home of sorts on BenCab’s canvas, transcending whoever she was in the first place, turning into an emblem. How the muse of dislocation has become entrenched in the psyche of Filipino art lovers. A fixture even, as BenCab reinvents and rediscovers Sabel yet again. This time in limited-edition watches to commemorate Swatch Philippines’ 25th anniversary.

“You know, even before pa, I was wearing na Swatch. But my love affair with Swatch became intense starting back in January when Virgie Ramos saw me wearing the 2014 Chinese New Year Horse Swatch. Then she found out that I was born in the Year of the Horse. She asked if I could do a ‘happy horse’ for a Swatch x BenCab suite at the Art Fair Philippines in February.”

Then Virgie asked Ben to create a Swatch watch design of his own.

“I decided to paint Sabel with arms raised wearing two Swatch watches on her wrist to make it different. Virgie liked it, had the entire watch designed, and submitted it to Switzerland. Swatch HQ approved it. And that is the beginning of this very busy but exciting naman na Swatch project na padami nang padami.”

Right from the start, there has always been a connection between Swatch and art. Swatch watches were inspired by popular culture and the watches themselves soon became a kind of canvas for world-famous artist. And BenCab is the first Filipino artist to collaborate with the watch brand for a worldwide launch, joining an illustrious club that include Kiki Picasso (whose real name is Christian Chapiron who started the ball rolling in ’84) pop artist Keith Haring, new media artist Nam June Paik, filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Spike Lee, musicians Moby and Mika, and designer Jeremy Scott, to name a few.

BenCab is not only a Swatch-user but also a friend of Virgie Ramos since the ‘90s.

“One time, she hosted a fundraising affair for Tam-awan (a reconstructed Ifugao village in Baguio) and she gave me a watch, and she’s been giving me Swatch watches since then. Nakakaipon na ako (laughs). Virgie is a very generous woman. She’s fun. She loves happenings such as this.”  

There will be 999 numbered limited-edition BenCab Sabel Swatch with a box with a really cool art utensil, aside from the other pieces that will be available worldwide. For the launch on Nov. 4, which coincides with the opening of the Swatch + Swatch Center along Arnaiz Avenue, there is an entire “pakulo” concocted by Virgie according to BenCab.

“For the launch, I created black-and-white geishas. I borrowed from Ramon (Orlina) the Volkswagen that I painted. At pati ‘yung sculpture that I did for UP, ilalagay muna doon.”

The artist has been creating more and more sculptures the past few years, thus we see Sabel and the other characters in BenCab’s world enfleshed in bronze. He explained, “It’s really all about relying on my drawing skill to make them three-dimensional. Sculpture is drawing in the round, anyway. So as you turn, you see new things. I am excited with the possibilities of sculpture.” You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, added the prolific National Artist.

Here is what you may not know about the man: when not creating masterpieces or doing paperwork for the BenCab Museum, Ben does gardening, maintains a 10-foot aquarium, and takes long walks to the woods with his dogs.

“One is a Jack Russell given to me by Annie (Sarthou), another is a mix between a Belgian Malinois and a Husky. I also have cats…”

In a wobbly boat in Ayutthaya or in a calming forest in Baguio accompanied by his dogs and musings about the next Sabel incarnation, BenCab — who has gone from wide-eyed bohemian to elder statesman of Philippine art — relishes his time.

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